Saturday, July 28, 2018

The War of the Planets, a.k.a. The Deadly Diaphonoids (Mercury Film International, Southern Cross Feature Film Company, MGM, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright ©2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The next film on the program was a 1966 release from MGM — yes, they were the original distributor; this wasn’t an American International release MGM picked up when they acquired Orion, which had acquired AIP — of an Italian production made by two companies called Mercury and Southern Cross. It was shown from a Warner Archive DVD as The War of the Planets, though apparently it also went out under the title The Deadly Diaphonoids. It’s sort of a space-opera ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the deadly Diaphonoids are clouds and flashes of light with the ability to take over human beings and turn them into suspended-animation zombies muttering about being “part of the whole” and other such collectivist notions. The film opens with shots of a Ferris wheel-like space station (and it’s disappointing to see a Ferris-wheel space station in an MGM film and not hear “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack!), one of four in Earth orbit, that’s attacked by the deadly Diaphonoids just as they’re having a New Year’s party during which four dancers do a routine in mid-space (one Archie Savage is credited as choreographer!) that looks like what might have happened if Busby Berkeley had been allowed (or able) to stage a dance under weightlessness. The star is Tony Russel (who apparently was a real American actor then living and working in Italy — many of the other Anglo-sounding names in the cast and crew credits were pseudonyms for Italians, including the director, our old friend “Anthony Dawson,” who was really Antonio Margheriti), playing commander Mike Halstead — who, when he isn’t scrapping with a commanding officer who’s also his endlessly critical father, leads the attempt to find just why these four space stations mysteriously disappeared and what happened to their crews. 

It turns out that they were kidnapped by Diaphs, a non-corporeal life form that grew up on another planet and sustained themselves by taking over the resident high primates and masterminding their evolution into humanoids — sort of like the spores in Walter Miller’s marvelous novella Dark Benediction, though in the list of stories using this plot gimmick Dark Benediction would be at the top and The War of the Planets at the bottom. Only some sort of catastrophe on their home world wiped out the species that was hosting the Diaphs, so they went out into space looking for another suitable host and found it in the Earthlings running the space station. There are interminable scenes of the astronauts on Halstead’s crew invading the station the Diaphs and their human hosts have taken over, and the stiff-upper-lip acting of the crew members at the beginning of the film turns into screaming overacting as the story winds on and it gets harder and harder to tell who’s a Diaphonoid-controlled human and who’s the real fully human deal. This was apparently a follow-up to a previous “Dawson” movie called The Wild, Wild Planet with also featured Tony Russel(l — sometimes he spelled his name with just one “l,” sometimes with the regulation two) and Franco Nero in a supporting role (just before Nero had his breakthrough into U.S. stardom as Lancelot in the film version of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical Camelot) and spawned (an all too accurate verb!) a third in the series called War Between the Planets — as well as a fourth called Snow Devils, and as I wrote in my blog post about The Wild, Wild Planet, “The idea that there are three other movies out there of such mind-numbing awfulness as this one beggars the mind.” 

At least the print of The War of the Planets we were watching was a quality transfer with normal-looking colors and enough picture clarity it was easy to tell what was going on (which was not always the case with Queen of Blood, though as I noted above the picture deterioration of Queen of Blood gave the film an engaging patina of accidental psychedelic trippiness); it was just that what was going on was profoundly uninteresting and one missed the brilliance and verve with which director Don Siegel and writer Daniel Mainwaring told this story in the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (still by far the best film of Jack Finney’s original story and one of the two best films in the mind-capture genre, alongside John Carpenter’s 1991 They Live), especially since the Siegel-Mainwaring version takes place not on space stations but in a perfectly ordinary suburban mid-1950’s American community, which just makes it that much more terrifying.