It’s always fun to see what a filmmaker can accomplish within budgetary limits, especially when it comes to genre films. There have been countless instances of pre-production concepts that were either discarded or altered during principal photography, editing or even during the screenwriting phase because the producers had to pinch a few pennies and cut a few corners just to get the movie made. One of the fundamentals of low-budget filmmaking is knowing what’s necessary for your story, which can be a great asset to the creative process and an efficient way of maintaining the film’s budget. A textbook example of this type of cost-effective film production is the infamous Italian director Luigi Cozzi’s 1980 Alien cash-in, Contamination.
Meet the Cacodemon’s vegan cousin.
In this sci-fi splatter-fest, an investigation of a seemingly deserted ship that washed ashore near New York Harbor leads to the discovery of a slew of strange alien eggs and the decimated corpses of the passengers who fell victim to the deadly toxins that the eggs secrete. This chain of events leads a government agent (Louise Marleau), a former astronaut (Ian McCulloch), and a NYPD lieutenant (Marino Mase) into the web of a genocidal extraterrestrial menace. Due to its low budget, Contamination resembles nothing more than an alternate universe version of Alien that was made on the cheap in the sixties by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Guy Hamilton. To be fair, Cozzi and his crew put their limited resources to good use. Instead of the lived-in, claustrophobic interiors of the Nostromo and the congeniality of its crew, the cast of Contamination attempts to project an aura of sophistication while they fight masked henchmen and wander around big cities, beautiful villages and James Bond-esque military bases and secret labs. Although the pacing is a little too languid to be truly thrilling, some of the other elements of the film more than make up for it, including the believable chemistry between Marleau and McCulloch, the appropriately disgusting design of the chief alien creature, and the intense synth rock score by the Italian band the Goblins, who are best known for their collaborations with the innovative horror director Dario Argento.
In conclusion, if you crave a creepily chaotic cavalcade of campy creature carnage, consider Cozzi’s Contamination.
April 26th is Alien Day, a celebration of the insanely popular sci-fi horror film franchise, Alien. Debuting in 1979, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s spine-tingling tale of the USS Nostromo’s fateful encounter with an astronomic apex predator that would eventually be dubbed the Xenomorph has endured and influenced several generations of science fiction storytellers and analysts. Of course, much like the Star Wars phenomenon, the immediate impact of Alien spawned a slew of low-budget imitators that copied the film’s moody aesthetic, used future sensibilities and intense action. 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, produced by reputable independent filmmaker Roger Corman and helmed by Hammer director Bruce D. Clark, is a notable knockoff that attempts to aim for loftier heights but is somewhat curtailed by its desire for shock value.
Hell had to make room for the new jacuzzi.
Like Alien, the appeal of Galaxy is reliant on the chemistry of the cast. If Galaxy has a definitive strength, it’s in the performances that slightly elevate the film above the level of a typical B-grade schlockfest. Grace Zabriskie, as the starship captain leading the rescue mission that kicks off the plot, gives a somewhat haunting portrayal of an officer who survived a disaster and seeks to maintain control of her new crew. Other standouts include Ray Walston as the enigmatic cook of the crew, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund as a technician, Bernard Behrens (Obi-Wan Kenobi in the NPR Star Wars radio dramas) as the mission commander, and Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days) as the ship’s empath. The film is also carried by some pretty impressive practical effects, featuring some of Aliens director James Cameron’s earliest production design work. Unfortunately, these fascinating elements are mixed in with a story that’s both barebones and scattershot, often indulging and wallowing in every horror and space opera cliche in the book. This lack of focus is best exemplified by a strange framing device involving a being called the Planet Master that feels like a weak stab in the direction of more thoughtful sci-fi in the vein of Forbidden Planet and 2001 and robs a bit of mystery from the suspense.
Despite its haphazard approach, Galaxy of Terror is an enjoyable piece of low-budget cheese that’s more than just James Cameron’s demo reel for Aliens and Terminator. There’s enough imagination on display that makes it stand out in the realm of cheap, Alien-influenced exploitation films.
Credit: Trash Film Orgy
It’s only a day away until Goth Christmas (otherwise known as Halloween) and I’ve decided to take a look at a strange example of a film in the subgenre of science fiction horror. 1980’s Saturn 3, released with an eye toward the audience that lauded Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough hit Alien, is the subject of a great deal of controversy in regard to its behind-the-scenes woes. Martin Amis, the British novelist who wrote the screenplay for Saturn 3, was able to cash in on the contention with his 1984 novel Money, which is based on his own experience during the calamitous production of the movie. Are the various production problems visible in the final film? Let’s find out as we take a look at this Razzie Award-nominated sci-fi thriller.
