Saturday, 30 September 2017

Treasure Island in Outer Space (1987): Episode 1

Opening title of Italian TV movie version
Opening title of German TV version

Italian title: L'isola del tesoro (Treasure Island)
German title: Der Schatz im All (The Treasure in Space)
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Writers: Renato Castellani & Luca de Caro
Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Bavaria Films, RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana, TF1 Films Production
An Italy/ West Germany co-production

I must confess to never having heard of Treasure Island in Outer Space until I began examining Margheriti's credits with more scrutiny. One can't help but feel that the title was originally the pitch: "Let's make Treasure Island but set it in outer space!" "Great idea! What are you going to call it?" "Er..." Of course, Disney came up with a more succinct title fifteen years later when they ran with the same idea. The Italian's just stuck with Treasure Island for their version, dropping the sci-fi angle completely.

I have been unable to find any information as to how this show came to exist, so can only look at the scant details available. It was an Italian/ German co-production shot in Italy, at least as far as I can tell. The cast are a mixture of Italian and German and other European actors with Ernest Borgnine and New Zealand's David Warbeck thrown in. Despite the countries involved it appears to have been shot in English, and screened on German television, although comments on the IMDB suggest than an edited down version was shown on American television as a TV movie. It is currently available on YouTube in its original format of individual episodes, yet although the IMDB claims there were five episodes, there are seven listed on YouTube. I guess I'll find out as I work my way through them which is true. Someone seems to have gone to the trouble of reassembling each episode combining available elements, so for the most part this first episode is in English, but then it randomly switches to a German dub, including for Borgnine, highlighting which parts did not appear in the US TV version. There is also a VHS rip of the Italian language version, which appears to be in two parts, each over three hours long. From what I can tell it must have been presented as a two part TV special, and subsequently released on VHS. This version is entirely in Italian, and sadly has no English subtitles. However this version is even longer and features more footage than the German version. I will try to make comparisons where I can between the two.

As far as I can tell this is the only television series Margheriti directed, and it came between two of his Lewis Collin's action films, Commando Leopard (1985) and The Commander (1988). This proves Margheriti was nothing if not versatile. Perhaps he was asked because of his knowledge and experience in shooting space operas back in the 1960s. Each episode is just over fifty minutes long and appears to have been shot on 35mm, so he effectively directed a five-hour film.

David Warbeck had worked with Margheriti before in some of his action films, and had a long history of Italian exploitation, most memorably as the male lead in The Beyond (1981, Lucio Fulci, Italy: Fulvia Film). When he worked on this series he was right in the middle of a run of sleazy films including Formula For a Murder (7, Hyden park: la casa maledetta, 1985, Alberto de Martino, Italy: Fulvia Film).

David Warbeck in Margheriti's The Ark of the Sun God (1984)
Ernest Borgnine, the man with the biggest eyebrows in show business, seems to have nipped across from Croatia to work on this, where he was appearing in a double-bill of made for TV Dirty Dozen sequels. His character is the driving force of the first episode, and it is easy to see why Margheriti would want to cast such a high profile actor for what is effectively a cameo.

My plan here is to intersperse blog posts on Margheriti movies with episodes of Treasure Island in Outer Space. Perhaps by the time I complete the final episode my German will have improved and I can understand all the extra scenes.

Without further ado, let's dive into episode 1:

If you have read the book, or seen any of the dozens of film adaptations, you will be in familiar territory here. Despite being set in outer space this adaptation follows the original very closely, in this first episode at least. Even the character names are the same, right down to Squire Trelawny, a most Cornish-sounding name, but here he is in the future, played here by French actor Philippe Leroy. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's set the scene.

In the German version the opening credits role over an impressive sequence of a spaceship taking off from some sort of of landing pad. It is a short sequence but does feature Margheriti's name at the end. The Italian version has a much longer credit sequence, this time over a spaceship landing and docking. It's another excellent example of Margheriti's skill with miniature work, and as the credits continue to roll we see the passengers disembark, including Ernest Borgnine's Billy Bones. He gets a whole sequence of arriving and going through some version of passport control. This is entirely missing from the opening of the German episodes, which is what I'm mostly going with for the rest of this analysis.

