Monday, February 2, 2015

Mars Needs Women, Venus Needs Men

Apparently, in the 1960's, several planets in our solar system suffered critical shortages of the opposite sex and looked to the earth to replace their gender-deficient populations. Two films, one made in the US and the other produced in Mexico, relate this type of story with minimal resources and maximum cheese. For an old-school sci-fi fan like myself, who likes nothing better than astronauts who wield .38 police specials instead of laser blasters, wear leather bomber jackets instead of bulky space suits, and pronounce the word for mechanical man as "ro-butt" instead of the correct way that Billy Mumy enunciates it in Lost in Space, movies such as these are wheelhouse material.

La nave de los monstruos (The Ship of Monsters) Directed by Rogelio A. González

Due to an "atomic scourge" that has wiped out all the men on their planet, two fashionable Venusian space ladies are dispatched to bring back males wherever they can find them from around the galaxy. After collecting several species from various worlds and freezing them Han Solo-style in their cargo bay, the aforementioned astro-babes, Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez), along with captured robot, Torr, make an emergency landing on what turns out to be earth.

Meanwhile in Chihuahua, a happy-go-lucky, singing caballero by the name of Lauriano ( Eulalio González aka 'Piporro'), who is on his way home from the local tavern where he has just spent the evening hanging out with his buddies and spinning tall tales, sees what he believes to be a shooting star. He wishes on the star, which is actually a spaceship, for a beautiful woman to love but is surprised when his wish is doubly granted in the form of Gamma and Beta. Of course, complications ensue because "love is meant for two, but for three, it's just French" and a rivalry develops between the Venusian ladies culminating in one of the most outrageous plot developments ever. Like Lauriano's impossible to believe tall tales, this big twist will make no sense whatsoever, except to fans of Mexican cinema, in which case, it will make perfect sense.

The Ship of Monsters is a comedy/romance/sci-fi/adventure romp that succeeds in large part due to the sweet, heartfelt and witty script by José María Fernández Unsáin and Alfredo Varela who understand the film is suppose to be breezy and entertaining but not too dumb. The clever dialogue and efficient writing helps maintain a smooth, quick pace and is quippy from start to finish with an enjoyable story featuring likable characters. The lead, Eulalio González, gets all the best lines as when he discovers the girls aren't from earth and exclaims, "Venusians!? I thought you were just white girls or something." When telling his amigos of the cyclops alien monster he's recently battled, he describes it as "...a monster with just one eye, but nevertheless watchful." And when explaining to Gamma why he won't be able to enlist his skeptical friends to fight the monsters, he states, "If they don't believe my well-crafted lies, they'll believe my ugly truths even less." At times, there's a surprising, enjoyably risque quality to the script especially considering the time of the production was 1960 and the place was socially conservative Mexico. In an early scene when Lauriano tries to suss out if the girls are available, he asks, "Single? Married? I hope you don't swing the other way!" There's also a running gag involving Lauriano's younger, underaged brother, Chuy (Heberto Dávila Jr.), who either gets sent out of the room or has his ears covered by the robot when there is some adult situations or conversation about to transpire.

The trope of aliens being ignorant of love and having to learn from the less intelligent, less evolved earthlings is a common one in 50's sci-fi, but it works very well in The Ship of Monsters because it's not taken deadly serious, but at the same time, the humor doesn't feel strained or clunky either. There's definitely a strong undercurrent of innocent sexuality that runs through the film and manifests itself in the ladies' sexy costumes and the verbal interplay with Lauriano's character. Also, it seems like every character in the film is trying to get their shwerve on including the monsters and the robot.

The enjoyably distinctive monsters include a giant cyclops, Uk, who is very Groot-like; the dwarfish, brain-exposed, prince of Mars, Tagual; the skeletal, Zok, who has evolved beyond the need for physical form (but apparently still requires his bones); and lastly, a big furry, orthodontically-challenged insect thing-y with poisonous pincers. All of them have personalities that are a bit more developed and certainly more slyly humorous than the average low budget, sci-fi/horror creature. The final battle involves all of them, except Zok unfortunately, but still provides a satisfying climax.

