Sunday, January 29, 2006

GAMMA 1: Acetylene Futures

Wild Wild Planet - 1965Apologies for the lateness of my arrival here on GAMMA 1 ("orbiting thousands of miles above the earth, GAMMA 1, the farthest away of the space stations marks the invisible limits of man's expansion in the Universe") but my departure from the Demon Planet proved more difficult than I had planned.

Among the most felonious of my handful of guilty pleasures (others are serving time but are expected to be paroled soon), the European space film of the early sixties was a keystone in my childhood fascination with what I'll call "hard science fiction." It's easy to identify the genre with its emphasis on hardware (miraculous or faulty) and exposition loaded with lingo cribbed (sometimes seemingly at random) from popularized science reporting. Indeed, the first Italian space film of this era, Antonio Margheriti's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space) was promoted with tagline "1000 Headlines into the Future."

Space Men crew
Preparing for this post (and there's a lot of 'dead time' on the Demon Planet as you can imagine) I rewatched Battle of the Worlds (Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti), starring an 80-year old Claude Rains, and while not part of Antonio Margheriti's GAMMA 1 quadrology, easily one of his most inspired movies. By most standards these aren't great films but who the hell cares - they can be quite engaging and reward even the casual viewer with some stunning visual or thematic surprises. Battle of the Worlds really deserves a proper DVD release. Battle of the Worlds 1961The exotic setting and the estranged dialogue made me recall J.G. Ballard's Vermillion Sands*. Claude Rains has a standout performance as the brilliant Professor Bernard who is always several steps ahead of the authorities and is another example of the dislocating effect of a cast headed by a foreign lead. I'd love to know what Rains thought of the production as he really seems to enjoy himself. The film's music is credited to Mario Migliardi but I'm unable to locate sources for the score so I've selected a track that is close enough to the main title track and captures this exoticism of the first few minutes of the film.
[*Vermillion Sands ("this overlit desert resort and as an exotic suburb of my mind... celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid, and bizarre") is a collection of stories including Ballard's first published story Prima Belladona.]

Antonio Margheriti as far astronautMargheriti's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space, 1960) boasts an interesting cast that includes a black astronaut (the dubbing makes the spacefarers 'cosmonauts') as well as the beautiful Gabriella Farinon. The spaceships are mostly a gloss white with large stabilizing fins and flaming acetylene fueled engines. Special effects afficiandos will note that Margheriti tricks the skeptical viewer by concealing the inevitable supporting wires by filming his models upside down! As his son Edoardo*, who collaborate with Antonio on his effects, notes "a good special effect, constructed and shot 'live' sometimes has a hint of imperfection that makes it seem more real than those acetic digital images...We always felt more emotion when the special effect seemed real then in front of a screen crowded with hordes of battling cartoons - we just couldn't identify with it." Margherti was sought out to supervise the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but declined this as well as Dino DeLaurentis' offer for his remake of King Kong preferring instead to pursue his own passions for films that have been characterized as a "contamination of genres."
[*Edoardo Margheriti's very sweet biography of his father is contained in the deluxe full color liner notes for the GAMMA 1 Quadrilogy CD]

The future is powered by acetylene... and don't you forget it - it's the future
Scifi, 'hard' or otherwise is all about 'what if's' - and embedded Angelo Lavagninoin even the flimsiest plot and most impoverished production is always another, more earthbound, set of of 'what if's' - a set of missed opportunities and misplaced potentialites. This a way of introducing composer Angelo Francisco Lavagnino who scored the GAMMA 1 films. As Bruce Eder (All Movies Guide) notes Lavagnino has a "special gift for melody and a talent for orchestration that manifested themselves in the best of those scores, Gorgo meets a diving bellparticularly Gorgo -whose folk-based soundtrack is often referred to as the prettiest score ever to grace a dinosaur movie..." The 'what if' in this case is that Lavagnino was in line for scoring Sergio Leone's first "spaghetti western" A Fistful of Dollars but narrowly missed out when a producer introduced Ennio Morricone to Leone and it was revealed that Morricone and Leone attended the same grammar school. I'll leave you to ponder this while enjoying the following selections which include 2 tracks from his Gorgo score as well as a "spaghetti western' main title of his own (for Sergio Corbucci's 1969 Gli Specialisti).