A mostly abandoned former spaceport.
The episode opens on an impressive matte shot which makes it very clear we are in the future. A boy runs towards the camera, and it pans round to the left, following him, revealing a large ruined temple with a fancy red hovercar parked close by. It is the car to which the boy is attracted, but the driver soon pops out from behind a pillar and is none too pleased to see him.

Look no wheels!
This boy is of course Jim Hawkins (sometimes called Jimmy), the hero and narrator of the book. An older Jim is providing a voiceover throughout this episode, and his younger onscreen self is played by Italian child star Itaco Nardulli, who tragically drowned just a few years later at the age of 17. Jim spins round to see none other than Billy Bones (Ernest Borgnine), the owner of this flashy car, something which is not often seen around these parts. To make sure we know this is the future, Billy Bones is wearing massive shades.

Ernest Borgnine is cooler than you
Those ruins look genuine, which means they must have shot in either southern Italy or possibly Sicily. Jim's mother runs a nearby inn, or space-truck stop, and Billy's looking for a place to get a drink. Instead of the traditional pirate tipple, Billy drinks "drok," and he drinks it hard. It's a wonder his liver has survived this far around the galaxy. Billy is also looking for a place to stay, so takes a room upstairs and has young Jim become his personal valet. He has a large trunk and a bag, from which he pulls an ugly china doll which he refers to as "Miss Giselle."Old men with dolls is creepy at the best of times, but Borgnine manages to make the audience almost recoil in horror at this weird old guy with a doll fetish.

Miss Giselle is watching you

As for Miss Giselle herself, I kept waiting for it to get up and start killing people, Annabelle-style.

Jim Hawkins (Itaco Nardulli) is not as afraid of Miss Giselle as he should be
Of course, if you know the book, you'll know that Billy Bones is hiding something, from some pretty bad people, and it doesn't take long for them to turn up, including Blind Pew (Biagio Pelligra), whose cane has a beeping movement detector and built in blow torch, and Black Dog (Bobby Rhodes). This latter gentleman, a fellow pirate, pretends to be friends with Billy to trick Jim into revealing his whereabouts. Once the two meet they argue, with Black Dog claiming they will have to split whatever it is 50-50. Billy is having none of this, they fight and Billy ends up being stabbed in the side. Black Dog splits and Jim gets him medical help from a local GP, Dr. Livesey (David Warbeck). Billy buries something out by the temple, and keeps talking about some treasure, and a map. All very mysterious and exciting for a small boy. But before long the rest of the pirate gang turn up looking for the map too. Unfortunately for them Billy has already died and Jim and his mother have found the map, hidden in a secret compartment of Billy's case. And guess what opened it? That's right, the creepy doll. She started to talk, which triggered the mechanism. 

Dr. Livesey (David Warbeck) does not approve of Jim's ponytail
The pirates arrive by helicopter, presumably representing an old, stolen piece of technology compared with the much more futuristic hovercars and flying saucers we've seen passing overhead. They ransack the place but have to leave empty handed whilst Jim and his mother hide in a shed with some massive turkeys. Blind Pew dies when he falls from the helicopter as they escape, and Jim ends up telling everything to Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawny. He shows them the map, which is actually a blank piece of paper. "It's written with sympathetic ink!" cries Dr. Livesey, and they spend the next two hours trying to get it to reveal its secret. Eventually, after exposing the map to light, it begins to glow. Where will it lead? Stay tuned to find out!

X marks the spot
I was really impressed with this first episode. It's far better than the hokey title would suggest. It is well made, with excellent photography and special effects, and the acting is top rate. The model work in the opening titles is reminiscent of Gerry Anderson, or Margheriti's Gamma One films, and I'm excited to see more once Jim Hawkins gets out into space. It's a real pity that it switches to German occasionally, but those bits are clearly not crucial to the plot so it is worth putting up with. Given the high calibre cast and director it's a shame that this has not had an official DVD release of some sort. If the original elements are still sitting in a German film lab somewhere this would probably scrub up well. It would also be good to have a box set release with the Italian TV movie version, as this clearly runs to around seven and a half hours, and has a lot more cool footage, especially in the opening titles, as well as more scenes which presumably flesh out the story and the characters. In that version, for example, Billy Bones meets the doctor earlier in the story whilst downstairs in the inn, whereas in this version the first time we see Dr. Livesey is when he's called on to help.

