Friday, September 17, 2010

MST3K #211 - First Spaceship On Venus

“Any interest I had for them getting safely off the planet has been completely erased by a miasma of boring technical stuff.” – Crow

Released in 1960. Starring Yoko Tani, Oldrick Lukes, Ignacy Machowski, Julius Ongewe. Written by a ton of East Germans. USA production by Hugo Grimaldi, and others. Directed by Kurt Maetzig. Color.

Original air date: December 29, 1990

Sitting through “First Spaceship on Venus” – both the film and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode – is a chore. Long stretches of thick dialogue, scenes where nothing happens and a general disinterest from Joel and the robots make this the low point of Season 2. I might have some disagreements from fans here. But the episode nearly puts me to sleep. It feels like a first season episode in the sparsity and low frequency of the riffing. The movie itself also benefits from a wide screen showing, which the show can’t provide, resulting in jarring jump cuts. But you can’t hit a home run (or at least a double) every episode. I think the writers were just biding their time until Godzilla showed up in the last two episodes of the season.

You’d think the episode would be a standout since it has much in common with the very successful Russo-Finnish films they covered in future seasons. It’s produced by Eastern Europeans, has a big budget, is poorly dubbed, and features some thinly veiled socialist realism. It even throws in some well-meaning propaganda at nuclear disarmament. Much of the problem lies in the dialogue. It’s not goofy, like we’ve seen in previous films (#210 “King Dinosaur” is a good example), but it’s plenty clunky. Lots and lots of technobabble, enough to make “Star Trek: The Next Generation” decipherable. And there are few breaks in between lines. The characters throw big words at each other almost constantly. This is the death knell for the episode’s riffing. Much of the time Joel and the bots just stare at the screen and when they speak, the humor is spotty.

“First Spaceship on Venus” is also not that terrible a movie. Like I mentioned before, it presents an anti-nuclear message and shows a hopeful future. An international cast of Germans, Japanese, Israelis and Africans make the spaceship’s cast. We’ll see this type of international cooperation and hopeful future in “Star Trek,” which this film somewhat resembles. While the film is overloaded with technical dialogue, there are some interesting ideas presented and you can tell the film’s scriptwriters really tried to include as much real science and theory as possible. To East German audiences in the 1960s, when communism made their lives a gray, fearful and repressive world, this colorful film must have been a transforming experience. But today, the film remains dreadfully dull and slow-moving.

Like many films show on MST3K, “First Spaceship on Venus” opens with an excited narrator throwing tons of plot our way: it’s sometime in the future (probably 1970) and wreckage from a Venusian spaceship is found to include messages that are deemed undecipherable. A crack team of international scientists are quickly dispatched on the Earth’s first interplanetary mission. On the way to Venus, the crew discovers the messages might indicate a possible invasion of Earth by Venus. Landing on the second planet, they discover an advanced civilization undone by its own science.

The jokes and riffs are not the best here, but there are a few memorable moments. Joel has fun doing the voice of the little robot on the ship, who’s head resembles Twiki from “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” As a result, we get a lot of “beedee, beedee, beedee” from Joel, which is funny. Joel also gives Servo an adjustment on his sarcasm sequencer, which is a running gag throughout the episode. Sometimes Servo’s sarcastic comments are funny, often times not. It does make his head explode at the conclusion of the show.

The astronauts’ flight suits more than resembles teddy bears, to which Servo sings “This is the time the teddy bears fly to Venus.” At the end, when the ship is thrown off the planet leaving three crew members behind, the African pilot, who previously was a rock of strength, screams like a girl and freaks out. Understandable, sure, but surprising and strangely out of place in context of the film. “At least he’s taking it like a man,” Joel says. Later, when one crew woman is trying to contact those left behind: “Um, there’s an angry black gentleman on line one,” Crow says.

My favorite jokes are when one character sees his Japanese former flame, saying her name Sumiko. Crow quickly says “I will as soon as I get a lawyer.” And at the film’s denouement, one scientist says they still have a lot of work to do, “Like covering the whole thing up,” Joel inserts.

The sketches are also less than inspired this time around. Crow and Servo’s robot creation, which only speaks in foam, is a dud. As is the bizarre gorilla visit. The send-up of old Kraft commercials is amusing, except most people don’t remember the originals. The junk drawer invention exchanges make it look like the writers are running out of ideas.

