By Hank Reineke
I admit to having a hard time understanding Corinth’s curious repackaging of three monochrome 1950s sci-fi films. Putting together this triad of films – all previously released as single discs from the label
Wade Williams Collection – seems to make sense on a level. We will discuss later. But for the record this DVD of Drive-In Retro Classics: Triple Sci-Fi Feature brings together such disparate Silver Age favorites as Kurt Neumann Rocket XM (1950), Nathan H. Juran’s The brain of planet Arous (1958) and Robert Clarke The hideous sun demon (1959).
Although he had nothing to do with the production of any of the films listed above, Wade Williams served as a curator of the analog and digital legacies of many 1950s sci-fi and horror titles. Although Williams aspires to be a filmmaker himself, the titles appearing in the “Wade Williams Collection” are exactly that – films from his collection. Williams had cautiously purchased the rights to a set of mostly moribund ’50s sci-fi movies and TV shows from estates, studios, or producers/other owners. This latter category would include films produced by names such as George Pal, Jack Broder, Harry M. Popkin and Richard Rosenfeld.
This decision to sell their interests was an understandable (but ultimately bad) business decision on the part of the original rights holders. But it was the early 1970s and television stations – now the only outlet that continued to provide a trickle of revenue for those old films – were abandoning their creaky old black-and-white libraries for color television programming. Few people in Hollywood could have anticipated the cash flow that the home video revolution would bring in just a few years.
To be fair, Williams was a fan of those old sci-fi movies, not just a lucky speculator. Growing consumer interest in home video products has allowed Williams to capitalize on its cautious purchases. The first VHS videocassettes of the “Wade Williams Collection” were released as early as the late 1970s, primarily by companies such as Nostalgia Merchant and Starlog Video. In 1999, Williams partnered with Image Entertainment, with the latter dressing new DVDs in brightly colored covers. These sleeves partly concealed the fact that the films contained inside were old black and white films. Sci-fi newbies unfamiliar with the history of atomic-age sci-fi movies might have felt cheated by this creative – albeit somewhat deceitful – marketing.
But for those of us in the know, Williams’ outings have been a godsend. We were the old-school sci-fi aficionados, semi-aging folks who first saw the movies at matinee theaters in the 50s or fuzzy late-night TV shows in the 60s. . We no longer had to order goofy prints from old television screenings peddled by underground sellers advertising in the back pages of cult film magazines. When Laserdisc and DVD releases supplanted VHS tapes in presentation quality, Williams’ catalog was also presented in new formats.
It should be noted that Williams has also been, somewhat ungracefully, the target of criticism – often portrayed as a proverbial villain – over the past two decades by some collectors. As the rights holder of so many treasured classic – and not-so-classic – vintage sci-fi films, Williams, just under eighty, has been hesitant in recent years to release the films on Blu-ray. His reasoning for not doing, while disappointing, is solid. Responding to criticism over its catalog management, Williams offered Home Theater Forum contributors online while physical media sales remained strong, “streaming, downloading, Amazon Prime, Netflix and TCM are the remaining outlets for classic films.”
He also noted that restorations were expensive undertakings. Considering public domain issues, the problem of outright smuggling and YouTube copy-paste piracy, there was no longer any chance of breaking even – much less profiting – from such a venture. It was a practical and understandable real-world estimate – but a disappointing answer for those who preferred to store their home video libraries with physical media.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Drive-In Retro Classics: Triple sci-fi functionality. Given the history of the series’ format, the natural progression would have been to see these films released on Blu ray; to revisit them in enhanced remasters with a dollop of special marked bonus materials. But, alas, this is not the case. Instead Drive-In Retro Classics: Triple Sci-Fi Feature features a total of three films, with a total running time of 222 minutes, all squished onto a single disc. There are no special features, no new scans from better stuff, no new bells or whistles of any kind. So buyer beware.
OK, with all that history out of the way, I offer, for the uninitiated at least, a brief overview of the Corinthian set films:
In The brain of planet Arous, Steve Marsh (John Agar), a technician for the United States Atomic Energy Commission, becomes the unwitting host of an alien named Gor. Gor is an evil, levitating cerebellum with half-moon eyes who desires to rule as “Master of the Universe”. He aspires to make all the peoples of the earth his slaves. The alternative is “death by intense radiation”. Land is only one stop in this quest… and he makes the most of the visit. Through his manipulation of his hypnotized subjugate Marsh, Gor unleashes a series of attacks on military bases and warplanes.
Gor convinces the cowering American generals to call a summit with the other six nuclear powers of the earth, demanding that all nations submit to his terms…or else. All seems lost until Vol, a much more sympathetic levitating second brain from Arous, arrives in Indian Springs to offer advice. Vol explains that the only way to stop the renegade Gor is to attack the creature’s only weak point, by hitting Rolando’s brain fissure. But can Marsh’s girlfriend Sally (Joyce Randolph) and George the dog get this important information to Marsh in time?
The hideous sun demon is the tour de force of actor/writer/producer Robert Clarke. Clarke plays Dr. Gilbert McKenna, a “dark scientist” exposed to a type of radiation “much more dangerous than cosmic rays”. This turns out to be an unwelcome turn of events as such exposure triggered a reverse evolution of his DNA, turning him into the Hideous Sun Demon, a bipedal half-human half-reptile. The film is sort of a reversal of the werewolf. Clarke’s transformation is not triggered by the rising of the full moon but by exposure to sunlight. When he’s not wandering around Los Angeles and Santa Monica at night, McKenna sulks, drinks a lot of whiskey, and hangs out at a seedy nightclub where he listens to a buxom blonde tickle the ivories and sing moody jazz numbers. like “Strange Desire”. Maybe Little Orphan Annie wishes the sun came up tomorrow, but that’s bad news for McKenna.
In XM RocketAmerica prepares an elegant spaceship for takeoff. The rocket is to carry a team of scientists – including a thirty-year-old Lloyd Bridges – on a mission to the moon. Unfortunately, a combination of miscalculations and an untimely meteor shower forces the craft off course. Space travelers instead land on Mars where, to their surprise, they discover the ruins of an ancient civilization. They are received in an unwelcoming manner, targeted by a band of stone-throwing Martian Neanderthals. Although they quickly and wisely abandon the Red Planet for a return trip, they encounter yet another problem. Is there enough fuel in the craft’s supply tanks to get them home safely?
Of the three films in this set, only XM Rocket strives for loftier visions and high production values. Theobold Holsopple’s production designs are imaginative and iconic. The special effects work of Don Stewart, IA Block and Jack Rabin is of a similar caliber, especially considering the era in which the film was produced.
To conclude: the best thing I can say about this new DVD release is that it brings those movies back in print, making them more easily accessible to new consumers. No more scouring thrift stores or paying fifty-dollar “collector” prices for the now-rare original single-disc DVDs released two decades ago. But when we learn that the MSRP of the Corinth version is $29.95… well, that price seems a bit steep. But I’m sure the MSRP probably won’t be the actual asking price when the disc hits online retail outlets.
I would be remiss if I did not mention at least one title, The brain of the Planet Arous, Reportedly being readied for Blu-ray release by another home video company known for bringing attention to overlooked films. This future Blu issue, scheduled for release in the summer of 2022, promises a new restoration, audio commentary, booklet and a special bonus documentary. Some may therefore choose a wait-and-see approach before betting on Retro drive-in classics.
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