Financed by Mercury International for MGM, Margheriti's GAMMA 1 Quadrilogy consists of four made-for-television films produced simulatenously over 3 months in 1965 (two weeks to shoot each one) which were instead released theatrically over the following 3 years. Besides the official Margheriti site, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting with El Santo has excellent reviews of each (English title links, the Italian titles link to their respective IMDB entry). All of these films delight in wild pop fantasies in their production and costume design. For pedagogical purposes the following musical selections ignores the chronological order of the films and includes tracks from 2 other Lavagnino scores. Among Margheriti almost 60 films are the celebrated Castle of Blood (with Barbara Steele) and Cannibal Apocalpyse (John Saxon).

Wild, Wild Planet (I Criminali Dalla Galassia)

War of the Planets (I Diafandoidi Vendono Da Marte)

Planet on the Prowl aka War Between the Planets (Il Pianeta Errante)

Snow Devils (La Morte Viene Dal Pianeta Aytin)

In the US Turner Classic Movies (TCM) thru its MGM library owns prints of the English-dubbed versions of these films so DVD-R's should be floating around following their broadcasts. It would be wonderful to see these in a definitive DVD release. See TCM's own version of the IMDB for more inf including 2 publicity shots and the original English language (" has gone berserk... in the ungodly art of flesh-fusion... The First Space Horror Film... the fusion of male and female, living humans drained of imperfections and grafted together to form a new and terrifying race, the incredible bi-sapien race of the Wild, Wild Planet").

There's no doubt much more to be explored in the 'hard' scifi realm (especially TV's Men Into Space and some Outer Limits episodes). Expect another posting from this future someday soon.

La Morte Viene Dal Pianeta Aytin (Snow Devils) 1965
1 - I Diavoli Dello Spazio 2:39
2 - Come Un Western... 1:20
3 - Aytin 1:36

I Diafandoidi Vendono Da Marte (War of the Planets) 1965
4 - Diafanoidi 1:47
5 - Fluttuanda 4:06
6 - Scontro Finale 1:44

I Criminali Dalla Galassia (Wild Wild Planet) 1965
7 - Criminali Della Galassie 2:10
8 - Galaxy Galore 3:16

Gabriella FarinonIl Pianeta Errante (War Between the Planets) 1965
9 - Ce Ancora Un Futuro 1:43

Gorgo (1961)
10 - Main Title 1:49
11 - On the Island/Inner Room 2:08

Inspired by Battle of the Worlds (1961) main title
Moon Gas - Dick Hyman & Mary Mayo (1963)
12 - Stella by Starlight 3:00

The Specialist (Sergio Corbucci's Gli Specialisti 1969)
13 - Main Title

Wild Wild Planet - indeed!
UPDATE 10/21/2007: Here are the (previously expired) tracks from above for your listening pleasure.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Back to Work on the Demon Planet

The 'dead' crewmen of the Argos emerge from their graves on ArgosReturning from the first working day of 2006 I'm not in the mood for shake beat or cinematique funk. I need something atmospheric (you know, something heavy and oppressive) to unwind to. Long one of my all time favorites films, Mario Bava's gothic scifi classic Planet of the Vampires (AKA Demon Planet, AKA Terrore Nello Spazio) has been patiently waiting for its ERRguitar close-up.

Italian poster for Planet of the VampiresWelcome to the fog-shrouded planet Aura where the crew of the Galliot is fighting for its life against an fleeting and unseen enemy. The Yahoo! Movies summary is impressively economical: "A sexy, creepy space thriller featuring a crew of leather-clad astronauts stranded on a malevolent, mist-shrouded planet who find themselves prey to body snatching aliens."Gino Marinuzzi Jr.'s score was recently released by DigitMovies) and perfectly complements Bava's saturated visuals.

The justly celebrated set design and costumes practically scream 'space fever'. I have very fond memories of watching The Demon Planet in the early seventies on J. Brown's Night Owl Theater, a low budget movies-till-dawn program that catered to "the Night People" on UHF channel 36. This was long before 24 hour TV so choices were slim for "the Night People" of this era. How magic to discover (or revisit) Terrore Nello Spazio in the middle of the night.

Barry Sullivan and Norma BengellEveryone will admit to the importance of casting but there's something wonderfully displaced (when it works) about a sole American actor headlining a European production, especially those modest-to-low budget affairs that aren't afraid to be ambitious in their story telling. Maybe it's that small bonus of alienation (dubbing is generally present too) that trips up or distracts from a contrived plot, or maybe it's watching in the dead of night.