That the film is a big wedge of low budget cheese, there is little doubt. Gamma brandishes what is clearly a child's toy gun complete with a visibly open battery cover on the butt end of it. Beta's all-purpose scanner and freeze device is a spray-painted and taped-up cardboard box. The robot is similarly constructed with less than space age technology. But all these shortcomings actually add to the charm and sweetness of the adventure making it into something both children and adults can enjoy. 


Mars Needs Women (1968) directed by Larry Buchanan 

People who are under the mistaken belief that Ed Wood is the worst filmmaker of all time have obviously never seen a Larry Buchanan joint. The self-proclaimed "schlockmeister" didn't make just bad films, he made painfully dull, unwatchable films. He is best known for re-making AIP movies for television including two of my favorite Corman pictures, Day the World Ended (remade as In the Year 2889) and It Conquered the World (remade as Zontar, the Thing from Venus). Buchanan drained everything that made the Corman pics the slightest bit interesting, atmospheric or entertaining on any level and added color photography resulting in two incredibly boring, non-black and white films. In Corman's Day the World Ended, there's a shocking scene involving the Mike Connors' character tossing someone off a cliff. In Buchanan's version, the same character lamely drowns someone in a backyard swimming pool. Corman wasn't the greatest director but at least he'd toss the audience something to sustain interest on occasion. Buchanan sadly lacks that talent completely.
Mars Needs Women is, without a doubt, one of the most evocative titles anyone has ever come up with. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on it in any way. It starts promising enough with various women disappearing while doing normal activities like playing tennis, dining or, my favorite, showering, but quickly loses momentum as it moves to the Decoding Center of a military base which looks suspiciously like an airport restaurant. The cheap, generic, open-to-the-public appearance of the Decoding Center control room in the NASA building is only a portent of crappy set locations to come.

Later on in the film, there will be ugly gas stations, tacky motel rooms and bland high school football bleachers to provide the pulse pounding atmosphere and stunning visuals. When the commanding officer arrives at the Howard Johnsons - er, I mean, Decoding Center - he is given the decoded message "Mars Needs Women". After a ridiculous, heated exchange with an on-site news reporter (?) and a meeting with the Secretary of something or other, the C/O comes to the control room where another message has been received advising of the imminent arrival of the aliens. The leader of the martian expedition, played by Disney kid, Tommy Kirk, appears unceremoniously, and apparently to no one's great surprise, in the decoding room. He explains that due to some DNA problem, there is only one female per one hundred males on Mars and they need to abscond with some earth females. Kirk then disappears and the C/O advises the on-site reporter to relate the story to the world just like any competent military leader would. What follows is a lot of stock footage and needless dialogue that slams the breaks on any momentum gathered by the movie so far. The subsequent arrival of the martians, who look like a 60's pop band consisting of five Young Republican surfers complete with wet suits and headphones, doesn't do anything to help entertainment matters.

Despite the somewhat promising title and set-up, the film devolves pretty quickly. There is way too much faux sci-fi speak dialogue, also courtesy of Larry Buchanan, none of which is funny or interesting in the least. The closest thing to intentional humor concerns one of the martians becoming aggravated by men's ties when they decide to dress incognito. But it's amazing how rarely Buchanan even attempts humor at all. The actors, who are all pretty terrible to begin with, clearly don't have the skills to improv and the script is devoid of any situational comedy. What remains is a lot of people standing around uncomfortably waiting to deliver nonsensical lines consisting mostly of bad pseudo-science jargon. Yvonne Craig of Batgirl fame could have provided a spark but she's criminally underused and doesn't really enter the picture significantly until the last act. Tommy Kirk resembles a P.O.W. reading lines about his captors fair treatment of him for most of the film. None of the supporting martians bring anything to the table either and a promising scene at a strip joint completely fizzles. The ladies that are targeted for abduction hardly get to speak at all. In short, there's no character development and little story to sustain interest.

Mars Needs Women ultimately fails because it's an obvious and cynical cash-in attempt on an intriguing title. It feels very thrown together with minimal thought and effort put in resulting in a lifeless, joyless, choppy yet meandering slog through a barely there story. The Ship of Monsters succeeds, despite a budget commiserate with Buchanan's because it has heart, humor and a fun-loving quality behind the filmmaking.

Final scores:
The Ship of Monsters 6.75
Mars Needs Women 2.25