Howard Hughes / Visual Culture

Under the Radar: Hidden Gems of Sci-Fi Cinema

To coincide with the publication of Outer Limits, Howard Hughes’s new Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-Fiction Films, we asked him to give us his top sci-fi films that may have passed under your radar.

Leviathan (1989)

A slithery international creature feature – filmed at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, Malta and off the Gulf of Mexico – George Pan Cosmatos’ Leviathan (1989) had slimy, aquatic beasts created by Stan Winston. It’s essentially Alien crossed with The Thing, set on a mining operation 16,000 feet under the Atlantic Ocean. As the eight-person crew nears the end of its 90-day shift, the wreck of torpedoed Russian ship ‘Leviathan’ is discovered. The crew bring up the ship’s safe and find a bottle of vodka inside – whoever drinks the vodka (which is contaminated by a ‘genetic alteration’ virus) develops an itchy skin rash, the shivers and mutates into a tentacled, clawed fish-monster that seeks human blood. The whittled-down ensemble cast includes Richard Crenna, RoboCop’s Peter Weller and Max Headroom’s Amanda Pays. The virus enables humans to breathe underwater (a new species dubbed ‘homo aquaticus’) and the ‘Leviathan’ had been deliberately torpedoed and should never have been found. Jerry Goldsmith’s score includes a lush orchestral theme, augmented with whale noises, and the crew is attacked by beasts that variously resemble a giant eel, a tentacle, a wobbly slab of slime, a bubbling boil, a severed arm and a walking, shrieking man-fish. Ridiculously plotted, Leviathan is mounted with grisly élan.

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

Japanese sci-fi cinema might be forever associated with the colossus of Godzilla and the monster movie genre, but it also produced some interesting sci-fi/horror hybrids. Hajime Satō’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) is a high-calibre, wildly offbeat Japanese contribution to the genre. As an Air Japan airliner cruises through a blood-red sky, where there have been reports of a UFO in the vicinity, birds commit splattering suicide by flying into the plane’s windows and a hijacker threatens to blow up the plane. There’s a blinding yellow light and the jet crashes to earth. The survivors find themselves in a desert, but soon things become even stranger when the hijacker is taken over by alien slime, which transforms him into a bloodsucking space vampire. Equal parts Planet of the Vampires, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Flight of the Phoenix, there’s some really oddball happenings and special effects in this one, which produces moments that only occur in the world of cult movies.

Trancers (1985)

A gleeful Blade Runner derivative, Charles Band’s Trancers (1985; aka Future Cop) sent twenty-third-century cop Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) of the ‘Angel City Police Department’ back 300 years into the past, to Los Angeles during Christmas 1985. He’s there to track down master criminal Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), who uses psychic power to turn the weak-willed into zombie-like minions called ‘trancers’. In the past (or ‘down the line’ as it’s known), Deth humorously comments on 1980s Los Angeles culture during his manhunt. This B-classic has a logic all of its own and a snappy script. Part chainsmoking private eye, part hard-nosed Dirty Harry, Deth dispenses pithy observations and enjoys watching Peter Gunn on TV. He beats up hoodlums hassling him in a punk bar, strikes matches on his teeth, drives a T-Bird like a maniac, wears a long mac and slicks back his floppy 1980s hairstyle: ‘Dry hair’s for squids.’ He’s armed with a ‘period’ .38 Special and deploys a device that can create a ‘long second’ (one second stretched to ten) which he uses to evade capture. The film blurs the line between the noirish neon future world and modern Los Angeles. Deth proved so resilient that he reappeared in a bunch of sequels, including Trancers 3: Deth Lives (1992) and Trancers 5: Sudden Deth (1994).

Android (1982)

Aaron Lipstadt’s Android (1982) is one of the most imaginative low-fi sci-fi films of the 1980s, a cut-price antidote to the epic space operas of Lucas and Spielberg. Three escaped convicts land on the Terrapol space station, to hide out while they repair their craft. On the experimental research facility Dr Daniel (Klaus Kinski) and his assistant Max 404 work on the Cassandra One project. The convicts realise that Max 404 is an android, which is beginning to experience ‘human’ emotions as it falls in love with Maggie, one of the convicts. Dr Daniel’s android research has been outlawed and Max discovers that the Cassandra research project is to be terminated – and Max with it. Meanwhile Dr Daniel plans to give life to his female android Cassandra, in echoes of Bride of Frankenstein and Metropolis. The unusual score is a major plus: Don Preston (the mini moog player from Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) provided the film’s synthesiser score, but there are some well-chosen archive cuts too, including ‘Searchin’ for My Love’ by Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces, ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s World’ by James Brown, ‘Heavy Artillery’ by gypsy jazzman Django Reinhardt and the folksy acoustic toe-tapper ‘Sergio Leone’ by Fibonacci. The film wasn’t successful on its release, though it’s since gained a substantial cult following on home media.  The scene where Max jealously sabotages Dr Daniel’s romantic dinner with Maggie (with Kinski left seething) is hilarious.

The Wild, Wild Planet (1965)

Antonio Margheriti was the most talented Italian science-fiction director and his ‘Gamma 1’ tetralogy is his best work in the field. The films – War of the Planets, The Wild Wild Planet, War Between the Planets and The Snow Devils – were released between 1965 and 1967, and are entertaining B-movies. Margheriti’s special effects techniques, sometimes using models, influenced effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. The Wild Wild Planet, by far the best of the quartet, is a brilliantly imaginative comic book space opera that begins terribly, but ends spectacularly. Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) and Lieutenant Connie (Lisa Gastoni) investigate strange goings-on on mysterious planet Delphos, where Professor Nurmi (Massimo Serato) carries out experiments on kidnapped humans. Nurmi aims to create a race of perfect beings, by fusing his body with Connie’s. The film was originally titled I criminali della galassia (The Galaxy Criminals) in Italy and Angelo Lavagnino composed the lush space symphonies, supplemented by ominous horror stylings. This spaced-out movie, showcasing fourarmed space mutants with long macs and shades, inflatable karate-kicking zombie women, groovy space discos, domed space cars and flame-thrower laser guns, ends with Nurmi’s space station being flooded with a destructive tidal wave of blood plasma. The film is available in a great print on DVD from the Warner Archive. And remember: forewarned is four-armed. ■

Outer Limits: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Science-fiction FilmsHoward Hughes’ is the author of our new book Outer Limits: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-fiction Films. His other books include Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood and of the Filmgoers’ Guide series, When Eagles Dared, Cinema Italiano, Crime Wave, Once Upon a Time in the Italian West and Stagecoach to Tombstone. He is contributor to ‘The James Bond Archives’, the official fiftieth anniversary celebration of 007, and writes regularly for film magazine Cinema Retro.

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