Italian lobby card for Terrore Nello SpazioVeteran actor Barry Sullivan (he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for film and one for TV) is no nonsense as the captain who takes charge in the chaotic descent and aftermath. His co-star is the shapely former Miss Brazil Norma Bengell who has gone on to a long career in the Brazilian cinema. Sullivan was no stranger to working overseas and was already a seasoned veteran of American TV (he starred in the 1960-62 NBC-TV western The Tall Man (75 half hour episodes) as Sheriff Pat Garrett to Clu Gulager's Billy the Kid, with original music credited to Juan Garcia Esquivel).

The giant skeleton discovered on the derelict alien spaceshipThere's more to share but it's getting late. Not "Night People" late, but late enough. When we return to the Demon Planet we'll bring along tales of Ib Melchoir and Sidney Pink (and draw some connections to Arch Obler, Gerald Mohr, and Greta Thyssen, among others).

Terrore Nello Spazia does has a neat trick ending, nothing too original or earthshaking (so to speak), just pleasantly appropriate: "It is a young, a primitive world..."

Main titles - 1:14

Astronaut lands on the surface - 0:54

Another macabre discovery/ ship's abandoned bridge - 1:27

The living dead - 1:15

Inside the starship - 1:06

A new victim/Tiona attacked by the living dead - 0:46

"I know they're dead"/empty grave - 1:18

The living dead appears - 1:04

"A young, primitive world..." - 0:38

End titles - 0:53

Files should be available for 7 days.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Day The Fish Came Out

Happy New Year from Karos!

"Karos - the obscure Greek isle that became an instant international happening... Over the rocky slopes the goatherds wander. On the beaches the Beautiful People swing. Like a psychedelic cloud the Big Beat from transitors - and far more intimate sounds from pleasure-hungry lips - fill the air, while a trembling handful of secret squares from the States go hunting for a box that contains... that contains... Well, let's just call it the living end."

Join me as we indulge in the unexpected opportunity for reflection presented by 2005-2006's leap-second and journey back to the bow shock of the international counterculture in 1967 to savor an cinematic obscurity, The Day The Fish Came Out (Michael Cacoyannis). How do you follow an Oscar-winning international box office hit like Zorba the Greek? How about writing, producing and directing (as well as designing the costumes) a somewhat obvious futuristic satire based on a recent event (a US B-52's accidental H-bombing of Spain AKA the January 1966 Palomares "broken arrow" incident where 4 unarmed H-bombs went on holiday before being retrieved at great expense). Except for its inclusion in the CONELRAD 100 list of Atomic Films The Day The Fish Came Out has been generally regarded as "conspicuously and even offensively campy" (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).

That's too bad. ERRguitar doggedly celebrates this swinging "agit-pop" ("BeyONd THE BEACH") with all its flash and flaws. Zorba composer Mikis Theodorakis' score, playfully alternating between traditonal and electric instrumentation has to be credited with a memorable telegraphic dance theme in "The Jet" (and he's not afraid of some good analog feedback!).

Despite banking on the fleeting satirical potential of the Palomares incident ("Support Our Oops"?) Cacoyannis showed excellent taste in casting a vibrant young Candace Bergen as the sexually-liberated archaeologist Electra Brown ("shall I get my whips?"). While her screen time is limited she does her best to illuminate Cacoyannis' vision of a professional jet set fashionista.

Unfortunately the film remains unexploited for now in any format. The Fox Movie cable channel recently broadcast a respectable print but its otherwise unavailable except in unauthorized VHS and DVD copies. The sole source for the soundtrack remains the reliable Studio 52.

Please enjoy the following tracks that combine bouzouki, trombone and electric organ in a throbbing trance beat worthy of island hopping hedonists of any era.

Let's Dance the Jet: What hooks you is the electric organ playing the bouzouki part!

The Jet Rock: The trombone really drives this slinky version of The Jet.

The Jet: A wrapped up, rolled up version of The Jet.

Sex on the Rocks: Traditional intruments giving way to a recap of the pounding Jet beat.

The Sonic Boom: Crash of analog reverb starts the closing theme as the promise of the title is delivered up.

UPDATE 10/21/2007: I've decided to pick things up again and have these Day The Fish Came Out tracks to share below (via a Box widget). Please enjoy and use sensibly.