Friday, November 22, 2013

MST3k Week the Third: "Movie"

Well, that's enough from the good films for a bit! Back to the hurting!

Actually, this week's spread was pretty enjoyable as the Deep 13 offerings go. Not necessarily GREAT, but at least nothing this week that really dragged too badly.

But, I'm getting ahead of things.

"Well, I spoke with the DM about his handing out those extra sheets last week. Based on his laughter, I wouldn't bet too high on most of us making the end of this campaign."

11/16 - The Magic Sword

So, we've covered Ed Wood and Roger Corman, but surprisingly, neither takes the prize for the director whose work was most featured on the show. That prize goes to one Bert I. Gordon, director of this feature. This is also one of the more curious standouts in that it's among the list of movies that the showrunners looked back on and actually thought was pretty good- all things considered.
That said, I can still see why they featured it - the movie offers quite a bit to riff on. The ridiculously over the top, turban-wearing Basil Rathbone as the villainous Lodac alone is enough to sell the movie for riffs. Factor in things like Estelle Winwood and her two-headed assistant and Lodac's army of what appear to be coneheads and the movie just lends itself quite well to mockery.
Riffs aside though, yeah, this actually isn't as bad as some of the other movies the show has roasted alive over the years. The story is pretty boilerplate sword and sorcery, albeit with a nice little creative twist making it a spin on the St. George and the Dragon story. Amusingly, of the seven knights patterned on saints, George is the only one who fails the big requirement of 'saints usually have to be dead.' Then again, George in general is rather bland compared to most of the rest of the cast. I say this with all respect to Gary Lockwood (whom more recognize as Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey,) but really, he's just your classic lovestruck young man who goes on a quest to win over a princess (Anne Helm) in whom his interest is actually rather creepy: he's been watching her for years, she doesn't know who he is. Probably the funniest thing about the whole quest is that moment when you look back at it in all and realize just how little of the plot is actually a success because of George. If anything, his mother Sybill (Winwood) seems to be the one who really gets things done in the film: it's the magic items she bestows on George, including the other knights, that allow him to succeed. Of course, even with that in mind, he soundly burns through all of those knights to do so, but I digress.
This does up the amusement in its own weird way, at least for me. The big hero of this quest is actually the least useful member of the team - yes,  more than the turncoat, who at least helps set up Lodac's downfall later. He's the living embodiment of 'right place, right time' played to an inadvertently comedic extreme.
That odd plot loop aside, it's just a pretty light piece of fantasy, really. Even at its worst, it's only just average. But in general, it still manages to maintain a  fun atmosphere at points that leads me to see why the showrunners were pretty good about this one.
On a side note: I was surprised at one of the scenes from this that was cut from the episode. Not in terms of shocking subject matter, but more because I was genuinely surprised the showrunners passed up an incredibly riffable, if somewhat creepy moment in which Helene (Helms) is tormented by a pair of genuinely unsettling dwarves. It's the kind of moment that lends itself so well to riffing that even though I hadn't seen the episode in a while before watching this, I could tell the scene was cut, since I'd have remembered that.

In the complex world of tokusatsu social politics, this is what's known as 'You Done Walked Into the Wrong Neighborhood'

11/17 - Godzilla vs Megalon

As I've explained here in the past, Godzilla was a regular part of my childhood. Godzilla vs Megalon, in particular, is one of the first I really remember well. So I was braced for something of a nostalgia buffer on this one. The resulting film actually worked out even better than I was expecting here, for reasons I didn't fully expect. Rather, watching this one, I was struck by much the same effect I had when I first watched episodes of the old Adam West Batman TV series years after I had first seen them: they are still fun, in part now for all of the genuinely insane bits that never fully sunk in as a kid when I watched it before.
In particular, the big fight at the end of this one, which is inadvertently hilarious on several levels. Between seeing the not-quite-Ultraman hero robot Jet Jaguar get the everloving crap beaten out of him by Megalon and returning monster Gigan, with the two high-fiving afterwards, and the downright goofy gestures Godzilla makes as he runs in to the fight, and finally Godzilla and Jet Jaguar's downright thuggish behavior in dealing with Megalon after Gigan retreats (Jet Jaguar holding Megalon's arms behind his back while Godzilla does flying kicks into his chest is decidedly less than heroic behavior) there's a lot of craziness in this title fight.
Outside of the monsters, the plot on this one in general is pretty wild as Godzilla movies go. Megalon is summoned by the embittered people of Atlantis (who apparently have a hotline to the Nebula M aliens to justify bussing in Gigan) who have decided the people on the surface had their shot, and the day we rolled out nukes we crossed the line. As their monster runs rampant on us, the world relies on an inventor, a racer, and precocious little kid to save know, movie logic. It's definitely not an intricate plot. More to the point, the whole thing is a giant piece of fan-service on many levels. The movie had actually started life as an entirely separate Tokusatsu piece with Jet Jaguar as the title hero (part of a bid by Toho to get a new name onto the superhero craze being kicked off by the likes of Ultraman and Mazinger Z, both of who show influence on ol' JJ) fighting Megalon. As the project went on, the higher-ups started to have doubts about where things were heading. Hoping to make the most of the project, they rewrote the works as a Godzilla movie and even worked in fan-favorite Gigan (in the way explained above...yeah...) There's a lot about the film that's pretty clearly engineered just for audience appeal. Despite that, the movie doesn't really suffer for it. In fact, the whole thing is a pretty breezy, if somewhat insane, piece of robot on giant monster action. The fan-service never really feels like it's arbitrary, so much as it feels like the people behind the movie were enjoying running with it as well, which is the kind of thing that can go a LONG way in making something watchable, if not high art.

