With this, we're now 14 out of 25 films into this month's MST3k tribute. Where last week saw some heavy hitters on deck, this week we see two classics two parts of recurring themes on the show, and a double dose of one of the veterans of the show's movies - the great/infamous Roger Corman.
Wow, I never thought I'd hype up a spread like this. With that, let's get to it.
"Experimenting on prostitutes...this is what we've been reduced to. Mad science was much easier before lab interns got unions and insurance."
11/9 - The Undead
I promised you Corman, and Corman I shall deliver!
I'll admit that while this isn't a great movie, it was actually rather watchable. The story is interesting in its own unusual way, even if the science is downright laughable - in all fairness, it's a 50s horror film we're talking about here. Jumping on a trend of films that used reincarnation as a plot device, Corman crafts a tale of an ambitious scientist (Val Dufour) who believes hypnotism can allow one to explore their past lives. In true mad scientist fashion - again, it IS the 50s - he enlists a prostitute (Pamela Duncan) to serve as his test subject. This, in turn, allows for Corman to shift gears, going from a sort of loose sci-fi into a medieval piece on witchcraft (it turns out she had been accused and beheaded as a witch in this past life.) For a while, the past life storyline feels like it gets forgotten in favor of just running with the witchcraft narrative, which gets a bit awkward for a time. Though once they try and reconcile the two plot strands - particularly when it's realized this deep immersion/regression may lead to a scenario where Diana/Helene may inadvertently alter her fate in the past and completely rewrite her history as a result (again, 50's science) things get interesting again. While the overall concept is admittedly, somewhat cliche of time travel fiction, I give them points for at least exploring the cliche from a bit of a new angle. That said, one of the biggest problems this story suffers from when it finally reconciles its two plot strands is that it tries to be both a science piece and occult horror in the same breath. It dabbles in the idea of changing history while also playing with witches and the Devil (Richard Devon.) This in particular comes to a head in the film's climax, where Dufor's Quintus and Satan wind up gambling on whether or not history will be altered by Helene's decision. It's tonally awkward, and an incredibly silly premise in a lot of ways, but despite that, it's still a fairly fun watch.
If nothing else, the movie is worth watching for the performance of Mel Welles as the gravedigger Smolkin. It's nothing particularly masterful, but his penchant for taking beloved songs and skewing them toward the macabre is arguably the most entertaining thing about this movie. This is even before factoring in that it inspired a rather fun MST3k sketch on top of that.
"...and with this, I remain the scavenger hunt champion!"
11/10 - The Screaming Skull
Watching this, I was reminded of a statement had recently heard from Joel Hodgson regarding the difference in quality on films they obtained for running on MST3k, vis a vis buying licenses vs the public domain. While there was the matter of cost to factor, there was one other point he made note of - when you went public domain...well, you get what you pay for. The copy of The Screaming Skull I had to work with was a good example of this principle. I had to listen to this with the audio turned up full blast in order to make sense of what was being said by certain characters.
Just a side note.
Now as far as the movie itself. As far as this week's features, this was one of the two more awkward watches. The other, you'll see when we get there. Granted, the opening where they promise a free casket to any viewer who dies of fright during the movie's climax is a bit amusing. MST3k, of course, ran with the question we all wondered about here, with the idea that someone may have tried to get a free coffin out of the deal. Unfortunately, that disclaiming is really the one thing all that memorable about this film. Part of the problem on this film, dubious sound and picture quality aside, is that it's the kind of story that one has seen told and done better other places before this. Even the disclaimer, amusing as it is, is part of a gimmick that other horror films invoked to different ways throughout the 50s and 60s in order to play up how scary they were. The actual movie itself, loosely based on a story from 1908, plays at first like any number of ghost story cliches. As it goes on, however, it more specifically starts to turn into one of the less ambitious offspring of the 1944 film Gaslight. Beyond that, the film really never generates much in the way of scares or particularly standout writing, acting, or direction. Like The Crawling Eye, it's a movie that, without the riffs, is simply there. It's not awful, but it is so lacking in much else to say for itself that you almost wish it COULD be awful just to make more of an impression for itself.
"Well, if you're gonna blame me, that's just fine. I'll just take all the booze for myself then!"
