Editor’s Note: We previously reviewed the Star Pilot version of this 1966 Italian space opera as part of its inclusion on Mill Creek’s Sci-Fi Invasion 50-film pack. The set also includes its equally-weird space cousin, Mission Stardust, which we are also re-reviewing with an all new, expanded take, today at 12 noon.
Even without Mill Creek box-setting both Primo Zeglio’s Mission Stardust (1968) and this, Pietro Francisci’s Italian space opera — which dropped into the international marketplaces between 1966 to 1968 as Mission Hydra and Destination: Planet Hydra (1968, of course, being the year of our Kurbick) — we’d still watch and review these two movies back-to-back, since they complement each other so well. And they’re practically the same film — plot wise, at least — as you’ll come to see.
The most amazing aspect in watching Mission Hydra is how much Italian production values — as least in the sci-fi genre — hadn’t changed much from their Forbidden Planet (released by MGM in 1956) influences from the ’50s to the Lucasian late ’70s. Don’t believe us? Then give a watch to the Star Wars droppings that are Luigi’s Cozzi’s Starcrash and Aldo Lado’s The Humanoid (1978 and 1979, respectively) and you’ll understand the analogy. In fact: You’d swear the costumes from Mission Hydra languished in mothballs for ten years, only to be pulled out of the closet for both films (especially The Humanoid). It was for that very reason that Hydra-whatever-it’s-titled, was dubbed into English and dumped into the post-Lucasian marketplace (I saw it at my local duplex) to capitalize on Star Wars in the fall of 1977: the year when ANYTHING mentioned in the pages of Starlog magazine got our $3.25 at the ticket window.
To “Americanize” those ripoff-proceedings: we got the somewhat “familiar” title change, while most of the verse-dialog was ripped from TV’s Star Trek — which hadn’t yet made its way to Italy (Star Trek first aired in September 1966; Mission Hydra screened in Italy in October 1966) — so you’ll end up hearing lots of references to “Star Fleet,” “Warp Drive,” and “Impulse Drive.” But even with the Bechdel test costumes fails of the Roddenberrian-verse, you’d never see Communications Officer Uhura and Yeoman Janice Rand wearing the sexy vinyl-fishnet numbers of the Hydra’s female crew.
If there was ever a film that’s a celluloid mystery, it’s Mission Hydra. What was its plot? Was it meant as a Flash Gordon homage? To This Island Earth or It Came From Outer Space (plot similarities in all three). Was it meant to be an outer space “James Bond” spy flick: or was that the “plot” we got in 1977 once the opportunistic chop shop scoundrels at Monarch Releasing Corporation got a hold of it? Sadly, here, in the U.S., we’ll never see the original version of Pietro Francisci’s vision (unless you’re a Blu-ray hound), as the running times across its various theatrical, VHS, DVD, and UHF-TV re-releases over the years, are all over the place, with running times of 80, 84, 89, 90, and 92 minutes.
As this ungodly mess of Star Pilot unfurled on theater and Drive-In screens in 1977, we, the sci-fi loving kids weened on UHF-TV’s galactic wonders, knew we were duped from the get: too late, they got our money, so we pushed through it. And, as we got older, and needed a desperate-doze of nostalgia to easy our grown-up pains, we rented the Star Pilot VHS for some MST3k retro-laughs as we called out the obvious Cormanesque SFX stock footage raiding of Toho’s space epics Gorath (1962) and Invasion of the Astro Monster (1965; starring Nick Adams, who also stared in 1968’s even-space sloppier no-it’s-not-2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission Mars) . . . but I’d swear I saw bits of Toho’s old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rip-off, 1963’s Atragon, which Toho rebooted/remade — to cash in on Star Wars, natch — as 1977’s The War in Space. But I digress.
For most sci-fi lovers, the first time they saw that Toho footage was when it was cut into the started-in-1967-and-released-in-1972 mess (of the ever-changing-spaceships) that was The Doomsday Machine. So, which came first: the chicken or the egg, or the egg or the shell? Did Monarch go direct to the Toho source — or did they get their Toho stock from The Doomsday Machine (yeah, they did the latter). Well, what we do know: that is definitely Casey Kasem (The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant) as an Air Force flight controller (sans his voice, natch) cut from that film, appearing with the Italians. And since no one saw The Doomsday Machine until 1972, obviously, it’s not part of the original 1966 release. And since most didn’t see the Toho space operas, Monarch thought they had us duped.
Oh, you scamps in Monarch’s executive suites: how wrong you were.
So, is there a plot? Well, of course there is. Well . . . not really. We think it goes like this . . . and, why yes, it is practically the same humans-help-aliens plot from Mission Stardust. See, we told you it goes great with Star Pilot!