OK, I try to keep an open mind about creative reinterpretations. But with this as a sample, I'm REALLY not so sure about this new low budget Lord of the Rings retake.

11/18 - The Final Sacrifice

Speaking of not great, but surprisingly watchable...
Before I go into this one any further, I'd like to take a moment to offer a big thanks to my friend Kurt (who you can find on Twitter) who was able to hook me up with a copy of this movie. For as popular as the MST3k episode has been, the movie itself is an absolute pain to find unriffed. Prior to his assistance, the only copy I'd come even close to finding was a VHS version selling for $300 on Amazon. Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, I have to admit - I enjoyed this movie more than I probably should have. There's really not a whole lot particularly good about it: it's a very low budget student film, the acting is bizarre, the plot is rambling, the characters by design are downright ridiculous, the music only adds to the oddity, and the post-production borders on non-existent at points (though hearing the birds just left in on general shots is an inadvertent nice touch in a way.) On no technical level is this a good movie. Despite that, it's still a surprisingly fun ride. Yes, Troy is one of the strangest depictions of a young man in film, and Zap Rowsdower...well...the internet has written entire figurative reams of text on the appeal and greatness of the denim-clad warrior that is Rowsdower. He's just such a bizarre choice for a hero in almost every respect: between his mullet, the copious denim, his beat-up truck, and his love of drinking and firearms, he's like the end result of a failed experiment by Canada to clone Brock Sampson. In many ways, he's arguably the strongest part of this movie. Even before the MST3k riffs adding to the fun, he's just such a strange but enjoyable hero right there. Made even better by the fact that the cult leader he's pitted against looks like a normal-sized Richard Kiel whose voice sounds like it was run through a modulator make everything he says sound imposing and threatening (in theory, anyway.) The one other standout in this being the secondary character known as Pipper. He's mainly there for some information dump, but frankly, his eery vocal resemblance Dr. Teeth of The Muppets fame is worth his being in the movie alone.
This is really one of those films that hits a strong balance of elements that it really didn't intend to. It's far from a great movie, but the weirdness all balances in just such a way that what should be a bad movie is actually a pretty fun, if nonsensical, adventure movie.
The Hell with it, I'll say it - I'd watch a series based on the adventure of Troy & Rowsdower. Like one of those low-budget 90s shows where the two would go from town to town, solving occult problems and stopping villains in ski masks.
Why? Why did this show never happen?!

Was there any doubt this would be the scene from this movie I'd screencap?