11/11 - I Accuse My Parents
This is quite possibly one of the most bizarre propaganda films I've ever come across. Backed by the US Navy, this film was made with the intent of discouraging our fighting men overseas from lying. Yeah, you read that right. The results of which...well...let's put it this way - this movie does for the art of deception what Reefer Madness did for marijuana. The sheer outlandishness with which this movie suggests young Jimmy Wilson (Robert Lowell) gets himself into legal trouble with the mob thanks to his penchant for piling the BS high and deep is half the draw of the movie. It's just how completely insane the entire idea that the movie is hinged on that makes it watchable. Even stranger is the fact that, despite the title, the actual parental blame seems to take a backseat in the overall narrative. Jimmy's parental issues are pretty pronounced in the first arc, where we see the varying degrees of neglect and alcoholism by his parents (despite which, Jimmy apparently is an otherwise model citizen) but after a while, the story becomes about Jimmy's unorthodox courtship of a singer (Mary Beth Hughes) that leads to the above mentioned work in the mob. Even with the idea that the lack of parental supervision could have lead him to this point, the fact is, Jimmy is otherwise surprisingly on the ball, albeit with a tendency to lie mostly about what his home life is really like. Using this defense almost seems to defeat the point of the matter, as it comes across as though he just lied to the judge straight-faced and got away with it.
OK, maybe I'm reading too far into this point. That aside, the movie is still quite watchable in its sheer craziness. Despite the importance the film tries to place on not lying, Jimmy falls in with the mob simply from a desire to impress his new girlfriend and make money rather than as a result of any lies on his part. Which, in a way, is part of the appeal - everything that goes on here runs on its own bizarre logic, up to and including the human personification of the moral of this story in the last act - George Lloyd as a friendly hamburger joint owner. All this and a few song numbers to boot, as crazy goes, this has a little bit of something for everyone. It's no surprise this was the movie that Hodgson has since gone on to say was one of his favorites to riff.
"All right, all right...so what's the Russian for 'uncle?'"
11/12 - The Sword and the Dragon
Here to represent the so-named Russo-Finnish quadrilogy of episodes, we have our second appearance this week by Roger Corman. Admittedly, I was hoping to find a copy of The Day the Earth Froze for this, but in lieu of that one, this is still a pretty wild second. As the third of four Finnish/Russian fantasy movies the series ran, this is the second Russian film featured, and one that fared better than the second chosen title. The first of these, repackaged as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, had a LOT of its Russian elements stripped away. In all fairness, for the age when the film got brought over, this made some sense, though it was unfortunate. Surprisingly, by comparison, The Sword and the Dragon keeps a LOT of its Russian elements in, including many character names, such as protagonist Ilya Morometz, and leaving the song numbers in their original Russian. Of course, there is some tradeoff here: the dubbing on this is pretty bad. I don't mean as in it's badly acted or badly written - I mean the actual dub itself is AWFUL. Maybe it's a fault of the copy I had, but the audio sync was all over the road. Characters mouths would be moving before the last person had even finished speaking. It almost surpassed the cliche of the old martial arts movie dubs.
That aside, I do have to admit, the film is actually pretty fun. It certainly has its faults, most notably with how awkwardly the film's timeline is paced - Morometz's son goes from a young boy to a grown man almost instantaneously for an example - but given this film's narrative is shot as a spanning piece of folklore, some of that makes sense. At points, the jumps actually work, simply because they have enough of a gap that you can see where one story would end and another would begin. There is still an overarcing narrative, involving an invading Tugar army, but outside of the end, that is more a background piece and so the transitions aren't as awkward prior. In all, this is the kind of film I find myself curious to try and track down in its original language at some point to see if some of the narrative transitions may be a case of 'lost in translation' on the dub. Even if they're not, still not too bad a movie to give the chance to.
Now THIS is how you play Operation!
11/13 - Squirm
So, of the films I've covered for this so far, this is the one that currently holds the distinction of having the most cut from it to run on MST3k. It wasn't even a matter of network safe content, either. Rather, for a movie that was aired along with a short, the movie used was one that actually clocks in as slightly longer than a usual MST3k episode. That said, this is a pretty bizarre entry in the entire sub-genre of horror films that can be described as "people are scared by swarms of things, right?" Now, I can't say killer worms is completely off the table as a horror premise goes, simply because to do so calls the movie Tremors into question, but even in that case, they realized making them really large helped. Here, director Jeff Lieberman tries to make normal size worms into sources of terror - with electricity to make them bloodthirsty, anyway.
...it's not gonna sound any less strange in the film itself, guys.
Further diminishing from the fear of the worms is the film's heavy reliance on stock footage of them. While the first shots of the worms flashing some pincer could be seen as disturbing, after the fifth or sixth time, the shot really loses any impact. In large crowds, the worms look considerably less impressive. Though in this case, the film's effects budget doesn't really do them any favors either.
