Monday, April 21, 2014

Video Cheese/Oddball Film Report: THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH (1981)

Note: This review was originally written for use by as a Video Cheese piece. Mr. Ken Begg has kindly given me permission to post the piece here instead.


  "An Inconvenient Truth: 1974"

   This movie is literally insane. Words can't describe it at all. However, after being subjected to it, one must vent in some fashion, so here goes...

  Made during the height of Japan's doom-and-gloom genre movie period (see Genocide, Body Snatcher From Hell, The "Legend of Dinosaurs" and more), Toho apparently set out to produce the Ultimate disaster movie. Supposedly based on the writings of Michele De Nostradame (who, if he could really see the future and saw what his name would end up being attached to, would have kept his mouth shut), the 1974 film Prophecies of Nostradamus was given international release as Catastrophe: 1999.

   I can't say if Catastrophe: 1999 was ever actually seen on American screens, but it may have hit the drive-in circuit in the form of one of those crudely dubbed international prints. One such print does form the base of this video/television version updated in 1981 with the addition of a new narrator, some obviously trimmed scenes (although the film is so episodic in nature it may just feel like a digest*), and a laugh-provoking pre-credit text crawl alerting us to the fact that our feature film is 'Ficiticious' in nature. Despite that note, however, the next 88 minutes will be spent trying to convince us that the wild events we see are taken from the writings of Nostradamus.
(* According to the Internet Movie Database, the Japanese version ran 114 minutes, Catastrophe 1999 ran around 90 minutes, and our current subject further trimmed the runtime down to 88 minutes. Meanwhile, the original version drew harsh criticism for reasons explained below, and was only aired on Japanese television one time. Toho has been so gun-shy about the film since, that the only version available over there was provided by a studio employee to the bootleg market! Despite all this, the film was reportedly a huge hit for Toho in it's first run....)
   Nostradamus, for his part, appears to have been Japanese, or so we see in the minuscule portion of the movie that actually deals with Nostradamus, narrated like some pre-History Channel semi-educational program for late-night TV (which is exactly where this version was meant to be seen. I first saw the film on TNT very early in the morning, probably as part of 100% WEIRD).

   It would seem the end-of-the-world portions of Mickey's writings centered around Japan and how pollution was to bring about man's final hours. Thus we see some fantastic event which seems to come out of nowhere, but we're constantly assured that the cause for all of this is Pollution. This becomes increasingly laugh-provoking as the film unspools.

   Talk about wild leaps, one minute we're discussing smoke stacks and poisoning of local water supplies, the next we see the JSDF turning flame-throwers against foot-long slugs! This, however, is only the first of the planet's convulsions...
   Though we only see one small area of the sea polluted by floating pink slime(?), the idea seems to be that all the oceans around Japan -and possibly the world- are dead, killing the livings of all the coastal fishermen. This leads to food shortages, which lead to riots, which lead to the near collapse of government. There's also a moral spiral which leads to mass suicides among young people.

    But wait, there's more! SST planes explode (though the reason for this is never cleared up), opening holes in the earth's ozone layer, causing unfiltered UV radiation to pour through and cause huge fires. The evaporated sea water causes flash storms and flooding. The jetstream shifts, causing polar ice near Hawaii and snowstorms in Africa!

   Lingering atomic radiation (?) causes mutations in New Guinea, from giant bats to radioactive leeches to super natives to brain-dead explorers! 
   During all this madness are occasional sequences in which our scientist hero alternately pleads for immediate action and cautions against rushing into a quick-fix. (So, its just like a real political debate impressionable high schoolers might have under the guidance of their teacher, and thus even funnier.)

   Volcanoes erupt for little reason (our hero more or less mentions that volcanoes COULD erupt, and they start popping) and you start to wonder how it is that the dinosaurs don't revive as well, as long as everything else is happening. 
   The sky polarizes or some such and becomes a mirror at one point, which is just one of many ideas introduced but quickly forgotten by the next scene. (The earlier seen pink slime in the ocean is never seen again, for example, nor are the giant slugs.) 

   The pollution-based poisoning of the planet begins with (thankfully unseen, save for some mock X-Rays) deformed babies. (There's a weird digression at one point involving kids suddenly developing super powers due to mutation. The idea is brought up, then dropped like a hot potato like so much in this movie. This disaster seems to be multiple choice!) When our hero's daughter finds herself with child, she's horrified and convinced that it will be a freak. Her dying mother, meanwhile (why is she dying? Why, Pollution of course!) is happy about the baby and believes it will be a vessel for her continued life. Literally, she seems to think....
   But all that hoopla about the baby comes to nothing, like so much in the film. Somehow or other, Pollution causes it all to end with all-out atomic warfare between the superpowers! 