11/19 - Space Mutiny

This may be the worst thing to come out of South Africa this side of apartheid.
OK, that's a bit extreme, but this movie IS pretty bad. But it was at least the kind of bad that, like a lot the films this week, lends itself VERY well to riffing. I have to admit, this is one where I feel a little bad busting on the movie after learning some of the backstory. Most notably the fact that director David Winters wasn't actually there for much of the filming. He was called away due to a death in the family and most of the production was helmed by an assistant director. By the time he got back, the damage was done, and, to add insult to injury, there was no way he could have his name removed in favor of an Alan Smithee. He didn't even get to dig the grave, but he still had to lie in it.
And what a grave he had to lie in! Right from the get-go, this movie is off to a bad start with its now insanely dated computerized titles and soundtrack. Then, as you start recovering from that, the movie hits you head-on with special effects lifted wholesale from Battlestar Galactica. I'm not talking just explosions mind you, they lift the dogfights, complete with the ship designs, right out of the series. It's actually surprising to me that the movie never got sued for this, though I wonder if that's because the show was already dodging fire from people accusing them of ripping off Star Wars. Or, more likely, they figured the movie punished itself.
Anyway, from there we go to a story that manages to dance between making sense and being nonsensical all at once. The loose main narrative that the title comes from is straight forward enough- on a remote ship for colonization, a core group of officers plots to take over the main ship, deviate from there mission, and use this to settle into a good life at the expense of everyone else on board. Then one gets into some of the nature of how their mutiny is found out, in particular a plot involving a team of alien visitors who seem to exist solely for t&a, and that seemingly simple plot has become tangled up in some genuinely convoluted extra elements. This is even before getting into the problems with production and the wonderfully bad acting involved. Actually, the bad production values DO yield one rather amusing story: working with their low budget, the film crew tried to work around having sunlight shining into what were supposed to be space ship sets by filtering the points of sunlight with an orange glow to give things more of a 'tech' look. Post-production apparently missed the memo and color-corrected them right back to normal sunlight. Besides that, we have a memorably bizarre cast, lead up by Reb Brown (the man who would be 70s Captain America) in an apparent defiance of sleeves and sporting one of the best/worst war cries in film. Opposite him, we have John Phillip Law and James Ryan (Funny because that's the name of my dad- Editrix), each looking like somewhat slicker versions of one another to such a degree that I suspect the reason they gave the latter a cane was to further differentiate them. Though to his credit, Law DOES have the advantage of a rather entertaining maniacal cackle, but I digress on this point. Throw these into a blender with some outfits and music that are so screamingly 80s you can feel cocaine burning in your nostrils, and you have at least a teaser trailer taste of what Space Mutiny has to offer. Again, it's easy to see why, when this movie ran, the episode was a hit. It's not a good movie by any means, but it's another that lapses into 'so bad, it's good.' While the riffs are some of the best stuff (series best, according to many), some parts of this are just funny on their own. If you don't at least feel a LITTLE amused at the final showdown between Brown and Law - a high-stakes, winner-take-all duel to the death in slow moving versions of two cars akin to bowling alley polishers, then I worry for you.


11/20 - The Deadly Bees

Fun Fact: this movie was the one featured in the first full MST3k episode I ever saw.
On its own merits, it's kind of an odd one. It's not as memorably bad as the likes of The Final Sacrifice or Space Mutiny, but it's not a good movie either. I give it points for arguably being the very first 'killer bee' movie, at the very least. But really, it's mostly just OK. This was the closest this week gets to a 'Just there' movie, all things considered. Though thankfully not one I've had to force myself through quite like I did with The Crawling Eye. The movie largely concerns itself with a burned out pop singer who gets sent to recuperate on an island (cause if there's one thing British horror cinema has taught us, it's that nothing bad EVER happens on remote islands.) Shortly after her arrival, people start dying from being swarmed by bees - and so suspicion comes to the man she's staying with, who just happens to be one of two people who raises bees on their property. Yeah, Agatha Christie this is not. The film actually does a relatively decent job of throwing viewers off the scent for a bit at least (a game that would have almost been more interesting had they been able to carry out their initial plan of casting Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee as the two bee, really.) There are really only three big problems the movie has going for it. The first of these, and the less pressing, is a completely extraneous plot involving two British bureaucrats who've apparently been warned that a man is developing his own strain of killer bees. At first, this seems understandable - they want to set up the idea from the title early that someone has made lethal insects. The problem is, the bureaucrats really don't do much of anything in the overall story. They occasionally comment on what's going on, but only really become an active piece of the story at the VERY end - one of their agents arrives on the scene as the end credits are rolling. It's the kind of thing that you could mostly cut from the movie without losing anything barring the rather odd arrival of the agent at the very end. The other, and more pressing problem with the movie is the fact it has no real sense of suspense or tension. For a horror/mystery piece, that is a BIG mistake to be making, as it really makes it hard to get involved in the long, slow process being carried out. This is arguably an even bigger sin to me than the fact this movie's effects have aged terribly. That one's problematic, don't get me wrong - especially one sequence where the 'bees' are actually pretty clearly coffee grounds in water. But bad effects can, in theory, be overlooked if the story is worth it. Just ask anyone who's ever watched classic Doctor Who (and with that, I just made someone's hit list.) On the other hand, a mystery that fails to really hold up its suspense or interest may as well not exist.
That did come out harsher than I intended it to. Sorry, but I had to be blunt. The riffs make this watchable at least, but on its own, it's really not that strong.

"I don't know why I'M the bad guy here! I thought we discussed this and agreed this year's costume them was Spinal Tap."

