For all their technocratic zeal, Soviet Bloc sci-fi films seem much more likely than most to deal with the cosmos as psychological space. Be it the sentient planet of Solaris or the interstellar cabin fever of Ikarie XB-1, there’s a recurring message that space gets inside our heads and messes with us -- that it travels into us as much as we travel into it.
Director Vasili Levin’s Petlya Oriona gives us just such a story of humans traveling into the great black armed with science only to quickly lose track of what is and isn’t all in their minds. It all gets a bit trippy, but to insure that the future cosmonauts in the audience remain bolt upright throughout, the producers kick off with filmed testimonials from a range of actual Russian academics and government officials who hold forth about their theories on extraterrestrial life. (The film is further grounded as a work of scientific instruction by having cosmonaut Aleksie Leonov credited as a screenwriter.)
Yet, for all this flaunting of credentials, Petlya Oriona’s pose of sober inquiry swiftly erodes once its story gets underway, as if it was merely a bureaucratic formality necessary to entering the more speculative realm that the rest of the film inhabits. That story concerns the discovery of a space anomaly, dubbed “Orion’s Loop”, that is travelling toward Earth at an ever increasing speed from the far end of the solar system. Crews of the ships that have crossed within its path have, for the most part, gone mad and then perished.
The Soviets, as chance would have it, are the only ones to have built a ship potentially capable of resisting the Loop’s radiation, and so the United Nations beseeches them to launch an expedition. Once mounted, it is determined that said expedition’s crew should be augmented by a crew of android doubles -- although there isn’t really any more compelling reason given for this than the unspoken one that it makes for a cool motif, which it does. (If you were wondering, the androids are distinguished from the human crew members by their black leatherette flight suits.)
Once within range of the Loop, the crew of the ship, The Phaethon, is plagued by visions and spectral visitations. It’s the old “aliens taking form by mining the human subconscious” gag and -- as Petlya Oriona’s universe obviously doesn’t contain Star Trek reruns -- the cosmonauts are in no way prepared for it. One man is visited by his late mother, another by a beautiful woman from a painting, and all, unaware that they aren’t the only ones having these apparent hallucinations, keep mum about it for fear of sounding crazy.
Eventually, the aliens manage to communicate that Orion’s Loop is something created by them to protect the Earth from a deadly space virus, one borne on a “space typhoon” that is rapidly heading its way. In fact, it is necessary for the Earth to pass through the Loop in order for it to be fully shielded. Unfortunately, by this time, the crew has become so distrustful of all they see and hear that they can’t agree on whether or not the aliens are trying to lure them into a trap. Meanwhile, they’ve been ordered by their superiors back on Earth to destroy the Loop once and for all.
As Soviet space operas go, Petlya Oriona is fairly low key, its minimal effects serving only to put its ideas across without an excess of dazzle. This, naturally, puts the movie’s ideas front and center, where, not necessarily being uncharted territory in the realm of sci-fi, they have to depend more upon the sincerity and thoughtfulness of their presentation than anything else to get across. It also helps, however, that the film was informed by the then very real context of space exploration as an active and ongoing project. The questions about the possible nature of extraterrestrial life bandied about in the prologue and in the film itself were not just meant to be idly pondered but were rather thought of as something that we as a species very well might have to reckon with in the near future.
If anything, it is this last idea that lends any kind of spark of excitement to the overarching mood of dry intensity on display in Petlya Oriona (well, that and the sight of a levitating space babushka). While psyching your mind, space seems also to inspire much vague melancholy and staring soulfully out of portholes -- something that this cast is very good at, especially Leonid Bakshtayev, as the expedition leader, and Lyudmila Smorodina, who plays the ship’s doctor and lone female crew member. As for the fate of Orion’s Loop: Suffice it to say that those androids end up coming in mighty handy, especially since, without them, the fate of the Earth would balance on the apparent inability of their flesh and blood counterparts to make a leap of faith.
