Thursday, August 29, 2013

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (The Filmgroup/American International Television,1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, a 1968 release from Roger Corman’s “The Filmgroup,” distributed by American International Television, that actually began life six years earlier as a Soviet science-fiction film, alternately transliterated as Planeta Bur and Planeta Burg, directed by Pavel Klushantsev and co-written by him and Aleksandr Kazantsev. The 1962 Soviet version was filmed in Agfacolor, the old process invented in Germany in the 1940’s which the Soviets grabbed after they occupied Germany at the end of World War II, and though the page on the film doesn’t mention its original running time I suspect it had a lot of extra footage that doesn’t appear in this American version — including a final shot of a Venusian (the film is about a space journey from Earth to Venus) shown looking at itself in a reflecting pool right after the Earthlings have decided there are no sentient life forms on the planet and gone home. Roger Corman bought the U.S. rights and actually produced two different dubbed, re-edited and partially reshot versions, one in 1965 as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet with Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue in the new scenes. Alas, that one went nowhere at the box office, so in 1968 Corman hired aspiring director Peter Bogdanovich to do yet another rehash of the Planeta Bur(g) footage, this time adding Mamie van Doren and six other women in skin-tight white pants and nothing above the waist but seashell bras (I’m not making this up, you know!) and retitling the film Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to emphasize its appeal to the cheesecake crowd and sell tickets to the young, horny straight guys who were then considered the core audience for science fiction.

The film as it stands in this form is a total mess but there’s enough of interest in it to make me want to see the Soviet original some time; it’s probably ponderous and slow-moving (like most Eastern Bloc sci-fi — though I remain convinced that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is one of the two greatest science-fiction movies ever made, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one of the reasons I like the Tarkovsky Solaris and consider it far better than the Hollywood remake with Soderbergh and Clooney is that the slow pace gives the story more time to develop and adds to, rather than detracting from, the intensity) but at least the story would be coherent. The effects work is quite impressive for the 1960’s — including the dinosaur footage, since one of the conceits of this film is that Venus is inhabited mostly by dino-like creatures (along with a multi-tentacled something or other that looks like a land-based version of a sea anemone) — though the original Soviet footage is far better than the American additions in that regard and there’s one silly sequence in which one of the astronauts (presumably “cosmonauts” in the original) is supposedly traveling underwater and the footage we see looks like someone took film of an ordinary aquarium and used a process screen to patch the actor playing the astronaut (Gennadi Vernov, billed here as “Aldo Romani”!) into it. The plot, such as it is, concerns a spaceship sent to Venus (the planet Venus?) with three people aboard to rescue a previously launched spaceship with two other people who have stopped contacting Earth by radio. The cosmonauts explore Venus in a neat-looking hovercraft (if this movie had been made in the decadent, capitalistic West the studio would no doubt have made a cut-in deal with a toy company to manufacture a model of it) that unfortunately crashes into a pterodactyl that Mamie van Doren and the other Venusian babes worship as God (I’m still not making this up, you know!), killing it and getting the babes pissed off at the visitors.

The all-male astro-crew and the all-female indigenous population never actually meet — Bogdanovich either couldn’t or wouldn’t fake a shot-reverse shot sequence that would have married his footage with the Soviet original, nor does there appear to be much doubling even though the astronauts are wearing spacesuits through virtually the whole movie and therefore it would have been easy to shoot additional footage of them with other actors — but the whole film is narrated by Vernov/Romani’s character, who somehow intuited the existence of a really hot woman on Venus and is still ruing that they never hooked up. There’s also another narrator, a third-person voice who’s heard in the opening over a montage of models of actual or prototype spacecraft (including a mention of the Apollo mooncraft). The page on Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women credits Bogdanovich as narrator (the actual credits do, too, though his directorial credit is under the pseudonym “Derek Thomas”) but it’s not clear which narrator he is and the voices are different enough I really doubt he did both. (They’re also recorded in totally different acoustics: the third-person narration is clear and bright while the first-person is distant, hissy and difficult to make out.) I’ve sometimes said of certain movies that “this is a bad movie with a good movie trapped inside it, trying to get out” (actually a line I stole from Pauline Kael’s original review of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter), but in the case of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women that may literally be true; not that the Russian Planeta Bur(g) is necessarily going to rise to the top of my list of movies I haven’t seen and want to, but I suspect it’s considerably better than the hash made out of it in this version and it might be well worth seeing with English subtitles but otherwise au naturel.