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Elvira's Movie Macabre: Doomsday Machine

Shout Factory // PG // September 19, 2006
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 25, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Wow.

An incredible throwback to '50s-era space travel movies like The Angry Red Planet, 12 to the Moon, and Journey to the Seventh Planet, Doomsday Machine was mostly shot around 1967, long after that type of film had gone the way of the dodo. It then sat on the shelf, unfinished and unreleasable, until producer Harry Hope tinkered with it further, finally unleashing in to drive-ins in 1972. For genre fans Doomsday Machine (there's no "the" in the title) is a fascinating if at times excruciating mess. Its cast of familiar names and fairly interesting premise hint at something better, but once things get underway the production shows signs of having fallen apart while the tacked-on pseudo-climax - shot long after the original actors had moved on to other projects, amounts to one of the most astoundingly incomprehensible final reels in screen history.

The film opens with what seems like newer footage not part of the original production. Set in the near future of 1975, an apparently Chinese spy (Essie Lin Chia?) sneaks into a Red Chinese military base - it looks like a college campus with signs in Chinese hastily fastened over doors, on fire extinguishers, etc. - and eventually reaches the doomsday machine of the title crudely locked in a bright red cage: "Only Chairman Mao has the key to that lock!" her accomplice explains. The unnamed spy returns to the west armed with photos of the threatening device.

The film then shifts gears to the original production, which opens with Project Astra Flight Commander Col. Don Price (Denny Miller) meeting with the press - including future M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell as a reporter - to discuss an upcoming mission to Venus. During the press conference, however, word quickly spreads that the launch has been moved up dramatically: Price's craft is to leave Earth within a matter of a few hours. Further, three of his seven-man crew have suddenly been replaced by three women: flight surgeon Marion Turner (Ruta Lee), meteorologist Lt. Katie Carlson (Ann Grant), and experienced Cosmonaut Maj. Georgianna Bronski (Mala Powers). Price and especially surly Maj. Kurt Mason (Grant Williams) aren't happy about this last-minute switcheroo, but there's little they can do about it. Joined by wise-cracking Danny (top-billed Bobby Van) and elderly Dr. Perry (Henry Wilcoxon), the astronauts are launched into orbit.

The crew speculates and gradually realizes that the sudden addition of the three women was a justified precaution to preserve humanity. Shortly after leaving orbit, the Earth is destroyed in a chain reaction started by that damn doomsday machine. The bulk of the narrative concerns the crew's reactions to this and their shell-shocked planning for the continuation of the species.

The sudden, perplexing rush to get the ship into space and the confusion and frustration over the crew change actually generates some legitimate tension by actors who do a good job selling that part of the narrative. At that point the film might have had more money, too, as these scenes were shot on location on what looks like a real Air Force base. The spaceship's interior, however, is incredibly cheap, phony and flimsy (the "air-lock" shudders when people bang against it), as bad as the lowest budgeted sci-fi films of the late-1950s and early '60s. There's no practical, sensible use of space and everything is lit as if legendary lighting cameraman Stanley Cortez (who also shot The Angry Red Planet) got a good price on colored gels. It's such a riot of color in fact that one almost expects to see a big Christmas tree in a corner, lighting up the room with its festive lights.

The picture may have been shot more or less in sequence, because it makes less and less sense as it goes along, as if the filmmakers had planned a big sequence set on Venus but didn't have the money to build those sets, and in desperation kept the actors busy with hastily-written pages limiting the action to spaceship interiors. (This reviewer invites anyone with the definitive story on this production to write in and help fill the gaps.) Evidence of this can be seen in poor Grant Williams' character, who in early scenes is a by-the-book military type who softens a bit after meeting Grant's Lt. Katie Carlson, but later, during the chaotic second-half, turns into a slobbering would-be rapist-coward. It was a sad end for an undervalued actor (he rarely worked after the early-1970s) who so impressed youngsters as The Incredible Shrinking Man a decade earlier.

Although bottom feeder producer-director David L. Hewitt is credited as "creator of special visual effects," early shots of the spaceship on the launching pad and its launch into space is merely NASA stock footage, while most of the scenes of the craft in flight, strange cutaways to an orbiting space station, and destruction scenes on earth are all lifted from the 1962 Japanese science fiction film Gorath (Yosei Gorasu). Later on the ship completely changes shape and is footage from something else, apparently Hewitt's Wizard of Mars (1965).

(Spoilers. Spoilers? Very Weird Spoilers!)

The footage shot in 1967 more or less ends with Col. Price, Marion, and Dr. Perry zooming off toward Venus, unable to help poor Danny and Cosmonaut Georgianna, who have been stranded in deep space after making repairs to the ship's exterior (Katie and Maj. Mason having been sucked out of an airlock sometime earlier). Just as all appears lost for these star-crossed lovers, they see something indicating they might be saved.

At this point the film cuts to two actors in completely different spacesuits, supposedly Danny and Georgianna, entering a drifting, apparently Russian craft (where did it come from?) and for the next several minutes absolutely nothing at all happens. The film lingers on a static medium shot of the pair, their faces obscured behind tinted face screens, and they pretty much just sit there. Once in a while, the characters, now obviously dubbed by voices that sound nothing like Van and Powers, ramble on about something or another, and eventually radio in to the other spaceship, sort of.

The picture ends inconclusively. An ominous voice representing the collective consciousness of all Venusians tells the hapless survivors of Earth that they've blown their chance, that Col. Price's ship is already destroyed (or something) but that their journey is just beginning. The End.

The filmmakers' contempt for ticket buyers unlucky enough to have stumbled upon Doomsday Machine is almost awe-inspiring. Having made them suffer through 80 dreary minutes of mediocrity they cobble together a mishmash of gobbledygook that makes much less sense than if they had done nothing at all and which begs the maddening question, "What the hell just happened?"

Video & Audio

Doomsday Machine is presented full frame in a transfer possibly sourced from 16mm. The image is bland but watchable, with compositions better-framed when reformatted to 1.77:1. The film seems complete though, as with all of these Elvira titles, artificially-added fades in and out have been added to accommodate her segments. The version sans Elvira runs 82 minutes while the version hosted by her clocks in at 97 minutes. The Elvira segments are copyrighted 1985 though one source suggests this originally aired in 1983, and were murkily shot on videotape. There are no subtitle options and no Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Hard-core science fiction movie fans should try and muster up the courage to experience Doomsday Machine at least once. All others will find it stupefyingly dull.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.

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