Eyes in their Stars

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Stephen Murphy (makeup effects); Morag McKinnon (director); Kiyoyuki Murakami (translator/sound recordist); some pie (comestible). 

So, my friend Kiyo, visiting from Japan, left on Wednesday. Last time he visited and left I got bushwhacked by sudden emotion, which would probably have happened again, except for the comedy relief he thoughtfully supplied. “Thank you for your hospitality, and… thank you for everything you did to me,” he said, as he got into the cab, then sat down, missing the seat and landing on his arse on the floor. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” he remarked, cheerfully.

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I always found these space aliens, from the Japanese WARNING FROM SPACE, completely adorable in the movie stills I saw. With Kiyo departed and myself in nostalgic mood, I shoved the disc, a gift from composer Matt Wand, into the Panasonic and let ‘er rip. 

A ready-made Fever Dream Double Feature, the disc consists of both WARNING FROM SPACE and the uncannily similar THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, an Amicus production that likewise features astronomer heroes, meteors that land in formation, extraterrestrials that take human form, and plot twists that shift the invaders from hostile to sympathetic and (sometimes) back again.

The other film BEYOND SPACE (the moon is beyond space? That’s a conservative estimate of the size of the universe, isn’t it?) resembles is another British UFO flick, THE BODY STEALERS. But that one, a Tigon production, is beyond dull. Despite being shot by the talented John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) it contains only one striking shot:

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A body worth stealing.

The Amicus effort is a lot more interesting, thanks to occasional wisps of inventiveness from director Freddie Francis, and excellent production design in the aliens’ lair, and even in the astronomers’ HQ, where a psychedelic floor painting livens things up. Francis was generally a weak director, at least compared to his brilliance as a cinematographer, but he could rise to the challenge when a film offered him something of visual interest to get his teeth into. Oddly, here and in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, it’s the photography that often lets things down, with awkward transitions from day-for-night to night-for-night, something that NEVER works (honourable exception: THE PROFESSIONALS, shot by Conrad Hall). 

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Robert Hutton is our hero, a stiff bit of imported American timber, whose characterisation consists of (a) driving a vintage car, like Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, and (b) having a metal plate in his skull, which turns out to protect him against alien possession. This results in an endearing bit where Hutton’s pal, Zia Mohyheddin, must fashion a brain-shield out of golf trophies and spend the rest of the film looking hilarious. Things like this keep the film going: most B-movie scifis are painfully lacking in ideas, seeming to equate creativity with expense. This one throws in a new novelty just often enough. A senior security guy from the secret service suddenly contract freckly plague — apparently by telephone. Staggering from the phone booth, he dies in seconds and immediately infects the doctor who rushes to his side. The delirium of the pace is dreamlike, aided by the surreal intensity of the doctor’s performance: we think of dreams as slow and floaty, but this sequence captures the abruption and ellipsis of dream-narrative very well. 

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The biggest mistake is probably the casting of Michael Gough as “the Master of the Moon”. Stressing every other word and thrusting his head about like a querulous chicken, Gough is very much on form, but when he has to convert back to being the human being possessed by the M of the M, he plays “Arthur Grey” in exactly the same manner, which leaves the ending in a terrifying limbo. Does this mean that all the humans possessed by the invaders are permanently strange? Are we doomed to become a race of Michael Goughs? Look around you! Can you be sure it isn’t already happening?

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WARNING FROM SPACE isn’t quite as full of surprises, but does switch genres in midstream, from invasion film to disaster movie. The starfish eyeball people from beyond infinity turn out to be warning mankind of a terrible threat, a comet (resembling a sun, in fact) on collision course with Earth. Cue lots of shots of screaming civilians evacuating Tokyo, apparently unaware that the surrounding countryside is still technically Earth. 

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It’s all decent entertainment if you’re as mentally twelve as I am, although maybe the film could have actually gotten by with fewer ideas. I would have been quite happy to just watch the starfish guys wandering about Tokyo, trying to buy beer or chat up the locals. When you have aliens as delightful as this, plot just gets in the way. Instead, the alien leader transmogrifies herself into a celebrity lookalike, travels to Earth, is washed up in a lake, and is quickly suspected of being what she is — her tendency to leap six feet in the air while playing tennis, and to teleport through plate glass, as well as the fact that she’s the doppelganger of a famous cabaret performer, tending to promote suspicion.

Also, because of the period it was made in, the colour process and the settings irresistibly recall Ozu’s late work, although director Koji Shima throws in the odd Dutch tilt, which is surely enough to disbar him from the transcendental style lodge.

