bijou reviews – QP

Planet of Blood

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aka Queen of Blood. Starring Dennis Hopper, John Saxon & Basil Rathbone. Directed by Curtis Harrington.

PLANET OF BLOOD, aka QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966) is a forgotten minorpiece. An early effort by genre director Curtis Harrington (whose credits include the earlier NIGHT TIDE also starring Dennis Hopper), it was another Corman “patchwork” job. That is, all the majestic effects shot you see liberally use throughout actually came from such Soviet flicks as PLANET OF STORMS.

Creative youngsters like Harrington were then given 40 minutes of ‘best of’ special effects footage and told to build an entire narrative around the shots. The resulting flicks were often tedious and largely forgotten save for their inclusion of the Soviet effects footage. But PLANET OF BLOOD is a bold exception.

Harrington’s skillful intercutting of the truly alien stock shots with his limited sets at the Corman complex is truly astonishing, especially given the usual “we only had a week to make it” production history. The narrative is sometimes given a nod as an inspiration for ALIEN, and there’s something to that. More important is that the flick manages to have a successful narrative, which is quite accomplished given the director was forced to shoot around effects shot that pre-existed.

Another plus is the acting talent on hand. Dennis Hopper and John Saxon are at the beginnings of their respective careers, while Basil Rathbone is literally ending his on screen (as he would die soon after making these series of Corman Soviet SF adaptation movies). Florence Marly is especially effective in a mute role as the evil Queen of blood that is like a sly hommage to Elsa Lanchester and the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN; with her sly nonchalance but calculating gaze, Marly is completely effective as a space femme fatale. There are some interesting side notes about her that deserve a mention. In the 1950’s she was an early adopter of what has become the hcg diet – it was a regimen that involved hcg weight loss injections. When a visitor stumbled onto the syringe, it was misinterpreted as evidence of a drug habit. She also was known to occasionally smoke a pipe and her previous stint at Charles H Greenthal Management probably contributed to her conservative views on markets, especially real estate.

The lurid set design and effective costuming help sustain a mood the no-frills budget clearly would have otherwise been lacking. Garish colors ala STAR TREK bathe the dry wall sets but never completely light them either, creating a film noir look aboard a spaceship that is visually captivating. When Marly goes on the prowl through the ship’s dark corridors, you get a real sense of the horror of confinement aboard a space craft. In this respect, the movie’s slowly mounting psychological tension is again unexpectedly successful given the movie’s modest production costs and Burroughs-esque cut-up film technique.

Never beyond simple entertainment but effectively done as such, PLANET OF BLOOD is a minor cult discovery waiting to happen for those who enjoy their spaceship flicks straight up on the rockets, with a twist or two on the side. Harrington’s work is underrated overall, and though there is the occasional DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL on his resume, more often than not he’s made what he’s had to work with better than the material demanded. PLANET OF BLOOD is the proof. — Notes by Major Matt Mason.

What Critics Say:

“Genuinely effective and creepy.” — ROCKETSHIP VIDEO

“Great science fiction.” — DVDLASER REVIEW

Like this flick? See also: PLANET OF STORMS; TERROR IN SPACE

Planet of Storms

Planeta Burg

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aka Planeta Burg. Directed by Pavel Klushantsev.

PLANET OF STORMS (1962), aka PLANETA BURG, is often cited as one of the finest Russian SF ‘rocketship’ films ever made. The video box has some pretty interesting graphic design. That may sound like a dubious distinction, but consider: the Soviets were at the time of this movie’s release at the very least ‘ahead’ in the ‘space race’ by a Sputnik’s length or so, arguably more. The fact their cinema was freed from total commercial restrictions (since the state sponsored all production and distribution costs, attendance costs were so nominal as to be free) but restricted by the need to propagandize communist state ideals (there’s lots of talk about the superiority of the red way, comrade!) makes for an interesting tension not unlike their American brethren of the era’s ceaselessly pro-American jingoism.

Propaganda aside, PLANET OF STORMS works because of the unique Soviet approach to SF. Whereas American rocketship flicks always had the buck hero deal with any situation ray guns blasting until Kubrick and 2001, the Russian approach was vastly more in line with the speculations and fictions of the day. In other words, more intellectual (gasp!). The difference is at times sobering but never less than entertaining, particularly when you realize how effectively the filmmakers have evoked your actual landing on an alien planet (in this case Venus) for the duration.

