War of the Planets / The Deadly Diaphanoids / Diaphanoids, Bringers of Death / I Diafanoidi Portano la Morte / I Diafanoidi Vengono da Marte (1965/1966) **
In 1965, MGM entered into partnership with the Italian Mercury Film International to produce a series of science fiction movies for television release. The idea was for something along the lines of a “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” for the 60’s, and the tenor of the production had much more in common with that of a TV show than it did with that of a regular film. The scripts were to be connected, and major economies were to be realized by sharing sets, props, costumes, and cast members among the four movies. (Actually, in the case of the actors, it might be better to say that the Gamma 1 series employed two parallel casts, although several of the supporting players appear in three or four entries apiece.) The shooting schedule was almost insanely cramped (again in the manner of a television series), with just three months allocated to the whole tetralogy. All things considered, Antonio Margheriti (generally credited in the English-language versions of his films as Anthony M. Dawson) was the natural man to direct the series; not only did he have a number of sci-fi movies under his belt by 1965, he had brought in his first film as a director, Assignment Outer Space, in a mere twenty days, for an impressively low total cost of $30,000. Between Margheriti’s instinctive efficiency, the inherently low overhead incurred by shooting in Italy, and the numerous economy measures built into the production by the studio’s careful planning, the folks at Mercury were able to surprise their American partners with a package of films that looked slick enough to release in theaters, and MGM decided to do just that. Mercury, too, knew a good thing when they saw it, and followed suit. The first of the bunch, The Wild, Wild Planet, may not have been an enormous success, but it is nevertheless an iconic example of a subgenre that is all too often ignored. The first two sequels, alas, are rather less effective, relying on stock science fiction scenarios which were showing their age in a most unflattering manner by the mid-1960’s. The series would regain its footing with the final entry, however, countering a remarkable lack of technical accomplishment with one of the daffiest premises ever put forward with a straight face.
The old 50’s commonplace that gets dusted off for War of the Planets is that of the body-stealing alien hive-mind. It’s New Year’s Eve, and most people’s attention is on other things when Captain Jack Dubois (Carlo Giustini, returning as a different character from the one he had played in The Wild, Wild Planet) reports for his shift as the officer of the watch at the headquarters of the United Democracies Space Command. He never assumes his post, however, for no sooner has his driver dropped him off at the base than he is set upon by what looks like a cloud of glowing, green steam and evidently possessed. Meanwhile, the officer whom Dubois was supposed to be relieving is hearing reports of strange goings on in the vicinity of Space Station Delta 2. The station staff have been seeing odd green lights blinking out in space, communications between headquarters and Delta 2 are hampered by unusual interference, and the Geiger counters aboard the station are giving readings that ought to be impossible. The captain dismisses the lights and the accompanying interference as the effects of “space aurora,” and attributes the Geiger readings to equipment malfunction. Then he and his staff settle in to observe the festivities aboard Space Station Gamma 1, where Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel, reprising his Wild, Wild Planet role) is pulling out all the stops to commemorate the new year with, among other things, a ludicrous display of zero-g acrobatics. Gamma 1 is overrun with guests of the crew, and such an orgy of go-go dancing, micro-miniskirts, drinking, and party streamers would not be seen again until The X from Outer Space.
The party— along with Halstead’s efforts to cheat on his girlfriend, communications officer Lieutenant Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni, also returning from The Wild, Wild Planet)— is interrupted, however, when Delta 2 sends out an all-frequencies distress call, reporting an attack by tens of thousands of insubstantial enemies. General Halstead (Massimo Serato, from The Loves of Hercules and Women in Cell Block 7, who had played Dr. Nurmi in the previous movie), Mike’s father and commander in chief of the UD military, orders all of the space stations in his jurisdiction cleared of civilians, and dispatches a Jupiter-class rocket cruiser under the command of Captain Tice (Nando Angelini, of 2+5 Mission Hydra and Bloody Pit of Horror) to Delta 2 for a reconnaissance mission. Tice and his men find the station for all practical purposes uninhabited. Everyone aboard is either dead or in some kind of suspended animation, and there is no sign whatsoever of how they came to be that way. But just as Tice is making his report to headquarters, Delta 2’s attackers return, overwhelming the investigating soldiers and subjecting them to exactly the same treatment as we saw administered earlier to Captain Dubois. Then, incredibly, the space station itself vanishes without a trace. General Halstead, badly shaken, orders the total evacuation of all the other stations, but his son defies his directives by staying aboard Gamma 1 with a security team led by his first officer, Jake Jacowitz (Franco Nero, the last of the returning lead players from The Wild, Wild Planet), and another man identified only as Ken (this character is misidentified in the Internet Movie Database, and is not specifically credited in the film itself; your guess as to who plays him is as good as mine). When Gamma 1 comes under attack, the younger Halstead and his men fight back, locking themselves within the station’s lead-titanium inner core, and flooding the outer ring with radiation. The radiation succeeds where lasers fail, and the aliens withdraw after suffering massive casualties. Then and only then does Commander Halstead return to Earth with his troops.