I am now looking forward to the next episode, and having discovered the Italian version I'll try and make more close comparisons, despite speaking no Italian whatsoever. 

Friday, 22 September 2017

Mission Stardust (1967)

West German poster

Italian title: ..4 ..3 ..2 ..1 ...morte
USA title: Mission Stardust
German title: Pery Rhodan SOS aus dem Weltall (SOS From the Universe)

Director: Primo Zeglio
Producer: Ernst Ritter von Theumer
Screenplay: Kurt Vogelmann Sergio Donati & Primo Zeglio
Based on the novels by Clark Darlton
Special effects: Antonio Margheriti
Italy/ Spain/ West Germany/ Monaco
Production Companies: Produzioni Europee Associati (OEA), Theumer Film, Aitor Films

The Stardust crew R-L: Flipper (Daniel Martín), Perry Rhodan (Lang Jeffries),
Mike Bull (Luis Dávila) and Dr. Manoli (Joachim Hansen). West German lobby card.

Astronauts Major Perry Rhodan (Lang Jeffries), Mike Bull (
Luis Dávila), Flipper (Daniel Martín) and Dr. Manoli (Joachim Hansen) are heading to the moon aboard the highly secretive Stardust. So secret that a press conference is held prior to lift off, but some information seems to have been withheld, merely fuelling the curiosity of those in attendance. Take off goes smoothly and soon our intrepid heroes are flying through outer space in their model rocket. Meanwhile, back on Earth, evil, dog-stroking megalomaniac Arkin (Pinkas Braun) is plotting next to the pool of his luxury hideout. Thanks to an inside man, Arkin discovers that the real reason for Stardust's trip is to explore the possibility that below the dusty surface lie "small deposits of an almost pure metal which has an atomic density much greater than either cobalt or  lithium... This metal is incredibly valuable." 

When attempting a landing on the moon something goes wrong with both their controls and their communications, cutting off all contact with mission control. Somehow a safe landing is made, and the moon rover vehicle is lowered to the surface. They decide to split up, with Mike and Perry heading over to the Earth side of the moon so they can try to re-establish contact, whilst the doctor and Flipper remain in the rocket. Once Perry and Mike are in place they extend the arial, only within seconds it glows red hot and the circuits short out, as does the vehicle controls. They step out of the vehicle and it disappears before their eyes. They do not seem too overwhelmed by this increasing weirdness, perhaps being seasoned astronauts accustomed to outer space oddities. 

Suddenly, in an adjacent crater they spot an unusually large, spherical space craft and go to check it out. Following an altercation with a robot who shoots lasers from his eye (through the glass of its helmet), they are taken up via an elevator tube to the interior of the spacecraft, where they meet the sickly looking Crest (John Karlsen) and the mesmerising blonde captain Thora (Essy Persson). Crest soon reveals the nature of their mission from the far side of the galaxy: to find another compatible species and join together to create new generations for their home planet. Crest however is sick, and unable to sort out the repairs needed to their crashed ship. Will the fortuitous arrival of Perry Rhodan and his crew be the answer to their problems?

Major Perry Rhodan (Lang Jeffries) with one of the robots. West German lobby card
Once contact with these advanced aliens is made the plot really kicks into gear. I will not attempt to describe the rest of the film in as much detail. I just wanted to get the set up established. Essentially, the ship's doctor diagnoses leukaemia but is unable to treat him up there on the moon. They will need to return to Earth where a doctor based in Mombasa has a treatment that will cure him. This is where things take an unusual turn: for those expecting to watch a space adventure, prepare to be disappointed. They travel down to Earth in a smaller, emergency craft to the middle of the African wilderness, and the rest of the film takes place in Africa, effectively becoming a Eurospy adventure. Of course, I don't think this is a bad thing. I can watch Eurospy films all day, so for one film to combine that with a Gamma One-style space epic is fine by me. It becomes, in effect, a Eurospy-fi film. In fact this does have something in common with Snow Devils (La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin1967, Antonio Margheriti, Italy: Mercury Film International, Southern Cross Feature Film Company) in that regard, in that the audience were expecting another space-bound adventure, and instead found themselves firmly on Earth.

