Day 448: The Soviet Film Defectors

originally published March 23, 2013

We all know that the USSR and America spent much of the 1960’s throwing stuff up into space to see who could be more sci-fi awesome than the other. But at the same time as highly educated, meticulously-trained astronauts and cosmonauts were taking turns staring down at the planet from a distant orbit, filmmakers were competing for the disposable income of the slobs back home. This was also – though most consumers didn’t know it – an international affair.

I already wrote a piece on the B-Movie phenomenon: cheap throwaway flicks designed to buffer double features and offer a little extra incentive for folks to turn off that newfangled TV and take a trip to the local cinema. I’ve also written about the twisted films in the various exploitation genres that aimed to shock and entertain the most colorful of palettes. This is a fusion of both, but with a weird international twist.

It may not look like it, but those are stills taken from one of 1962’s most sophisticated and high-budget science fiction films. It tells the story of ships travelling from Earth to Venus, encountering danger and death and pterodactyls. The movie is called Planeta Bur, and it was a huge hit in the USSR. Well, it may have been – not a lot of box office stats exist from this period.

Needless to say, the film never found an American audience. Even the great films of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin had been sheltered from western eyes, lest the people become seduced by their inherent communism and bring about the ruin of America. But connected people – academics, filmmakers, and probably J. Edgar Hoover – they could access it. One of those connected people was this guy:

That’s filmmaker Roger Corman, best known for puffing up those exploitation genres full of cheaply produced yet strangely charming movies. In 1965, Corman felt that Planeta Bur would be a respectable entry into the American sci-fi cannon, except for the unfortunate fact that it was too Soviet. A simple dubbing job with American voice actors wouldn’t be enough – the movie was lacking the star-power that could kick box office returns a little higher than the B-movie plateau. He decided to get fancy.

Corman brought in horror director Curtis Harrington. Harrington hacked and sliced the footage from Planeta Bur and executed as smooth a dubbing process as humanly possible in 1965. Then he brought in a handful of English-speaking actors, including Basil Rathbone, whose name still held a smack of class and prestige. Rathbone shot his segment in a half day, and somehow Harrington and Corman were able to stitch the end-result together into something semi-coherent, which they titled Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.

The Soviet actors’ names were changed in the credits: Gennadi Vernov became Robert Chantal, Georgiy Zhzhonov became Kurt Boden, and so on. The idea was to cover up the plagiarism as deftly as possible. Harrington even changed his own name in the credits (perhaps out of shame), calling himself John Sebastian.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet was roughly the opposite of a huge hit, in that it skipped theaters, and – since direct-to-video wasn’t an option – dropped right into the filler-space that made up late-night TV.

Planeta Bur’s work in America was not done though. In 1968 a young filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich (yes, that one) worked on a project with – guess who – Roger Corman. The project involved taking the same film, with the same dub-job, and repackaging it with a new title, a new plot, and newly-inserted scenes shot in the US. This one involves more Venusian women in clam-shell bras, and stars actress Mamie Van Doren, who in 2008 (at age 77) looked like this:

The film was called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women and, true to tradition, Bogdanovich opted to leave his name off the director’s credit, tossing in the pseudonym ‘Derek Thomas’ instead. I don’t know if any theaters opted to stain their screens with this flick either, though this film was released on DVD, so somebody wanted to see it. Drop this one near the top of your list for Christmas, 2013.

Bogdanovich also used a few clips from another triumph of Russian cinema, Nebo Zovet, a film about the US and the USSR competing to be the first nation to land a ship on Mars. The rights for this film were also held by Roger Corman, and while he was happy to see bits of it show up in Bogdanovich’s movie, he felt it could be exploited a little more. For this purpose he recruited a young film student to do essentially the same thing Harrington and Bogdanovich had done to Planeta Bur. That student was Francis Ford Coppola.

Coppola snipped out the blatant anti-American bits, organized another expert dubbing session, and created Battle Beyond the Sun, in which the Americans, while they don’t make it to Mars, still come out on top. He wanted a bit more action though, so Coppola shot some monster footage. His idea was that one monster should look like a penis and the other should look like a vagina. This is what he came up with:

So maybe you’ve tracked down all these films, and decided that you want to see more. I don’t know, maybe you’ve had a recent brain trauma and are no longer able to discern what constitutes a good movie; I’m not judging. But I do have one more treat for you, and it’s called Queen Of Blood.

This time the Soviet films set for dissection were Nebo Zovyot (yes again – Corman knew how to bleed an idea dry) and Mechte Navstrechu. Curtis Harrington was on call for this one; in fact, he shot the new footage the day before he rolled film for Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, finishing up the following morning. Basil Rathbone was in this one too, wearing the same costume in both films because no one would ever know. Harrington also managed to lure a young, naïve Dennis Hopper into playing a supporting role.

Harrington kept his name on this one, and given the not-entirely-putrid critical response, it might be the most passable of the films I’ve covered.

Perhaps once the sun has set on my one-thousandth day I’ll embark on another project, one in which I actually sit through the most B of the B-movie set and offer up my honest reviews.

We’ll see how masochistic I feel next fall.

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