Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MST3k Week the Fourth: "Siiiiiiiiiiign"

So we come to it at last.
25 years, 25 movies. This has been a pretty interesting spread of the proverbial good, bad, and ugly from the show's run. While it's been fun, I am looking forward to being able to take it easy on the next few writeups. But, that's getting ahead of things. With four titles left, let's bring the lion's share of this month on home:

This right here? This is about as close as they're gonna get to Wells's version.

11/23 - Riding With Death

Movie recuts - where cancelled shows and pilots that didn't get the green light can sometimes get a second life. OK, it doesn't happen often, but it hasn't stopped some people from trying over the years all the same. Which brings us to this title - which cuts together two episodes of the short-lived 1976 series Gemini Man. The series in question-VERY loosely based on H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man (to be fair, they give Wells a writing credit at least)-concerns one Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) a scientist who, in the pilot, is caught in a radioactive explosion. Now, in most cases, this would end in horrible death - either immediately or as a result of some pretty nasty tumors. Lucky for Sam, this movie's a graduate of the Stan Lee school of Radiology, so instead it just makes him invisible. Granted, said invisibility COULD kill him, but that's fixed with a radioactive watch that lets him turn it on and off at will - for 15 minutes at a time, anyway. What's a man to do with such a power? Well, apparently that's a pretty big hook into being a secret agent, cause that was the premise for this series - which ran for 12 episodes before going the way of Old Yeller.
From there, this movie was made, recutting two episodes of the show together, plus some footage from the pilot to set the story for anyone who didn't watch - which was presumably most people. The idea of cutting a TV series together into a movie isn't always bad, if you have the plot for it. Sometimes, if you have a good overarching storyline, it can be seen as a way to trim a lot of the fat the televised format resulted in, though sometimes it results in too much being trimmed in turn. The problem is, as far as I can tell in researching, there wasn't exactly an overarching story in Gemini Man. At least, not that this film's concerned with - instead, it takes two of the 'case of the week' stories to stitch together on the basis of one of their recurring characters: country singing trucker and later racer Buffalo Bill Joe Hickens (as played by country singer Jim Stafford.) They attempt to further mesh the two stories together by giving the first several added bits of voiced over dialogue making reference to the antagonist of the later storyline, but considering they never actually tie it into the first story - involving Sam being asked to truck along a new hyper-efficient fuel that's actually designed to explode so its designer could take a payoff from big oil - all it really has to buoy it to the second half is introducing Buffalo Bill. Which is a bit unfortunate, since on its own, the truck story could make a decent made for TV movie in better hands, but here it's mostly just tedious and largely forgotten once they segue into the next episode. Granted, it's still more memorable than the second storyline, in which Sam joins Bill on the racing circuit to find out a former defense worker turned saboteur (Ed Nelson.) In both cases, it seems like Sam's invisibility is the only thing he has going for him to explain why he's a spy. Most of the rest of the time, he really just seems to go with the flow of the story and follow his boss's instructions. Besides the awkward story graft, the film is Okay, if nothing spectacular. Casey's an alright lead, if a little hard to believe in the science capacity at points, and Stafford, while laying the hillbilly on a bit thick, at least appears to be more invested in his role than most of the rest of the cast. Most of the rest are really just average, with the exception of Katherine Crawford as Sam's friend/female lead Abby. While I've seen worse performances, it's hard to deny she is low-balling this one, though it DOES lead to easily one of the funniest line reads in the whole movie ("I wonder who would be going to Switzerland...and with ten million dollars...")
For as many snares as this film has in its problematic assembly, I do have to give it this much: thanks to its decision in the shared focal point between the two episodes, one could pitch this as one of the lesser known pronounced examples of emphasized bromance in television/film. I wouldn't stake money on it, I'm just saying the means are there if someone wanted to try and run with that angle.

To make this better and worse, picture Lugosi yelling "JAZZ HANDS!" as he does it.

