Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires

Money isn’t everything. As an antidote to the mega-budget spectacles Ready Player One and Pacific Rim: Uprising, and with a nod to Chicago Film Society’s April 10 screening of Edgar G. Ulmer’s dirt-cheap The Man from Planet X, we suggest five more low-budget, low-low-budget, and almost-no-budget science-fiction classics (yes, with more Ulmer).

Beyond the Time Barrier
Improvised around standing sets at the Texas State Fairground, Edgar G. Ulmer’s deep-discount science fiction film (1960) projects his themes to a barren, blasted future, where a visitor from the 20th century (Robert Clarke) is trapped in an underground city of sterile postnuclear mutants (some from stock footage lifted out of Island of Lost Souls). Even on this despairing level of fly-by-night filmmaking, Ulmer’s treatment remains resolutely personal, and the film, though visually slack, emerges as something terse, resourceful, and expressively icy. With Darlene Tompkins, Arianne Arden (Ulmer’s daughter), and Vladimir Sokoloff. 75 min. —Dave Kehr

Planet of the Vampires
Mario Bava’s affectingly sleazy but elegantly conceived 1965 genre piece (also known as Demon Planet) puts warm-blooded Barry Sullivan on a seriously anemic planet. Another qualified triumph from the director of Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and Hercules in the Haunted World; as Bava again demonstrates, there was more to 60s Italian film than Fellini and Antonioni. 86 min. —Dave Kehr

Dark Star
In John Carpenter’s witty and stylish 1974 sci-fi satire, the Dark Star is an intergalactic bomber wandering through the universe on a vaguely Nixonian mission to destroy unpopulated planets that might stand in the way of space travel. The ship’s crew is variously bored, blissed out, and restlessly rambunctious. By introducing human eccentricities (mostly southern Californian in nature) into the cold structure of science fiction, Carpenter creates a vision of the technological future that is both disillusioned and oddly affirmative in its insistence on the unscientific survival of emotional frailty. Amazingly, the film (Carpenter’s first) was made on a reported budget of $60,000. With Dan O’Bannon (also the coscenarist) and Brian Narelle. 83 min. —Dave Kehr

Tetsuo: The Iron Man
An exceptionally kinky and violent Japanese experimental feature by Shinya Tsukamoto (1989) that’s a prime candidate for midnight cult status. The dialogue is minimal, but the principal meanings are clear enough: this is a highly fragmented, frequently pixilated account of a man and woman, both partially transformed into metal, copulating and mutilating each other with passion and energy. Basically a surreal heavy-metal fantasy like the Mad Max pictures, with gory, slimy textures that recall Eraserhead, and over the top in every respect, Tetsuo: The Iron Man contains enough frenetic motion that you probably won’t be bored, though you may find yourself worn out before it’s over. This is obviously not for every taste—but if you like it, there’s a fair chance you’ll like it a lot. 67 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees
A fascinating if numbing independent feature by David Blair, transferred from video to film with remarkable computer graphics and other special effects. The intricate science-fantasy plot, which is narrated in an offscreen monotone by Blair, involves, among many other things, a beekeeper and cinematographer (represented by a photo of William S. Burroughs) who films “the moving spirits of the dead” circa 1914; his grandson (played by Blair), half sister, and brother-in-law; the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the Trinity nuclear test site there; the moon; the “planet of television”; the Tower of Babel; the “Garden of Eden Cave” (“a town the size of Manhattan beneath the New Mexican desert”); and the gulf war. The images obliquely illustrate the narrative, and the constant visual flux often suggests a graphic novel translated into MTV, which helps to account for the numbing effect. The results are highly watchable, though more intellectually than emotionally involving (1991). 85 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum