Space Probe Taurus/First Woman Into Space/Space Monster/Flight Beyond the Sun/Voyage Into the Sun (1966) -**
In the mid-1960’s, the Illustrious Potentates of American International Pictures decided the time was right to muscle in on the TV market. AIP-TV can’t have been in business for more than ten years, but in that short span of time, it left almost as profound a mark on the world of schlock cinema as its parent company did, although comparatively few people today remember who made that mark and why. The TV division’s main project was the production of a sort of Instant Friday Night Creature Feature Kit— just add Zacherle wannabe and stir!— for impoverished UHF stations that couldn’t afford to pay for real programming. For the most part, that meant zero-budget hatchet-job re-edits of shitty foreign monster movies; it was AIP-TV that first brought Daiei’s Gamera films to an American audience, for instance, and the notorious Corman Cut-and-Pastes were really just a slightly more ambitions variation on the theme. But AIP-TV made original films, too, and if you ask me, this is where the company really shone, producing some of the very worst movies ever wrought by the hand of man. The most famous of these, of course, are the eight awesomely dreadful pictures directed by Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women, Creature of Destruction, Zontar, the Thing from Venus, and so on), but those are by no means the whole story. Laboring in Buchanan’s shadow were equally wretched filmmakers like Leonard Katzman, whose Space Probe Taurus is so audaciously bad you almost have to admire it. Almost.
It is the year 2000, and the exploration of space is in high gear. The ultimate aim seems to be to find Earth-like worlds to colonize, and some of the dialogue will later suggest that there is a certain element of urgency to the effort, though no indication is ever given that any specific crisis is looming. What we do see is how dangerous space exploration remains— a brief prologue sequence has the commander of the rocketship Faith 1 calling the folks back at Earth Control to request the remote detonation of his vessel. Evidently, the planet on which Faith 1 had landed turned out to be highly radioactive, and now everyone but the commander is dead, nothing on the ship will work, and the one lone survivor is looking to be put out of his misery.
But just as the long, depressing series of rockets that blew up on the launching pad— incinerating the crew in at least one case— never deterred NASA from carrying on with its mission, this movie’s Space Agency (obviously not NASA— it’s commanded by a general) bounces right back and launches the Hope 1 to pick up the search for new worlds, for a little-known planet called Taurus in particular. This was where I realized I wasn’t going to like Space Probe Taurus very much. Hope 1’s commander is Colonel Hank Stevens (James B. Brown), a crusty, sexist pig, while its top scientist is Dr. Lisa Wayne (Francine York, from Mutiny in Outer Space and The Curse of the Swamp Creature), a confident, self-assured woman who almost— but not quite— rises above the level of The Chick. Yeah. You guessed it. Easily half this movie’s running time is going to be devoted to the two of them either bickering shrewishly or falling implausibly in love. The other two members of the Hope 1’s crew aren’t much more appealing, either. Dr. John Andros (Russ Bender, from Panic in the Year Zero! and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters) is the usual hard-partying tomcat whose two main apparent concerns are (1) all the money he’s going to make when he gets home from the mission and writes a book about his adventures, and (2) finding a way into the attractive Dr. Wayne’s frosty britches. And though Dr. Paul Martin (Baynes Barron, of Retik, the Moon Menace and From Hell It Came) never does anything to make himself overtly offensive, he never does anything to make me like him, either.