11/24 - Bride of the Monster

Confession time - this spot was originally going to go The Killer Shrews. On thinking it over, however, I felt like just using The Violent Years wasn't really a proper representation for Ed Wood. He only really worked on some of the script, and as a result, it doesn't have quite the same distinctly weird feel that makes his films work so well. So, I made a judgment call and, thanks to the good folks in the public domain, fired up his 1955 tale of love and atomic supermen, Bride of the Monster.
OK, I also picked this cause it felt like doing a Wood movie without Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson was a missed opportunity.
Anyway, this is the point where I'll further admit I'm really not as versed in Wood's films as I should be. I've seen the classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, naturally, but there's many of his films I've not yet seen - though I do have a copy of Glen or Glenda I'd found as a freebie I should get around to firing up. Of what little of his work I've seen, I think this might actually be my favorite. I say this with all respect to Plan 9 (such as it is) but something about this wonderful craziness just nudged it over for me. I think part of it's just the whole premise - Lugosi as an expatriate mad scientist dabbling in atomic energy who lives with his mute giant (Johnson) and keeps a giant octopus in his lake. There's something about how straight-faced the movie plays the whole idea, which feels like it got pitched as a joke, that wins me over in part. Of course, the wonderfully cheesey acting and dialogue certainly help matters as well. The one problem with Ed Wood's films is that it's always tough to pick a favorite bit of dialogue - between his writing and the cast's delivery, you're guaranteed a lot of gold to work with. Lugosi in particular has a LOT of gems in this, thanks in no small part to his delivery on the lines. One of my picks going to his assertion to one test subject that he will be "as big as a giant, with the strength of twenty men! ... Or, like all the others, DEAD!" Of course, compared to the rest of the cast, I will give him points for making an effort. But, again, that's half the charm in an Ed Wood movie. Beyond Lugosi's lab, we have our heroes, including a squabbling couple whose conflict resolution results in the kind of ultimatum that would only fly in a 50s movie (Loretta King's Janet is backed off of her threat to call off her engagement by the prospect of giving back the ring. Again, only in the 50s.) On investigating the disappearance of two men in the woods, Janet and boyfriend Dick Craig (Tony McCoy) each make their ways to the sinister lab of Dr. Vornoff and his experiments in atomic supermen: the culmination of which leads to probably one of the best/weirdest sights to come out of this entire month - Lugosi successfully trashing Tor in a fight. From here, and because of the producer's desire to include an anti-warhead message, we come to a climax in which Vornoff's efforts make for an insane, but memorable, look at the proverbial horrors of the atomic age.
Before closing, I should also mention a tidbit as far as this film's production history. For anyone not familiar with Wood lore, this movie has gained something of a spot of fame in the director's film legend for the above-mentioned octopus. Most notably the stories that he and his crew allegedly stole the prop from the John Wayne movie Wake of the Red Witch. I have to admit, it's a fascinating little story, although the alternate tale - that Wood and his crew rented the prop, and the awkward motions aren't a result of failing to steal the whole thing but rather not renting the full rig, seems a bit more plausible. Whichever the case, it certainly does explain the incredibly awkward filming of the octopus attacks within the movie, and regardless which version you subscribe to, makes a fun little story on its own.
That said, again, this is one of Wood's gems. By no means is it a good movie, but it's a bad movie that's still pretty fun to watch, especially with company.
Plus, it's in the public domain (and available for legal download with a quick Google search) so why not give it a look if you're curious? There's worse ways you could spend 70 minutes.

In this alternate history, Raul Julia lives long enough to see what Tumblr does with him.

11/25 - Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

OK, with this I take back almost everything I said about Raul Julia in Street Fighter. Yes, the movie was a mess, but 1) he's at least fun in it, and 2) it's still an overall better movie than this.
Of course, I will acknowledge that's not entirely the fault of the filmmakers. This was put together as a made-for-TV movie in 1983 with funding from New Jersey's public broadcasting, which really only stretched things just so far. This was part of what was hoped to be a longer series of science fiction works, but as you can imagine with this funding, this was the last of the run.
The low budget really only covers just so much of this film's backside, however. The biggest enemy of this movie is actually its jumbled mess of a script, which sets up a couple of interesting ideas, but never really seems to know what to do with them. Julia appears Aram Fingal (I'll give you all 30 seconds to process that name) as a lowly desk jockey in a dystopian future where his interest in 'cinemas' lands him in trouble for not doing his work. Before I continue I just want to say that I can't help but feel this movie's got all the potential for a drinking game in it. At the very least, taking a shot any time someone says 'cinemas' would be enough to develop a good buzz in the first fifteen minutes that should coast the viewer through the remaining sixty-five minutes. Anyway, to cure Fingal of his interest in 'cinemas', they send him to a psychological rehabilitation they refer to as 'doppling': essentially taking a vacation in the body of an animal. The intervention of one rather creepy child sends Fingal on a trip that leaves him trapped inside the company's main computer (where he makes the most of his time by creating a mini-universe for himself heavily patterned on the movie Casablanca) and risking potentially upending everything. All the while, a harried technician (Linda Griffiths) with an equally bizarre name (Appolonia James, for the record...yeah...) desperately tries to relocate his old body and get him back into it before he does any further damage.
For anyone who thinks this doesn't sound that confusing, trust me, the full movie is a mess. The script is heavily afflicted with the old science fiction cliche of "bury any questions under a lot of technical sounding things" which, rather than help things, make the movie even more of a confused heap. When the chairman of the sinister NoviCorp (Donald Moore, playing almost every villainous fat man you've ever seen in film here) decides to intervene, his motives are muddled as he repeatedly fluctuates between wanting to get Fingal out of the system alive to maintain his company's stock and having Fingal eliminated before he sees too much of the company's inner workings. The film has a hard time keeping its story straight on this point, though I will admit, seeing it unriffed does make it a little easier to follow than the cut MST3k did. I've heard the film was allegedly unable to complete filming, which explains some of the holes, though I haven't found anything to affirm the truth to this story. In either case, the damage is done at this point - regardless the reasons, the movie's script is a king-sized helping of techno-jargon and a narrative that feels like it has narrative elements from Total Recall and Brazil while capturing the appeal of neither (yes, I realize it predated both, but for lack of a better point of reference/comparison...)
I do want to give them some points for recording the film on video so they could work with digital effects. It results in the film looking rather cheap at times nowadays, but it was still an interesting experiment for them to work with at any rate. Just one that time didn't really do much for.

