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Good Disaster Movies (1965-70): Cracked Planets & Little Green Diaphonoids

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David Appleford itcherBy the latter half of the sixties, when it came to large-scale disasters, as hard as it would try, television could simply not compete. Despite the small screen’s enticement to keep people entertained at home, it was that larger-than-life, wide screen look with something explosive at its centre that kept audiences returning to the movies. ~ David Appleford

The Bigger a Disaster, the Better

‘Krakatoa, East of Java’ may have a geographically incorrect title – the famous volcanic island was, in reality, west of Java – but the idea of seeing a massive volcano explode in close-up on a giant, curved 70mm Cinerama screen with all kinds of lives in peril sounded irresistible. Even though film historians rarely include this loud, special effects extravaganza as part of the established disaster genre that was just a year away, the 1969 adventure had all the required parts in place, including movie posters that displayed a row of small head and shoulder portraits of each actor at the bottom, below the title, with a description of their personal character conflicts listed in small print underneath.

You’d think that with a style of movie presentation such as Cinerama, that huge, curved screen that pulled you in would have been ideal for several sixties disaster-themed films – the system had been around for more than a decade – but ‘Krakatoa, East of Java’ was its first. Ironically, it’s also listed as the last official Cinerama film to be made before the system faded.

Today, even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably heard of it, and because of its fame and the several showings it’s already received on British television, you won’t find it on our recommended list below, but look for it. It’s loud, colorful and corny. And if you find a 1970 film called ‘Volcano’, avoid it. It’s a shorter, re-cut version of ‘Krakatoa’ that tried to capitalize on the sudden success of the seventies disaster flicks, but it’s still the same film. Always go for the original.

Below are five more disaster-themed films released during the second half of the sixties. In many respects, they’re the last of their kind when you consider that the whole formula for telling a disaster story was about to change. No one’s saying they’re great – a couple really are questionable – but they’re undeniably fun, and that’s what disaster entertainment at the movies was all about.


Explosive Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘Crack in the World’ (Andrew Marton, 1965)

“If we can start Tucamoa erupting before the crack gets there, we stand a chance of stopping it.”

When it comes to ‘Crack in the World’, there’s a generation or so who may not be familiar with the film’s two leads, Dana Andrews and Janette Scott, but you’ve probably heard of the names without realizing it; they’re famously referenced in the opening song ‘Science Fiction/Double-Feature’ from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Richard O’Brien sings, “And I really got hot/when I saw Janette Scott…” You know the song.

In ‘Crack in the World’, Dana Andrews is a scientist drilling very deep holes into the Earth’s crust. He wants to get to the center of the world in order to tap into its energy source, but there’s a barrier stopping him, so he drops an atomic bomb to get through. The result? An enormous crack in the world that threatens to tear the Earth apart.

Critics were surprisingly favorable. Some even took things seriously by calling it ‘believable’ or ‘credible’. It’s actually scientific nonsense. Gravity would not change, so no chunks of the planet would fly out into space, and even if there was a huge crack, the planet would not come apart. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be a fun place to live, but it wouldn’t split in two. Who really cares?

It’s a disaster movie and it gets all kinds of scientific things wrong. Look for the scene where a character called Dr. Rampion (Kieron Moore) is rescued and lifted out of the volcano. He’s supposed to be unconscious, but you can see the stunt double guiding himself up the walls of the crater with his arm so that he won’t get hurt.

‘War Between the Planets’ (Anthony Dawson, 1966)

“This thing is obviously determined to crash its way through the Universe.”

Full disclosure: this is one goofy movie. Are you in the mood for midnight silliness with popcorn and a six-pack of beer by your side? Then this extra low-budget, Italian-made disaster ‘War Between the Planets’ is just what you’re looking for.

The plot revolves around some green aliens who try to take over members of Earth’s protective space patrol. Everyone becomes zombies, sort of, until the heroes save the day within 77 minutes. Even though the film is Italian, by the way the continental actors’ lips move, they appear to be talking in English, though it’s clear that their actual voices were dubbed to make them sound more American.

The ultra-low budget caused a need for creativity in the special effects. Thus, when spacemen float through areas without gravity, they simply walk funny. To maintain the façade of the film not being Italian – just in case we didn’t notice – the director was named Anthony Dawson, though his real name was Antonio Margheriti. The Italian title is ‘Il Planeta Errante’ which mean ‘Planet on the Prowl’.