Skynet’s development of the T-800 went through some growing pains.
If Saturn 3 has any strengths, the performances certainly wouldn’t be counted among them. Watching Kirk Douglas’s hammy, almost parodic turn as the scientist Adam could make one long to see a Douglas-impersonating Frank Gorshin take up the role. It doesn’t help that he has very little chemistry with Harvey Keitel, who portrays the villainous cargo pilot Benson, and Farrah Fawcett, who comes across as monotonous in her performance of Adam’s assistant Alex. It’s pretty unfortunate when the best actor in your movie is your key practical effect. The prop in question is Hector, an advanced robot built by Benson who, in true HAL 9000 fashion, rebels against Adam’s crew. As a space-based thriller with a small cast, it takes a lot of its cues from Alien, right down to a scene that echoes Jonesy the cat’s encounter with the Xenomorph. Veteran director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) does the best he can with the story, which was conceived by Star Wars production designer John Barry, but most of the scenes lack energy or imagination. Saturn 3’s saving grace is Elmer Bernstein’s vibrant score, which conveys menace and mystery when the visuals and acting aren’t up to the task.
Overall, I can’t really say you should skip Saturn 3 entirely. The effects and imagery are believably frightening and some of the design work is intriguing, especially the weirdly unique and appropriately unsettling Hector. If you’re in the mood for a bit of early 80s sci-fi cheese, Saturn 3 might satisfy that craving.
Credit: deadenddrivein, Something Is Wrong On Saturn 3
Gary Kurtz, the legendary producer of many classic films including American Graffiti, The Dark Crystal and the first two Star Wars films, recently passed away at the age of 78. For a filmmaker with a handful of projects under his belt, Kurtz certainly left a positive impact in cinematic history through his collaborations with some of the most influential creators in entertainment, such as Walter Murch, Jim Henson, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. In 1989, Kurtz attempted to regain the success he earned in the sci-fi genre with the subject of this review but the film in question flopped at the box office and languished in B-movie limbo ever since. We’ll find out if it deserves that fate as we take a look at the post-apocalyptic adventure Slipstream.
Luke Skywalker takes his womp rat hunting very seriously.
Set after a man-made Armageddon known as the Convergence, the story of Slipstream feels like an amalgam of Blade Runner’s philosophical gravity, as demonstrated by its Scripture-quoting android hero Byron (Bob Peck), and Mad Max’s focus on the lives of the many denizens of its apocalyptic setting and the consequences of the actions of a prior generation, which is best illustrated by a Ben Kingsley-led cult that worships a powerful windstorm that appeared after the Convergence. At times, this combination gives the film a disjointed flow that doesn’t fully solidify its themes, which isn’t helped by the low-key direction of Tron producer Steven Lisberger. The film is largely carried by a few enjoyable performances, most notably the somewhat fascinating chemistry between Peck and Bill Paxton’s bounty hunter character Matt and an intriguing appearance by the ever-underrated Mark Hamill as the dangerous cop Will Tasker.
Does Slipstream deserve its reputation as an inert box office bust? I don’t think so. The film has a unique visual appeal, a wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein and it presents some genuinely compelling ideas about where humanity is headed. If you’re looking to get into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Slipstream is a pretty decent introduction to the genre.
Today’s review of 1977’s The War In Space (Wakusei Daisensō: Za uō in Supēsu) is the result of two upcoming events that I’ll be attending soon. The first is Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert, a screening of George Lucas’s 1977 classic accompanied by a live rendition of John Williams’s incredible score conducted by Richard Kaufman and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The second event is G-FEST XXV, a fan convention with a focus on the Godzilla films produced by the prolific Japanese production company Toho, along with many other tokusatsu franchises (by the way, last year’s G-FEST was a blast). Toho’s War in Space may be one of the earliest space opera films released in a post-Star Wars world but it also draws some of its inspiration from the studio’s own body of work.
