Once upon a time (well, 1962) a film studio in the USSR released a science fiction film named Planeta Bur. The film dealt with the tribulations of a group of cosmonauts travelling to the sun’s second planet, because Americans are from Mars, and Russians are from Venus. The cosmonauts face the customary monsters and environmental hazards, but leave the planet safely, mission accomplished. The film boasted excellent special effects for the time and was well received by its home audience. Normally, that would be that, but something altogether more American happened to Planeta Bur.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Angela GeorgeIn the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet film could no more find an American distributor than Isis could book a recruiting film for a commercial break during the Superbowl, but all those reels of prime special effects proved irresistible. Enter B-movie king Roger Corman, who directed and produced scores of films during the 1950s and 1960s, mostly aimed at drive-ins, Saturday matinees and cheap TV package deals. Corman bought the film at a snip, took chunks of the Russian footage, redubbed the dialogue into English, added new footage starring Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue, and released the resulting chop suey into theatres in 1965 as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. Rathbone and Domergue played the station commander and communications chief of the Venus expedition, monitoring the astronauts’ progress (in reality, clips of the original Russian film) from their base back on Earth.
This method of cutting up films from non-English speaking countries and releasing versions more acceptable to American audiences was common practice at the time, with producers such as Jerry Warren and K Gordon Murray specializing in the ‘art’. Perhaps the most famous example is the original Godzilla film, made in Japan in 1954 but released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in the US in 1956, with footage removed, and new scenes filmed starring Raymond Burr inserted at various points in the narrative.
A few years later, and Corman decided Planeta Bur hadn’t suffered enough and made another version, removing the Rathbone and Domergue scenes but keeping the re-dubbed Russian and special effects footage. New scenes shot created a different story from the one seen in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Corman gave the job of directing and supervising the project, to a newly discovered talent, Peter Bogdanovitch.
Three years before the double Oscar-winning The Last Picture Show (1971) and a directorial career taking in What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Nickelodeon (1976) and Mask (1985), Bogdanovitch assembled a small cast and shot for five days around the caves and rock pools of Leo Carillo Beach in southern California. Finding this new footage made no sense when added to the redubbed scenes of Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Bogdanovitch added narration of his own, and so the opening two-and-a-half minutes of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women consist of Bogdanovitch talking over shots of rocket ships and space stations (excessive narration at the start of a cheap film is as much a warning sign as an opening chapter of fan fiction written in italics).
Although Bogdanovtich credited for his narration, 'Derek Francis’, a pseudonym, receives the director's credit. The film’s DVD releases often trump up Bogdanovitch’s directorial contribution to boost sales, his input amounts to less than 15 minutes of the 78 minute running time, with the surviving Russian scenes directed by Pavel Klushantsev. The actors who appeared in Planeta Bur are again given Western-sounding names. Half the people named in the credits do not exist!
The action takes place in the far-off scary space year of 1998. We enjoy some wonderful effects Credit: Wikimedia Commons/NASAshots of a rocketship launch, and meet the staff of MARSHA supervising the take-off. We’ll hear a lot of talk about MARSHA during the film; we’re told it’s the space agency’s codename, but Marsha was Faith Domergue’s character’s name in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and with Corman too cheap to redub the already dubbed footage, Bogdanovitch had to work around the existing dialogue. Whatever MARSHA’s providence, the staff roll of mission control, as often with films shot in the early years of the space age, is around seven people, one of whom is solely in charge of the on-ship air-conditioning.
The crew, astronaut Howard Sherman (Ralph Phillips, known to his friends as Yuriy Sarantsev), Captain Alfred Kern (James David, aka Georgiy Teykh), and a robot named John, who resembles the robot from Fireball XL5 after a few months at the gym. They guide the ship to a space station halfway between Earth and Venus to refuel. The science buffs among you will balk at the word ‘refuel’, but Russian ships can defy the laws of physics, with fuel-sapping fiery rockets burning at full blast in the vacuum of space. This is another common mistake in space films of the time, along with the notion that a ship can take off any old time to another planet when, given a ship traverses space using gravity, momentum, and planetary motion, the timing of a launch is critical.