   We see New York, Moscow, Tokyo, and Paris (?) being obliterated by atomic missiles before the earth is reduced to a burned out slag with just a few mutants running around fighting for survival.

   According to a popular story, said mutants got the film banned in parts of Japan. Supposedly, this was because the hideously deformed humanoids were reminders of the Hiroshima blast. (Never mind that the blast never caused monstrous mutations like we see here. This form of mutation would require generations to produce. Given everything else we've seen though, I'm not sure if that much thought was put into it.) That story is presumably false, although as noted, Toho is rather skiddish about releasing the film to Japanese home video.

   Weirdly, we see the control centers for the atomic missiles are still pristine, with not even a flake of dust to be found on any of the merrily humming computer banks. Funny thing is, the base personnel are still in evidence, but dead. I think the idea is that the fallout killed them, but then why did they die instantly? (How can the base keep out the elements, but not radioactivity? You'd think that would be the first thing the base was built to withstand.) 
   Not only that, but while slumped over, their hands are all still on the controls! Like they've been glued there!

   Then, in the final insult, we see this is just the yarn being spun by a Concerned Scientist to government officials. 
   After all that Nostradomas-said-this-was-going-to-happen-and-there-is-no-escape nonsense, we learn it was simply a scientist spouting off about what COULD happen. We are told mankind still has a possibility to avoid the hellfire Nostradamus foretold. That his writings were a warning, not a solid prediction, that we can avoid the bad stuff by changing our ways. I recall a History Channel special ending on this exact same note.

   Of course, the movie ends more or less convinced that the end will come no matter what we do because a 16th Century writer said so. Oh, and according to the clock presented as fact, the end will come before the finish of the 20th Century.....

   While visually impressive, and sporting some faces familiar to Godzilla movie fans, this has to be the most hysterical film I've seen since His Girl Friday!
   I expect Al Gore caught this film at some point and woodenly vowed to spread the message. If the trailer is any indication, Gore's film too implies that slightly higher than normal carbon dioxide levels will lead to earth-shaking natural disasters and nuclear war. (Of course, according to him, the polar caps melted and drowned half the world about ten or so years ago.)

   The most bizarre element to The Last Days of Planet Earth is that, despite everything going on, the movie is incredibly boring! 
    Something happens every five minutes. There are monsters, floods, exploding cities, blazing infernos, etc. And yet, this has to be the least involving Nipponese science fiction epic I've ever seen! The effects work is top notch, but it never feels important. The movie just zips by into one crazy sequence after another. And yet you keep eyeballing the clock to see how much more of this junk you have to sit through. Not a good legacy for a Toho film. 
    I will grant that I found it slightly less dull watching the video than I did watching it on television. On video, you can get the thing over with in one big lump, while the start-stop, start-stop experience of commercial TV just drives home how little one cares about what's going on in this picture. The commercial breaks are included on the tape, so you still feel like you're watching something taped off television (apart from from the sight of some topless native women in the New Guinea scenes). 
   I will keep my eyes open for a print of Catastrophe: 1999 and see how the (comparatively) unedited version stacks up. At the very least, I imagine it will be much more watchable in scope, which the '81 version obviously isn't.

[FLASH! I have now seen the CATASTROPHE 1999 cut and can offer a word or two on it. For starters, I was floored that the patently Japanese Nostradamus seen in THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH was completely absent from CATASTROPHE 1999! The fuller cut of the film has more of a narrative feel, which despite being less lively is actually less boring. The effects work obviously looks much better in wide screen, and the performances certainly work better when the camera isn't shoved into the actors' faces due to severe cropping. Rather than the male narrator sported by the '81 version, the original international print features a barely audible female narrator who supposedly relates actual Nostradamus verses to justify what events we see. Still not a great movie, if anything it's even more aggressively anti-industrialist, but a better way to go if you'd like to see the film.]

   In the end, The Last Days of Planet Earth is far more amusing as a political comedy than it is moving as an epic disaster flick. There are some good yuks to be found here, and some nice effects work, but you'd do better to opt for the same decade's Godzilla vs the Smog Monster (or even Gamera vs Zigra) if you're looking for a Japanese fight against Pollution. Meanwhile, there are some far superior Disaster films from the same period that you can try, provided you can even find copies of them.

   In 1976, Toho produced two films which were imported with added American stars. Lorne Greene watches over the fairly effective end-of-Japan epic TIDAL WAVE, and Peter Graves joins the cast of a proto-UNDER SIEGE affair called SOUTH SEAS HIJACK. Meanwhile, those seeking a fine Japanese-made end-of-the-world disaster epic can hunt down the 1980 film VIRUS, which boasts an all-star cast and a genuinely descent script. Be warned, however, while the film has been released on DVD, said disks are notoriously finicky. They either play great, or not at all, from what I've heard. (There was a VHS release in the 80's, however, if you have a VCR. I'm sure the disk used that very same print.)