A small room. A woman in a black leotard and fishnet tights go-go dances suggestively as two men play a classical piece on violin and piano. No audience is present. The woman smiles serenely toward us as she dances, the camera zooming in to focus on her hips as they undulate sensually, if incongruously, to the rather staid music. Suddenly the violin, under its own power, leaps out of the violinist’s arms, one of its strings dislodging and suddenly wrapping itself tightly around the violinist’s neck. As the man strangles, the violin dances of its own accord across the floor, then explodes. The woman screams. End of scene.
Now, if not for the go-go dancing, you might think that what I was describing above was a scene from some early surrealist film. And, in fact, with that and other scenes like it, the Santo film Profanadores de Tumbas could easily hold its own against the anarchic absurdity of classics like Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or, to name just a couple. In addition to the killer violin, we’re presented with a scene in which a wig tries to strangle its owner and then continues to hop across the floor once it has been cast off. In another, a table lamp bleeds and drives its new owner, Santo, mad by flashing rapidly on and off and emitting weird sounds.
All of this lunacy is accompanied and complimented by the jagged editing, disjointed narrative flow and weird, minimalist sets that are typical of the four micro-budget features Santo did for producer Luis Enrique Vergara during the mid-sixties. Profanadores is the third of the these films, all of which were shot back-to-back within a period of roughly one year with mostly the same cast and crew (see also my reviews of Atacan las Brujas and El Hacha Diabolica and Baron Bracola.)
Profanadores de Tumbas is overall a bit slow and repetitive, but, like even the most mediocre of David Lynch’s movies, leaves you with some weird and unsettling images that stick with you long after the finer details of its plot have been forgotten. And to put an exclamation point on the proceedings, it boasts a climax that is absurdly violent, featuring bodies torn apart by machinery, thrown into boiling pits of acid and shoved face first into blast furnaces. Over the years I’ve catalogued Santo films both good and bad, but it’s very difficult to think of another that’s any weirder than this.
Imagine that the top of this credenza I’m standing in front of flips over to reveal a detailed tabletop map. And on that map is charted the influence of the James Bond craze, reaching out like the tendrils of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to every corner of the globe during the 1960s. This tiny bouzouki wearing sunglasses will represent Assignment Skybolt, the point at which that craze made landfall in Greece.
Assignment Skybolt was written and directed by Gregg G. Tallas, né Grigorios Thalassinos, a Greek born cinematic hyphenate whose career in low budget B movies hopped back and forth between the United States and Greece throughout his life, with a few noteworthy detours in between. Some may recognize his name in connection with the serial Mill Creek 50 Movie Pack habitué Prehistoric Women, but his directing credit also graces such U.S. made independent programmers as Siren of Atlantis and 1967’s Bikini Paradise. In 1965, he even made a proper Eurospy film with the joint Italian/Spanish production Marc Mato, Agente S. 077, better known stateside as Espionage in Tangiers. Skybolt, however, appears to be his lone attempt at making a spy film within the confines of the Greek production system and an all Greek cast.
Rather than aiming for the vague, market friendly internationalism favored by some Eurospy productions, Tallas wisely puts a hard emphasis on Skybolt’s uniquely Greek character. Thus he grounds the film in the familiar for its domestic audience while, at the same time, providing an exotic milieu for its American hero, secret agent Dan Holland (played by fresh faced Greek actor Nikos Kourkoulos under the name “Nicholas Kirk”). Holland is even shown to have a special appreciation for Greek culture, having fought -- presumably under the auspices of the CIA -- in the Greek Civil War years before. The long shadow that that war casts over the film’s events further places it within a specifically Greek political/patriotic context that no doubt resonated with Mediterranean audiences of the time.
Skybolt sees Holland arrive in Athens following the murder of a fellow agent, Ed Wilkins, who was on the trail of an H Bomb stolen from a Turkish NATO base. As being killed is typical spy movie shorthand for an investigative job well done, Holland is charged with retracing Wilkins’ steps out of a hope that he can pick up the scent again. Complicating things are his superiors’ suspicions that Holland’s own brother, Jack -- a former agent who served alongside Dan during the civil war and, after disappearing during a particularly perilous mission, was presumed KIA -- is somehow involved in the theft. Skeptical that Jack is still alive, and refusing to believe that, if he was, he would turn traitor, Dan resolves to prove those suspicions wrong.
