Saturday, March 7, 2015

War of the Satellites (1958)

... aka: Planet der toten Seelen (Planet of Dead Souls)

Directed by:
Roger Corman

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first successful artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and started the whole international “Space Race” chapter of the Cold War in the process. The spherical satellite with four long, whisker-like radio antennae was just 32 inches in diameter, traveled 18,000 miles per hour and made 1440 full orbits around the Earth. After three months of circling the globe, Sputnik 1 reentered Earth's atmosphere and burnt up on January 4, 1958. For most of the duration of the satellite's time in the space, there was a huge media frenzy going on. Not only were satellites and the possibility of space travel suddenly on everyone's minds, but so was an ever-increasing paranoia and fear here in America in knowing that a rival super-power had more advanced technology and could conceivably use said technology against us. Corman, being the opportunist (i.e. smart businessman) that he is, took note and immediately rushed this satellite film into production for Allied Artists. Just how rushed was it? Considering the fact the sets were being constructed before a finished script was even completed and it took just a few short months from concept to when this actually started playing in theaters, I'd say very rushed! But that's all just part of the genius and charm of Corman and why we love him. Regardless of how quickly he spit out titles, most of them at least ended up being fun, entertaining and (typically) surprisingly well-done under the circumstances.

Thus far, scientist Dr. Van Ponder (Richard Devon) has tried ten times to launch a manned satellite, with each attempt ending in failure as the satellite is unable to pass a weird cosmic “barrier” without exploding. Ten billion dollars and numerous human lives have been lost in the process, putting Van Ponder's Project Sigma in jeopardy of having funding pulled. (This is all clearly in reference to America's first failed attempt to get a satellite into orbit with Vanguard TV3, which exploded two seconds after liftoff on December 7, 1957. It was dubbed “Flopnik” or “Kaputnik” by some wags in the press and considered a national embarrassment; only exacerbating the Sputnik crisis.) Meanwhile, a couple of necking teens see what they think is a shooting star that crashing into the nearby woods. The star is actually a small metallic container and inside that is a special message supposedly from an alien race. As it turns out, the satellite launch failures may not have been Van's fault at all, but instead the doings of the “Masters of the Spiral Nebula Gana,” who are displeased with our efforts to "infect the universe" with our presence so they've just blown up everything we've sent up.

Press secretary Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) delivers the message to an emergency meeting at the United Nations, which is met with skepticism by politicians and the press because the warning was written in Latin. Although most believe the message is a hoax devised by a rival country trying to get America to give up their space pursuits (there's lots of mention of a nameless “they” and an “other” in here), Van Ponder believes otherwise. He puts together another multiple rocket “suicide mission,” with himself both in charge and as captain as one of the crafts, which will later all combine together to form the first satellite space station. On his way to a UN meeting, Van's car is overtaken by a bright lit and crashes. An invisible alien force then promptly possesses his body and attempts to find a way – any way – to derail the new mission. The same extraterrestrial force causes of series of natural disasters to rock the planet, but the government still refuses to back down, leaving the alien-possessed former scientist to carry through with the mission.

Roger Corman cameo alert!

Van, Sybil, staff engineer Dave Boyer (Dick Miller), medical doctor Howard Lazar (Eric Sinclair), astronautical engineer Johnny Campo (Jered Barclay) and a host of others soon take off. The rockets are successfully launched, the satellite space station is successfully put together and the crew begin their studies and observations, but several already know something's not quite right with their captain. Prior to takeoff, Dave noticed not only some bizarre behavior in their mission leader (including his ability to seemingly be in two places at once) but also strange growths forming on his skin while John saw him accidentally burn his own hand to a black crisp with a blowtorch only to miraculously regenerate the skin just minutes later. The alien-in-disguise starts killing off the more suspicious crew members one by one and eventually hopes to steer the station into the “Sigma barrier” so it'll blow up.

There's a really good idea in here about impostor aliens trying to sabotage space missions, but this isn't one of the director's better or more inventive films from this period. While the build up isn't bad at all, it takes a wrong turn in the second half when the rushed production and tiny budget (70 thousand reportedly) come into play to cripple its ambitions. Characters repeatedly walk and run down the same small corridor over and over again and the sets are really sparse, cheap and unconvincing (lounging recliners with seat belts attached are used for the rocket seats!). Had the story actually gone somewhere that could all be forgiven but it doesn't and the final 20 or so minutes are dull, aimless and repetitive. This is also completely lacking a sense of humor, something that punctuated many of Corman's better offerings from the time. Instead, Lawrence L. Goldman's script tries to be more topical, with direct mention of Sputnik and Vanguard and thinly-disguised anti-Soviet sentiment spread on thick and heavy (handed), including a Euro-accented UN member who attempts to prematurely pull the plug on the American efforts.

Some of the special effects by Irving Block, Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt, like a transparent astral figure exiting a body, walking to the other side of the room and then transforming back into a human, are pulled off well, but the majority are chintzy even for this time, including a lot of shoddy miniature model work. Block and Rabin also wrote the story and co-produced the film. Many of Corman's usual production team – cinematography Floyd Crosby, art director Daniel Haller – do what they can.

