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One of the more welcome developments in fantastic DVDs last year was the appearance of the Dark Sky / Monsters HD label. The arcane nature of their titles is almost completely offset by a presentation quality previously unseen in low-budget "monster" filmmaking: beautiful transfers from original elements.
This double bill contains two science fiction items from the 1960s. War Between the Planets is a minor, almost negligible Italian import that's best recommended for completist collectors. The Creation of the Humanoids is something else entirely, a progressive and serious sci-fi opus hiding behind a threadbare production and curiously stilted performances. This bizarre curiosity is said to have been one of Andy Warhol's favorite films. Its technological prophesies will fascinate hard-core science fiction aficionados; others may find it difficult to stay awake!
The Creation of the Humanoids
1962 / 75 min.
Starring Don Megowan, Erica Elliott, Don Doolittle, George Milan, Dudley Manlove, Frances McCann, David Cross
Cinematography Hal Mohr
Production Designer Ted Rich
Makeup Jack P. Pierce
Film Editor Leonard W. Herman
Special Eye Effects Dr. Louis M. Zahner
Written by Jay Simms
Produced by Wesley E. Barry, Edward J. Kay
Directed by Wesley E. Barry
Science fiction fans will be impressed by the thematic complexity of The Creation of the Humanoids, which ranges far beyond fantastic filmmaking circa 1962. The independently produced show imagines a future in which humans are being supplanted by thinking robots. The cerebral script by Jay Simms (Panic in Year Zero!) layers on enough talky exposition to fill three movies. It's really like no other science fiction film: the humanoid robots called "Clickers" stare through stainless-steel ball bearing eyes and speak in monotones familiar from later Coneheads parodies on Saturday Night Live.
Meanwhile, Clickers Acto and Lagan (George Milan and Dudley Manlove) are supervising revolutionary doings at the robot's recharging headquarters, called The Temple. The Clickers are circumventing the law that prohibits the manufacture of robots more than 70% human. They bribe human factory workers to pilfer new humanoids from the assembly line so that renegade scientist Dr. Raven (Don Doolittle) can upgrade them to the 96th percentile level. The "R-96's" are cosmetically altered to perfectly match recently deceased humans. Dr. Raven then performs a "thalamic transplant" from human to robot, causing the human to be 'reborn' in an artificial body. If all goes correctly, the human may even be unaware that he is no longer made of flesh and blood.
Cragis' secret anti-Clicker squad uncovers the conspiracy, but will his intervention make a difference? As Acto says, "Why is it the more we become like Man, the more some of them hate us for it?"
The Creation of the Humanoids is wildly uneven. An ugly title sequence plays out over color shots of nuclear explosions. That is followed by an amateurish prologue explaining how computers evolved into R-21 humanoid Clickers, at the same time that human reproduction dropped precipitously. We're shown several cardboard-clunky robots wiggling their arms (among them the alien costume from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) and told that they're smarter than human beings.
The actors playing the bluish, bald Clickers wear huge silvery contact lenses that. Back in the 1960s these completely freaked us out; it's just as disturbing as Ray Milland's selection of eyewear in the next year's "X", the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. The Clickers move stiffly and speak without looking at each other. They also wear jumpsuits similar to the Metalunans of This Island Earth. But the humanoids transcend these clichés. Writer Simms gives them a great many provocative dialogue zingers: "I know who created me. You have to accept your creator on faith."
The movie is composed of only four or five major scenes and may have fewer than a hundred camera setups. The sets are imaginative but tacky in execution, and may utilize standing flats from earlier futuristic films or TV shows. Legendary cameraman Hal Mohr's blunt color contrasts become a little hard on the eyes after a while. The actors are blocked as if in a static one act play; almost everything is spoken instead of being visually dramatized. Frankly, the show could easily be performed as a play -- but it might be criticized as being too talky for the stage!
At the center of the script's surfeit of interesting ideas is the riddle of human identity. Robots so perfect that they cannot be distinguished from humans pop up frequently in the books of Philip K. Dick but took twenty years to fully reach the screen in Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Next Generation. References are made to humans having their memories "dispersed," which sounds identical to the way we now might erase a hard drive in a computer.
