Saturday, November 9, 2013

MST3k Week The First: "We've"

So it begins. While turkey isn't supposed to be served until later this month, the MST3k 25th anniversary means we're getting a whole month of it.

To that end, I would like to apologize for why this week's didn't go up until today. In all fairness, thanks to how the randomizer sorted things, I needed a period of psychological recovery after being dealt Manos: The Hands of Fate and Mitchell in the same week-Especially thanks to the latter's uncut version including another 'Joe Don Baker in bed' scene. I will subject myself to some pretty disturbing things, but even I have my limits.

To make up for this, however, I'll also have some other side reviews coming up shortly after this.

Until then, let's push the button, shall we?

After about an hour or so of wondering where the Hell the Crawling Eye is, it finally shows up with around 15 minutes left on the clock.

11/2 - The Crawling Eye

Fittingly first, we have the one that started it all…Sort of. At least as far as the official run of the movies go. The VERY start, as far as I've been able to tell from the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, was a movie called The Green Slime that they riffed for their short pilot back in the KTMA years.

Anyway, it's a bit funny to me. This week has some bad ones. I mean, really bad. Like, some of the most legendarily infamous titles the show has ever run on it. Despite those, THIS was the movie I had the hardest time watching this week. It's not even because it's particularly bad either. It's certainly not great, but it's not the worst thing I've ever seen by a large margin. The problem is, if I may be perfectly blunt, it's INCREDIBLY boring. I mean, I stopped and started this movie a good three or four times before finally getting through it. Which is even stranger since I've seen this episode of the series several times. It's not one of my all time favorites, but as the first two seasons go, I still find it a pretty watchable episode. But without the riffs, it is just completely uninteresting.
The story, loosely repackaged from a British TV serial called The Trollenburg Terror and with an added American role by Forrest Tucker, is in a curious spot. The premise feels a bit too outlandish to take seriously, but at the same time, everyone plays it too seriously to really enjoy it as a goofy movie. It almost feels like they were attempting to recreate the feeling of the old Quatermass serials here, but they never quite got what made those work as well as they do.
I wish I could really say much more for this, but really, there's not a whole lot commendable or derisive I can say for it details-wise. It really is just a very middling offering. Which, in some ways, could be argued to be even worse than outright bad.

It certainly speaks well for Joel Hodgson and co that they were still able to make this into a decent first episode.

You ever see something that leaves you torn between laughter and pity?
This fight's a REALLY good example of that.

11/3 - Eegah!

NOW we get into something interesting to discuss. This is up there on the more famous/infamous episodes of the series, and for good reason. It's a good mix of both a bad movie and an incredibly weird one at the same time. About the best way I can think to sum it up is like a bizarre hybrid of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World with a dash of Beauty and the Beast. The result is arguably one of the harshest blows to Richard Kiel's acting career this side of Moonraker. Director Arch Hall Sr. made the film in large part to serve as a vehicle for his son, Arch Hall Jr., and thanks to that being the main intent, so many other elements of this movie just feel incredibly bizarre. Most notably the film's song numbers, which were definitely made to help showcase Hall Jr., whose character is otherwise pretty useless for a lot of the movie-Barring one inadvertently priceless moment (pictured above) watching him try and fistfight Kiel as the titular caveman. Alongside the bizarre songs, much of the movie plays out as the above mentioned Beauty and the Beast formula by way of Stockholm Syndrome - lead actress Marilyn Manning and her father are guests/prisoners of Eegah and have to try to appeal to his better nature to try and get out. Despite living among Eegah's deceased relatives, and one incredibly awkward shaving scene that the MST3k cast consider among the grossest things they ever witnessed in the show, she still starts to develop odd feelings for him. It's a plot strand that never really seems like it was given too much thought and mainly just serves to set up a finale that feels like Hall was watching King Kong when he was trying to figure out how to wrap this up.
Also, since I've brought her up, I have to hand it to Manning. She has a rare gift for being able to kill a joke through sheer inflection. It's not even like she appears to be trying, either. In fact, she naturally massacres a LOT of zingers over the course of this movie. I mean, you can tell they're meant to be funny, but her delivery just crushes the life out of them. Which, in its own way, is funny too. The rest of the cast are pretty forgettable, outside of Kiel in the title role. His part is... ... ...well. It really has to be seen to be properly believed. It almost exists beyond good or bad.

I can certainly see why this episode has become popular among MST3k fans at any rate. Even before you add the riffs, it's bad. But it's a watchable bad, barring the shaving scene. It's just so incredibly ridiculous by design that the riffs are like a very delicious icing on this malformed cake.

Because the most badass thing a movie hero can do is engage in arguing with a child on his own level.
Truly, Mitchell is the hero we both need and deserve.