The film was pan-and-scanned, the colour was faded, and the dialogue was dubbed (English dub by Jay Cipes, who married Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne — and I think that might be Arianne’s voice playing the alien leader). So arguably I haven’t actually seen this film at all. But if I’m about to mutate into Michael Gough I don’t suppose it matters.

vlcsnap-76398Snow-globe from beyond space.

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19 Responses to “Eyes in their Stars”

  1. An amusing discovery about the Pan-scanning in WARNING FROM SPACE, which is not a widescreen or ‘scope movie.

    I too assumed that the movie was pan-scanned because of those obvious rigid pans in the scenes with the starfish people. But the rest of the picture seems properly framed for 1:37. I was finally informed that in the original Japanese version, the star creatures speak in an alien language, subtitled in Japanese. The subs run up and down the left and right side of the image in vertical columns of ideograms. Only one side at a time though, as the star creatures are having a conversation.

    So what we’re seeing is a pan-scan adapted to avoid the columns of subtitles, which alternate left and right as different star characters talk back and forth. When the dialogue disappears from the extreme left, the image immediately pans leftward to avoid showing new text running down the right side of the screen.

    All for the want of a textless film element for foreign use. Someday we may see WARNING FROM SPACE, aka UNKNOWN SATELLITE OVER TOKYO uncut in full color, too.

    Pan-scanning, of course, needs to be distinguished from Scan-panning, which is when a critic disses several films in one rushed review, without really watching them thoroughly.

  2. kevin mummery Says:

    I think this was the very first Japanese film I ever saw, back in the mists of the 1960′s. It was on a double bill on the Sir Graves Ghastly TV program…the second film was a Starman adventure, which I don’t remember much about other than it was really strange. The dubbing on Warning From Space is hilarious, especially when one of the main characters (I forget which one, probably the plucky kid reporter) is viewing the skies with a telescope and exclaims “A FLYING SAUCER!” in a really goofy voice. Guaranteed to make anyone laugh.

    No one can tell me that foreign film is over the heads of the average viewer!

  3. Thanks Glenn, that makes sense of everything, while simultaneously opening up vistas of mystery and weirdness. There are some pretty wild camera moves during those alien conversations too, which I assumed were mainly about making it clear which starfisheyeball is speaking at any given time, but which presumably also had to do with offering up fresh compositions for subtitling. An interesting challenge for the director.

    Although I have to wonder, since all the aliens look alike anyway… does it matter who’s speaking?

    Starman’s the same as Ultraman, right? Kiyo showed me some once, in which Ultraman was battling the evil tiger-scissors, an upright tiger with both arms conjoined as a giant pair of shears, who advanced upon he foe shouting “Scee-ssors!”

    What do you mean, strange?

  4. Ahh, Sir Graves… Lawson J. Deming (1913-2007) is fondly remembered by many of those of us who grew up in the Detroit area back in the late 60′s-early 70s. Kevin, do you remember Tilly Trollhouse? Tilly was Lawson in drag, certainly as horrifying as anything us tykes might see in a horror film. But funny too. Lawson had this weird thing he’d do to entertain the viewers that consisted of a close-up of a mouth filmed upside-down and two eyes and a nose drawn in on the lower lip (that when flipped became the upper lip). The mouth would lip-synch to some inane tune that Sir Grave would dig up from God Knows Where. There’s a picture of Tilly on the website, http://www.sirgravesghastly.com, I had an impossible time trying to get it to cut and paste a while back, but it’s a hoot.

  5. We don’t really have a tradition of horror hosts in the UK. We had to make do with Derek Malcolm on Film Club, “the walking talking Stephen Hawking”. Then there was Alex Cox, who has the joke-shop teeth, and Mark Cousins, who for a while sported a mohawk (since his contract specified “a timeless haircut”, he went out and got the most time-specific haircut he could think of).

  6. kevin mummery Says:

    Guy, the upside-down thing was called Glob, I think…usually he’d lip-synch (or, “upside-down-face-synch”) to King Kong Stomp or some other equally inspiring piece of, uh, music. Easily the highlight of any Sir Graves show, unless he was showing a better than average movie that week. And yes, I remember Tilly Trollhouse, and Baruba, and the whole cast of characters. It’s one of the things I miss about my youth…too bad no one has a DVD of old Sir Graves show available, although maybe Ed Golick knows of one.

