Monday, 29 April 2013

The Somewhat Tetchy Red Planet

On Saturday I got drunk on cheap South African shiraz and watched some bad sci-fi. Yes, I'm living the dream. The two movies on LOVEFiLM I chose to 'enjoy' were The Angry Red Planet and Horrors of the Red Planet. I'm a sucker for Martian stuff. I expected both movies to be terrible. But each, in its way, served to remind me that even a bad film can have its intriguing - nay, even downright good - points.

To begin with 'Horrors', a film noticeably lacking in horrors other than the script and performances - it's alternate title is Wizards of Mars (1965), and this synopsis pretty much sums up its campy weirdness.
In 1974, four astronauts, silver shoe-clad Dorothy, overweight Doc, goofy Charlie, and wooden Steve, crash land on Mars when taking readings, with only four days of supplies. They must try to survive on the surface, which is barren except for some canals with huge maggots with fins. After embarking through a golden igneous cavern, braving a storm and finding an unmanned Earth vessel, they discover a golden road which leads them to the unchanging ruins of what was once a beautiful Martian city. The Martians are modeled on the Flatheads of Oz, and their collective consciousness, the "Wizard," forbids them to leave until they perform a very small task...
Forearmed with this knowledge, I expected something truly laughable. But as it happens, much of what occurs is rather engaging. The spaceship sequences are pretty poor, but most were in those days. And the ship interior isn't too bad. Note how carefully the characters are delineated from the very start.

As the wine kicked in I found myself laughing at the way that - after they crash-land on a not-partcularly-red Mars - the team set off down a canal in rubber boats, only to encounter alien water snakes that look very much like draught excluders... Later they are carried into underground caverns, which they navigate by the novel technique in exactly the same place the whole time while talking as if they're moving. To cap that the mission's scientist, Doc, spots a type of rock that reminds him of something, if only he can remember... Ah yes, it's igneous rock, but they almost fall into a pool of magma before it occurs to Doc that they must be in a volcanic region.

Doc - the scientist who only knows as much basic science as an underpaid hack screenwriter - isn't the only stereotype. In conformity with bad B-movie tradition, 'goofy' Charlie - the most childishly impulsive of the four - is given the team's only gun. Dorothy, the token woman, is allowed to express wonderment or fear, so that she can be reassured and have things explained to her. Steve, the expedition leader, is indeed wooden to the point where you fear the Martian equivalent of Dutch Elm Disease might just carry him off. This is despite his being played by John Carradine, or perhaps because of it. But you just know he's going to get it together with Dorothy if they make it out alive.

But, having said all that, the actual plot is rather enjoyable in the manner of old-style Thirties pulp magazine fiction. Before they crash land - due to being mucked about by some mysterious force - they jettison their main stage, which apparently contains most of their supplies. I sort of get why they did this - the smaller the spacecraft, the easier it is to land it. They then set out to find the crashed main stage, relying on a radio signal. Unfortunately, they follow a rogue signal from an old unmanned US probe. However - and this is a genuine science bit - the probe still has some oxygen on board, so they can replenish their supplies.

Then things get weirdly enjoyable as they find a Martian city at the end of a golden road. There is indeed a whiff of the Wizard of Oz about the denouement, in which a floating head delivers a plonkingly long-winded explanation which boils down to this - the Martians had a big galactic empire, screwed things up, stopped time in their last surviving city and would really rather just become extinct now, thank you very much. Fortunately, Team Earth (or America,  anyway) can accomplish this by fixing a big pendulum (I kid you not) that somehow starts time flowing in the city again. I was quite drunk by this point, but there's a sort of twist ending that's predictable but neat.

All that proved to be the appetiser, though, to an even more exciting feature. The Angry Red Planet (1959) is one I'd actually heard of - it crops up in a few books about science fiction cinema, and is always dismissed as more-or-less crap. Again, though, it's better than it looks if you've had a drink. And again the script is channelling some classic sci-fi notions, though in this case it's British sf. The two main influences (for my money) are the first Quatermass serial (and the Hammer film, The Quatermass Xxperiment) and the BBC radio drama Journey into Space. Both are well worth checking out.

So, what happens in this one, imdb synopsis guy?
The one physically unharmed but traumatized crew-member to return from the first Mars space expedition is interrogated to find out what happened.
Sometimes I feel they're not really trying. As in 'Horrors', 'Angry' sees four humans go to Mars, and crew selection follows the same routine - wooden but handsome leader, decorative ladyperson (this time enhanced by being the daughter of a brilliant scientist, so at least she has sound family reasons for choosing an unfeminine career), cerebral male boffin (this time with a beard instead of a moustache, but facial hair must be present), and the ignorant bloke (or 'regular guy') who gets to tote the biggest gun.

Only two crewpersons return from Mars - wooden commander and cute red-headed science girl, and both are in a Bad Way. As in the first Quatermass adventure, the ship is brought down from Earth orbit by remote control, as the crew can't be reached. The commander is delirious because he's been infected by some kind of alien growth, so science girl has to explain what happened. Unfortunately she's been shaken up and it takes several flashbacks to find out. The resulting narrative is one of strange mental projections, carnivorous plants, a giant amoeba with revolving eyes, and a huge, Dali-esque rat spider with crab claws. No, really. It's bonkers.

Overall, 'Angry' seems to be a bigger and better production than 'Horrors', though much of the early blast-off stuff is clearly stock footage. There is even a touch of humour - the spaceship's computer is called Burroughs. And when the team are on the red planet, it really is red. But don't take my word for it.

Oh. Well, CineMagic turns out to be turning the screen red and using rather cheap backdrops to produce a bargain basement Mars. Oddly enough, the technique is rather charming, giving a cartoon-like quality to what is a cartoon-like tale. And, though the landscape drawings are poor, the effect on the live actors isn't totally naff.

Anyway, our heroes have all sorts of bother on Mars (and they, too, deploy a rubber boat - coincidence?). But it comes down to this - the Martians are a highly advanced race of three eyed, telepathic insectoids who don't want pesky warlike humans ('technological adults but spiritual and emotional infants') invading their world. The insectoids allow native fauna to kill off the boffin and the regular guy. The commander is then infected with that old favourite, Something Green On His Hand Syndrome, whereupon female scientist Iris manages to take off before collapsing from the stress of it all. Fortunately for wooden commander bloke whose name eludes me, when they get back to Earth his nasty Martian rash is cured by the brilliance of cute girl scientist. So they can go off and be decorously romantic, leaving space exploration behind them. Along with, presumably, the rest of the human race.

And at this point I think I passed out.

The Angry Red Planet is currently available on YouTube and Dailymotion.
The Wizard of Mars aka Horrors of the Red Planet is currently available on YouTube.

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