Krest (John Karlsen), Thora (Essy Persson), Rhodan (Lang Jeffries)
and Mike Bull (Luis Dávila). West German lobby card.
Their activities on Earth soon draw attention from both local military forces and the cunning Arkin, who wants to take control of the space ship for himself. Thora, despite seeing herself as superior, begins to develop a soft spot for Rhodan, and remains on the ship to help protect their mission whilst he and Mike head off to find Dr Haggard (Stefano Sibaldi). They face a perilous ordeal thanks to the traitor in their midst. Luckily they have a portable device which can create an invisible forcefield and also make reverse the effects of gravity; just what you need in a punch-up.

This film really does have a bit of everything, and packs a lot of action into its ninety minute running time, and is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable films I have seen in a long time. Having recently written extensively on I, a Woman (Jeg - en kvinde, 1965, Mac Ahlberg, Denmark/ Sweden, Europa Film/ Nordisk Film/ Novaris Film) in my PhD thesis, it was great to see its sexy Swedish star Essy Persson as an alien. With a wardrobe consisting of only tight-fitting flight suits, she struts around the ship communicating with her body language as well as her dialogue her distaste for humanity. Being an advanced species, she does not see anything wrong with changing her uniform behind a white screen whilst in conversation with Rhodan. This results in an image which seems inspired by Danger: Diabolik's (Diabolik, 1968, Mario Bava, Italy/ France: Dino de Laurentis Cinematografica/ Marianne Productions) shower scene.

Thora (Essy Persson). Film still.

The set design of the space craft is in keeping with other Italian science fiction films of the period, such as Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio, 1965, Mario Bava, Italy/ Spain: Castilla Cooperativa Cinematográfica, Italian International Film), Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim, France/ Italy: Dino de Laurentis Cinematografica/ Marianne Productions) and the aforementioned Gamma One films. It is brightly lit and with large round doors and a pop-art influenced colour palate. Perhaps in a nod to the more adult-oriented Barbarella, or to Essy Persson's most famous role in I, a Woman, there is what appears to be a large dildo on full display in Thora's bedroom, apparently on a pedestal.

Thora (Essy Persson) and Perry Rhodan (Lang Jeffries) try not to make eye
contact with the suspiciously phallic object in the foreground. West German lobby card.
Of course, it is the set design and special effects which are of the most interest if you are looking for the work of Antonio Margheriti in this film. Coming shortly after he had just completed the Gamma One quadrilogy, it is no wonder Margheriti was called on to help out with the special effects and model work on ..4 ..3 ..2 ..1 ...morte. There is a lot of excellent model work in the film, from the rocket flying towards the moon, which goes through two separate stages of separation, to the alien spacecraft flying over Africa (actually the Canary Islands). The special effects are occasionally, well, special, and reveal some budgetary limitations, most notably the laser effects: rather than create some sort of optical overlay, when the robots fire lasers from their eyes scratches appear to have been made directly into the film print. An optical overlay effect is used when Rhodan uses the anti-gravity device during a fight to make his assailant float around the room, and when depicting a glow around the rocket as it flies, but for the most part the effects are all achieved in camera using models, forced perspective and explosions. His lunar landscapes are excellent, and his spinning spacecraft through Earth's cloudy skies is well done, with the wires rarely showing.

Frame grab of Margheriti's lunar landscape with moon rover, and rocket ship in foreground.

Model work is also used to achieve the effect of a Land Rover flying through the air, once the space craft comes under attack after landing near Mombasa. Through excellent editing, we cut between the real and fake so smoothly that audiences would have been for the most part unaware of the trickery. Margheriti seems to have been having fun with this film. Perhaps it was a relief to just stay in the studio playing with models instead of being responsible for directing the film too. I hope he also created the head used when one of the humanoid robots demonstrates what he looks like under the helmet. He appears to stolen someone's set of false teeth.