Cast-wise, the film is marginally more successful. While Miller is a great cult actor who's livened up many a low-budget film in his day, I much prefer him playing colorful supporting parts to the bland, straight lead role he has here. The ill-fated Cabot was also used to much better effect in the Corman movies Sorority Girl (1957) and The Wasp Woman (1959). The real star here though is third-billed Devon, who was great fun to watch playing a deliciously flamboyant Satan in Corman's THE UNDEAD (1957) and is equally fun to watch right here as both the frustrated scientist and the physically and mentally unfeeling alien who possesses him. Almost exclusively cast as villains during his career, frequently in TV westerns, Devon also made an appearance alongside Cabot in The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957) and almost single-handedly keeps this one watchable. The supporting cast includes lots of other familiar faces, like Robert Shayne, Bruno VeSota, Roy Gordon, Beach Dickerson and Corman himself in an uncredited two-scene role as a ground controller.

After the film languished for years unreleased, Shout! Factory eventually decided to release it in 2011 on a two disc, three film set called “Sci-Fi Classics” under the “Roger Corman's Cult Classics” banner. The set also comes with ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957) and the previously hard-to-come-by NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957), plus interviews with Corman about all three films (Miller is also interviewed) and a documentary called “A Salute to Roger Corman” with many famous Corman movie alum chiming in on the director.


Murrain (1975) (TV)

... aka: Against the Crowd: Murrain
... aka: Murrain by Nigel Kneale

Directed by:
John Cooper

"Murrain” was part of a seven episode series of hour-long programs called Against the Crowd made by Associated Television (or ATV). Each of these played on the commercial TV network Independent Television (or ITV) in the UK in July and August of 1975 and, to my knowledge, nowhere else (though I could be mistaken). The series has since been forgotten... all except for this one singular episode. So what exactly saved it from total obscurity? The fact that it's written by Nigel Kneale, that's what. Kneale, a respected, well-known fantasy writer in his home country, first broke through the mainstream with the extremely popular live TV series The Quatermass Experiment (1953), which led to numerous other TV shows and feature film remakes and spin-offs, as well as the equally popular George Orwell adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), which also aired live and was supposedly the film that got Peter Cushing a contract with Hammer. After being pleased with Kneale's work on Murrain, ATV gave the writer a chance to develop his own six-episode series called Beasts the following year. Because Kneale has enough draw to sell whatever may happen to have his name attached to it, when it finally came time for a Beasts DVD box set release, Network DVD included Murrain on the set as an extra. The other six Against the Crowd TV films, which appear to be drama and not horror, are currently nowhere to be found.

Prior to viewing, I said to myself, “Who is a Murrain? What is a Murrain? Is it a town? Is it a person? Is it exclusively British slang for something?" Nope. It's none of the above. After a dictionary search, I discovered it was a noun that refers to “an infectious disease, especially babesiosis, affecting cattle or other animals” and that it's also a somewhat archaic, generic term that can mean a plague, an epidemic or a crop blight. "OK," I said, pausing for a second. "Sure... but... uh... what in the hell is “babesiosis?!” So back to the dictionary we go... Also a noun, babesiosis is “a disease of cattle and other livestock, transmitted by the bite of ticks. It affects the red blood cells and causes the passing of red or blackish urine.” Alright, now I think I'm ready for...

Veterinarian Alan Crich (David Simeon) heads to a small country village to check out some strange goings-on at a pig farm run by Mr. Beeley (Bernard Lee). Having already analyzed some of the dead hogs on an earlier trip, it appears the swine are being stricken down with some kind of mysterious virus unknown by modern science. Even stranger, all of the water in the area has dried up save for one lake and other unknown maladies have afflicted certain people living there. Alan is taken to see general store owners Mr. (David Neal) and Mrs. (Marjorie Yates) Leach, whose son is pale, has no appetite and has been confined to bed for the past month due to an incurable illness. The villagers believe there's a link between what's happening to the pigs, what's happening to the child, the sudden water shortage and a strange crippling disease another man suffers from. Unable to find a rational explanation for the (a ha!) murrain that's struck their village, they've pinned the blame on elderly Mrs. Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones); who they believe is a witch. Alan, rational and educated and not prone to superstition, shrugs off their suggestion and believes they're all “raving mental cases."

Alan decides to go visit Mrs. Clemson himself and is saddened to find a frightened, lonely, seemingly kind old woman living in filth and poverty. The people in town are too scared to get anywhere near her ramshackle home, refuse to talk to her, serve her or sell her food, have tapped her well dry so she'll have no water and, worse, have gone one step further trying to drive her out of town by cutting her beloved cat into two pieces and flinging it over her wall. Feeling a pitiable and likely mentally ill old woman is being wrongfully persecuted, Alan befriends her and decides to help her by bringing her food and arranging for county welfare to come check up on her... but the villagers get even more riled up and the mysterious incidents continue.

This is a modest and somewhat familiar little mystery/drama that was shot on video, but the acting is good, it utilizes a great-looking country village full of crumbling old stone building and walkways and it's thoughtfully-written to be a parable about man's inclination to seek out a scapegoat whenever the unexplainable rears its ugly head. It opts for a somewhat ambiguous ending, which is just as well in this case.

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