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I was born in 1966, so growing up as a kid October always meant two things: Halloween and a yearly reminder of the genesis of the Red Menace. Starting in October, 1917, the Soviets under Lenin’s leadership began seizing power in Russia and would not stop until they had control a year later. While this had dire consequences for Russia and many other nations throughout the next 80 years, it did make for some pretty decent film-making, particularly in the realm of science fiction.
Unfortunately, some of the coolest sci-fi films to come out of the Soviet era only made it to U.S. markets in butchered form, with ludicrous dubs and hamfisted cuts perpetrated by bargain-basement distribution companies. Even worse (from an artistic viewpoint, at any rate), they often added content by schlocky or inexperienced directors, further eroding the quality of what had originally been a good film. Such was the fate of two Soviet films that fell into the hands of the great Roger Corman and his Filmgroup production and distribution company: Nebo Zovyot (1959) and Planeta Bur (1962). Before moving on to the film at hand, a brief intro to these two efforts is necessary.
Nebo Zovyot was directed by Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr and had some of the best modelling sequences of its era, as well as an honest and fairly successful attempt to pay lip service to the scientific realities of space travel. “Sputnik I” had reached orbit the previous year, so in the Soviet Union the space program and its possibilities was on everyone’s mind and a film about the first manned trip to Mars was just the thing the average Ivan-in-the-street was looking for. There are some really great sequences in the original, many of which are preserved in the U.S. release. Unfortunately, the original Russian script was very heavy-handed and painted an unflattering portrait of the space program of the “American imperialists,” so when legendary schlock-film hucksters American International Pictures acquired the rights for U.S. distribution of the film in 1962, they hired Roger Corman and film student Francis Ford Coppola to gut and “re-envision” it. Coppola re-wrote the script, “Americanized” all names in the credits, then slipped in some cheesy space-monster footage he and Jack Hill had shot on a sound-stage in Hollywood; apparently, Coppola wanted one monster to look like a penis, and the other a vagina (not touching that one…). It was renamed Battle Beyond the Sun and released later that year. Corman would use footage from the re-worked version in several films of his own on a cut-and-paste basis, including Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.
Planeta Bur is a far better film and has stood the test of time quite well. Directed by Pavel Klushantsev, the film was far ahead of its time when compared to Western fare, and a lot of the design work in it is still as cool as it was in ‘62 (including a “space car” that looks like many of the nuclear-powered concept vehicles that had been floating around since the late 50s). The story was imaginative, paying quite a bit of attention to scientific reality, both in space and on the surface of Venus. The film also features one of the coolest and most complex film robots—Robot John— ever designed. Corman’s Filmgroup acquired the distribution rights to it in 1965, then proceeded to “re-envision” it as Corman/Coppola had done with Nebo Zovyot three years previously. The film was given to director Curtis Harrington who would also do another film for Corman, the classic Queen of Blood. Harrington added some newly-minted scenes starring the fading and obviously-desperate Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue who had starred in the sci-fi classic This Island Earth ten years before, retitling the film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. As with the earlier movie, most traces of the film’s Soviet origin were obscured or obliterated. Thankfully, the film was not butchered as badly as it could have been (and certainly less than Nebo Zovyot had been), but it was never released theatrically, going straight to tv. The majority of the cut-and-paste time in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is from Harrington’s movie.
The film at hand is actually a tremendous bargain matinee of a movie, comprised as it is of work from five different films. In addition to the four listed above, Corman hired fledgeling director Peter Bogdanovich in 1968 to make what would be Filmgroup’s final effort. Unfortunately, Corman had a problem: American International Pictures wouldn’t buy the film unless it had women in it. Bogdanovich decided to film a bunch of “prehistoric women” cavorting on the beaches of Venus (it was actually Leo Carillo State Park in Malibu) and use it as an arc to tie the fragments of the other films together. He cast former blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren in the role of Moana, the leader of the group. Unfortunately, at age 37, Van Doren was looking less like a Hollywood Marilyn Monroe wannabe and more like a threadbare cocktail waitress shilling drinks to the hard-luck crowd at a casino in Winnemucca. Her “career” was ten years past its peak and was already well into a long downward slide, and Bogdanovich surrounded her with younger no-names to cushion the effect, most of them looking like Malibu beach chicks he’d met at D-list parties. He dressed them all in latex bell-bottoms, leis, and plastic sea-shells for bikini-tops, then gave them all peroxide-platinum hair and let them roam and swim Carillo in silence. In one of his few good directorial decisions, Bogdanovich had no dialogue in his scenes, allowing the viewer to assume some wild, alien intelligence on the part of Van Doren and her posse, rather than having them speak and making such an illusion impossible to maintain. Alas, he would later decide to add voiceovers (“telepathy”) as he thought his segments were otherwise incomprehensible, and we get the bimboesque voices of his Venusians in all of their glory. To add to this dismal performance, Bogdanovich, himself provides a badly-written, poorly-read narration that runs from the beginning to the bitter end of the film. He was trying for some sort of Beat profundity, but he just ends up sounding like a drunken Berkeley sophomore spewing nonsense at a beach party.
To give his project some tie-in with the Americanized Soviet films, Bogdanovich constructed a papier-mache pteranodon “idol” to match one seen in Planeta Bur; this was “Ptera,” the god whom the Venusians kept close to their breasts (or their hearts…whatever), and had a large rubber Ptera made to match. The rubber dino was a serious mistake; I had more convincing rubber dinosaurs in my toy box when I was a kid, and a couple of Bogdanovich’s amateurish close-up shots only make the effect worse (it’s no wonder that Bogdanovich would later flame out after Paper Moon, a film more notable for the profound cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs than for Boggie’s lackluster direction).
Mercifully, Bogdonovich’s segment was only about 15 minutes of total film time, lasting only long enough to prove that ‘his work was both good and original, but those parts which were good were not original, and those which were original were not good.’ And that paraphrase of Samuel Johnson best describes the entire film, with the only decent parts coming from the Soviet originals. I found it telling that Corman’s Filmgroup folded soon after completing this dog, although Corman himself had many years of awesome projects afterwards. Still, it’s worth an idle afternoon’s viewing, more for the value of seeing the Soviet bits or a late-career treat for Van Doren buffs than anything else.
Watch the FULL MOVIE of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women