Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (John Sebastian, aka, Curtis Harrington, 1965)/ Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (Derek Thomas, aka, Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
Having so enjoyed the colorful, tripped out scifi affair known as _ Queen of Blood_, I decided to delve in a bit further and check out two other patchwork scifi efforts in which maverick indie producer Roger Corman used a similar “Queen” model – that being, opportunistically buying up a Russian scifi film (for “Queen” it was _ Battle Beyond the Sun_, for the “Voyage” films it was Planeta Bur) containing some wonderfully inventive scifi effects (of the kind that low budget Italian master Mario Bava would have been proud), then releasing an eager filmmaker from his stable to write and direct a few additional scenes with young stars and/or a fading, yet still familiar, Hollywood face, and – voila! A ‘new’ genre material for the drive-in circuit!
Unlike “Queen”, however, which used mostly incidental moments from the original, with director Curtis Harrington hired to add in up-and-coming John Saxon and Dennis Hopper, and studio vet Basil Rathbone, as well as a green spray-painted female alien succubus, the Russian film the two “Voyage” films are based on already had lots of ‘monster’ and action footage baked in, so these two were composed in large part of the original footage, with their narratives centering around the (it must be said, nicely dubbed, something that isn’t always achieved) Russian astronauts and their impressively large robot sidekick named ‘John’ as they venture forward on the first-manned scientific exploration of Venus.
Imagined as a fog-drenched (and I mean, man, were they pumping those smoke machines!) rocky landscape (with those rubbery-looking, accordion-like cacti appendages some clever set designer stuck to and fro amongst the wet marshes adding just the right touch), with our space costumed heroes fighting off everything from large carnivorous plant creatures and rubbery prehistoric creatures (including a flying pterodactyl), to molten lava from exploding volcanoes and sudden flood-inducing torrential downpours as they navigate the dangerous terrain (often in an adorable space age Love Bug hovercraft that blows away the Star Wars version), accompanied by the planet’s ever-present eerie wind-like howls (not sure if that is an add from the American side, or was a creation of the original Russian film, but the weird electronically-created, theremin-like ambient adds just another fantastic flavor), the profound evocation of the ‘otherworldy’ captured with all these combined elements, in which implausibly kooky scifi is merged with a fantastic sense of childlike wonder (and nightmare), created a lot of wonderfully warm memories from a very tender age (when I’d see them somewhat regularly, on the afterschool weekday ‘4:30 movie’ on ABC), warm now-nostalgic feelings which immediately surfaced, fully rekindled, upon revisiting.
The first “Voyage” out of the gate, by Queen of Blood‘s Harrington, directing under the nom de plume John Sebastian (both “Voyage” directors took assumed names, apparently feeling they didn’t add enough material to deserve the credit, something I’d dispute, surely in the case of Bogdanovich’s version) relies almost entirely on the episodic narrative of the Russian film (‘We’ve arrived! Look at us, the first men on Venus!’ ‘Hey! Is that a dinosaur?’ ‘Look it’s an exploding volcano! Watch out for the lava!’ ‘What’s that? A big bird? Why, it’s a pterodactyl… and it’s attacking!’), with his main contributions being to remove the original isolated female Russian scientist (who the astronauts are in constant contact with) and replace with American actress Faith Domergue (with a hairstyle that looks more conehead than futuristic) and throw in some additional scenes of Basil Rathbone as a lead scientist walking about a low-rent transmission room set trying to project concern with everything the script is telling him is happening, remains the more creatively pedestrian of the two versions.
That isn’t to say it’s bad; it isn’t, not by a long shot. It’s pleasures are the (considerable) charms of the enthusiastically inventive creations of the original film (yes, yes, we acknowledge the absurdity of it all, but who cares? It’s an alternate reality, pal, deal with it or go away). And the ending, straight from the original, with the last, most soulful of the astronauts standing on the alien soil as his comrades are readying the imperiled spaceship to take off, suddenly discovering evidence – of which he held in his hand all along! — of a possible living civilization on the planet, only to be dragged into the ship… and then the final reflected image that confirms it all to us – is genuinely elegant; mature, even. Hell, it feels European art-house! A resonant beat to end Harrington’s “Voyage”… and a nice gender jumping off point for Bogdanovich!
With three years for Corman to incubate on the material, as well as bringing in the eager eventual superstar director (how many people even remember how big Bogdanovich was for a few brief moments there in the 70’s, only a few years after “Voyage”?) for a go at the material, this second Corman-led incarnation of Planeta Bur is the real treasure (if with a rather unwieldy title). Right from the start, with its opening solemn voiceover (done by the director himself) played against a series of the fog-shrouded landscape footage, Bogdanovich clearly understands and maximizes the moody potential of the Russian footage, wisely painting the events of the film as a haunted memory, a brief tragic exploration that the narrator, one of the astronauts, pines for the day he can return to.
Jettisoning the Domergue and Rathbone filler material (which is still a bit odd as one of the astronauts keeps pining for his love Masha, the woman who keeps guiding their mission and yet that we strangely never see in this version) to make room for some evocative (certainly for the wide-eyed fifteen year old boys likely making up most of the audience), effectively atmospheric beach scenes of full-figured Mamie Van Doren and a group of other young hotties playing mute alien harpies moving hypnotically amongst the shore rocks, hunting fish, communicating telepathically and calling down natural calamities upon the invading astronauts (with Bogdanovich displaying some clever narrative context to explain the sudden volcanoes and flash floods that almost destroy their space ship) for unwittingly killing their God (namely, the pterodactyl).
Both “Voyages”, but especially Bogdanovich’s “Prehistoric Women”, are inspired, crazy concoctions. Either despite of, or because of, their very crazed productions histories and Corman’s stitched together approach, they’re far more than just low-rent success stories in how to turn a quick buck, but genuine artistic, avant-garde achievements.
And final kudos, again to Bogdanovich, who with his conclusion to “Prehistoric Women”, one unique to his version, ups the ante on what was already a pretty memorable ending, displaying just what thoughtful inventiveness he put into his re-imagining. With a clever note of irony, he leaves our prehistoric harpies having found a new God to genuflect before… only instead of a fearsome prehistoric creature, now it’s a representative of man’s modernity – industrial, patriarchal and entirely broken down – left behind by the departed astronauts — none other than the destroyed, lava-ravaged remains of the Robby the Robot clone.
Bravo. Great stuff. With his only other genre effort being the brilliant Targets from the same year, produced rapid-fire by Corman having access to Boris Karloff for a few days, with footage again from another film on hand, it’s too bad Bogdanovich didn’t have much interest in dabbling further in the scifi/horror field once he took off. Who knows? It might have sustained his career.