And in case this gets you excited, there was even a follow-up. It was called more simply ‘War of the Planets’, though its Italian title was ‘I Diafanoidi Vengono de Marte’, which means ‘The Diaphanoids Come From Mars’, something we’ve suspected about those pesky Diaphanoids all along.

‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ (Robert Aldrich, 1965)

“We’ve everything we need here to build a new one and fly it out.”

There was a 2004 remake, but it’s the ’65 original you should see, if only for the cast. It starred a host of great movie names, including James Stewart, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough and Ernest Borgnine, and even though it failed at the box-office, it should be on your list.

A plane carrying a whole host of star names crashes in the middle of the Sahara. With no radio and no other means of contacting rescuers, the survivors of the crash come up with a unique idea. They build a new, smaller aircraft from all the working parts of the wreckage. It’s a wild idea… but it just might work. Despite negative reviews calling it preposterous – isn’t being preposterous the point of disaster movies? – ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ is still a nail-biter.

Some fun continuity issues to look for. Cuts and bruises on the survivors seem to move all over their faces throughout the film. Some disappear only to return at a later time. In one scene, German actor Hardy Kruger is clean-shaven. The next, he has a full grown beard. Evidently, facial hair grows faster in the desert. And during the big moment when the new, smaller plane they’ve just built attempts a take off, small buildings are visible in the distance. Clearly, everyone could have saved all that effort and taken a quick walk.

‘Journey to the Center of Time’ (David L. Hewitt, 1967)

If you thought the Italian disaster ‘War Between the Planets’ was low-budget, in comparison, this American made sci-fi disaster ‘Journey to the Center of Time’ must have been financed from someone’s left over pocket money.

A research scientist may have his funding cut if he can’t prove that time travel is possible. In order to produce results, the scientist oversteps his machine’s power and hurtles 5000 years into the future, right in the middle of a global war. Deciding that it would be better to go back to the present and warn everyone what a disastrous future they’re in for, the team fly back in time, but they miss the mark. They end up in the Jurassic age of dinosaurs. With a key element of their machine destroyed, they’re now stranded.

‘Journey to the Center of Time’ was actually a remake of a 1964 film called ‘The Time Travelers’. It was so low-budget that there appears to be only one real studio set in the whole film while all shots illustrating Earth 5000 years in the future and then back during the dinosaur age are really clips taken from other films and shoe-horned in. The futuristic nuclear weapons attack on cities was taken from the 1952 film, ‘Invasion USA’.

But cheesiness at the movies has always been a favorite of the drive-ins, and ‘Journey to the Center of Time’, is way up there on the entertainingly cheesy list.

‘Night of the Big Heat’ (Terence Fisher, 1967)

The stars of this British made disaster/sci-fi were more famous for their work in Hammer Horror, but it was Planet Film Productions that enticed Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to play doctors in ‘Night of the Big Heat’, based on a novel by author John Lymington.

London may be chilly in winter, but way up north, on an island above Scotland, things are heating up. The temperature is in the upper nineties and climbing. It’s so hot, telephones no longer work, televisions explode and cars keep breaking down. Could this have nothing to do with global warming but everything to do with over-heated aliens invading the Scottish island possessing body temperatures so high that anything that gets near them burns up? Good guess.

The story may be about unbearable heat, but the film was actually shot in winter. Actors were constantly sprayed with glycerin to make them look sweaty, and many became ill due to wearing flimsy clothing when they should have been warmly wrapped. Perhaps the biggest issue with ‘Night of the Big Heat’ is its title. You may find it under ‘Island of the Burning Damned’, or even ‘Island of the Burning Doomed’. TV showings of the film have used all three names. But it’s the title of the French version that caused the biggest stir. When translated into French, ‘Night of the Big Heat’ implied something more sexual than intended.

To capitalize on the sudden adult ooh-la-la audience interest, the distributors for France added a few graphic sex scenes that had nothing to do with the story and were never in the British version. For the record, none of them included stars Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, either.


A New Beginning for Old Themes

As previously discussed, disaster films were around as early as the beginning of the last century when movies had hardly established themselves as a form of public entertainment.

Every new generation of moviegoers thrilled to characters embroiled in disastrous predicaments caused by volcanoes, tidal waves, mid-air plane crashes, earthquakes or even green aliens, but once the dust from Krakatoa settled and the sixties made way for the seventies, the disaster flick turned into something more than just an industry; it became a genre, and it all began because of a book written by Arthur Hailey.

When ‘Airport’ landed in theatres in 1970, it changed the disaster film formula forever.

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