11/4 - Mitchell

Speaking of famous episodes, we've got two more biggies lined up here.
First of these is the infamous Joe Don Baker feature, as mentioned above, that served as Joel Hodgson's final episode. After finally watching it uncut, and reading some of the background information on the film, I still find myself posed with one perplexing question - was this a joke?
No. Really. Watching this movie, I had this nagging suspicion that Mitchell might actually be a comedy that completely backfired on itself. This is in no small part thanks to its title character. Even before we factor in the decision to cast Baker in the part, Mitchell feels like one of the most awkward protagonists you could expect out of a 'renegade detective' movie. He's crass, he's abrasive, he soaks up booze like a sponge, he regularly disregards orders and only rarely actually gets results from doing so, he gets into screaming matches with children, and his "love interest" (it's only fair to put that in quotations considering how that plot strand plays out) is a prostitute who is actually being paid by someone else to be with him. Again, even just on paper, Mitchell feels less like Dirty Harry, and more like a detective version of Clancy Wiggum. Further, for a supposed detective, his actual detection skills are...well...let's just say I'm not blowing smoke with the Chief Wiggum comparison. In fact, for a detective, Mitchell's style seems to be less detection, more brute force, and even that only works some of the time.
This isn't to say the rest of the movie is much better. After starting off with the impression that the film's main antagonist will be John Saxon, he promptly gets shuffled down several levels (and disposed of in a way that was minor enough his death was cut for time from the MST3k episode) in a way that can be best summed up as this movie playing Antagonist Musical Chairs. The result only further adds to the sense that this movie can't really decide what it's trying to be, awkwardly trying for both a serious police story and odd bits of comedy - one particularly glaring example coming as a result of seeing Mitchell beaten up in an alley, which then jumps to Mitchell in bed with prostitute Linda Evans set to his twangy character theme sung by Hoyt Axton. Said theme is another element of this movie's oddly bipolar nature. One of the few good things I will give this movie is that its general soundtrack isn't bad. It's VERY much in the vein of 1970s police film, but for that element, it does its job well. Then Mitchell's theme starts playing, with its country-style twang and semi-comical lyrics, and it stands out in an incredibly awkward fashion.
It really is just an incredibly bizarre film. I'm not sure how much of that's behind the scenes issues, or how much was just the people running it have an odd way of working. Either way, it's no surprise that this film is among the legendary bad titles on MST3k's run.

I never COULD get past this level in Moonwalker...

11/5 - Manos: the Hands of Fate

Well, I promised two biggies, and here's the other. The legend itself.
That baddest of the bad. The movie that, for a long time, the cast and crew considered one of the worst they've ever done. The movie and episode so famous it got its own special edition release.
Manos: The Hands of Fate is one of the more curious stories in the history of bad films. Made as a bet by insurance/manure salesman Hal P. Warren (I find it rather fascinating how it's said that Scientology started in much a similar manner, take that point as you will here) the film was his attempt to prove he could make a popular horror film on a budget. In a weird way, he DID somewhat succeed, though I imagine this wasn't what he had in mind. Though as I understand it, he did still win the bet. Anyway, the film would likely have faded into oblivion as part of the public domain following its rather inglorious premiere were it not for the folks at Best Brains stumbling across it. This is one of the few titles that one could pretty safely argue owes its second life to MST3k propelling it out of obscurity.
Anyway, this is another where it's pretty understandable why the episode became the success it did. The movie is an absolute mess, but it's a fascinating one. Further, it's a mess that lends itself particularly well to riffing. For starters, the story feels like it's being told by someone who's making things up as they go on a number of levels - I mean, it starts with a pretty straightforward premise of a family vacationing and encountering horror in the middle of nowhere. But the horror itself is so ill-defined, one can't really be scared by it. Somewhat disgusted at the seeming lack of understanding of personal space demonstrated by Torgo (John Reynolds) and the bizarre cult of brides collected by The Master (Tom Neyman) but at the same time, it's just too bizarre to really work as a horror film. Also, there's the sub-plot that goes nowhere involving a teenage couple and police that had to get rewritten due to an on-set injury. While I can respect not wanting to write off your cast members, the result here isn't much better.
This is even before getting into the technical problems the movie has, which, without the riffing, become more pronounced. Thanks to the nature of the cameras used (which further lends to the film quality that lead Crow to suspect they're watching a snuff piece) the movie was recorded without any sound. As a result, all of the dialogue was redubbed in post - by a small handful of people. The result leads to some even odder sounding line reads and some incredibly choppy sound edits, as well as that odd moment of realizing just how lacking in ambient sound the film is beyond dialogue and an overly intrusive soundtrack.
While I'm not sure I can consider this to be the absolute worst movie the show's ever done, it certainly has earned its stripes as one of the more infamous.

"This? All scientists wear gear like this! There's nothing mad about this look at all!"