11/21 - Cave Dwellers

We're back to the memorably bad again, with another film born out of the legacy of a better class of movie than it turned out to be. This is one of those strange cases in film where someone actually took a sequel and repackaged it as a self-contained film, albeit one that didn't try to hide the fact it was a sequel. Made to cash in on the success of Conan the Barbarian and later Conan the Destroyer, this is actually a repackaged version of the second film in the Ator quadrilogy. For the record, when I say 'doesn't try to hide the fact it was a sequel' I mean they don't just make reference to past events - they completely recap the first movie in a full montage narrated by Ator's mentor (in terms of how effective it is in bringing you up to speed...well...let's just say Crow wasn't entirely joking when he commented "Even Tolkien couldn't follow this!") As far as this narrative goes, however, the movie plays out like a giant heap of pre-history fantasy cliches, with an especial emphasis on the ones director Joe D'Amato cribbed from Conan. In the title role, Miles O'Keefe makes for an imposing presence on just build, but he never quite gets the imposing element they were trying to emulate from Schwarzenegger, nor does he get the moments of crazy either. Meanwhile, Ator's mute sidekick Thong (Chen Wong) is mostly just...there. He proves useful near the end, but for most of the film he's more like a sentient Chekhov Gun, just travelling with Ator and killing anything he misses. Of course, for being a mute plot device, he's still the better of Ator's two sidekicks. In comparison to Mila (Lisa Foster), he's like a masters class on acting. Of course, some of this may also be thanks to the fact that this movie is dubbed into English from Italian, which certainly effects the quality of some of the performances. As far as who gets it worst in the dubs, that's a tough call: both the film's antagonist Zor (David Cain Haughton) and Ator's mentor Akronas (Charles Borromel) both get some pretty memorably terrible dubbing. In the case of the former, Zor chews scenery like it's the finest bubble gum the world has ever produced, savoring every fresh jaw motion. For the latter, Akronas's dub performance reads like a parody of a parody of William Shatner, with a glut of dramatic pauses and awkward emphasis at the wrong times. Of course, these bad performances can only do just so much to hurt a story that's already pretty badly off to begin with. It starts off relatively (keyword there) focused, Ator going to save his mentor and his mentor's invention from Zor's evil plotting, but it takes a very long way around with many of its actions. Further, the setting is an absolute mess chronologically and geographically, combining cavemen, the archetypal Conan-esque swordsman, Mongol warriors and fully armored samurai to clash in environments that look strangely similar (well, disregarding some inadvertently priceless errors in filming, anyway.) It's the kind of film it's fun to beat the ever-loving Hell of, as the SoL crew proved. On its own, it's a pretty shameless ripoff, but one almost doesn't mind since it pays well enough through its own failures.

OK, there's really no need to riff Pumaman flying. He does it all for himself.

11/22 - Pumaman

Before I start, I just want to give you all this one fun fact: Donald Pleasance was once quoted as saying he considered this to be the worst movie he ever made. Considering some of the projects he had agreed to over the years, THAT should tell you something about what to expect here.
Man, there's so many things weird about this movie I almost don't know where to begin.
I should probably start with the fact we have a superhero whose origin story is the embodiment of the line "I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens." No. Really, the entire Pumaman lineage is born out of aliens messing with the Aztecs ages ago, and apparently still meddling with the human race generations later. Of course, it's also their meddling that leads to the trouble here in the first place, since the whole conflict in this movie is based on their technology landing in the hands of Pleasance's Korbas. From there, we move to the current heir of the Pumaman himself. For starters, Walter George Alton reminds me eerily of a young John Saxon, who is not normally who I think of when I think superheroes. From there, we get to how he uses his powers. I do have to give the Pumaman some points, since he appears to be ahead of the curve in terms of superheroes acting like jerks in the interest of getting the job done. It seems like the Pumaman often can't resist using his powers for less than heroic ends, such as flying off with one man and threatening to drop him for information. From there, he then leaves the guy hanging elsewhere. Sure, the man is a criminal, and it gets results, but still...dick move, Pumaman. In fact, much of the Pumaman's progress comes as a result of prompting by latter day Aztec priest Vadinho (Miguel Angel Fuentes,) rather than direct volition. When Pumaman does show his own volition, the dickishness ensues.
All while set to a soundtrack the likes of which you used to hear on those hand operated film strips they used to show in elementary school way back in the day.
The whole narrative is a strange mix of a familiar superhero origin story tied with enough odd touches of its own that are headscratching in their twists. Probably one of the biggest of these being a mid-movie reveal of a completely new superpower that doesn't particularly fit the puma motif and really only seems to serve as to give the writers an out for an otherwise fairly hard to escape situation they wrote themselves into. It's hard NOT to feel like they mined the idea figuratively out of their backside. Surprisingly, I'm not sure it's the worst superhero movie I've ever seen. It's down there, but rather than raging in this case, I'm more struck with an amused disbelief at just how ridiculous the whole thing turns out to be. I imagine it wasn't meant to be, but it is. I'm still debating whether to say it quite makes the level for 'so bad it's good' but they at least are making one HELL of a good try for it, however accidental, and I will give director Alberto De Martino that much at any rate.

All in all, a pretty fun week for these.
Four more to go until the 25 mark and then we get a few days of general writeups till the end of the month. This has been a heady dose of bad film, but I have to say, still been a rather fun month so far.

Looking forward to the big finish this week!
Till then!

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