I'm down to my last few bullets! Throw those egg salad sandwiches we brought for lunch! Maybe those will slow them down!
When we first saw Eric North's 1955 sci-fi thriller The Ant Men the first thought we had— Well, actually, the second thought. The first thought was: “Oh, this is a must read.” Our second thought was: “Highly centralized, conscienceless, conformist hordes seeking to overrun everything in sight? Hmm, wonder what that's a paranoid metaphor for?” But the book doesn't really have the anti-commie thing. It's sci-fi played straight about six unfortunate people who stumble upon a city of giant ants in the dead heart of Australia. To make matters worse, there are more than just ants out there. It's reasonably fun at first, but North slowly drives his own narrative south with an impossibly annoying Aussie bush guide character who exclaims, “Mamma mamma!” probably fifty times. Five would have gotten the idea across. Before long we were hoping the ants would eat him. The fact that they don't is the book's biggest flaw. Aside from that it's decent, but certainly not among the better sci-fi novels of the period. This MacFadden-Bartell edition has art by Jack Faragasso.
Ditch the spacesuit, big boy, and I'll give you a totally different kind of terrain to explore.
This cover for Cyril Judd's 1961 Mars based sci-fi novel Sin in Space makes the book look like ridiculous sleaze but there's serious ambition here. We discerned this in the first five pages thanks to the undefined jargon, numerous made-up place names, and copious technical language that's supposed to understood through context. The nomenclature of life on Mars, the minerals that are mined, Mars Machine Tool, greeners, marcaine, and much more, are all woven together by Judd (a pseudonym for Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril) in an attempt to create a believable alternate reality of a human colony on Mars.
Earth has numerous problems and independence is thought by Mars colonists to mean an escape from those issues. But the colony has a few problems of its own. Most importantly, a stash of drugs has gone missing and if it doesn't reappear the consequences, both political and existential, will be dire. Meanwhile, even though forty years of colonization has turned up no Martian life, sightings of so-called “brownies” are on the upswing, but are dismissed as fantasies. Do these brownies exist? Well, they're more likely to turn up than the rampant sin of the book's title. Check out this passage, which we've edited a bit for brevity:
“You got born into a hate-thy-neighbor, envy-thy-neighbor, murder-thy-neighbor culture. Naked dictatorship and leader worship, oligarchy and dollar-worship. Middle classes with their relatively sane families were growing smaller and being ground out of existence as still more black dirt washed into the ocean and more hungry mouths were born and prices went higher and higher. How long before it blew up? The damned, poverty-ridden, swarming Earth, short of food, short of soil, short of metals, short of everything except vicious resentments and aggressions bred by other shortages.”
Does that sound like sleaze to you? Us either. Sin in Space is a serious book, but far less interesting than it should be, considering the fertile setting. Put it in the wildly misleading bin thanks to its title and the cover by artist Robert Stanley. We mentioned the drugs subplot. That's so far in the background it barely qualifies as a plot driver. The sin of the title actually refers to the fact that a reporter writes an article falsely telling everyone on Earth the Martian colony is a hotbed of vice, thus threatening its status. That's still not a good reason for the sensational title or titillating art, but we don't really mind. A piece of sleazy art—even misplaced—always brightens the day.
He's totally wacko but ambition is attractive so she'll give him a chance.
A few years ago we talked about the 1959 sci-fi movie Caltiki il mostro immortale, aka Caltiki—The Immortal Monster, and shared the U.S. promo poster. Above is the Italian promo, which has a nice GGA style to it thanks to the highly skilled brush of Rodolfo Valcarenghi. His art has nothing to do with the film, though. Plotwise think scientific curiosity overcoming better judgement to facilitate the release of a blob monster and you'll be in the ballpark. You can read our little summary at this link. Caltiki il mostro immortale premiered in Italy today in 1959.
Ray Milland and Rosie Grier put their heads together.
Is it fair to describe The Thing with Two Heads as a legendary movie? We think so. It's The Wild Ones taken to its shark jumping extreme thanks to the blaxploitation maestros at American International Pictures. Instead of a white convict and a black convict handcuffed together after a prison escape, this flick features a racist white doctor whose head is grafted onto a black patient's body. These two really hate each other, which is a serious problem considering they spend 24/7 at kissing distance, but they're stuck.
Ray Milland, who once won a Best Actor Oscar, is trying to prolong his own life. Grier is a convict on death row who donates his body to science. He has no idea what the science he's donated himself to entails, just that he'll avoid execution for thirty more days and buy time for his relatives and lawyer to prove his innocence. Sounds fun, right? Once Grier wakes up after surgery and realizes what's happened he flees with Milland's noggin riding helplessly along and decides to prove his innocence himself. But Milland is slowly gaining control of their body. You get the feeling this isn't going to end well.
The Thing with Two Heads is low budget, cheeseball, light on genuine humor, and perfunctory in its ending. And yet... how can one resist? Is it an ingenious parable about the historical theft of black bodies by white men? Or is it just a chunk of opportunistic schlock? Only the screenwriters know. We'll say this, though—considering how low this movie could have sunk (picture Milland looking down at Grier's dick and exclaiming, "Whoa! That's bigger than my Oscar!") it's actually pretty restrained. Put it in the better-with-alcohol category and don't watch it alone. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1972.
Need to get rid of an uninvited guest? Try hummus.