Searching for a distant star/Heading off to Iscandar
The film’s centerpiece, the massive, drill-bearing starship Gohten, shares a design with the Gotengo, the warship that’s prominently featured in Toho’s 1963 sci-fi adventure Atragon, a movie that War in Space shares a few plot points with as well, including an evil invading empire that can only be stopped by a large and powerful vessel constructed in secret by a scientist who’s reluctant to use the vessel’s full strength out of fear of the damage it could cause. The movie even features several Toho veterans, most notably director Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Ryo Ikebe (Battle in Outer Space), and Akihito Hirata, best known as the most notable human character in the original Godzilla, Dr. Serizawa. The film wisely moves at a steady clip and utilizes a more grounded approach to its story by taking the time to establish its archetypal characters, especially Professor Takigawa who’s portrayed with an almost tragic authority by Ikebe, which helps to give a recognizably human side to a conflict involving aliens led by an intergalactic warlord who’s escorted by a horned, axe-wielding Wookiee facsimile and goes by the outrageous moniker of Commander Hell.
The War in Space may not have the manic energy of Toho’s Godzilla films or the deeper introspection of the Akira Kurosawa films they produced but I think it’s one of their most underrated genre films. For fans of tokusatsu, this is an enjoyable ride that has a bit more to offer than simple thrills.
Credit: Media Graveyard
The Star Wars universe is a setting that’s ripe with comedic potential. From the strange visuals to the quirky dialogue, there’s a lot of material to work with. Luckily, most fans respond to the weirdness with a lot of good-natured ribbing. The cult status of Mel Brooks’ full-blown parody of Star Wars, 1987’s Spaceballs, is only one example of the numerous riffs on the franchise. The Ice Pirates, released in 1984, represents a somewhat unique way to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars: instead of a straightforward quest, this would be a more self-aware and comedic adventure, akin to a Guardians of the Galaxy prototype. The results of this bold experiment are mixed to say the least.
You know the Emperor’s evil because he wrote the Star Wars Holiday Special!
Directed by Stewart Raffill (who also helmed the infamous E.T. imitation, Mac and Me) and written by Raffill and Krull scribe Stanford Sherman, the film’s self-evident premise of ice smuggling sounds like the setup to a variety show skit. It even looks like some kind of sketch with the cryogenic corsairs in question, looking like denizens of a post-apocalyptic Age of Sail, battling a band of space knights who look like they wandered in from a Renaissance fair. Ice Pirates may look cheap but when it comes to its sense of humor, it hits more than it misses. Despite a few awkward gags that feel like they’re filthy for the sake of being filthy, most of the jokes make very clever use of its setting, especially in its imaginative final battle in the middle of a time storm where machines fight the rapidly aging pirate crew.
Overall, Ice Pirates is a strange beast of a movie that might be better appreciated now in the days of constant Star Wars riffs and memes than when it was released for giving viewers a much weirder approach to the space opera genre. It plays things somewhat cynically but it has all the right ingredients that make a cult classic.
Imagine a world where, instead of purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 and acquiring the highly valuable Star Wars brand, Disney decided to revamp 1979’s The Black Hole, their previous attempt to capture the burgeoning space opera film market. Perhaps it would be a modernized retelling of the USS Palomino‘s discovery of the USS Cygnus, inhabited by the deranged Dr. Reinhardt and drifting toward an ominous wormhole. Perhaps it would be a continuation of the adventures of Captain Holland, Dr. McCrae and the charming little robot V.I.N.CENT (with a new voice actor to replace the late, great Roddy McDowell, of course). Maybe this hypothetical revamp would improve the film’s rotten reputation among sci-fi fans. However, one has to wonder if The Black Hole even deserves its status as “movieland’s equivalent to the Hindenburg“. The answer to that is…only slightly.
The Starship Eiffel Tower embarks on a fateful mission.
Sure, the script is a little clunky and Gary Nelson’s somewhat bland direction robs certain moments of their needed impact (getting a boring performance out of Ernest frickin’ Borgnine should be impossible), but Black Hole does have some admirable elements. For instance, Maximilian Schell brings a very chilling madness to his portrayal of Dr. Reinhardt, the Nemo-esque scientist who plans to travel through the titular vortex with a crew of drones who are more than what they seem. At times, the film looks beautiful yet fearsome, especially its main showpiece, the Cygnus, with its eerie glow and a design that’s more evocative of a flying haunted castle than a space shuttle or Star Destroyer. In fact, Black Hole is at its strongest when it feels like an old-school haunted house movie filtered through a space opera lens, complete with an appropriately creepy score by John Barry (who scored not one but two Star Wars imitators prior to this) and a menacing monster in the form of Maximilian, Reinhardt’s sadistic robot bodyguard.
While it may play things a little too bluntly, I feel that The Black Hole gets a bad rap. The film has a decent grasp of the terrifying beauty of the cosmos that gets an occasional chance to shine when it isn’t going for its obligatory, whiz-bang space heroics.