I can’t say much else about the episode. It’s boring as hell and that’s about it. I’d consider watching “First Spaceship on Venus” uncut, in wide screen, and in better quality. It might play a whole lot better. At least we know that the Japanese monster movies will make their MST3K debut in the next episode. It’s about to get a lot more exciting.

Rating: **

Side note: This episode is available on the Shout! Factory box set “20th Anniversary,” which is really #13 in the DVD release series.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

MST3K #210 - King Dinosaur, with short X-Marks the Spot

“You know guys, lizards were hurt in the making of this film.” – Joel

Starring: Bill Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller. Producer: Robert L. Lippert. Written, produced and directed by Bert I. Gordon. Released in 1955.

X Marks the Spot – Starring: Edmon Ryan, George Matthews, Richard Gordon, Del Sharbutt, Commissioner Arthur W. Magee, N.J. DMV. Directed by Warren Murray. Presented by the State of New Jersey. Released in 1940.

Original air date: December 22, 1990

“King Dinosaur” – the rousing tale of four horny astronauts who land on a new planet infested with stock footage. Robert Lippert strikes again in another run-of-the-mill monster movie the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew must watch. Lippert knew how to make movies, especially on the cheap. Find bad actors, raid the public domain stock footage shelves for shots of animals and scenery, and pad out the action with pointless walking scenes. He must have been cranking out these turds once a week. And he probably made millions!

Best part of “King Dinosaur”: we never see a dinosaur, just super-imposed giant lizards. Although one of the characters tries to convince us we’re looking at a T-Rex. Sure we are…

To be fair, “King Dinosaur’s” creatures aren’t all brought in through stock footage. Several of the lizard scenes are shot on miniature sets, especially the ones where they’re fighting. And these aren’t fights achieved through clever editing; these lizards are really going at, blood and all. PETA would have a fit seeing this film.

As for the riffing, this film lets the crew have some real fun. It’s not the best of the second season, but it’s a bit above average. The writers are getting sharper, funnier and nastier. Quite a few jokes fall flat, like in #209 “The Hellcats,” but they’re trying new stuff to see what works and what doesn’t. The terribleness of the movie and quirky jokes makes this an enjoyable episode.

Before Joel and the robots endure “King Dinosaur,” they must first watch a short film. It’s the first short that isn’t taken directly from a serial. This time it’s from a “scare film,” which were used back in the days to teach children and adults what’s right and what’s wrong. For the rest of the series’ run, we’ll see shorts delving into morality tales, instruction films, Canadian expositions, and tourist videos. The short in this episode is “X Marks the Spot,” which deals with driving infractions. In it, Joe is proven to be one of the worst drivers in New Jersey and pays the ultimate price. I’m sure this was shown to repeat offenders back in the day.

The short is an odd set up; Joe dies in a crash that is his fault. He’s brought to heavenly traffic court where his guardian angel proceeds to tell the judge how awful a driver he was. Joe then asks forgiveness, to which the judge then turns to us at home to ask if Joe should be given a second chance, then asking if we’re even qualified to make that decision. The undercurrent of the short is deadly serious, but how can you take it seriously when the guardian angel is played like a retarded Sid Melton (see #208)? In actuality, the angel is played by former prize fighter George Matthews. The guardian angel was once a bad driver, which we learn through the judge; “You see, I stopped a car with my face once. My forehead’s all bondo!” Servo says, imitating the angel.

The riffing, like many shorts in the show, is some of the tightest and funniest all season. When the narrator tells us we recognize Joe because he lives on our street, Joel chimes in “In fact, he’s under your bed right now.” At one point, the angel tells the judge Joe liked a cocktail or two before he drove, to which Crow says “A half-gallon or two.” And Joel gets exacerbated at the judge’s insistence on talking to the audience to decide Joe’s fate: “We’re stranded here in space and we still have to pull jury duty.” With the end of “X Marks the Spot,” it’s evident we’ll see a lot more fun in future shorts.

And now the movie: “King Dinosaur” starts with a frenzied narrator setting up the plot of four astronauts – two men, two women – visiting Planet Nova for study, which looks a lot like a field in Wisconsin (“That’s one step for man, one giant leap into a cow patty,” Servo says). Upon landing, they spend a long time walking and discovering stock footage of deer, owls and other animals. They even adopt a furry little animal Joel and the bots dub “Joe the Lemur.” Problem is, it’s not a lemur, but Joel has fun doing its voice now and then. Eventually, two of the party discovers an island where giant lizards roam and duke it out occasionally.