For a b-movie The Thing from Another World is quite entertaining. Above you see its nice Belgian promo poster, which has a different look for the era, with its colorful vortex and entranced looking couple. Belgium, of course, is multi-lingual, so the movie was titled La chose d'un autre monde in French and Het ding van een andere wereld in Dutch. It was directed by Christian Nyby, who was taking his first turn in the director's chair, but a certain uber-experienced fella named Howard Hawks apparently assumed a supervisory role, which may be why the film has such a sense of competent ease about it.
Snarky critics often joke that The Thing is basically James Arness as a giant carrot, but that's silly. The monster is a type of vegetable, but Arness does not dress as one, or anything close. He's a humanoid creature in a jumpsuit. We mention it only because those carrot quips, which suggested the film was some sort of low budget disaster, kept us from watching it for years. If the monster was just a carrot they could chase it away with a bowl of ranch dressing or hummus, but it's actually made of sterner stuff than that. Even fire barely fazes it.
In the end, whether thanks to Nyby or Hawks or some combination thereof, what you get here is a good, solid sci-fi thriller, well put together, well acted, reasonably scripted, and ultimately pretty entertaining. There's no Belgian release date, but after premiering in the U.S. in 1951, it made France in January 1952, so it probably opened in Belgium just a bit later. We're sure we don't have to mention that the 1982 remake was great, but if you haven't seen it feel free to take a gander at out little write-up on in from several years ago.
Jack Finney's alien invasion novel is filled with close encounters of the worst kind.
This paperback cover was painted by John McDermott, and it's iconic, as is Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers. You know the story. Aliens come from space in the form of pods that grow into exact duplicates of humans, who are replaced and dissolved into dust. Finney deftly blends sci-fi and horror, and the result is great—simply put. As with many macabre tales, the fear factor subsides somewhat once the monsters move from the shadows to center stage, but it's still very good even after that point.
The Body Snatchers became a movie in 1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007. The ’56 Don Siegel version is famously considered by many to be a direct Cold War allegory, and is the best of the quartet of adaptations, but the ’78 iteration is damned good too. In terms of metaphor, the book is less about the Cold War and more clearly about the overall loss of freedom in American society. Finney would probably be a bit dismayed about how—other than the freedom to buy things—that process continues to accelerate.
The novel originally appeared in 1955 as a serial in Colliers Magazine, with this Dell edition coming the same year. The cover artist McDermott is someone we've featured before, and if you're curious you can see more of his nice work here and here. Some book dealers actually try to sell this edition for $100, if you can believe that. Money snatchers is more like it. Buy a cheap new edition, read it, and enjoy it.
The future is just a leotard and can of silver spray paint away.
Italian actress Leonora Ruffo is armed and ready to defend her patch of the cosmos in this photo from her 1966 sci-fi movie 2+5 Missione Hydra, perhaps a bit better known by the English title Star Pilot. She plays the commander of a spaceship that crash lands on Sardinia. Ruffo, who was born Bruna Bovi, began acting age fifteen and appeared in mostly b-movies, including several sword-and-sandal epics. Without having seen Star Pilot we already know it's cheap and funny. Ruffo's costume and spray painted plastic gun tell us that. We're going to watch it and report back later.
Ahh-ahh! He'll save every one of us!
Back to the Japan bin today with a colorful poster painted by Renato Casaro for Flash Gordon—’80s version—with Sam J. Jones as Flash, Max von Sydow as Ming, Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, and Queen on the theme music. Flash! Ahhh-ahhh! He's a miracle! We liked Muti so much we featured her in costume not once, but twice. Muti! Ahh-ahh! She's even more miraculous than Flash! Often the Japanese titles of western flicks are wild digressions from the originals but this one seems to be literal—Furasshu gōdon. After opening in the U.S. at the end of 1980 it landed in Japan today in 1981.
Hi there. Is this planet taken?
Above is an iconic poster for Roger Corman's sci-fi thriller Not of This Earth, about an alien in human form who is beamed to Earth through a matter transmitter and enacts a scheme to be transfused with human blood. If he derives the hoped for benefits from these transfusions, his entire dying race will come to Earth, in what you might call an interstellar migrant caravan, only rather than fleeing danger and finding good paying jobs their intent is to enslave humanity and steal its blood. This film is one of the all-time cheeseball classics, well worth a viewing, especially when accompanied by drinks and friends. And it's just about 70 minutes long, which is a nice bonus. The poster art, which is the entire point of this post, is by Albert Kallis, one of the great American movie artists. More from him later, or if you prefer, more of his unearthly talent now. Not of This Earth premiered in the U.S. today in 1957.
I'm getting some really high readings on this. We better try the rectal thermometer.
I don't have a rectum, baby. But I have a rection. That's the word in Earthtongue right?
Sure, he wanted to enslave humanity. But it felt good to be wanted.
Upon close inspection everything looks ship shape.
Model and actress Mara Corday, née Marilyn Watts, captains this nautical 1953 Corp. A. Fox Technicolor lithograph. Corday is one of those vintage actresses who has a cult following today, which in her case mainly derives from starring in three cheesy sci-fi films—Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and The Black Scorpion. She also appeared in some thrillers and noirs, but her stardom was truly cemented when she was Playboy magazine's Playmate of the Month for October 1958. That centerfold may be one of the most demure the magazine ever published, but the issue sold well, owing to Corday's status as an established movie star. She's still with us at age eighty-eight, and these images are nice mementos from a time when legions of fans were willing to sail anywhere with her. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
1911—Mona Lisa Disappears
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda, is stolen from the Louvre. After many wild theories and false leads, it turns out the painting was snatched by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
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