Wilkins’ trail summarily leads to a nightclub called The Mermaid, where Holland quickly finds himself playing musical beds with the female members of the workforce. These include the torch singer Carla (played by Tallas regular Anna Brazzou), a stripper named Paula, and Toni (Elena Nathanail), who does a specialty dance number in which male patrons eagerly pop the balloons adorning her otherwise naked body. All the while, Holland keeps a close eye on the club’s sinister owner, Stenger, who certainly appears to be up to something, not the least for him periodically dispatching goons to rough Holland up.
Much of AssignmentSkybolt’s action centers on The Mermaid, making it the odd spy film that takes place almost entirely within a bar. And while this is likely due in part to budgetary constraints (it appears that The Mermaid was one of the only indoor sets constructed for the film) it also proves in some ways to be an unexpected benefit. In that setting, the foes that Holland comes up against are more the back alley hoods and lowlifes of urban crime cinema than they are international master criminals -- a detail that, combined with the vague cloud of lingering guilt that hangs around Holland, gives the film a noirish tone that sets it apart from other espionage capers of the era. In light of Holland’s personal investment in his mission, this smallness of scale also gives the film an intimacy you might not otherwise expect. Ironically, this interiority is given its best expression in one of the film’s location scenes, in which Holland tails his brother, watching him from a distance across a lonely expanse of beach. At this point it appears as if what Holland’s superiors are saying about Jack might be true, and, in light of that, our master spy momentarily seems less masterful than he does isolated and adrift.
On the action front, Skybolt, despite its limited means, doesn’t try to shortchange its audience in terms of the expected shenanigans. An old car is sent sailing off a cliff, a ring fires poisonous darts, and Nikos Kourkoulos is given several opportunities to display his boxy karate moves. Perhaps more impressive is the movie’s generosity in laying on the cheesecake, kink, and suggested sexuality. The obviously issue-laden Holland in one scene whips Carla with his belt as a form of foreplay, a minister is distracted from his eulogy by the décolletage on display at a stripper’s funeral, and Holland has his balls repeatedly electrocuted in an extended interrogation scene. Hey, there’s even an implied blowjob.
Implied BJs aside, I don’t want to give the impression that Assignment Skybolt is in any way a great film. It is, however, a much better and more interesting film than I expected it to be. Often these fledgling national forays into spy cinema seem more concerned with hitting all the generic beats than they are with doing anything different, but Skybolt really does manage to stand apart from the Eurospy pack in some ways, most surprisingly for being somewhat dark and soulful. If surveys of the available filmographies are any indication, Agent Dan Holland was not to return in any subsequent screen adventures, but perhaps this is less a sign of the film’s failure than it is of Gregg G. Tallas feeling like he got it right the first time.
Some of you have gotten in touch to tell me you’ve been unable to find my reviews on Teleport City in recent days. I wanted to assure everyone that this is not, in fact, the result of some long overdue purge, but rather a temporary side effect of that site being moved to a new host. Teleport City’s crack technical team is currently undertaking the painstaking process or reformatting and reinstating its archive of reviews at the new location, moving roughly from oldest to newest. In the interim, the old version of the site -- which includes the hundred odd reviews I’ve written for Teleport City over the years, as well as countless fine reviews by Keith, David and other contributors -- can be found here. At the same time, those unfamiliar with my early work for the site might want to watch the new location as some vintage chestnuts resurface -- such as my dusty takes on Temptress of a Thousand Faces and Iron Claw the Pirate, both of which were reposted this week with the addition of some new screen caps. All of us at Teleport City hope that you’ll bear with us during this time of transition, and that you’ll share our enthusiasm for what will undoubtedly be a swinging new era for our venerable yet somehow ever youthful flagship.