The film drags quite a bit until the giant lizards show up. True to form, we get a lot of walking scenes early on (“Fifteen minute break everyone. Lippert rules apply here,” Servo intones). There is a funny fight between Dr. Ralph (Bill Bryant) and a rubber alligator. When Ralph comes to, he sees a giant spider, which he shoots because it’s different. Everyone tells him to relax (“Relax?! There’s a bee the size of a moose over there and you tell him to relax?!” Crow shouts).

There’s no relaxing when the lizard fights begin. For the last quarter of the movie, Drs. Richard (Douglas Henderson) and Patricia (Wanda Curtis) watch as giant lizard after giant lizard kill each other (“Mr. Lippert, I’m appalled!” Crow says of the animal abuse). Dr. Ralph and Nora (Patti Gallagher) come to the rescue, equipped with an atomic bomb. Apparently that’s standard issue on all planetary explorations.

Herein lies the most confounding part of the movie – the ending, which makes me angry. All four explorers run for their lives from the giant animals. It’s clear they’ll probably get away just fine, but still they feel the need to trigger the A-bomb. In the end, the island of animals explodes, forever disrupting the natural course of Planet Nova. What the hell was the point of that? It’s another in a long line of Lippert moments where the characters destroy things because they do not understand them. “Looks like we brought civilization to Planet Nova,” Dr. Richard states in so many words. Please. “Thanks for annihilating all that I know,” Crow says as the lemur. That’s actually more like it.

I can’t fail to mention that “King Dinosaur” is actually the brainchild of Bert I. Gordon – Mr. BIG himself. One of the more famous of the B-movie directors, Gordon made a career out of superimposing ordinary animals onto the silver screen to make them huge. In typical Bert I. Gordon fashion, he wrote the story as an excuse to feature special effects. To hell with character development and direction for actors (George Lucas must have taken notice). Just watch Douglas Henderson shove the actresses around several times. You’d think Bert would tell him to tone it down. Nope. Instead, we see Henderson literally throw these women to the ground and it looks painful! Regardless, we’ll see plenty more of Bert’s movies in the coming seasons.

The sketches are a little sub-par this time around. The invention exchanges are funny, but aren’t really inventions – Joel’s is really stinky socks. The “Joe the Lemur” bit is overdone and not funny, and comes before we even see the “lemur” in the film. The Emotional Scientist bit isn’t much better. Same with the closing moments. But Crow’s questioning whether he’s qualified, based off what the “X Marks the Spot” judge asks is really funny. It’s easily the best sketch here. The beat poetry moment in the beginning is amusing, too. Joel has shaved his ‘50s goatee, but the bots have grown their own.

“King Dinosaur” makes for a fun experiment for the show. Not the best riffing and certainly lacking on the sketches, but it’s still a memorable episode.

Rating: ***

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MST3K #209 - The Hellcats

“We’re born, we die, and there’s lots of padding in between.” - Joel

Starring: Ross Hagen, Dee Duffy, Sharyn Kinzie, Del “Sonny” West, Robert Slatzer. Writers: James Gordon White and Robert Slatzer. Producers: Anthony Cardoza and Herman Tomlin. Director: Robert Slatzer. Released in 1967.

Original air date: December 8, 1990

Ross Hagen is back in a return to form that we never asked for. In the third grindhouse biker film of the second season, and the second one starring Hagen, we get more of the same; lots of long scenes of people on motorcycles, violent shootouts, and trippy dialogue, man. Like “Wild Rebels,” this is a watchable film on its own if you have a soft spot for these kinds of 1960s movies like I do. And the incessant dancing and partying makes for some really great commentary from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. I think the film is summed up best in this one scene: a stoned biker dude stumbles around a field, saying “Roses are green, violets are red…” Joel finishes for him: “I like to shoot heroin straight into my head.”

It’s also an easier to take film than Hagen’s last showing, “The Sidehackers.” Where that movie was mean-spirited with rape, murder and domestic violence, “The Hellcats” is just plain goofy. At least both movies have something Joel and the robots can easily pick apart – Ross Hagen’s glowering performance. Thankfully, we get plenty of “chili peppers burn my gut” references.

“The Hellcats” features Hagen playing Army Sgt. Monte Chapman, whose police detective brother is murdered by a drug ring early in the film. He and his brother’s fiancé, Linda (Dee Duffy), decide to go undercover in the drug-running biker gang his brother was investigating. They believe it was these drugged, free-loving hippies that killed their loved one, but soon learn that it was evil, suited-wearing grease balls. In between, there’s lots of dancing, drugging and some weird scenes of physical endurance. Like most films shown on MST3K, this film could have been told in about 20 minutes. But noooooooo.