Aliens (spandex-suited Gumbys, natch) from the constellation Hydra crash-land on the Mediterranean Sea island of Sardinia, west of Italy (and those Gumby-guys in hibernation are robots). There, Professor Solmi (Roland Lesaffre, who went from Georges Lampins’s Crime and Punishment in 1956, to this?), a prominent, greying scientist, along with his brunette-goddess daughter Luisa (Leontine May-Snell, of the 1971 western-spaghetti Dig Your Grave, Friend . . . Sabata’s Coming), and he-man lab tech Paolo (Mario Novelli? Tango from our fave ’80s apoc-romp Rome 2072: The New Warriors?) meet the aliens.
Fashion Sidebar: We need to mention that Luisa starts out in tight mod-pants and a turtleneck sweater (perfect for island cave exploration), then changes into a chiffon skirt and heels for spaceship weightlessness, and then into the alien’s boob-augmented, leather/vinyl-fishnet wares. And truth be told: Overall, in spite of the budget fails, the costumes are stellar. For the big “space walk” scene (check out the wire-hung swinging stars), the Hydraian’s black-vinyl space suits fitted with exterior hoses and wires, reminds of Harvey Keitel’s suit in Saturn 3. But unlike Keitel, the Hydraians don’t need no stinkin’ (costly) helmets, just some hoses up the nose.
Okay, that’s settled. Back to the story.
The Earthly-trio are ordered to the island to investigate its increased radiation levels — from the alien ship that no one knows is there, get it? Then an earthquake hits. (Caused by the aliens? Don’t care.) And an alien craft is discovered in the newly opened cavern (and it takes 20 minutes of out-of-date, ’60s-era film to get there). Then a pair of Asian spies take the Professor and gang hostage — with the goal of stealing the “secret weapon,” i.e., the spaceship. Then everyone is taken hostage by the Hydraians, led by Kaena/Phena (Leonora Ruffo; uber-hot with her flame-haired and fishnet-bodysuit wares) and Belsy (Kirk Morris), who use the Earthlings as slave labor to repair their ship. (Ruffo went from Fellini’s I Vitelloni in 1953 and broke our UHF-hearts in the title role of Francisci’s 1952 bible-epic, The Queen of Sheba — to this. Morris was a sword-and-sandals vet from Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961), and a bunch of Maciste, Hercules, and Samson movies.) And once the ship is repaired, the Hydraians renege on the deal and take the Earthlings with them anyway, you know, because we are fascinating creatures and they want to examine our “genetic materials.” And the humans mutiny. And the ensuing chaos causes the Hyrdaian ship to hurl, lost in space.
Movie Math Sidebar: Now, do you “get” the film’s original title: Three Earth scientists, two Asian spies, equals five. Then, two aliens, minus their robots, equals two: 2+5 Mission Hydra. I know, movie math hurts my head, too.
Okay, that’s settled. Back to the story.
Now, for all of that footage from The Doomsday Machine: Right in the middle of it all: plop goes the spaceship footage at the 50-minute mark. But why? This is why: No, this SFX-shot is not clipped from the Rocky Jones theatrical feature Beyond the Moon (1954) (also on the Mill Creek Sci-Fi Invasion set): this footage is original to Mission Hydra.
Could the Hydra ship be any more 1950s? No way this thermos-and-candle sticks space cruiser (a coffee pot with squirt of silver paint, perhaps) can pass muster in the 1977 Lucas-verse. So, cut in the Toho footage. Why? Again . . . remember the Asian spies on the island of Sardinia that started the film? It’s all about the continuity. (And lack thereof.)
Anyway, while traveling to Hydra, our not-so-magnificent 7 (Wouldn’t have Seven for Hydra been a better title, in lieu of dropping math symbols?) encounter a skeletal pair of astronauts in a ship from Earth’s future (the best effect of the movie, even with the astro-motorcycle helmets/image). Or are they from Hydra’s past? (Don’t care.) And tapping into that dead ship’s computer, they realize the ship is from Earth’s past, which is now their future, and they’ve been hurled into the future-future? Or Hydra’s . . . argh! Oh, and “the past” is actually the Gorath footage — the footage that didn’t make it into The Doomsday Machine that Monarch cut into their new, 1977 version of the film — of the Earth destroyed by earthquake and title waves (that’s actually better than the rest of the movie it supports) to show the folly of man. (Or Hydra . . . argh!)
So, well, at least, we sort of know what happened to Bobby Van’s and Ruta Lee’s Danny and Dr. Marion Turner from The Doomsday Machine . . . we think, as they were left drifting homeless, in the open-ended never-sequel space. (Or was it Denny Miller’s Col. Don Price, who also appear via the stock footage? Don’t care. But I’d care if they’d worked in Mike “B.J Hunnicutt” Ferrell from M*A*S*H, with his big “press conference” scene.) So, now what do we do: Return to Earth or onward to Hydra? Uh, oh. Going to Hyrda was a bad idea: it’s an abandoned, contaminated wasteland and the populace left to find another planet to live on. (What, Earthlings are descendants of Hyrda’s past? Future . . . movie math . . . and time travel . . . what the frack, this is worse than a Battlestar Galactica episode. Where’s Hector and Vector? We need rhyme and reason!)