If there's a way to make this picture any more 1960s, I don't know what it is.

11/26 - Danger: Diabolik

and so, we round out this part of the month with the final movie to be featured in the show's 10-year run. This was a pretty pleasant surprise, really. After the show started with The Crawling Eye, a movie that worked as an episode almost entirely thanks to the riffing, it was nice to see them round out with a film that, even outside of the riffing, is still pretty watchable. Based on the popular Italian comic series Diabolik, this adaptation by Mario Bava concerns the titular thief in his various exploits of theft, murder, and love. True to Bava's direction, one of the biggest strengths of this movie is its visual style. Paired with cinematography by Antonio Rinaldi and a soundtrack by the legendary Ennio Morricone, this has all the makings for a pretty wild ride on paper alone. The choice of casting for the famous thief was, at least for me, one that called for some adjusting. This isn't because I think John Phillip Law is bad in the role, actually. For a character who is largely a cypher, Law does make him at least an interesting one to watch. It was more thanks to this month's viewing and having previously seen him as the villainous Kalgan in Space Mutiny. It made it REALLY weird to watch this and have that voice in the back of my head going "and here's Kalgan having sex with a woman on top of a pile of money." Actually, most of the cast in this are pretty enjoyable in their roles. The one disappointing role, though this may have been thanks to the dub I was watching of the film, was Marisa Mell as Diabolik's girlfriend, Eva Kant. I'm not sure who dubbed her role for this, but the performance in that regard is painfully flat at points. That said, learning this part almost went to Catherine Deneuve was a bit of a surprise, though it did leave me wondering what could have been if she'd gotten the part. Character actor Terry-Thomas inadvertently nets himself some extra brownie points in his role as a minister of the interior - the various odd tics and gestures he plays the role with make what could have been just a talking head into a more memorable persona.
The only area where this film really takes much of a hit is in the overall narrative, most notably in its episodic nature. The individual storylines are all pretty solid - especially in the ways that Diabolik carries out his heists (fans of Lupin III should find some fun in this aspect of the movie, though Diabolik is  bit more ruthless) but the stories really don't connect particularly well. Each feels like it could make for a solid enough story to try and build a whole movie around, but the overarching plot of the police attempts to capture Diabolik, in particular determined Inspector Ginki (Michel Piccoli) never really feels like a strong enough thread to hold the movie together. It's fitting in a strange way at least - Diabolik's parts of the film are all strong and on point while the police are the ones who can't keep themselves in one piece around him. In particular their parts relying on using the newspaper and press conferences to advance their narrative makes them feel detached from Diabolik's stories. Even with them crossing paths a couple of times during the movie, the police raid on Diabolik's lair feels like it showed up from another film considering how loosely they seem to be attached to this story.
The cohesion issues aside, this is up there with the kaiju movies and The Final Sacrifice on the more fun standalone movies from this project. It also has me curious to see if any of the original Diabolik comics have been printed in English or not. It's a mix of some great legends of 60s Italian film into a wildly psychedelic tale of gangsters, detectives, and one strange but fascinating super-thief.  It's also a great example of one of the rules I think more people need to keep in mind about MST3k - just cause you can riff on a movie doesn't make it a bad one. Even the showrunners admitted several of the films they showed were actually pretty good, and this is another great example of it. It's a pretty fun movie, but also quite riffable. It's nothing to be ashamed of on its own, depending on what you get riffed on.

Whew. That was a lot of movie sign to go through.
Have to say though, it was still very worth it.
Keep an eye out over the next few days for a few general MST3k-related writeups to take us to the end of the month!

and in the long shot anyone attached to the show should ever read these: I'd just like to say, as many have already done so - thanks. Thanks for 25 great years and counting on bringing great laughs, a fun sense of audience participation, and introducing people to some of the more wonderfully bizarre films that would otherwise have gone unnoticed (though whether you consider saving Manos from obscurity something good or bad remains to be seen.) All the best to everyone and the best of luck on your future endeavors, will be following them with optimism!

Till tomorrow, folks!

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