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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Snow Devils’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, your contributions don’t count for much…

The Snow Devils (aka La Morte Viene dal Pianeta Aytin) (1967)
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (US)
Directed by: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson)

Sometimes, the audience can’t get enough and want more.

There are audiences that just won’t be satisfied with more films in the same genre; they want continuation. They’re the folks that don’t want to see just any Hammer film with vampires in them, they want the ones with Christopher Lee as Dracula. They’re the folks that don’t want to see just any film with Hercules, they want the ones starring Steve Reeves.

They’re the folks that Italian producers Mercury Film International and Southern Cross Feature Film Company hoped would show up when Space Station Gamma 1 orbited overhead…

Director Margheriti put together a series of space films that MGM distributed in the states that ended up filling that long gap between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This use of the films was not by design; it was just accidental happenstance, much like these movies’ productions.

By the 1960s, the Italian film industry was as wide and far reaching as the Roman Empire had been under Trajan. There were a lot of local films being done for the domestic market alongside Hollywood’s use of their sets and craftspeople for spectacle films like Quo Vadis?, Ben-Hur, and Cleopatra. It was a film making community that would give us films by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Sergio Leonie.

And in the midst of this, Margheriti gave us the first Gamma 1 film, The Wild Wild Planet:

The film would be the start a whole cycle of movies where “desperation” would be the buzzword. In every film, the United Democracy Space Organization would call on their uniformed personnel to save the Earth, every time with actors using the same costumes and props for the sake of meeting production deadlines. Interestingly, while the sets and props were the same from film to film, actors could be cycled in and out to play the same role from one to the other.

“Speed” was also a buzzword, as all four were shot almost simultaneously, allowing the last of the four films to have its world premiere six months(!) following the release of the first one:

(Note: Above is the original Italian trailer for what would be called The Snow Devils when MGM brought it to the US.)

Our film opens cold in the snows of the Himalayas (redundant much?) where a weather station is tracking temperatures in the area. Their work has taken on some urgency, as we discover that recently the polar ice caps have started to melt dramatically, and some of their weather readings are way off the chart. Before they can do make any headway on this, however, the station is brutally attacked.

The commander of the UDSCO, General Norton (Enzo Fiermonte) reaches out the Gamma One to call in Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, billed as “Jack Stewart”) to look into the case. His colleague and maybe-sorta-potential-HR-nightmare-maybe girlfriend Lt. Sanchez (Halina Zalewska) takes the call, then starts going down the phone tree to find Jackson and his wingman (in more ways than one), Cpt. Frank Pulasky (Goffredo Unger, billed as “Freddy Unger”), to call him back to duty.

During the briefing, Jackson and Pulasky find out that everyone at the station was killed, although the commander of the station is unaccounted for. This worries his fiancé, UDSCO member Lisa Nielson (Ombretta Colli, billed as “Amber Collins”), who’s so upset by the news that she follows Rod and Frank to the Himalayas as they try to conduct their covert investigation.

The one clue they have is that there have been recent sightings of large footprints attributed to yeti. In their hunt for these abominable snowmen, our UDSCO crew have the tables turned on them, and soon find themselves their prisoners:

The leader of the abominable snowmen (Giuliano Raffaelli), the “snow devils” of the title, lets the Earth people know what they are up against. The UDSCO’s adversaries are aliens from the planet Aytin, a world of ice that is being bombarded by radiation. Their plan is to alter Earth’s weather, melt the ice caps, then bring down the temps to freeze all standing water, to make our world better resemble their old one as they take over.

To be fair, climate science in the 1960s wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They had the disadvantage of not witnessing first hand polar ice melt the we have, and what actually does take place when you-

No, must. Resist. Obvious. Comment…

Speaking of when this takes place: Supposedly, this is sometime in the 21st Century, but the only clue we have as to when is in a shot with a wall calendar that puts the action taking place on Tuesday, April 24th. There are six likely candidates for the year in the first half of the century, two of which have already passed, so because of the uncertainty, we can cut them some slack on how wildly they could have imagined the future.

Time in the film is as sloppy as the film’s timing: The Earth people blow up the base in the Himalayas a good 30-plus minutes before the final scene, and then the pace of the film immediately bogs down. The energy never really comes back, even as we have one more set piece involving a space mission that wraps everything up.

The shoddy production, the results of running the crew ragged to make so many films so quickly, takes its toll after a while. No matter how cool the atompunk-inspired designs of sets and costumes look, there’s a level of chintz throughout that can’t be ignored. The performers seem ragged and tired, which with a shooting schedule like this was to be expected. (The usual Italian practice of having actors dubbed to appeal to foreign audiences’ suspected tastes doesn’t help much either.)

It was inevitable that rushing four films through in a year’s time was going to leave scrapes and dents, and this being the fourth in the series, it seems to have suffered the most from the strain. Even fans of the Space Station Gamma 1 series cite this as the weakest of the four, contributing very little to the entire cycle. This means anyone coming in cold without any context is going to be particularly aggrieved at having to watch this one.

Which is a shame, considering some of the backstory…

Bill Finger

The script for this film lists as co-writer “William Finger.”

This was the same Bill Finger whose work on Batman was covered up by Bob Kane, condemning Finger to a life of obscurity and poverty. In an effort to pay his bills, Finger supplemented his piece work in comics by selling screenplays.

The Snow Devils would be his first theatrical sale, coming around the same time he ironically sold a two-part script for the Batman TV series from Fox (for “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” and “The Clock King Gets Crowned”).

Finger, sadly, would only sell one more script before his death in 1974.

He never had time to overcome the wrongs he suffered as he was whited out of the picture, and no amount of rushing could make up for what happened to him…

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