I can joke about it now, but when I started 4DK, there were fears that it might tear a hole in the atmosphere and destroy all life on the planet. From this vantage point, five years later, I can only conclude that the actual damage has been much more insidious and gradual.
Yes, it's true -- and no less so for having just occurred to me this morning -- it was exactly five years ago today that I tentatively nudged my first humble post into a cold and uncaring world, only to have it blossom into the bloated Necronomicon of arcane cinematic knowledge that you see obscenely unfurling before you. Indeed, the ensuing years have seen 4DK gain all the wisdom, discipline and continence of an actual human five year old. And in light of that, I want to thank all of you for your continuing patience, feedback, and support. I hope that the experience has been at least half as enjoyable for you as it has been for me.
For a not at all religious person, I end up seeing a lot of movies about spiritual reawakening. Perhaps this is somebody’s way of telling me something. Of course, what draws me to these movies is not the “after” they show –- the formerly lost lamb’s pious return to the flock -- but their depiction of the depravity and vice that came before that, something that, in most cases, these films tend to portray with a lot of enthusiasm.
In Ayna Tukhabi’un Al-Shams, this detour from the righteous path is shown in the form of a hippie commune presided over by an older couple by the names of Abrahim and Sophia. Sophia appears to have been an army nurse who is traumatized by her experiences in the war and is now wrestling with an addiction to morphine. (Images of war, in fact, permeate Ayna Tukhabi’un Al-Shams, with a jarring montage of actual news footage and photos turning up in its early minutes.) Abrahim, for his part, is a bald headed and boisterous papa bear.
As for the commune overall, a rainbow coalition of young people from apparently all ethnicities and backgrounds, its activities seem to be pretty benign, mostly restricted to lots of singing and dancing to some pretty righteous sounding Arabic psych-funk music. True, there are some foreboding looking pagan idols standing about, but if it’s Satan these kids are worshipping, their practice of it could easily be mistaken for a musical number from Godspell. The most decadent behavior we see is an instance of motorcycle jousting occasioned by a visit to the camp by some scruffy biker types, some doobie smoking, and a scene where Abrahim and Sophia jubilantly pour champagne over each other’s heads. All in all, it’s fairly north of the Manson family in terms of countercultural provocation. In any case, whatever philosophy guides the group, it proves to provide little spiritual cushioning for Abrahim once his son is killed in a mild looking motorcycle spill (there was apparently no money in the budget for actually wrecking a motorcycle).
Most information I can find about Ayna Tukhabi’un Al-Shams, also known as Where Do you Hide the Sun?, lists it as being an exclusively Libyan production, though it nonetheless benefits from a lot of international cooperation. Not only does it boast a Moroccan director in Abdallah al-Mubahi, but also two genuine Egyptian movie stars in the persons of Nadia Lufti, who plays Sophia, and Adel Adham, who plays Abrahim. Adham, true to his stature, really turns his acting up to “11” during the film’s second half, stumbling about in a loudly demonstrative state of desolation marked by constant sobbing and crying to the heavens. And, true, it looks kind of ridiculous, but at the same time feels more like real grief than what movies typically show us in this regard.
Because Ayna Tukhabi’un Al-Shams had the unmitigated gall to be in a language that I don’t understand, I can’t really shed any definitive light on its message. But I can say that it is quite obviously a film that is earnest in its didacticism. After a credit sequence depicting conflict through the ages in stylized drawings, we have a healthy swatch of sober narration, followed by a long sequence in which a panel that appears to be made up of clerics and professorial types debate the moral crisis at hand. The solution that the film depicts in terms of action is for Sophia to kick the drugs and return to the Christian church. Abrahim, in turn, makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, crying and lamenting all the while, and, once there, has a vision of being viciously stoned by his fellow followers to the accompaniment of the disco version of the Star Wars theme. I think it’s safe to say that, in the eyes of Ayna Tukhabi’un Al-Shams, whatever spirituality the hippies practiced may have had a good beat and been fun to dance to, but nonetheless couldn’t match the Big Four when it comes to putting a Band-Aid on our fear of death and loss.