Apparently, the show’s writers rushed through this episode as they were attending a Comedy Central meeting in New York to ensure MST3K remained on the air. As a result, the show would become the flagship production for several years for the powerhouse that is Comedy Central today. But some fans believe this show took a hit because the writers were in a rush. In regards to the theater segments, I can kind of see it, but the gang has gotten into the art form much better at this point, so it’s not overly noticeable. The riffing is punchy and sharper than some of the earlier second season episodes. There are lots of call-and-answer jokes to be found. My favorite is when the eye-patched biker babe asks Chapman if he has any Mary Jane. Mocking Chapman’s struggle to fit in, Tom Servo says, “No, but I have some pot.” Stuff like that.

Other favorite moments include the extended musical party sequence near the beginning. There’s a terrible ‘60s rock song playing in the background – “I’m losing my baby” – that Servo turns into “I’m losing my dignity.” The Hellcats dance and speak slang, which is something drives Crow nuts: “What the heck is he saying? It’s like he’s speaking in an ancient tongue!” One gang member holds an exploding beer can close to his crotch and proceeds to spray foam all over the place. Problem is, the camera work makes it a little ambiguous, especially upon seeing the gang member’s look of ecstasy. “I hope that’s beer,” Crow says, sliding in one of the show’s dirtiest jokes. Later, one of the Hellcats endures a bad trip, eventually coming down pretty hard; “Better get him some cocaine, or something,” Tom offers.

The riffing is strong in the episode, especially in the first two-thirds, but peters out towards the end. The film takes on a more serious tone when bikers get killed and Chapman confronts the drug ring that murdered his brother. The film also gets pretty self-righteous, but the writers don’t always capitalize on it. Instead, we get an overdone gag about a gang member who squeals to the police. Joel makes it sound like the biker, whom he names Kooky, is a goofy comic relief. While the lousy music might suggest it, the scenes don’t. It makes for an odd and overworked joke that goes nowhere. Can’t be sharp all the time, I suppose.

One other thing I must mention. The movie is co-produced by Anthony Cardoza. The writers don’t know it now, but he’ll become an infamous person in the annals of MST3K. One of Coleman Francis’ good buddies, he starred and produced the Francis Trilogy seen in Season 6. They are among the worst and most baffling films this show ever featured. He’s actually seen here in “The Hellcats” in a non-speaking role as a painter who gets comically roughed up by the gang. He’s a little older and a little fatter than he will be in the earlier Francis films, but it’s still the same old Tony Cardoza the bots will come to know and despise.

As for the show’s sketches, it’s very obvious “The Hellcats” was a rush job. Besides the invention exchange and the closing letters bit, we get flashbacks (with introductions) of earlier sketches. The first is the Shatner Hands from #106 “The Crawling Hand.” Next we again see zero gravity lesson from #201 “Rocketship X-M.” Finally, we get the matte-scope lesson from #203 “Jungle Goddess.” They’re funny, but we’ve seen this before.

Joel does have a funny invention he didn’t have time for in “Lost Continent.” It’s the sign language translator, in which you speak into a funnel and a hand translates the message. It’s a funny slight-of-hand (sorry for the pun) gag. At the end, a letter from an Italian viewer warns Joel and the bots that there are many terrible Italian films that could be used as future experiments. It’s a look into what’s to come, as we’ll see a number of Hercules films and other crappy Italian jobs in the coming seasons.

“The Hellcats” is a funny episode thanks to a goofy, yet watchable, movie. While sketches make this the only MST3K “clip show,” I still find this one I return to for repeat viewings. Sadly, this is the last ‘60s biker film we’ll get (if I remember correctly), but not the last misguided youth movie. There are many more of those down the pike.

Rating: ***

Side note: “The Hellcats” was available as a stand-alone disc from Rhino, but it’s out-of-print like so many others.

Monday, September 13, 2010

MST3K #208 - Lost Continent

“Lost Continent?! I lost my keys once, but that’s ridiculous!” – Joel

Starring: Cesar Romero, Hugh Beaumont, Sid Melton, Chick Chandler, John Hoyt, Maria Stevens. Writer: Richard H. Landau. Producer: Sigmund Neufeld and Robert Lippert. Director: Sam Newfield. Released in 1951.

