The Disquieting Guest — Ib Melchior: Tivoli Nights and Rat-Bat-Spider-Crabs

25 Mar

Ib Melchior passed away on March 13, at the age of 97. His death was rather overshadowed in genre circles by those of two far more famous figures in the field, so I’m going to take a few moments now to remember the contributions of the novelist, screenwriter and director. While his most notable contributions have been more SF than horror, there are enough horrific elements in his work that I think he has a place in this column.

The most high-profile works associated with him are ones where his involvement was in one way or another indirect. He wrote the English-language script for Mario Bava’s SF/horror masterpiece Planet of the Vampires (1965). His concept Space Family Robinson (later a comic book) was, he claims, plagiarized by Irwin Allen as Lost in Space, and indeed, when the film version came along in 1998, Melchior was a paid consultant. And his short story “The Racer” was the basis for Paul Bartel’s brilliant (and ever-more-topical) satire Death Race 2000 (1975).*

Melchior wrote the scripts for other SF films (Journey to the Seventh Planet, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Time Travelers), but my favourite of his works are the ones with memorable (and silly) monsters: his collaborations with Sid Pink on Reptilicus (1961, which he scripted, based on Pink’s story) and The Angry Red Planet (1959, which he directed and co-wrote).

There are very few European Kaiju films. In fact, I can only think of three, two of which — The Giant Behemoth (1959) and Gorgo (1960)—reptilicus were directed by Eugene Lourié (who also gave us The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Viewers who had just seen the magnificent (and thematically complex) Gorgo the year before would have been understandably taken aback by Denmark’s entry in the city-stomping sweepstakes. Reptilicus, like Gorgo, has a wonderful reptilicus_1961_02poster. But the beast itself — nominally prehistoric, but looking like a stubby-legged wyvern — is the silliest monster this side of The Giant Claw.

 

And then there’s the song

But deep in all the silliness, Melchior’s script has, at its core, a terrifically sinister concept: the monster regenerates from a portion of the tail. An entire monster will, in fact, develop from any piece of flesh, however small. And so the characters are faced with the threat of a botched attempt to destroy Reptilicus leading to a world-destroying plague of the monsters. The execution of the idea leaves a lot to be desired, but the idea is compelling.

As for The Angry Red Planet, here Melchior, in the director’s seat, delivers literally what one might reasonably think is a symbolic representation on the poster.

angry red planetangry-red-planet

The Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab is ludicrous. It should not work. It is the auto-parodic end point of the Chimera Syndrome — patchwork monsters that are part this, part that. In many respects, the monster is laughable. It is completely illogical, and there is nothing in the “world building” (I use the word loosely) of the film that could justify such a being. And yet… And yet… The Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab has carved its own small space in pop cultural history. It is memorable. It is so outré that it crosses a line out of comedy and becomes eerie again. In conjunction with the budget-conscious “cinemagic” (the red tint), the gigantic Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab achieves a naive surrealism impossible to resist.

So thank you, Ib Melchior. The worlds of SF and horror would be the poorer without your creations.

*Banish from your minds the 2000 remake-in-name-only Death Race, which is really little more than an R-rated Mario Kart.

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