Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

It all began when I walked into that op shop and impulse bought that dvd. It was Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet, a hoary old Roger Corman produced piece of ‘bad’ science fiction from the sixties. I’m a sucker for low budget scifi films. The cover of the dvd featured a a grimacing dude in a space suit (not a hysterical woman, for once). The back cover had a glamour shot of some actress who turned out to be Faith Domergue, who appears in it (when she’s much older and less glamorous than she is in the picture. Talk about false advertising!) I checked out the reviews of the film on Letterboxd and discovered there was definitely more about this film than meets the eye. It was actually a re-worked Hollywood version of a Russian film called Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms). Apparently Corman got the rights to it and ‘Americanized’ the film, adding the ageing Basil Rathbone and the aforementioned Faith for ‘star’ power. But, not content with this, he later reworked the film again, giving it the new title of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women and adding a bunch of badly-wigged blonde cuties, headed by Mamie Van Doren. All to diminishing returns. Having seen all three films now, I can report the results are wildly bizarre. To give a better sense of all this insanity I recommend the interested reader check out a bunch of those reviews that are up on Letterboxd. They will definitely supplement this blog, because I don’t want to go into every little detail of the three films’ production.

Faith Domergue on the dvd back cover

Once I started watching the Prehistoric Planet film it was clear the film makers (the direction is credited to Curtis Harrington) or Corman either couldn’t get hold of a clean print of the original, or that’s just the only print the dvd company could find. And this goes for the other film about Prehistoric Women. This alone makes both films almost unwatchable. In the Prehistoric Planet film there are insert shots featuring Faith and Basil (both characters superfluous to requirements), and although some reviewers said the contrast in picture quality between them and the Russian original was clear, I couldn’t see it. They blended seemlessly (as in both American and Russian footage looked equally poor). As mentioned by a number of reviewers on Letterboxd, all the films feature a vehicle that is a clear prototype for the land speeder from Star Wars. Then there’s the robot, prosaically called John, that is a clear callback to Robbie the Robotfrom Forbidden Planet. The prehistoric planet is Venus, and the main story of all three films is a mission of exploration and rescue and return. It’s as simple as that. There is the suggestion of an ancient civilization once having thrived on the planet, dramatically revealed to be true in a nice moment near the film’s end. There is some intrigue and romance provided by the addition of a mysterious ‘female’ voice the stranded astronauts hear from time to time. Except for a brief shot of this woman (a brilliant reflection in water image of the mysterious alien woman at the end) we never meet any Venusian people.

The second film, Prehistoric Women, tries to redress this problem by giving us a good look at said women, the aforementioned blondes in bad wigs who languish by the planet’s sea shore. For most of the film they are shown disturbed by the intruders upon their planet as they devise various ways to get rid of them. This film was credited to a young Peter Bogdanovich, in training for better things. He adds a nice touch wherein the women are all possessed of a type of kinetic telepathy that allows them to control the elements. Thus, they make a volcano erupt and cause torrential rain to hinder the astronauts. And at the end, they begin to worship the dead shell of robot John as a new god.

I managed to see this film on free to air tv. When I bought the first film I thought it reminded me of another film, and sure enough, I found it among the recordings on my pvr (I have a backlog of films to watch). I found the original Russian film on Youtube, after some tipoffs from Letterboxers. It’s a crisp clear print with proper subtitles from the Russian. Directed by Pavel Klushantsev, it’s actually a moderately interesting and exciting take on possible space travel within our solar system. The interpretation of Venus is of a watery planet that is slightly behind Earth’s evolution, thus the prehistoric creatures. The cosmonauts’ speculations about possible human life on the planet veer into Erich Von Daniken territory (ie, that it may have come from the stars), but bad science is a staple of these films (I mean, look at Star Wars!). I like how the woman, Masha, who is left on board an orbiting vehicle, is shown demonstrating the effects of weightlessness. The cosmonauts have magnetic boots to counteract this (a detail not mentioned in the other two films). While the men on the planet fight monsters and the hostile environment, Masha has her own crisis of decision on board the ship. It is she, of course, who is unnecessarily replaced by Faith Domergue (named Marsha) in the Prehistoric Planet film. My favourite scene is probably the one where cosmonauts Scherba and Dr Kern are crossing a lava flow whilst sitting atop Robot John and John decides to jettison the men to make it easier for himself. Kern, who built John, has to cut the robot’s self preservation circuits (why he hadn’t earlier is a mystery). Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics had obviously not been programmed into it.

There’s so much more to say about this, but you can take this up with the reviewers on Letterboxd. The weird Russian landscapes used for Venus reminded me at times of the ice planet in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar. I had actually passed up a copy of that film for this one, and I see other weird parallels between the two. They both feature mechanical men, and both have a character (in Interstellar it’s McConaughey’s character, in Storms it’s a young cosmonaut) who is trying to make some kind of mystical contact with a woman (McConaughey with his wife via the black hole, the cosmonaut the mysterious female voice on the planet). See, they’re the same film! I actually approve of what Corman was trying to do with his two films. Mashing up films and making something new from them is a minor hobby of mine too. I just wish the results had been better. It was a grand adventure watching these three films back to back. I did it for the greater humanity, and so you don’t have to. Well, at least give Planet of Storms a try.

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