Original air date: November 24, 1990

Watching “Lost Continent,” you get the feeling the film’s director grew worried that he didn’t have a feature-length movie to film when he read the finished script. About 20 minutes of dialogue does not constitute a movie meant to be 90 minutes long. What to do? Apparently, you pad the film with as many extraneous scenes as possible. When the script called for the characters to climb to the top of a mountain, Director Sam Newfield (who did #103 “The Mad Monster”) translated that simple idea into 60 percent of the movie. The set designers built a rock wall stage and dammit all if they weren’t going to use. Thus, one of the most notorious scenes in Mystery Science Theater 3000 takes place.

Rock climbing, people. Rock climbing. There’s so much of it, Joel and the robots scream in agony at one point. “Who are you?! Where are we?! Could we get a frame of reference or something. Please?!” Joel screams at the movie.

The camera shoots the rock climbing sequences from as many different angles as possible, but it doesn’t make the scenes any more watchable. This is on top of lengthy walking scenes, where the cast wanders through a jungle set for long periods. It’s crazy to think that there’s only about 10 minutes in the whole movie where something actually happens. Par for the course in any Robbert Lippert production. But my God! It hurts the head!

Fans of the show either hate this episode for the above reasons, or love it because the writers really flourish here when there’s hardly anything to work with. I’m partially grouped in the latter. It shows a maturity in the writers and you can tell it wasn’t easy to do. “Lost Continent” is certainly not one of the best episodes of Season 2 because the film really does drag on you after a while, but it’s much better than it might have been.

The film takes place post-World War Two, where we discover an experimental rocket has disappeared from radar in the South Pacific. Created by a German-sounding Russian scientist working for the Americans, Dr. Rostov (John Hoyt), the government decides the rocket must be found due to its important nature. A six-man team, led by air force Maj. Joe Nolan ( Cesar Romero, who played the Joker in the “Batman” TV series), take off in a plane, which eventually crash lands on an island that looks suspiciously like the set of “Jungle Goddess.” Also along for the mission is American scientist Robert Phillips (“Leave it to Beaver” actor Hugh Beaumont) and comic relief officer Sgt. Willie Tatlow (unfunny comic Sid Melton).

After the landing, the crew learns the rocket crashed on a mountain top and they begin their climb. And they climb. And they climb. And they climb. Throughout these lengthy scenes, Joel and the bots constantly reiterate, in a bland tone, “Rock climbing, Joel,” or “Rock climbing, Tom,” and so forth. “Joel, why are we watching this dull, rock climbing scene?” Crow asks. “Because it’s there,” Joel responds. “No one will be admitted during the riveting climbing sequence,” Tom Servo mocks. “Would someone please tell the director about compressing time through editing!!!” Crow shouts.

There is a break in the climbing when the search party rests for the night in a cave. There are some hilarious riffs to be had during this scene. Another funny instance comes when Sid Melton’s character needs a little help climbing a rock. One of the crew helps him up by grabbing Melton’s ass in every which way, so much so that it appears he’s fondling the dude. Hugh Beaumont, sitting in the back of the scene, apparently found this funny, too. He breaks character and loses it, laughing into his sleeve. I guess no one caught that in the editing room. Joel and the bots missed it, too.

Eventually, the rock climbing ends and the search party discovers a jungle world on the summit. Thus the walking scenes through the lost continent begin. At a clearing, they come across a stop-motion brontosaurus that’s none too happy to see the humans (“I see a dinosaur, but I hear an elephant,” Servo says upon listening to the roar). They fight off the poor special effect dinosaurs (which, I swear, are seen in the weird dream sequences in #107 “Robot Monster”), and eventually discover the rocket. They then have to make their way down the mountain. At least Sid Melton gets to become a triceratops’ lunch (“I feel like a little Italian. Hello, my little pizza roll!” Joel says).

Besides the rock climbing, the movie has a few other quirks. I feel as though all the lead actors demanded to have an equal amount of lines, thus there are a lot of pointless scenes where everyone must say something, important or not. Second, some of these guys (I’m looking at you, Cesar Romero) speak in these lengthy, annoying soliloquys (“Jeez, everything is a speech with these guys!” Joel says).

I have to mention one other riff that had me laughing out loud. The director’s name is Sam Newfield, and the producer’s name is Sigmund Neufeld. These two are brothers, something MST3K’s writers picked up on – “They were in separate lines on Ellis Island,” Servo states. Now that’s clever!