This applied not only to their SF films conceptual ideas but also the production design. Again, the American counterparts were always ready and eager to forsake realism for sensationalism and (more typically) as a cost-saving option — after all, stock footage of rockets blasting off is always cheaper than a model and effects photography! The approach used by PLANET OF STORMS is much more refined and stylistically cohesive. Take for example the robot John, one of the truly most underrated cinematic robots ever created. To this day he should rank in the top ten of all-time greats in terms of believability and actual screen impact right alongside his American counterparts. The fact this movie is relatively obscure is the only reason John does not enjoy the true cult recognition he deserves. With his massive girth and uber Soviet design mechanics, John’s impact is as memorable as Robby’s in FORBIDDEN PLANET, an admitted influence. Watch as the mighty iron man falls trees, climbs dangerous mountain passages, and even braves a Venusian river of lava to save his human masters. He is the rare embodiment of Asimov’s benign Laws of Robotics in SF film.

The film’s bold sense of adventure helps it survive relatively watchable ‘as is’ despite the occasional lapses into propagandspeak. So much happens in the short running time, from meteors destroying spaceships, to giant dinosaurs on Venus, to man-eating tentacled plants, to an attack by a flying reptile, underwater scenes on the alien planet, and even a volcanic eruption to end it all, that it’s easy enough to drop the ‘fast forward’ remote and let the flick wash over you.

Though it’s influence was indirect on such current filmmakers as James Cameron and the Skotak Brothers (in that they saw the two versions Corman made of it with inserts of American actors like Basil Rathbone in the end of his career), it was the Soviet part of the efforts that captured their young imaginations. In other words, the production design and use of miniatures, as well as the overall effects photography. No joke, you can vividly see the influence in early Cameron pictures like GALAXY OF TERROR and THE TERMINATOR.

Many folks remember bits and pieces of these flicks despite the fact they’ve rarely if ever been aired in America since their Corman-ized release back in the late 60’s. That’s because they made the usual rounds as cheap syndicated fodder for late night local t.v. slots eager to use such sensational sounding A.I.P. titles like ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, et al. But it’s a tribute to the Russian filmmakers who toiled in near obscurity that today these flicks are highly prized and sought after for their historic cinematic value. The value is not merely retrostalgic, but truly deserved, as these movies advanced SF cinema as surely as BLADE RUNNER and other more well-regarded efforts albeit in a less spectacular way. — Notes by Dr. Heywood Floyd.

What Critics Say:

“Well-done and interesting. “– ROCKETSHIP VIDEO

“The only truly well made and visually exciting Russian space travel film.” — OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR & SF

Pulgasari
Starring Chamg Sun Hwi, Jong Guk & Satsisu Kembachiro. Directed by Shin Sang-ok & Chong Gon Jo.

The great appeal of many cult flix lies in the life stories not of the onscreen characters , per se, but the folks behind the scenes who were guiding them. Think of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE or GLEN OR GLENDA? and you cannot help but conjure images of a tortured Lugosi literally dying for a fix between life-sustaining Wood projects or the hellish existence Wood himself endured — particularly the latter years — to create his special blend of anti-art.

PULGASARI (1985) is just such a flick. The story line, production and characters are as bad as they come , not unlike an Ed Wood effort in its own respective genre in that regard.

So why set PULGASARI apart? The life stories behind the flick are more interesting than what’s onscreen, which — perversely — makes subsequent viewings of PULGASARI actually much “deeper” with political sub-text (if you’re willing to wade beyond the obvious monster vs. society surface; not advised, by the way, in most giant monster flix).

The twisted, sinister tale of PULGASARI’s origins begin with the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (left). According to Mr. Shin, he was gassed, bagged and delivered into North Korea one night, only to find himself at the personal behest of his ‘host’ Kim Jong, a self-admitted movie fanatic with one of the world’s largest private flix collections. In fact, his Daddy let a younger Kim Jong Il actually write the film production primer that all North Korean flixmakers must ‘adhere’ to… or else. In North Korea, you see, all film production is state funded so therefore state controlled; flixmakers are routinely paid ‘unexpected’ visits by government goon squads checking up on them and the content.

