Movies Till Dawn: Science Fiction Double Feature (+5)

12 a.m. – “Gog” – Science Fiction

product_2999(1953, Kino Lorber) Who – or what – is killing scientists at a desert government laboratory? Square-jawed government agent Richard Egan and well-coiffured partner Constance Dowling discover that enemy sabotage has turned NOVAC, the facility’s super-computer, against its human controllers, whom it dispatches with the aid of its multi-armed, torch-toting robots, Gog and Magog. Directed and edited by Herbert L. Strock (“I Was a Teenage Frankenstein”), “Gog” hews towards the “Popular Mechanics” school of screen science fiction, which emphasized technological advances over adventure; as such, its no-nonsense plot and characters and lengthy breaks in action to explain its array of hardware (provided by the Honeywell Corporation) might seem talky and static for casual viewers. But the final third, where Gog and Magog kick their robotic directives to the curb and menace the surviving cast members, has its tense moments, and the presence of capable players like Egan, Dowling and Herbert Marshall underscore the serious tone sought by producer/co-writer Ivan Tors (who went on to create “Flipper” and marry Dowling). “Gog” was one of the last ‘50s-era films to be shot in 3-D, but technical problems resulted in most theaters screening the 2-D version. Both the 2-D and long-lost 3-D versions (which requires a 3-D set to view) are included on the Kino Blu-ray, along with informative commentary by genre expert Tom Weaver; he’s joined by 3-D archivist Bob Furmanek, who discovered the 3-D print, and film score scholar David Schecter. There’s also an interview with Strock, recorded shortly before his death in 2003, in which he discusses the challenges he faced in directing a 3-D movie with monocular vision; trailers for “Gog” and other 3-D titles in Kino’s library, including “The Mask” and “The Bubble,” round out the disc. The exteriors of the lab were shot in Victorville.

1:30 a.m – “Donovan’s Brain” – Science Fiction

product_3017(1953, Kino Lorber). Scientist Lew Ayres revives the brain of recently deceased businessman William Donovan, only to fall under the sway of the disembodied organ, which has retained its owner’s malevolent will. Felix Feist’s sci-fi/thriller, based on the novel by Curt Siodmak (who wrote “The Wolf Man,” among many other Universal horror titles, and directed “The Magnetic Monster” for Ivan Tors), has lost some impact due to decades of similar bad-brain movies that borrowed from it (see: “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”), but benefits from moody black-and-white cinematography from future Oscar winner Joseph Biroc and the lead performance by Ayers, who renders Donovan’s mental possession of his kindly researcher with subtle changes in expression and movement. Gene Evans (as Ayres’ eccentric lab partner) and Steve Brodie (weasely photographer/blackmailer) offer broad-shouldered support, while Nancy Davis frets effectively as Ayres’ wife and even gets to deliver the film’s coup de grace. Soon after its release, Davis begin her new career as First Lady of California and later, the United States, with husband Ronald Reagan. Kino’s Blu-ray includes informative and often amusing commentary by Richard Harland Smith, who provides a wealth of production details (Curt Siodmak was originally slated to write and direct; Lisa Howard, who was married to Feist and plays Donovan’s daughter, became the first female television news anchor, but died by her own hand after opposing Robert Kennedy’s senatorial campaign) and a history of disembodied brains on film. The original trailer and spots for “The Black Sleep” and “Magnetic Monster” (both available from Kino) round out the set.

3 a.m. – “The Ice Pirates” – Science Fiction/Comedy

iipsrv(1984, Warner Archives Collection) In a distant and somewhat threadbare future, an intergalactic band of pirates attempt to break the evil Templar Knights’ hold on the most precious commodity in the universe: water. This sci-fi parody has a cult following, which seems unlikely – the jokes are broad and not particularly imaginative, and the entire affair isn’t offbeat or even awful enough to warrant any devotion – but far stranger and/or sillier films have found an audience. The cast, at least, appears to be having a good time playing outer space games, especially Robert Urich as the pirate captain and Mary Crosby as his princess; Ron Perlman, Anjelica Huston and the late John Matuszak are also on hand, and John Carradine appears briefly as the Templar Supreme Commander. Director/co-writer Stewart Raffill also helmed another modest cult sci-fi favorite, “The Philadelphia Experiment” (as well as the bewildering “Mac and Me”), while co-writer Stanford Sherman penned numerous episodes of “Batman” and the oddball fantasy adventure “Krull.” WAC’s Blu-ray includes the theatrical trailer.