Even robots brush their teeth. Film still.

From what I can tell, this is the only science fiction film directed by veteran Italian director Primo Zeglio, who would retire from the film business just over a year later. He had experience in westerns, historical dramas and peplum, but for some unknown reason only made the journey into space this once. Perhaps the current success of the genre encouraged him to give it a try, and he's done a great job The film is well paced, and has plenty of action to keep audiences interested. Combined with Margheriti's special effects, his direction is efficient if slightly pedestrian. There's no great experiments with camera work or Bava-inspired lighting, but it's still a fun film.

The stills photographer captures the moment a robot's head blows off. West German lobby card.

The casting reflects the mixed nature of the international co-production, with the Canadian Lang Jeffries (who spent most of his career in Europe) starring alongside the Argentinian Luis Dávila, the Swedish Essy Persson, the Spanish Daniel Martín, the German Joachim Hansen, the Italian Stefano Sibaldi and from New Zealand, John Karlsen. This latter actor, who surprisingly only passed away in July 2017 (at the age of 97!) might look familiar to anyone who has seen The She Beast (1966, Michael Reeves, UK? Italy: Euro American Pictures/ Leigh Production). Luis Dávila stood out for me, having stared in the crazy Eurospy film Ypotron (1966, Giorgio Stegani, Italy/ Spain France: Atlántida Films, Dorica Film, Euro International Film (EIA), which is another film from my PhD thesis.

With all those languages being spoken on set, as well as behind the camera, it is no wonder it was standard practice in Italy to loop all the dialogue in post-production. It certainly explains why the dialogue does not sync with the lips in the film, whether you watch it in English or Italian.

Rhodan uses his personal forcefield generator against an unnamed attacker, who is effectively
being squashed by a large sheet of glass. If you look carefully in the film you can see the
steam left behind by his nose when he eventually collapses. West German lobby card.

To say that Perry Rhodan is popular in Germany is an understatement; according to Wikipedia, over 2,900 novels have been published since 1961. Despite this the character has had a rough ride overseas, with only a fairly brief run of English translations instigated by Forrest Ackerman in 1969 lasting less than ten years. This film is the only feature attempt to put the character of Perry Rhodan on screen. I have been unable to ascertain whether ..4 ..3 ..2 ..1 ...morte was based on a specific novel, or whether the screenplay more loosly adapted elements from the world of Rhodan. Purists dislike this film because it is not close enough to the original character, which I think explains its low score on the IMDB, because if you're coming to this with no preconceptions you would score it a lot higher (I gave it an 8). Clearly the film was given a big release in Germany, hence all the best images are from West German lobby cards. 

A nurse in a gas mask poses for the photographer next to the wheel of the lunar vehicle,
something which does not happen in the film itself. West German lobby card.

Never released in the UK, Mission Stardust did receive a belated release in the USA in 1969 and managed to score a positive review in Variety, where it was recommended for general audiences:

"It should do well as a programmer anywhere, as, though sheer nonsense, it's enjoyable... The dubbing is only fair, the special effects crude, the color uneven, but the very audaciousness of the admixture keeps the attention. Every plot twist adds to the enjoyableness and there's a fine rock score." ("Mission Stardust," Variety, 2 July 1969, p.26)

The score is great, with an opening theme which establishes the fun tone which continues through the rest of the film.

Thora (Essy Persson) finds herself at the mercy of Arkin's gun-toting nurses. West German lobby card.

The grey-market DVD which I have is taken from the German print, although it has both the English or Italian dub. The picture quality is good for the most part, although some sequences have been cut in from a second or third-generation VHS in order to make it the most complete version available. It is the English version of this which can be found on YouTube. Incidentally, Antonio Margheriti's name does not appear in the credits of this German version. I assume this was for some sort of contractual reason. I can't spot any of his known pseudonyms in there either. I imagine his name was in the Italian credits at least.

I had a great time watching Mission Stardust. It has everything you could want from a sixties Eurospy-fi: rockets and spaceships, form-hugging spacesuits, pop art design, laser guns, robots, tanks, punch-ups and anti-gravity weapons. What's not to like?