  7. The one who escapes me is Cool Ghoul, The “undead” ’50s beatnik who lost everything from the neck down in a motorcycle accident. I would’ve liked to have made his acquaintance, televisually speaking. He does indeed look like a cool ghoul. Looks to me like Deming was having the time of his life back then, as were the rest of us Saturday afternoon monster lovers.

  8. makes me think of the disembodied head who presented Inner Sanctum. Keep meaning to run a picture of him, just ’cause he’s ace.

  9. By all means, please do.

  10. jason hyde Says:

    I want to belong to a race of Michael Goughs, so I will henceforth start growing out my eyebrows and practicing my leering.

    Oddly, I’ve never seen THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, and I have no idea how that happened. It sounds and looks like exactly the sort of movie that I’d watch, proclaim the greatest thing I’d ever seen, then subject everyone around me to it until there’s nobody around anymore.

  11. It doesn’t turn up that often — I don’t think I’d even heard of it. It’s part of a giant 50 film horror box set, but presumably is owned by different people (if anyone actually owns the rights at all) from the other Amicus films which tend to turn up regularly.

    My favourite Goughwork remains the first Hammer Dracula, which I blogged about here. My least fave is probably Batman and Robin, where his scenes with Alicia Silverstone have an unpleasant quality difficult to wash away, and entirely unintentional.

    My old friend Lawrie said Gough was an uncommonly intelligent actor. Not good, necessarily, but intelligent.

  12. kevin mummery Says:

    No Tradition of Horror Hosts in the UK…sounds like a post-punk album title, doesn’t it? You missed out on an unusual experience, David…in many instances the hosts’ were more interesting than the film, and often better actors, too, than those in the films. Especially Lawson Deming, aka Sir Graves Ghastly.

    Please put me down as in favor of the Inner Sanctum floating head, too. How often do we get to see such a thing any more? Especially here!

    I’m often surprised to see Michael Gough in films I don’t usually associate him with. Last month I watched The Horses’ Mouth and The Man In The White Suit, and there he was. More surprising, so was Ernest Thesiger!

  13. Thesiger is fantastic in White Suit, isn’t he? Mackendrick gave the character emphysema as a parody of an Ealing Studios boss — all the characters in the film are caricatures of Ealing personnel. Mackendrick felt there was a kind of awful justice in the fact that he then came down with the illness himself.

    One Inner Sanctum head, coming up!

  14. I’m watching ‘Warning from space’ on TV in Australia RIGHT NOW… well, actually I’m distracted by your very funny comments about Michael Gough et al…. and now inexplicably, I feel the urge to find a copy of ‘Quartermass and the Pit’ aka ’5 Million Years to Earth’….

  15. Well Quatermass is the real deal, a far more intelligent and compelling vision, despite or because of some stiff-upper-lip attitudes that are irretrievably of their time. I like all the Quatermass incarnations, actually. Still to try and delve into the rip-offs like X – the Unknown and The Trollenberg Terror, but I’m gearing up for it.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  16. ARIANNE ULMER CIPES Says:

    To all of my friends, yes that is me in the dub of “Warning from Space.”
    I had not yet married Jay Cipes but knew him from Paris where we had dubbed Cabiria (Fellini) Jay had bought the rights for the US from the son of Jim Molvey (Dodgers) Bud Molvey thru various friendships. He sold it to the O and Os. It was the first dubbed film to be shown on a CBS station. Jay’s company was Cipes and Palmer. What I recall with a chuckle is that I dubbed the film by talking into an empty waste basket to achieve the required reverberating sound of my voice. It was dubbed in New York at Titra and Jay directed. What fun!!!!!

  17. Welcome!

    That’s great to know. I have a dormant yet still officially ongoing project, “Vox”, which is just me trying to figure out who dubbed what. I’d love to pick your brains about it.

  18. ARIANNE ULMER CIPES Says:

    I am still around in LA. Working hard on the Ulmer bio which will be published by University Press 2014, Writer is Noah Isenberg. Are you still trying to figure out who dubbed what?

    Luv Arianne

  19. Hi, Arianne!

    Yes, I just saw Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes and got fascinated by whoever dubbed Serge Gainsbourg’s Scottish accent! It’s a huge and fascinating field. I’d love to get a list of all your dubbing credits, or all you can remember… plus anybody you worked with in those days.

    Ulmer biography must be a fascinating project. Have been looking at Italian horrors lately: a lot of the directors (Argento and Fulci anyway) list Detour as a favourite film, which makes so much sense. Irrational plotting and giant fetishistic closeups of objects to carry the emotion…

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