   Should you actually wish to see THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH, I'm not sure if it has ever seen release on DVD. The Paramount VHS release was on a pretty cheap tape, but it was released on Laserdisc at the same time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. -Hebrews 2:17

Monday, April 7, 2014

R.I.P. Mickey Rooney

   Mickey Rooney is passed at the age of 93. He was without doubt one of the last of the screen giants, and his passing further marks the end of a glorious era in entertainment. 

   The diminutive dynamo got an early start in pictures, and beginning in 1937 played the part which would define much of his career, the juvenile Andy Hardy. Rooney would play Hardy in numerous sequels, the last coming in 1958! A fine character actor, Rooney would also star in a string of gripping suspense and crime dramas like QUICKSAND, THE STRIP, and BABY FACE NELSON, in which he played the title role. 

   As he grew older, he continued to find steady work, including several roles with the Disney studio. He did some voice work as well, including at least two turns as Santa Claus for Rankin Bass. His Internet Movie Database entry lists a whopping 340 credits as an actor! Charmingly, he still has parts in films that aren't even released yet.

   His personal life was also the stuff of Hollywood legend. He was married 8 times, first to glamor icon Ava Gardner, and was later married to Martha Vickers, among others... Reportedly, he was also a huge gambler and wasn't one to turn down a good drink. 

   His public persona has always been that a friendly, spunky, multi-talented man, and he used that to his advantage. He made a great 'every man' and when given a meaty character part, he conquered it. He's been in great movies, terrible movies, and everything in between. God bless you, and goodbye, Mickey, we'll miss you!  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Video Cheese/Oddball Film Report: INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957)

NOTE: The Video Cheese series was written for Mr. Ken Begg of and I've tried to post said pieces here only after Ken had posted them at his site. Since this article presents a direct reverse of that policy, I've decided to incorporate this into the Oddball Film Report series (the reviews I do specifically for Baker's Log). This is done with Mr. Begg's kind permission.

   "Saucermen vs Teenagers in early sci-fi spoof."

   Not many 50's science fiction pictures were made with a sense of irony (one reason they still work so well, in my own opinion). American International Pictures, though, had a flare for original thinking.

   This picture was originally conceived as a throwback to the pulpy science fiction tales that had thrilled the creative teams that formed the studio, a straight horror epic. Arkoff or Nicholson, I don't remember which, got cold feet when Paul Blaisdell showed up with his Martian costumes, feeling the creatures looked too goofy with their giant exposed brains. Blaisdell went back to the shop and reduced the size of each monster's head, but somewhere along the line, it was decided to make the picture a light-hearted romp. The film would be a spoofy take on the very pictures AIP was making its fortune producing. 

A look at Blaisdell's earlier, larger masks
    For a framework, the studio purchased the rights to a short story about a Martian that gets hit by a car, and the driver framed for the murder of a bum in retaliation, "The Cosmic Frame." The result is one of the most unique monster movies of the 50's.

   Although we have a central plot here detailing an attempted invasion of earth by Martians, the film shifts its focus between a collection of characters who are often comic take-offs on the usual characters in these sorts of pictures. 

   Our main focus will be on young teens Johnny and Joan (Steve Terrell and Gloria Castillo), who are driving into the next town to get married. Although good kids, Joan's father isn't for the notion of his little girl getting serious about anyone, he even refers to Johnny as a "roughneck" in one scene. Johnny, though, has received an envelope from Uncle Sam and the two are secretly marrying before his induction. Driving along without lights (so as not to disturb the neckers in Lover's Lane), Johnny hits a Martian running across the road. Scared, the lovers try to contact the authorities. The only telephone in the area belongs to Old Man Larkin, who isn't happy at all with the kids using his cow pasture as the unofficially titled Lover's Lane. Larkin, by the way, is played by popular western and serial heavy Raymond Hatton!

   Meanwhile, two drifters, Art and Joe, are making plans to leave town (Hicksberg, by name). [Art is played by Lyn Osborn, talented comic actor best known for playing Cadet Happy on the classic live teleseries Space Patrol. Osborn died at a frightfully young age, not long after his role here. Joe is played by Frank Gorshin, the character actor who went on to a long and varied career. He'll likely be forever remembered best as television's The Riddler, the first colorful villain to appear on the classic Adam West Batman series and motion picture. It was Gorshin's pitch-perfect performance that's largely sighted as the reason The Riddler became one of Batman's top entries in his rouge's gallery, as the character had only appeared in a two-issue plot back in the 40's prior to his TV debut.] 