Another fallacy shown here is that astronauts landing on a neighboring planet would have no knowledge of surface conditions. During entry into the atmosphere of Venus, our astronauts here express shock when, as they penetrate the planet’s thick clouds, they see mountains, severe weather, a ‘prehistoric’ landscape and the water upon which the ship attempts to land only, it seems, to be lost. Unknown landing conditions were the case for the ocean-faring voyagers mentioned in Bogdanovitch’s narration, but such a space mission now would possess a plethora of information as guidance (not in 1962 of course, but even by 1998, extensive maps existed of the surface of Venus).
Listening to all this at MARSHA is the back-up crew, Commander Billy Lockhart (Roberto Martelli/ Vladimir Yemelyanov), and astronauts Hans Walters (Murray Gerard/Georgi Zhzhyonov) and, our narrator, Andre Freneau (Aldo Romani/Gennadi Vernov, the voice of Peter Bogdanovitch – I hope you’re keeping up with all this). The three blast-off on a rescue mission, so we get a repeat of the rocket launch sequences, and the same pit-stop as their comrades, I mean, colleagues, made earlier on. Kerns and Sherman are still alive on Venus, but only just, surviving an attack by lizard people, who resemble the Gorn captain from the Star Trek episode ‘Arena’. The two astronauts patch up their damaged robot and shoot as many of the lizard people as possible and then carry on their expedition, oblivious to their making contact with an alien species for perhaps the first time in human history.
Freneau, now narrating, muses on Venus taking its name from the goddess of beauty, in a tone of voice suggesting Bogadanovitch enjoyed the Beat Poets, as the rescue craft lands. The trio hear a strange high-pitched whining over their radio, which Freneau claims is a human voice singing. They venture out into the rock-strewn, craggy landscape, where one of the astronauts tests an icky-looking pool of water by sticking his hand into it, and Freneau is lucky to survive an encounter with a giant man-eating (Venusian-eating?) plant, which looks like it fell off the back of a Bulbasaur. Lockhart and Walters rescue their friend and laugh off the incident as they climb aboard an adorable floating space car and set off to find the first party.
Sherman and Kerns are in trouble though, falling foul of the vicious Venusian rainstorms. They shelter in a cave and collapse through illness and fatigue. John administers first aid, by way of a tablet the size of a horse pill and pouring water over Kerns’ face. Sherman mutters about “dearest Marsha”, leading the uninitiated to think Sherman had a passionate affair with the entire organization, even the air-conditioning guy.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/The Filmgroup/Roger Corman ProductionsMeanwhile, Lockhart’s team hear the singing voice again and the new Bogdanovitch footage kicks in. On a rocky shore, we see a group of sleeping blonde women who, with their tight, waist-hugging flared trousers and sea-shell brassieres, look as if the cast of Godspell had decided to produce The Little Mermaid. Moana (Mamie Van Doren), their leader, calls them to wake; I say ‘call’, but with Corman unwilling to pay for on-set sound, all the Gillwomen’s dialogue comes through as post-production telepathy. The girls breakfast on a kind of extreme sushi, chomping lumps out of raw fish, until a flying reptile, looking like a third-grade science project model of a pterodactyl, flaps haphazardly above; this is Terah, current god of the Gillwomen, and this, the gals tell us, is one angry god.
Terah is given further reason act the grump when Freneau’s team shoot it out of the sky, just to put the dumb-looking beast out of its suffering. The Gillwomen (in scenes filmed, we should not forget, six years later and thousands of miles away) find Terah’s body washed up on the shore and pray at their statue of him. The Gillwomen decide an invading demon killed Terah; an attendant places a chef’s hat on Moana who swears vengeance (not on the hat, but on Terah’s killers).
The rescue party are now under the sea, due to damage sustained during Terah’s attack due to its strings getting entangle in the craft’s radar dish. Exploring the depths, a small, smooth rock draws André to pocket it, perhaps to keep as a pet. Once back on land, our merry rescuers stop to build a campfire and chat about the possible life-forms Venus may sustain, forgetting about the monsters they encountered earlier, on indeed the purpose of their rescue mission.
