THE BOOTLEG FILES: “VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET”

BOOTLEG FILES 136: “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (1965 recycling of a 1962 Soviet sci-fi romp).

LAST SEEN: Available online at Public Domain Torrents.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A stinkeroo.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: We’ll sooner see the USSR make a comeback.

Recycling is a noble endeavor, except when it comes to movies. And when it comes to “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet,” recycling can actually create more waste.

“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” is an unhealthy, unreal hodgepodge of bad Soviet filmmaking crippled by bad American filmmaking – proving the warring Cold War superpowers actually shared something in common. It also provides a lethal lesson on the dangers in giving more attention to something that never deserved the spotlight in the first place.

This story actually begins in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg) as a sci-fi adventure called “Planeta Burg” (“Planet of Storms”). If you think all Soviet sci-fi is like “Solaris,” forget it. “Planeta Burg” is the Soviet equivalent of Ed Wood: cheesy special effects, nonexistent plot development and an overall sense of mild incoherence. However, the film was made in 1962 at the height of the space race and thus anything with an outer space theme was considered watchable at the time.

“Planeta Burg” somehow made it to England, where British actors dubbed the soundtrack. Call it providence or bad timing, but Roger Corman stumbled into a London cinema showing the film (now called “Cosmonauts on Venus”) and decided it would be a perfect pick-up for American release. And, without much fanfare, the British-dubbed version was briefly shown in the U.S.

However, Corman belatedly decided that “Planeta Burg” needed some Americanizing. He threw out the British dubbed soundtrack in favor of a new American version and hired Curtis Harrington to direct new scenes featuring an American cast. The resulting “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” did the impossible by taking the Russian mess and making it even worse.

The film opens in the year 2020 when the nations of the world are working in harmony (yeah, right!) to forge new routes into space. To borrow a line from a 60s pop tune, everyone’s gone to the moon – so Venus is the next logical destination since it is (according to the film’s narrator) the closest environment similar to Earth.

Three spaceships (played by toy spaceships floating on wires) are heading to Venus when one gets hit by a meteor and blows up. In the spirit that NASA displays whenever tragedy strikes, the surviving space jockeys pause for a moment to look concerned and then carry on as if nothing happened. One rocket consists of two astronauts named Kern and Sherman, who blast off to Venus in a smaller auxiliary craft with their trusted automaton, Robot John. This metallic being looks a lot like Robbie the Robot from the 1956 MGM classic “Forbidden Planet,” and it boasts a backside which is second only to Jennifer Lopez for sheer circumference.

Left behind on their orbiting spacecraft is Marsha, who appears to be wandering about in a narcotized buzz. Marsha is played by Faith Domergue, in whom Howard Hughes once put a lot of faith and cash to become a major star. The fact she wound up doing movies like this will give you an idea of how wrong Howard Hughes was.

Kern, Sherman and Robot John land on Venus but lose contact with Marsha. Marsha consults with the big honcho on Moon HQ. He’s played by 73-year-old Basil Rathbone, who is arguably the oldest man in space. Rathbone keeps company on the moon with two very pretty young men, which may look a bit funny to today’s jaded viewers.

The third spacecraft (remember them?) decides to go to Venus in search of their missing comrades. This team is lead by one Commander Lockhart (who walks around the spacecraft grooming himself with an electric razor) and the boyishly raucous Hans and Andre.

Well, Venus is not what it is cracked up to be. We discover that Kern, Sherman and Robot John survived (or at least the men did – the automaton has to be reassembled since he was shipped to the planet in a box). Alas, they are greeted by creatures who look like men in lizard suits. A brief fight and a few zaps of a ray gun eliminate those pests. As for the others, Andre nearly gets devoured by a giant plant.

Since they are separated by long stretches of Venusian terrain, the astronauts decide it makes sense to meet somewhere in the middle. Kern, Sherman and Robot John walk across the planet – and Robot John helpfully plays some music on his built-in jukebox to make the journey pleasant. The other team have a floating car that travels at roughly 4 mph. It also floats across a Venusian sea, but when a giant pterodactyl attacks them the astronauts literally pull a plug that submerges the craft. They are safe from airborne attack, but now have to carry the vehicle across the floor of the sea.

Throughout this madness, the film cuts back to Marsha, who is clearly the least competent woman in the universe (she gets so excited at times that she forgets to give proper instructions to her stranded comrades). Occasionally we check in with Basil Rathbone and the boys, who have their own crises (including an ill-timed electric malfunction).

There are also a couple of brontosauruses (don’t ask how they wound up on Venus), the mysterious sound of a woman’s siren song that gives Andre a near-erection, and a volcano that claims the life of Robot John when the big metal man carries Kern and Sherman across a lava bed before he melts into scrap iron.

Having not seen “Planeta Burg,” I cannot say how much of the dialogue was changed. What is obvious from the Soviet footage, however, is the utter poverty of imagination within that work. The special effects are atrocious – the pterodactyl, in particular, has to be seen to be believed – and even the most basic tricks are lost to the Soviet filmmakers (the underwater sequences were obviously shot by having the actors stand in back of a large fish tank).

But the American meddling doesn’t help. The dialogue is inane, and the inability to loop the dubbing properly gives the film an extra boost of nonsense. Having washed-up stars like Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue spice the casserole – Rathbone is visibly embarrassed to be here while the hopelessly confused Domergue (sporting a hairdo resembling a wasp’s nest) is obviously reading her lines from cue cards.

Not surprising, Curtis Harrington (who previously directed the highly-regarded Dennis Hopper flick “Night Tide”) was displeased with the result and took a pseudonymous credit in the final print. In fact, all of the Russians in this flick were equally misidentified – everyone was given new American names. Roger Corman didn’t even bother putting his name on the film.

“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” had a brief theatrical run in August 1965 before being dumped into TV markets. For years, it was a staple of late night monster movie programming.

However, Corman wasn’t done with the original Russian footage. He once more had a new soundtrack recorded and hired young Peter Bogdanovich to shoot new scenes featuring a race of gorgeous Venusian women wearing sea shell bikinis (Mamie Van Doren played their leader). The result of that was “Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women,” but Bogdanovich shared Harrington’s shame and took a pseudonym for screen credit.

“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” fell into the public domain and has been circulating for years in cheap bootleg dupes taken from a 16mm print. The DVD bootleg I have is faded and scratchy throughout, but the degradation of color actually creates amusing effects (the astronauts look clay grey at times while Marsha looks as pale as a Noh mask).

All told, “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” was a trip that was not necessary.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on June 30, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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