Turns out that the now middle-aged dictator not only grooves on kaiju flix, but now wanted to make one that was equal parts GORGO and MAJIN himself. Jong’s vision: a towering, iron-eatin’ behemoth intent on overthrowing the capitalist exploiters who’ve been subduing the beloved home land. Despite his intent only to return to South Korea, Shin was now under ‘contract’ on terms he literally could not refuse: make PULGASARI or die trying, ‘comrade’ (and you thought Hollywood contracts were Machiavellian!)

The production process went on for years. Kenpachiro Satsuma — the famed actor who has played Godzilla for many years now (though not the original actor) — was brought in to play Pulgasari. Obviously, Kim Jong knew his kaiju. Alas, while the effects are occasionally good, most of the time they are distinctly on par and sometimes sub. This has as much to do with the mish mash of production as any intent or lack thereof on Shin’s part.

For you see, Shin was actually plotting (along with his wife who had also been kidnapped) to defect to America and soon the grateful couple did so. But though infuriated at the loss, the North Korean dictator decided the show must go on (kind of like his discredited state philosophy), rest/west of the world be damned. So he appointed a new stooge director named Chong Gon Jo to complete his epic.

That ‘rest/west be damned’ bit sounds eerily familiar as of late coming out of North Korea, eh? But what else do you expect from a post-Stalinist monster save hard love and fast rockets? That’s the weirdest irony of all about this giant monster who devours iron and then every bit of metal before it: hidden in the subtext is a clear perversion and rejection of the peasants of not only capitalism but also later the liberating communist monster Pulgasari itself.

Wow, no wonder Mr. Shin was ready to risk life and limb to escape. After all, if you think what the NeoConneds recently did to CBS over the Ronnie Raygun “bio-pic” was brutal, imagine what Kim Jong Il would’ve done to Mr. Shin if Jong had been wise enough to detect the subtext before Shin’s defection?

In this sense, Shin’s heroic escape and his ability to forever imbue PULGASARI with an undeniable “bite the hand that force feeds you” subtext is pretty remarkable, especially given how frantically Kim Jong Il was probably editing it later to remove anything too overt once he realized he’d been ‘had.’

Not that PULGASARI ever mounted to a hill of beans outside the Korean peninsula, Northern latitudes, that is. There, it was a huge hit, and since most of the attendees were probably ordered to show up, hell, I’m sure the numbers at the box office were impre$$ive. Maybe Ahnuld should consider a similar act, ordering lazy Americans to attend one of the usual bland Hollywood by-product ‘plex offerings? — Notes by Magilla Gorilla.

What Critics Say:

“The same team that made GODZILLA 1985 did PULGASARI’s special effects. So while the rest of the movie looks rather budget impoverished, the suit is quite good… a wonderful primer on Korean culture… Shin moved to America a few years back, changed his name to Simon Sheen, and helped produce an American version of PULGASARI called GALGAMETH… If only more bad movies were so loved by their creators.” — STOMP TOKYO

“How many times in your life do you get to see a monster movie produced by a living, breathing Stalinist dictator? Hopefully only once.” — TABLOID.net

“GODZILLA rip-off that made Kim Jong Il proud.” — SALON

“It’s amazing that after fifty years of monster movies, the technology has not changed… rear screen projection is replaced by people actually running in front of a drive-in movie screen. Who would have even thought there was a drive-in in North Korea?” — FILM THREAT.com

“BRAVEHEART meets GODZILLA… functions as a fine demonstration why totalitarian governments are a bad thing. Any society which would even bother to ban an artifact this innocuous is one capable of making us grateful for even the worst movies ever aired on cable television.” — SCI-FILM

“A monster movie with bite. It has romance, tragedy, sacrifice, action, memorable special effects and on top of all that – a powerful political message…better than the Hollywood remake of GODZILLA it should keep the viewer in stitches right to its baffling end (can’t reveal the shock ending). A must see for all monster movie aficionados.” — THE HOT SPOT

“Rumours abound about Mr. Kim’s favourite movies… they include the FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher films and gangster pictures like SCARFACE and THE GODFATHER.” — BBC NEWS

“Those of us who grew up on the dated FX movies and the Godzilla stuff will like it just because, in it’s own different way, it seems to work, but I’m at a loss for words to describe the appeal, as it must be seen to be experienced… 3 out of 5 stars.” — SEVERE SINEMA

Like this flick? See also: BAMBOO SAUCER; THE DARK; THE EYE CREATURES; HUMAN VAPOR; X FROM OUTER SPACE

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