The Gillwomen pray to their fire god to ask it to destroy the intruders. Happy to oblige, the fire god causes a volcanic eruption. Back at the cave, our two original astronauts decide this is a not a good chance to run for the hills, but an excellent opportunity to collect lava samples, and John has to bail them out by letting the humans hitch a ride on his back as he wades through the magma to safety. The extreme heat causes John to malfunction and come down with a case of the HAL 9000s, as he tries to dump the freeloading humans into the lava. There follows some horribly edited reaction shots as Kerns and Sherman deactivate the robot and make it to solid ground. John is swept away by the volcanic flow in a scene we’re somehow meant to find touching, but is as tear-jerking as watching a broken refrigerator being taken away to the local dump.
Lockhart’s team finally rescues Kerns and Sherman and the five astronauts arrive back at camp. The team share a special moment when one astronaut, produces a picture of his baby triplets, inexplicably named ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’. Given the issues with names in this film, '1', '2' and '3' might be the lucky ones.
The Gillwomen discover the crud-encrusted remains of John while the astronauts return to the remaining rocket ship. The women this time prey to Terah for inclement weather which they hope will destroy the ‘demon invaders’. The subsequent rain is so severe it causes landslides and crevasses, threatening the planned take-off. In desperation, André smashes his pet rock against a recalcitrant piece of equipment, and the rock falls to pieces, revealing a small white bust of a humanoid woman – proof Venus sustained a civilization at some time. André takes this as proof his singing voice is real and wants to stay behind for a cute-meet, but the other astronauts haul him aboard and the ship takes off.
With this blot on his posthumous CV, The Gillwomen adjudge Terah as a false god and fling rocks at his statue until it tumbles to the ground. They appoint the deactivated robot their new god and much good it may do them.
As the movie ends, André narrates the news that while Man is now preparing to travel to Mars and Jupiter, he hopes to return to Venus to meet his mystery songstress, or die trying. Given we never found out who the mysterious voice belonged to, we can only wish our friend well in his search.
When you consider the material presented to Bogdanovitch, it’s a minor miracle Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women makes any sense at all. As the Gillwomen and the astronauts fail to share a single shot together, it soon becomes obvious filming took place at different times, though whether viewers in 1968 guessed where the original footage came from is harder to guess. The Bogdanovitch sequences work up to a hippy-ish vibe, like some low-key short on yoga or surfing, but the colors are so washed out, and the sound so lacking, as to stifle any attempt at atmosphere. The Russian sequences look great, but the menace offered by the inserted Gillwomen characters is too vague, and their dubbed dialogue too awkward, for the viewer to care much either way.
Despite Bogdanovitch’s best efforts, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is a second-rate second effort at a film perfectly good in its original form. The opening narration concluded with Bogdanovitch informing the audience that one day, people will look upon this film as we might look upon film of the first pioneers crossing the Great Plains in their covered wagons. Our narrator is assuming an awful lot in thinking people will want to watch Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women in 2068, but then again in 2014 we’re halfway there and still watching films like this, so maybe the laugh’s on us.
The only recognizable name out of a no-star cast is Mamie Van Doren, who plays the leader ofCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Light the Gillwomen. Originally touted by Universal as the next Marilyn Monroe, or failing that, the next Jayne Mansfield, van Doren found her way into movie bit-parts in the early 1950s off the back of her relationship with Howard Hughes. Despite the studio’s early hopes, Universal did not offer the roles van Doren felt she deserved and left the company in 1956, becoming a staple of the then infamous ‘reform school’ films, such as Untamed Women (1957), Girls Town (1958), High School Confidential (1959) and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). After some lowbrow comedies such as 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964) and The Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), van Doren starred in The Navy vs. The Night Monsters, about killer carnivorous plants attacking an Antarctic naval base, a film every bit as good as this description makes it sound. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women was her last film appearance of any note, and van Doren turned to Las Vegas and the stage shortly afterwards. Now aged 83, van Doren remains a popular figure among B-movie fans and is as happy to pose for professional glamour photographers today as in her Fifties heyday.