The first stop on the Hope 1’s itinerary is the usual crappy, ring-shaped space station, which is apparently the last outpost of human civilization in this part of space. But despite that, the rocket has scarcely gone beyond it when it encounters another spacecraft. A spacecraft, I might add, that resembles nothing so much as a huge, metal dildo with wings and antennae. After a call back to Earth Control confirms that there should be no other terrestrial ships out this far, Stevens and Andros slip into their space suits (ah, the bygone days of the spherical glass space helmet...) and jet-pack their way over to the mysterious vessel. Oddly enough, the main airlock is wide open, and indeed the whole ship is exposed to the vacuum of space. Its interior looks like nothing Stevens or Andros has ever encountered (yeah, we all know how exotic completely empty hallways are), and what few instruments and displays the budget was able to pay for... I mean, that either of the astronauts sees... yeah, that’s what I meant to say... are marked with labels written in no Earthly alphabet. Stevens and Andros are just turning their attention to the big Shitty Spinning Aluminum Thing at the ship’s center when they suddenly encounter the pilot. Wow. Would you look at that... You know, if I had been the one who made The Wizard of Mars, I really don’t think I’d be so proud of the monster suits that I’d want to reuse them in another movie. But be that as it may, one of the Exposed Brain Guys from The Wizard of Mars walks into the room and says hello. Unfortunately, his people apparently communicate by flicking their tongues in and out really fast, so Stevens and Andros have no idea what he’s trying to say to them. And even more unfortunately, it seems that extending the right hand at slightly above waist level— as you would do if you wanted to shake hands— is some kind of obscene gesture on the Exposed Brain Guy’s planet, because the moment the astronauts do that, the alien attacks them, and Stevens has to shoot him dead with his trusty .45. The two explorers then return to their ship, and continue on their mission after destroying the alien vessel with a “Grade-A Bomb.”
I bet you think that encounter is going to come back to haunt the Hope 1 crew, don’t you? Bzzzzztttttt! I’m sorry, that answer is incorrect. What you just saw actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. Instead, moving right along, we proceed to the obligatory Dodge the Asteroids scene. Stevens has to turn on the ship’s forcefield to ward off the hurtling— and flaming— space rocks, which is too bad, really, because the forcefield isn’t terribly well designed. It’s safe to use for only 25 seconds at a time, but rather than cutting off automatically at that point, it’s wired up so as to feed back on the main reactor, cranking its power output into overdrive. And that’s just what happens here, with the result that the Hope 1’s engines turn on full-blast, carrying the ship millions of miles off course, and cooking the computerized navigation system just for good measure. (Incidentally, the effects crew’s idea of an electronic navigation plot is hilarious. It’s just like an old-fashioned manual plot, except that a mechanical arm holds the pen!)
But our heroes are in at least a little bit of luck, because they soon come across a planet approximately the size of Earth, with a 60:40 water-to-landmass ratio. They may not be anywhere near Taurus, but this place looks just as promising. The problem is that— and I’m so fucking tired of seeing this plot twist— Stevens overshoots his intended landing site, and sets the ship down Someplace Bad instead— at the bottom of the goddamned ocean, in this case. Here, while the crew struggles to repair their vessel and Dr. Andros goes ashore to collect soil samples or something, they are beset by the monstrous inhabitants of the otherworldly sea, and the movie momentarily threatens to become fun again. Why? Because the “alien sea monsters” surrounding the submerged rocketship are nothing but perfectly ordinary crabs!!!! Only The Giant Claw offers a more ludicrous discordance between the real-world menace quotient of a movie monster and the intensity of the actors’ reactions to it. Not only that, when Andros sneaks his way past the crabs to go exploring ashore, the gill-man who attacks him is a threadbare leftover from the previous year’s War-Gods of the Deep! I sure as hell wasn’t expecting that! The gill-man mortally wounds Andros before he drives it off with an underwater flare, but he nevertheless struggles back to the ship so that Dr. Wayne can analyze the samples he collected, confirming that the alien world is indeed fit for human habitation— assuming, that is, that you don’t mind gill-men and giant crabs. Once the reactor comes back online, and the computer has been set aright, Stevens places a call back to Earth Control, informing the folks back home that they have found what they were looking for, and that the name of this brave new world is Andros 1. God, it’s so touching! *sniff*
The thing I can’t figure out is, why the hell would anybody make this movie in 1966? I mean, at bottom, Space Probe Taurus is nothing more than Rocketship X-M with a scatterbrained script, even shittier special effects, and the tiresome battle-of-the-sexes subplot moved vexingly close to center stage. But the bar had risen considerably for sci-fi movies over the sixteen years that separate those two films. Meanwhile, “Star Trek” and “The Outer Limits” were on TV, while the real-life space program was gaining rapidly on the world of make-believe— and need I remind you that Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey were a mere two years away? I suppose it makes a tiny bit more sense in the context of AIP-TV. Most of Larry Buchanan’s films for the company were remakes of “classic” AIP flicks from the 50’s, and even the ones that weren’t may as well have been. But it still seems goddamned strange to see this movie showing up when it did, even in the guise of a no-budget TV time-waster.