Space Oddity

Androids with four arms! Curvaceous, lifelike inflatable women! Bald interplanetary kidnappers dressed in dark raincoats and wearing shades! Human mutants and laboratory rejects! A bizarre space-age cabaret where all of the performers are dressed as giant butterflies! These are just a few of the sights you’ll see on The Wild, Wild Planet (1966), a groovy Italian science-fiction adventure directed by Antonio Margheriti. 

The Italian film poster for THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966)

The outrageous premise has Dr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato) attempting to create a race of super beings on Delphos, a planet owned by “The Corporation.” To achieve this goal, Nurmi has instructed his minions to kidnap top scientists and athletes from Earth for experiments. The abductions, which are accomplished by shrinking the victims and placing them in specially created suitcases, are soon traced to Delphos. When Gamma I Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) eventually leads an expedition there, he not only learns of Nurmi’s master plan but also discovers that his girlfriend, Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni), is going to be fused together with Nurmi in a procedure that will produce one all-perfect being.

One of the many bizarre images from the 1966 Italian science fiction adventure THE WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Wild, Wild Planet, which was released in Italy as I Criminali Della Galassia, was part of a quartet of sci-fi tales produced and directed by Antonio Margheriti (identified in the credits as Anthony Dawson). The other films are War of the Planets, Planet on the Prowl (aka Battle Between the Planets) and Snow Devils and they were originally made for Italian television and utilized the same sets and props while recycling some of the music scored by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino.

The crew of Gamma I chart a course to Delphos in the sci-fi fantasy THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

According to Margheriti in an interview with Peter Blumenstock for Video Watchdog in 1994, “The first two [The Wild, Wild Planet, War of the Planets] went theatrical in the States through MGM, because they were co-produced in association with Joseph Fry and Walter Manley. Manley still manages to sell them, which I find astonishing. The intent was to do two for American TV and two for theatrical distribution in the States. The Italian co-producer had the pictures almost for free for Italy, and since Italian television was not as strong back then, he just gave it a try and released all four movies to the cinemas. They enjoyed a brief theatrical release. It was a series called FANTASCINEZA. For everybody involved, it was a fun project, without any real stories or ideas, and the end results look exactly like that…science fiction films were not very common in those days and the audience appreciated a change. However, I think that’s only true for real film buffs. The mainstream audience would only regard them as camp, at best.”

The Gamma I team relax by the pool between missions in THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966) starring (from left to right) Tony Russel, Carlo Giustini & Lisa Gastoni.

Of the sci-fi quartet that Margheriti directed, The Wild, Wild Planet is easily the most bizarre and entertaining of the lot. First of all, consider the dialogue. In one scene, Connie catches Dr. Nurmi ogling her to which he replies, “I was admiring your physique. The human body is my specialty, my area of exploration. I would be enchanted to explore – your mind. Can we have dinner together?” Nurmi delivers plenty of other howlers but he’s bested by Mike who makes big statements like “I’m a person, not a collection of hunks of meat” and is fond of using “helium head” as his insult of choice. When he’s really mad, he might say something like, “Why, you helium-headed IDIOT, you!” Then, there’s his frantic command to his men while they are battling karate trained alien women – “Watch out for those gadgets on their chests!” Actually, those gadgets are deflators so you can imagine the outcome of this scene.

Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel, left) takes action against alien forces in THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

Equally nutty is the post-Jetsons set design and the special effects, or should we say the lack of them? The sequence where Nurmi shows Mike his private chamber of mutants is like a mass audition by bad makeup artists – there’s a guy with a pig nose, a woman with a serious case of silly putty and so on. A more effective scene is when one of the kidnappings goes awry and the victim is only partially shrunk, rendering him a midget. Other high points include a trip to the body part factory – see the lovely display of red lungs, breathing independently – and the climactic destruction of Nurmi’s lair, which is submerged in a raging flood of red liquid.

A young Franco Nero has a supporting role in the Italian space opera THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

Part of the film’s charm today is the futuristic space pop score by the great Italian composer Angela Francesco Lavagnino, who didn’t think too much of the music he created for Margheriti’s sci-fi quartet. He would prefer to be remembered for the scores to the documentary Lost Continent (Continente Perduto, 1955), Legend of the Lost (1957) or Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight aka Falstaff (1965) among the more than 200 movies he scored. Still, Lavagnino’s music for The Wild, Wild Planet is surprisingly lush and romantic with an exotic lounge music vibe in the tradition of Les Baxter. You might still be able to find the CD featuring highlights from Margheriti’s sci-fi quartet.

Another fun aspect of watching The Wild, Wild Planet is seeing iconic older generation Italian actors like Massimo Serato mixing it up with younger up-and-coming talent like Lisa Gastoni and Franco Nero, who was on the verge of becoming an international star with the release of Camelot (1967) the next year. Serato was a familiar presence in numerous historical dramas and sword and sandal epics such as El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963) and The Revolt of the Seven (1964). He would later pop up in such cult favorites as The 10th Victim (1965), Camille 2000 (1969) and The Killer Nun (1979). As for Lisa Gastoni, she would soon graduate from genre films to more sensual adult roles such as her critically acclaimed performance in Salvatore Semperi’s Grazia Zia (1968) and Submission (1976) opposite Franco Nero.

Italian actress Lisa Gastoni in a publicity photo for THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

Today, director Margheriti is probably best known to U.S. viewers for his gothic horror thrillers from the golden age of Italian horror such as Horror Castle, Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death, all starring scream queen Barbara Steele. He also dabbled in spaghetti westerns (And God Said to Cain, 1970), Peplum epics (Hercules, Prisoner of Evil, 1964) and crime dramas (Death Rage, 1976). But his sci-fi genre efforts are gradually acquiring a new generation of fans as more of them emerge on Blu-ray and DVD such as Killer Fish (1979) and Cannibals in the Street (1980).

Italian director Antonio Margheriti

When The Wild, Wild Planet opened in the U.S., Variety gave the movie a surprisingly favorable review noting, “Ivan Reiter’s script has some interesting angles but they’re generally subjugated to the stress on action, of which there is plenty. Particularly outstanding is a free-for-all between some of the scientist-spacemen and some female agents of the villain. The girls, evidently well trained in judo and karate, give the big, husky males a real working over before they’re subdued….A better-than-average programmer which should lend solid support to any adventure action double bill and a natural or the matinee-kiddie crowd.”

Alien invaders in miniature form are secretly smuggled into enemy territory in THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

A more recent assessment of the film comes from David Cairns of Shadowplay who wrote, “Who needs drugs? The sterile dubbing, stiff performances, ludicrous futuristic dancing (a favourite sf movie trope), preposterous props, costumes and makeup (the girl with the coordinated eyeshadow and binoculars was a nice touch) induce all the confusion, alienation and gnawing anxiety you could ever hope to achieve with the ill-advised ingestion of petroleum byproducts or poisonous berries.” Is that good or bad? I’m not sure but I know it would make me want to see it if I hadn’t already.

A strange nightclub act in the futuristic world of THE WILD, WILD PLANET (1966).

The Wild, Wild Planet was released as a DVD-R with no extra features in December 2010 by the Warner Archive Collection and is sorely in need of a Blu-ray upgrade. Maybe Arrow Films could release a box set of Antonio Margheriti’s sci-fi films from the sixties. Wouldn’t that be some pie in the sky?

Other links of interest:

http://wconnolly.blogspot.com/2009/11/tony-russel-in-space.html

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