While all that is going on in orbit, Captain Dubois leads a squad of similarly possessed soldiers to seize command of the nuclear power plant that supplies the energy to the UD capital. He then sends a cryptic message to General Halstead— something about friendship and symbiosis and oneness with the Whole. While Halstead and his two top subordinates, Generals Maitland (Michel Limoine, from The Chambermaid’s Secret and Castle of the Creeping Flesh) and Werner (Enzo Fiermonte, from The Triumph of Hercules, who would come back as a different character for Planet on the Prowl and The Snow Devils), are puzzling over this missive, the bodiless aliens swoop down on headquarters itself, infecting Connie, Lieutenant Fina Marlie (Linda Sini, of Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), and the rest of the communications team. And because the power plant is under the control of the possessed Dubois, the generals are unable to repeat Commander Halstead’s trick of irradiating the affected regions of the base. (One assumes that the aliens may be killed by doses of radiation that humans can safely endure.) Shortly thereafter, Dubois pays a personal visit to headquarters, and the answers to everybody’s questions begin emerging. The aliens are the Diaphanoids, from the Andromeda galaxy. Once, they existed in symbiosis with a humanoid race on their home planet, but they were forced to look for other accommodations when their hosts became extinct. Because of our similarity to the Diaphanoids’ original hosts, humans are a prime candidate to take over the job, and the aliens are determined to have our bodies whether we like it or not. But they would prefer to persuade rather than conquer if at all possible, and so Dubois has come to collect a delegation of men who have General Halstead’s trust; these men— Maitland, Werner, Jacowitz, Ken, and (naturally) the younger Halstead— will go with Dubois to the automated uranium mine on Mars where the aliens have set up shop, so that they may be familiarized with the supposed benefits of Diaphanoid symbiosis. Of course, the way Halstead sees it, his real mission will be to find a way to stop the Diaphanoid invasion of the Earth at its source.
Before I get too deeply into discussing War of the Planets as a whole, I’d like to make an observation about the title by which it is best known in the English-speaking world. The two titles under which this movie circulated in Italy translate to “The Diaphanoids Bring Death” and “The Diaphanoids Come from Mars.” Now I ask you— which would you be more inclined to spend money on, War of the Planets or The Diaphanoids Bring Death? I know which one snags more of my attention, and it sure as hell isn’t the one that was also used by two other films (or three, if you want to count the 8mm condensed version of This Island Earth). Again I find myself forced to ask, who the hell makes these retitling decisions, and what the hell are they thinking?
War of the Planets had a number of strikes against it from the very beginning. Simultaneous productions using the same cast, crew, and creative team rarely generate good movies, especially when the doubling up concerns films within the same series. How much more of an uphill battle did War of the Planets and its co-features face with four movies vying for everybody’s time, energy, and attention? Similarly, each of the films in the Gamma 1 tetralogy got an average of about two weeks devoted specifically to them; that isn’t much, even if we disregard the hassles and confusion that must have attended all the juggling. (As an indication of those hassles, consider that Margheriti’s son, Edoardo, reports that color-coded clappers were necessary to keep straight which movie any given take was intended for in the editing room.) Meanwhile, on the creative front, War of the Planets (unlike The Wild, Wild Planet or The Snow Devils) labored under the handicap of a premise that had been used by any number of earlier films, including quite a few classics (most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and near-classics (Enemy From Space, Planet of the Vampires, etc.). Finally, it ought to be fairly obvious that a cloud of steam and a green light do not a memorably convincing alien invader make. So the truly remarkable thing about War of the Planets is that it manages to be effective at all. The contrast between Tony Russel as a square-jawed 60’s action hero and, say, Robert Horton in The Green Slime doing the same thing is palpable. Russel usually pulls it off, even in scenes that, when written out, would tend to make him look like just as much of an insufferable assbag as Horton in the latter film. Lisa Gastoni is often able to create the illusion of effectuality even though her role this time around is very much within the tradition of “look pretty and wait around to be rescued.” And apart from those unfortunate aliens and the rather laughable oxyacetylene rayguns, the production design is fully competitive with what other, far more expensive, science fiction films were coming up with at the time, probably because the cost of the sets, props, and miniatures could be amortized over the budgets of four different movies. The Wild, Wild Planet was better, and even it wasn’t all that great, but War of the Planets can honestly claim to have risen at least minimally above a combination of disadvantages that by any sane reckoning ought to have crippled it.