The film's political sophistication is still timely. The Order of Flesh and Blood is a radical minority that wields undue political power. It espouses a reactionary definition of "human-ness" and seeks to destroy inferior imitations, an aim that seems chauvinistic and "racist" considering that mankind is dying out and needs its robots. Members of The Order wear Civil War Confederate uniform pants and caps, suggesting the Civil Rights issue; the word "Clicker" is a demeaning epithet comparable to the "N" word. The Order also carries a ceremonial dagger, as did the Nazi elite. It uses thug tactics to intimidate ordinary policemen, and plants bombs like modern terrorists. The worst horror Cragis can imagine is mechanized miscegenation, a mixed marriage between human and robot. His freethinking sister is "in rapport" with a gentlemanly Clicker. She scoffs at her brother's panicked reaction.
In the film's most progressive theme, Cragis fails to realize that "life will find a way" applies to artificial life as well: man and machine are growing together. Clickers merely want to serve man and be accepted by him, and the R-21s marvel at unknown emotions that the R-96s can experience. As for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers- like substitution of robots for people, the eccentric scientist Dr. Raven sees nothing wrong with it. He's made a bargain to keep upgrading prototype R-96s with transplanted thalamus glands. As payment the Clickers have promised to revive him as an R-96 after he dies. Much like Dr. Frank in the Hammer horror film The Revenge of Frankenstein, Dr. Raven gives humankind the possibility of immortality. We can all be reborn in a new synthetic body. When that robotic body wears out in 150 years, we'll simply move to another, like a hermit crab trading shells. "Build thee more stately mansions oh my soul..." 1
The Order's efforts aren't entirely unsympathetic. They're consciously trying to preserve human traditions, including the idea of God the creator. Having one's "Godly" flesh-and-blood body replaced by a machine drives a wedge between the ideas of Faith and Science. The Creation of the Humanoids doesn't equate faith with superstition, as the robots have developed a religion of their own. The Clickers consider the central controlling computer their "father-mother", and their recharging facility is called The Temple. Are the Clickers drawn to faith as a reaction to a universal spirit, or is the need for a belief system shared by all self-conscious beings?
That all these ideas are exposed in The Creation of the Humanoids is very strange, for on a first viewing the film will almost certainly play as a baffling non-starter. Some shots hold for the better part of a minute while the Clickers stand talking like statuary, droning away. Looking for a futuristic normalcy, director Wesley E. Barry paces the dialogue so that every line is given the kind of earnest, hollow reading heard in instructional films. Humor seems to be passé in this future. The only person who laughs is Pax the Clicker, and his is a pretty feeble display. Little or nothing is told visually and few details of futuristic life are given -- Clicker hubby Pax serves some drinks at one point, and that's it. Dr. Raven is shown toying with a disembodied arm in a trick that wouldn't fool a five year-old.
None of the main performances are more than adequate. Don Megowan is sturdy if uninspiring as Cragis, a top-ranking militant with a hatred of Clickers. Don Doolittle's Dr. Raven is a bit corny but also acceptable. Frances McCann is likewise okay as the sister who sleeps with a Clicker. Second-billed Erica Elliott is frankly terrible as the film's love interest. Everybody is directed to behave rather mechanically, but Ms. Elliott is especially stiff, like a theater experiment gone wrong. Director Barry had been acting since 1917 and probably met actor Megowan while producing low-budget westerns ... this isn't much of a résumè piece for him.
The actors playing Clickers combine good vocal skills with the stamina to wear those scary contact lenses. Just looking at them makes our eyes itch, and from the way the Clickers move, it's probable that they cannot see a thing while the lenses are in place. George Milan is the most heard, while Dudley Manlove (memorable as the alien who throws a hissy-fit in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space) is equally adept in his vocal mannerisms. The stern-faced fanatics running The Order of Flesh and Blood actually come off better than the leads.
The movie appeared on television almost immediately after its theatrical run -- no later than 1963, I should say. The twist ending took us completely by surprise. We must not have been following the story very well, because the "twist" is actually revealed much sooner. More likely, the movie's literate sci-fi tone went over all of our heads in the same way that its potentially blasphemous themes slipped by the church censors. Undeniably sophisticated as science fiction, Humanoids is one weird movie.
Dark Sky's DVD of The Creation of the Humanoids is a beauty, with vibrant color. The original negative is in great shape overall, with just a few dings and weak splices here and there. Hal Mohr's rich images are a bit gaudy; they frequently give us close looks at the Clicker makeup by the legendary Jack Pierce. The good enhanced transfer exposes every editorial flaw in the original film, like the misaligned main titles that pop on late for every cut, and the inconsistent color of the Clickers' plastic skin. The soundtrack features "Electronic Harmonics by I.F.M." that bear a strong similarity to the "tonalities" from Forbidden Planet, with an added wailing vocal.