See. A mess. And you thought Escape from Galaxy 3 was a cut-n-paste death-penalty crime to cinema. Well, guess what? Star Pilot is worse. Oddly enough, not much has changed from Mission Hydra in 1966 to Christopher Lee and Robert Vaughn’s Canadian Star Wars dropping that is Starship Invasions in 1977. Yeah, it’s the same ol’ cardboard spaceship sets and the same ol’ “Gumby” aliens. Except. . . .
The space gorillas.
Yes, we can’t forget the space gorillas that now populate the wastelands of Hydra. Are they from Toho’s Kaiju-cum-Apes romps Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)? No, but with all of the post-Lucasian, Monarch Studio hodgepodge cutting from films released after Mission Hydra‘s original 1966 release, why they hell not? Were the apes even original to Pietro Francisci’s vision? Did he (or the film’s backers, more likely), inspired by the pre-production of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes as Planet of the Apes (1968), decide (or forced by producers) to toss in some apes? Seriously. Out of nowhere — right in the middle of an Earth woman and Hydra male hook up, and with no explanation — the nuclear war on Hydra spawned an ape-ruling class. At least we think so. Monarch’s chop job is so bonkers, anything is possible.
Oh, and who caused it all? Murdu, played by requisite Italian-peplum actor Gordon “The Bronze Giant” Mitchell, barking orders from the beyond (in a quickie-Eric Roberts name-on-the-box dupe doing, what seems, a John Carradine-cut-in-from-a-whole-other-picture role). What a career, Gordo! From Atlas Against the Cyclops and The Giant of Metropolis (both 1961), and a bundle of spaghetti westerns, Giallos, and yes, even a Filipino post-apoc with SFX Retailiator.
Gordon Mitchell? MOVIE SIGN!
And who brought this pre-Star Wars dropping to us that we were lead to believe was post-Star Wars dropping?
Well, yeah, Monarch Studios, sure.
But we really can’t blame director Pietro Francisci, who was behind the best-known ’50s peplums Hercules and Hercules Unchained starring the best-known Herc, Steve Reeves. Peter started out making good films, with the likes of I Met You in Naples (1946) and the really great (IMO) historical drama Attila (1954) produced by Dino De Laurentiis (Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik and 500 more films, like Death Wish and Flash Gordon) starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren (and . . . it was written, in part, by Primo Zeglio from Mission Stardust!). However, it seems Pietro Francisci, obviously disappointed with the end result — his 1966 end result and not the 1977 end result — didn’t make another movie until the sword-and-sorcery slapdash Sinbad and the Caliph of Bagdad (1973), which is just as inept-bad as the film that caused him to retire in the first place. And that ended Pete’s career.
Look, if you’re a fan of Antonio Margheriti’s War of the Planets (from his four-part “Gamma One Series”) and Mario Bava’s (even better!) Planet of the Vampires (both 1965), there’s something here for you to watch. Even better (Or is it worse?): If you’re a fan of Alfonso Brescia’s five-film “Pasta Wars” SFX-verse (We Are! Check out our “Drive-In Friday: Pasta Wars with Alfonso Brescia” featurette.), then there’s something here for you to watch.
And you can watch Star Pilot, lost in the wilds of the public domain, on You Tube HERE and HERE, and it’s the U.S. 1:20:00/80-minute version, in case you’re wondering. (And we wonder what wonders are held in those missing 12 minutes of footage — and more, if you consider the several minutes taken out to add in the unrelated footage from The Doomsday Machine.)
If you’d like own it on a DVD or Blu-ray outside of the Mill Creek set, the 89-minute version was issued on Blu-ray — under the original 2+5 Missione Hydra title — by RareVideo in 2020 in a new HD transfer (with both the 1966 original and bogus 1977 artwork). (Again, don’t forget about the five versions running at 80, 84, 89, 90, and 92-minutes; as far as we can tell, the 89-minute version is the 1966 cut issued outside of Italy — remember that the other versions added in footage and took out footage to add in the footage from The Doomsday Machine, got it?) Under the Star Pilot title — that is, the 1977 80-minute theatrical; the version that’s also part of the Mill Creek set — was paired with the equally abysmal Battle Beyond the Sun — as a two-fer in 2000. In 2018, Retromedia issued a two-fer DVD with (the awful) King of Kong Island (1968/1977) — and RM, thank you, cut out all of The Doomsday Machine tomfoolery.
And speaking of movie math and numbers: Did I just drop 2,300-plus words on this? Hey, I was shooting for 2,500, so I actually came up short. Consider yourself blessed.