Frank Gorshin meets a Saucerman
   Fed up with their lack of success at turning a buck in this town (Art claims he and Joe are "Investment Specialists"), Art heads to their flophouse to hit the sheets. Joe desires some action and takes a drive along the back roads. He comes across Johnny's car, sees the dead Martian, and figures the discovery will be worth a million dollars if he can get it on ice before it completely rots away. He tries to tell Art about his discovery, but Art is having none of it. Joe determines to recover the body, though, and heads back to the scene of the accident.

   Also afoot during all of this is a special unit of the USAF tasked with handling flying saucer sightings. Apparently, the military is constantly running across these things, but hasn't had much up close contact with the ships themselves. When a flying saucer lights up the skies outside of Hicksberg, the unit moves in. They manage to find the saucer, and attempt to break into it, but the ship self destructs and the group spends the remainder of the evening covering up the scene of the explosion! 

   This really breaks from tradition, as in the 50's you didn't often see the military portrayed as bumbling incompetents (at first, anyhow, as later they do a fine job of the cover-up). AIP would again use this trick in INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES in 1963. The most apart from the main action, the military characters manage to slip in and out without really impacting the main series of events, although they do strand the Martians on earth.

   Back at Johnny's car, Joe is trying to pry the dead Martian from under the fender when the other little green men jump him and kill him. By the time Johnny and Joan manage to get the authorities out to the scene of the accident, the monsters have placed Joe's body under Johnny's car. Believing Johnny responsible for running over Joe, the Police haul him in. The kids later escape and track down Art, figuring that if they can get him to believe their monster story is on the level, it'll clear Johnny. I'll avoid detailing the rest of the plot. The film is definitely worth a viewing!

   This satirical take on the Invasion From Space genre works surprisingly well, as director Ed Cahn manages to counter the generally light-hearted tone with scenes of genuine suspense (such as when Joan finds herself in a darkened car with a living Sacuerman hand crawling around out of view, a hand possessing long, needle-like claws). 

   In one scene, Art produces a Luger from his dresser drawer. Johnny asks if the gun works. Art notes that it worked for the Nazi soldier he took it from. "You disarmed a Nazi soldier?" Johnny asks, nervously. "Yeah," Art confirms, before breaking the tension. "Of course, he was dead at the time." 

   For the most part, INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN is nothing but light-hearted fun, very different from Cahn's other well-regarded monster classics like THE SHE CREATURE and IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, noted for their gloomy moods.

   An important thing to note here is that the film, despite being satirical, isn't cynical. At least not in a downbeat way. Unlike later period pieces that turned a satiric and cynical eye on the 50's, this isn't nasty or anything. This isn't an expose, as later films would try to be, or as some contemporary literature was trying to be. If anything, the film seems to be setting in place the foundation of the Beach cycle that would immortalize AIP in the following decade. In fact, only two years would pass before AIP produced GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW, which could most certainly be considered a sort of dry run for the more colorful Frankie and Annette pictures.

   INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN ran double bill with the milestone I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. Somewhat overshadowed by the Michael Landon pic, SAUCERMEN fell into relative obscurity, although it enjoyed some TV play for a time. The film was given an even more lurid and sinister title for when it played England as INVASION OF THE HELL CREATURES.

   The Martian masks would pop up in later films as well. One is seen in the collection of the mad makeup man Pete's inner sanctum at the climax of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER. Another mask (or the same one, who knows) is seen being worn at a costume party in the previously mentioned GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW

   AIP would use the film for stock footage, too. The film is seen playing on television in BEACH BLANKET BINGO, where Linda Evans has fallen asleep while watching the late movie.

   In the 80's, a few scenes made it into INVASION EARTH! THE ALIENS ARE HERE!, where it was made to look connected to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS!

   The film would be farmed heavily by Larry Buchanan in the 1960's. Firstly, it was remade as THE EYE CREATURES, with John Ashley taking the Steve Terrell part. Buchanan also made heavy use of the cues Ronald Stein recorded for the '57 film. The straight music (although even those cues had a playful quality) would underscore numerous monster scenes. The more overtly comical cues would also be heard when called for (or even when they weren't). Stein's score seems to have inspired Les Baxter (yes, THE Les Baxter) when he began scoring AIP films, including the infamous Beach pictures.

   Meanwhile, if you can track it down, Paul Blaisdell and Bob Burns produced an 8mm reel showcasing some of Paul's creations, including the Saucermen! I believe the reel, sold from Bob and Paul's very own monster magazine, Fantastic Monsters, was called "Hollywood Monsters" but don't quote me.