The average viewer might well consider The Creation of the Humanoids ridiculous and incompetent, but idea-hungry science fiction fans will love it.
War Between the Planets
1966 / 80 min. / Il pianeta errante; Planet on the Prowl
Starring Jack Stuart (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), Amber Collins (Ombretta Colli), Alina Zalewska (Halina Zalewska), Freddy Unger (Goffredo Unger), Peter Martell (Pietro Martellanza)
Cinematography Riccardo Pallottini
Production Designer Piero Poletto
Film Editor Otello Colangeli
Original Music Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Calvin Clements Jr., Ralph Moody (Renato Moretti), Paul Savage
Produced by Joseph Fryd, Walter Manley, Antonio Margheriti
Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
The second half of Dark Sky's double bill is an anemic Italian space movie released in Italy in 1966 as Il pianeta errante and in America in 1971 as War Between the Planets. An alternate English title Planet on the Prowl more accurately translates the original Italian. It's the third and least of four Antonio Margheriti "Gamma 1" movies about the adventures of the crew of an orbiting space station. 1965's I criminali della galassia (Wild, Wild Planet) is the best of the four although even it is hampered by rushed direction and other signs of haste -- flat lighting, weak model work. The characterizations are juvenile and the dialogue clogged with unconvincing techno-babble, especially in the dubbed versions. The other two official Gamma 1s are 1966's I Diafanoidi vengono da marte (confusingly re-titled War of the Planets) and 1967's La morte viene da pianeta Aytin (The Snow Devils). Antonio Margheriti had already directed a popular pair of Italian space movies several years before, 1960's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space) and Il pianeta degli uomini spenti (Battle of the Worlds) from 1961.2
Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog recently identified a fifth entry in the series by realizing that producer Walter Manley made one more "Gamma" picture in Japan, 1968's The Green Slime directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Its writer Ivan Reiner also penned three of the earlier pictures. As esoteric science fiction trivia puzzles go, the tangle of Gamma 1 movies is a real headache-inducer.
War Between the Planets is more or less a dime-store remake of Margheriti's Battle of the Worlds. Neither picture delivers on the titular promise of combat in space; they instead derive from the basic When Worlds Collide concept of a planetoid threatening Earth. Brave spacemen are dispatched to intercept and neutralize the menace. The 1961 movie has Claude Rains and a slightly larger budget, while this later Gamma 1 episode appears to be made from odds and ends. The few space station interiors amount to nothing and the set for the interior of the rogue planet is a shoddy construction of plastic tubes and colored smoke. The movie is so nondescript that it looks as if it could have been filmed in a couple of days, with a minimum of effects work afterwards. The Gamma 1 space station wobbles like a baby's toy.
The acting is weak and the script simply terrible, at least as represented by the English version. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart's numbskull space cadet mercilessly badgers his shapely assistant Ombretta Colli, and then asks for her understanding. Engaged to the general's daughter (played by Halina Zalewska of The Long Hair of Death and Un Angelo per Satana), Rod blasts off to danger as a convenient way of avoiding her. Their relationship is simply dropped when he later pairs off with Ombretta. As for the dialogue, the spacemen's jargon includes playful insults like, "Hey Helium head!"
Dark Sky's Drive-In Double feature DVD of The Creation of the Humanoids and War Between the Planets is another of their terrific-looking offerings mastered from prime source materials for the Hi-Def cable TV channel Monsters HD. Occasional reel-end damage amounts to a few speckles, scratches and maybe a damaged frame or two in both features. The remastered audio on both titles is crystal clear, showing every nuance (and occasional technical flaw) in the original mixes.
The Drive-In format surrounds the shows with a gallery of authentic old animated concession promos and a selection of coming attractions for Dark Sky offerings like The Flesh Eaters and The Curse of the Living Corpse. Science fiction fans looking for esoteric titles normally must be content with poor quality transfers from old 16mm prints, often looking as if they were mastered for DVD in someone's garage. All in all, Dark Sky's quality presentation is a bargain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. (spoiler) Of course, Dr. Raven's bid for immortality may be a cruel joke. Does his Thalamus operation transplant human consciousness, or only the blueprint for human consciousness? Is the new robot Raven, Raven himself or just a "guiltless copy" as in John Weldon's 1990 National Film Board of Canada animated film To Be?
2. John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy has a scene in a 42nd Street grind-house theater in which Joe Buck watches (sort of) a scene from a mindless space opera that is either taken from Space Men, or a purposeful copy. It pinpoints exactly the peculiar ambience of these Italian space operas.