The humans only fair somewhat better here. Most of the cast are pretty unremarkable, with Patricia Pearcy and Jean Sullivan in particular dropping the ball. In the case of the latter, the MST3k cast put it best when they responded "No one's THAT Southern!" Probably the one real standout casting-wise is something of a double-edged sword. R.A. Dow as the movie's antagonist, Roger, definitely is throwing himself fully into his role. This is in part because Dow was apparently quite an avid method actor and had even taken up residence in the town they were filming in at the time in order to really gain a feel for his part (As my proofreader points out: there's certain films that lend themselves to method acting. This is not one of them.) The other side of this being, given the nature of Roger's character, Dow comes across as INCREDIBLY creepy. In fact, the most unsettling scenes in this movie have nothing to do with the worms and everything to do with Dow's leering expression. Otherwise, much of the supporting cast were actually played by locals of the town they filmed in. An idea that's novel on paper, but at the same time...well...mileage will naturally vary. Regarding the film's lead, Don Scardino at least has managed to find himself a much better niche in the world of directing, in particular as a regular helming episodes of 30 Rock.
Hey, it's nice to know someone got out of this movie Okay.
Also, if you do watch this and REALLY want to make it weird - keep this in mind: in early production, the three leads were almost played by Martin Sheen, Kim Basinger, and Sylvester Stallone. Further, Stallone was reportedly very interested in the film.
I'm just gonna leave it on that note, cause where else can I take that?
"...on second thought, this idea sounded a lot better in my head than it does in practice."
11/14 - The Violent Years
It feels weird to say about this film, but I actually feel somewhat disappointed. I think seeing Ed Wood's name attached to this one got my hopes up for some genuinely fascinating trainwreck. Of course, he only really was attached to the script and the direction was instead handled by one William Morgan. It even started somewhat promising as Wood-style premises go: exploring the idea of a girl gang in the mid-50s. Unfortunately, it loses its momentum fast in the second half. In fact, in terms of summing up the problems of the second half, I'd like to nominate the alternate title for this movie be I Accuse Your Parents. The film starts off with a fairly exploitative air in terms of the gang situation - we follow the girls through robbing gas stations, taking people hostage, and even effectively committing rape (or at least as much as a film from the 50s can go into that.) Of course, thanks to Morgan's direction, none of this really feels as shocking as I'm sure a really effective propaganda piece would want to make it. It's just there, and even nowadays isn't really out there enough to be campy. Eventually, the film does decide to show the downsides of the gang life, but even this loses its impact, though that's partially thanks to the limitations of the era - two members are killed in an astonishingly bloodless shootout with the police. From there, the film rushes to an awkward finale that makes some unusual callbacks to the first half before lapsing into painfully overt speech that, under the pretense of being addressed at one of the gang members' parents instead is said to the audience. Following the exploitative nature of the first half, an entire speech about returning to religious values and how much better society would be for doing so winds up falling as flat as the first half did, albeit for different reasons. I will admit, I haven't actually seen the riffed version of this film yet, but I am curious to see if this is a case where the SoL crew is able to salvage this title. Unfortunately, on its own, it's really not as memorable as some of Wood's other gems.
"Welp...so long as I don't have to bother with next of kin or condolence letters, you guys just do what you want with 'em. Not like I won't be replacing them next year anyway."
11/15 - Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
...and so we end the week with this. Ow.
This is one of those films it feels weird to really unload on for two reasons:
For one, like Gamera the week before, it's a film that seems perfectly content in its, if I may be perfectly frank in this case, utterly batshit premise, which makes it hard to bust its chops for that.
For another, this is a film akin to the first opponent in a game of Punch-Out! EVERYONE has wailed on this movie - for good reason, mind you. It becomes a challenge of what can really be said for this movie that hasn't already been said?
I do genuinely wonder at the creative process that inspired this. I mean, the title alone smacks of a wild night of coke and floozies at its finest before one even gets into its execution. The actual film is just...well, I suspect more coke went into the brainstorming to make the title work for one, but that's neither here nor there.
Personally, I'm torn between whether to say this is watchable or not. I mean, there are certainly some bits that are amusing - most notably a scene when the Martians first arrive to collect Santa and freeze his elves. Santa is at first saddened by the idea that his elves may be permanently trapped. The second he learns it's only temporary, he casually shrugs it off like nothing happens, even going so far as to crack jokes when the same is done to his wife (I have to wonder if she could hear him during that. If so, he's in for an interesting return later.) Anyway, unfortunately, while there are amusing moments, there's also a lot of the film that just...is. I mean, one could get some amusement out of just the sheer ridiculousness of the premise, but the execution just makes a lot of that craziness feel bland.
It's one of those movies that really needs some manner of interactive abuse- either by the MST3k cast, or just yourself and a group of friends-to really make the most of it.
...And with that, I've breached my general rule of avoiding Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving. Given my druthers, I'd have preferred to spend it on something better, but play the ball as it lies.
In any case, keep any eye out - alongside the next part of this project, I've got two new general write-ups lined up for the week to come!