4:30 a.m. – “Journey to the Seventh Planet” – Science Fiction/Horror

product_3029(Kino Lorber) John Agar leads an international space crew to Uranus, where they discover many of their best-loved memories (and fantasies) from home – all of which are the creation of a malevolent being with plans to invade Earth. As with writer Ib Melchior’s previous science fiction efforts – “The Angry Red Planet,” the English-language script for Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires” and even “Reptilicus” (lensed, like “Seventh Planet,” in Denmark) – there are interesting elements floating in the mix, like the scene where astronaut Carl Ottosen recalls memories of his childhood home, which the alien mind rebuilds behind him as he speaks. But these fleeting moments – which echo (and were done better in) Ray Bradbury’s story “Mars is Heaven!” – are largely undone by a psychedelic soup of cheap visual effects, Sidney Pink’s ham-fisted direction and a flurry of post-production work by American International Pictures that attempted to repair the mess he’d made. The result is a confused and frequently ridiculous film that should also be enormously satisfying for camp/”bad” movie fans, many of which may remember its strangest elements – the wobbly, one-eyed rat-lizard animated by Jim Danforth and Wah Chang (“The Outer Limits”), Agar’s creepy smile as he conjures forth a bevy of dream women, including actress Greta Thyssen (as herself), the woozy title song crooned by Danish singer Otto Brandenburg – from regular screenings on late night and Saturday afternoon movie programs. Tim Lucas’ informative commentary track covers these and many other production stories; Kino’s Blu-ray also includes the original theatrical trailer.

6 a.m. – “Panic in Year Zero!” – Science Fiction/Thriller

product_3041(1962, Kino Lorber) Tense, hawkish end-of-the-world thriller directed by Ray Milland, who also stars as a father forced to protect his family by any means after a nuclear explosion decimates Los Angeles. What follows is a bleak exercise in Darwinism under duress, with the hardnosed Milland resorting to blunt frontier justice in order to keep his family safe (more or less) from less hardy fellow survivors, who collapse under panic or prey on weaker figures like Milland’s daughter (future script supervisor Mary Mitchel); son Frankie Avalon learns murder marauding JD creeps like Richard (Dick) Bakalyan and spooky Rex Holman for the good of the family. That brutality is seen as the only logical response to global disaster places “Panic” closer to post-apocalyptic nightmare scenarios like “The Road Warrior” than post-war A-bomb fantasies like “Them!”; though the film’s low budget and pulpy dialogue keep it from being truly disturbing, there’s really no need for special effects here, since the monsters, it would seem, look like us. Commentary by Richard Harland Smith points out everything from filming locations (the Santa Susana Pass and Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, the Rock Store in Malibu Canyon) to Milland’s other directorial efforts, the film’s similarities to the novel “The Death of Grass,” and the history of civil defense in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Trailers for “Panic” and two other genre efforts with “Milland” – Roger Corman’s “The Premature Burial” and the wonderfully creepy “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes” – round out the disc.

While We’re At It Dept: “The People That Time Forgot” (1974, Kino Lorber) is a silly 61RTKEYgkxLbut enjoyable sequel to “The Land That Time Forgot” (1973), and based, like that film, on the pulp fantasy-adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Here, Patrick (son of John) Wayne discovers a lost world (actually the Canary Islands) with dinosaurs, a tribe of Mongol-like warriors (led by Indian actor Milton Reid), Bowie protégé Dana Gillespie as a very glam cavegirl and Doug McClure, the star of “Land” (which is also available from Kino). The effects are dodgy, especially the boxy, awkward dinosaurs, but director Kevin Connor keeps the pace brisk with plenty of sword fights, snarling monsters and a volcano that explodes for the last twenty minutes of the film. Kino’s Blu-ray’s includes commentary by Connor and brassy interviews with Gillespie and co-star Sarah Douglas (“Superman II”).

product_images_modal_SssssssCover72dpi__7B2870b145-bf5d-45cf-82a7-a0c94b0ce8d6_7DAnd Scream Factory has “Sssssss” (1973), an offbeat mad scientist thriller with the great character actor Strother Martin as a well-intentioned reptile researcher who transforms his assistant (Dirk Benedict of “Galactica”/”A-Team” fame) into a man-sized snake – the first wave of human experimentation that he believes will help humanity survive an ecological disaster. Produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown prior to their success with “Jaws,” the picture is equal parts camp and creepshow, with Benedict’s transformation (rendered by Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers with Nick Marcellino and co-producer Daniel Striepeke) generating the lion’s share of the shivers. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray includes new interviews with Benedict and co-star Heather Menzies (“The Sound of Music”). 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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