11/6 - The Atomic Brain

As though Joe Don Baker in bed and the ending of Manos didn't leave me feeling dirty enough, the randomizer hits me with this as a finishing blow.
This is one of those movies where, the moment I learned there were behind the scenes control shifts, I wasn't remotely surprised. This movie has a lot of problems in terms of both how its narrative flows and in terms of how it tells its story. The most obvious being the film's heavy reliance on voice-over narration. This is up there with Plan 9 From Outer Space in terms of intrusive narration for me. Though at least there, it added to the humor. Here, it feels like the narrator is trying his best to make story where there really isn't enough of one to begin with.
The premise is fairly straightforward: an aging rich old woman (Marjorie Eaton) enlists a mad scientist (Frank Gerstle) to come up with a means to help her live forever by transferring her brain into a younger woman's body. Of course, we aren't shown as much of this as we're told by the narrator, who apparently was given the task of fleshing out everyone's characters, since the rest of the script sure isn't trying very hard.
Of course, the narration also lends to part of why this film further added to that feeling of filth this week - I realize, in context, Eaton's desire for her host body to be young and desirable makes sense. Unfortunately, the way her dialogue, as well as the narrator's lines, frame this, it feels INCREDIBLY creepy.
This aside, the film is otherwise another from that bizarre sub-genre of 50s and 60s sci-fi where a mad scientist had more emphasis on the 'mad' and less on the 'science': over the course of the film, brains are swapped between humans, dogs, and cats, with little to no effort or problem beyond behavior issues. The result is an odd mix. Were it not for the over-reliance on narration and the incredibly uncomfortable dialogue, this likely would have been another fairly forgettable product of its time.
Not to say those elements are commendable as reasons to remember it, but they are there at least.

Let the record show, Japan beat the SyFy channel to the punch on how to make sharks attack on land by several decades.

11/7 - Gamera vs Zigra

At having been featured on the show a solid five times, eventually netting its own DVD collection for the episodes, it was all but inevitable I'd be working a Gamera film into the mix here. Picking one at blind chance, I got a doozy to work with. As the last of the Gamera films featured on the show, this one was a wonderfully cheezy note to send the films off with. Starting with the song who's tune Joel and the bots would eventually apply their own lyrics to, the film establishes its enemy right out of the gate: a voiceover narration explaining the monster Zigra. From there, we find out that Zigra isn't just a monster, but the leader of an alien invasion (which is in part how the film brings in its, I believe the MST3k team coined them best 'Monster children.') So while, as the movie goes on, Gamera has his hands full dealing with the sharklike leader of Zigra, monster children Kenny and Helen have their hands full dealing with the more human Zigran aliens.
It almost feels weird to take a critical eye on some of these older monster movies. There's just such a bizarre cheeziness to them that they so thoroughly embrace it makes it had to really hold anything against them. Things like early scenes where young Kenny (Yasushi Sakagami) has his behavior compared to killer whales (given the movie sets a good chunk of its action at Sea World) with cuts between the two to drive the point home - the whale is better behaved than Kenny, further add to the goofiness.
Of course, it's also the fact this is a movie where a giant, fire-breathing turtle fights a giant alien shark. It's a premise you learn to take with a fair amount of flexibility by design. And that is one of the things that I think the MST3k crew knew when working on these episodes. While they certainly found enough things to joke about, they also made it a point to never take the titles too seriously, so they got a lot of good material out of them without seeming to miss the point. The result being the fact that, when the Gamera set was finally announced last year, there was a LOT of happiness in the fandom.

"Don't look so down just yet, kid. This movie hasn't even gotten started destroying you yet."

11/8 - High School Big Shot

And so we end the week on a pretty bleak note.
This is one of those films where I'd read about the episode before seeing it. The premise sounded insane enough that I figured I'd have to give this one a watch.
Sure enough I did. The result surprised me, but not in the way I expected.
Going in on this, my first thought was of the famous I Accuse My Parents (which, yes, will be discussed later this month.) So I went in with that sort of mindset of a bizarre teenage cautionary tale. What I got was akin to I Accuse My Parents by way of a nihilist. The plot, which many have argued owes a LOT to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, is probably one of the most bizarrely downbeat things that has ever graced the screens of the Satellite of Love. Yes, arguably even more than the ending of Manos (which is less depressing, more rather disgusting to think about.) The story is one of those classic takes on the nice guy surrounded by absolute bastards in every other part of his life, including his alcoholic father and a girlfriend who torpedoes his academic future and turns out to have only been using him to save her own grades. In his attempts to fix everything, Marv (Tom Pittman) resorts to crime to try and get the money to solve his problems.
...based on what you've heard of Tom's luck so far, one guess how THIS one goes.
As you can imagine, the bleak nature of this film is generally the element it's the most known for. I mean, it's certainly not one of the most depressing movies you'll ever see, but as a baseline for the films MST3k ran, it's darker than they usually tend to skew.
Not surprisingly, the cast and crew have since deemed this one of the most depressing movies the show has ever run. Which actually does speak well to the fact they still managed to make some pretty good riffs out of something as pessimistic as this film gets. Because sometimes humor is really the best way to cope with something like this.
I feel like I should be able to say more on this, but really, it's the sheer 'What the HELL?' factor of the narrative that overrides so much of the rest of the film. At the very least, that does arguably put it in better standing than The Crawling Eye. Though that's not saying too much here...

Well, week 1 is down.

It's been an interesting spread at least, and we have some more of both good and bad quality lined up from here.

For now, enjoy the ride and take consolation in realizing we already have The Master's approval from here.

Till next time!

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