The sketches are hit or miss with this episode. The Mads create a new brand of exercise machines that have, in fact, already been created. In anger, they don’t let Joel proceed with his invention. He’ll have to wait until the next episode. Hugh Beaumont, played by ever-wholesome Mike Nelson, visits the station, bringing a message of “unholy death” to the Satellite of Love crew. Joel and the bots talk him out of destroying earth.

The sketch about mocking explorer movies and they’re white dominance is overlong and obvious. And Joel and the bots take too long a while oohing and ahhing to something outside the satellite before announcing a viewer contest asking what the “Cool Thing” they saw was. I believe the contest winner is announced in a future episode, although I don’t remember.

If you can handle the rock climbing sequences, then this episode is quite funny. Not the easiest movie to sit through, but a fun episode in the end.

Rating: ***

Side note: This episode is available on the Shout! Factory box set Volume XVIII, with a special introduction by TV’s Frank Coniff.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

MST3K #207 - Wild Rebels

“Live fast, die young, leave a fat, bloated, ugly corpse.” – Tom Servo

Starring: Steve Alaimo, Willie Pastrano, John Vella, Bobbie Byers, Jeff Gillen. Writer: William Grefe. Producer: Joseph Fink. Director: William Grefe. Released in 1967.

Original air date: November 17, 1990

Lay into me if you must, but I like this movie. Something about “Wild Rebels” makes it completely watchable on its own, without the help of Joel and the robots. I think it might be the late ‘60s vibe flowing through it, or maybe the laid back feeling of small town Florida. Or maybe it’s the wildly over-the-top performances of the bike gang juxtaposed with the sleepy performance of Steve Alaimo playing the “hero.” Perhaps it’s film’s lame attempt at being a morality tale. The misguided biker gang sure looks like they’re having fun drinking, smoking and doing whatever else they feel like. And the film relishes all of this by glamorizing the fun side of the seedy life. As long as the characters receive their dues in the end, it’s OK to show us all this, right?

Whatever the case, it’s silly enough on its own. Terrible, but in a good way. When Banjo (former boxer Willie Pastrano) growls, “He bugs me. That square really bugs me!”, it might be one of my favorite scenes in any Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature. I have to pause the episode until I stop laughing.

This movie is famous among the show’s fans because of the constant reminder that movie’s misguided youths are only in it for The Kicks. I guess armed robbery and murder are just a lot of fun. “It’s the kicks, baby,” Linda (Bobbie Byers) reminds the viewers in a repetitive manner. And in the end, when their world comes crashing down, Linda still manages to let us know it was all for the kicks. “It’s a cereal, man,” Joel insists instead.

This is the second biker film MST3K tackles this season, and it’s a much more enjoyable episode. In “The Sidehackers,” the movie was too brutal and distasteful for the writers to do a good mocking job. You could tell they really hated the movie and didn’t know what to do with it. Something about rape, murder and spousal abuse just sucks the funny right out of the show. Luckily “Wild Rebels” is easier to take. Sure, it’s bloody and violent and about 20 incompetent cops get gunned down by the end of it, but it’s not filmed in the same mean spirit of “The Sidehackers.”

In Wild Rebels, semi-famous stock car driver Rod Tillman (Alaimo) crashes and burns one too many times and decides to quit the business. It’s then he has a run in with hilariously named Satan’s Angels, who run around dressed like they raided a Nazi party rally – iron crosses and swastikas are their décor of choice. The gang consists of the leader, Jeeter (John Vella), hot-headed Banjo (Pastrano), fat guy Fats (Jeff Gillen) and the gang’s pass-around chick Linda (Byers). They tear around on their hogs, drinking everything in sight and beating up college kids. “I love a job like this. I don’t think of it as going to work today, I love it that much,” Joel quips.

They want Tillman to be their driver as they rob banks around Florida. Tillman declines the offer, but is intercepted by the police, who convince him to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. Apparently, Satan’s Angels are too smart for the police, as they freely admit, which is funny to contemplate because this biker gang is clearly a stupid group of people.

As Tillman gets further in with the gang, he becomes a part of their next big robbery that ends up going horribly. The end features a shootout at a lighthouse with a lot of guns, dead bodies and really funny riffing on the part of Joel and the bots. I have to point out that, near the end, Banjo steals a police motorcycle during the shootout. The bike is literally inches away from the cops and they don’t shoot at him until he’s a ways down the beach. “They’re just too smart for us!” Crow shouts.

The police also set up a roadblock and forget to block the main road to the beach and lighthouse. See what I mean by the gang being far too smart for law enforcement?

Throughout the film, as it chugs along in its nice and easy pace, so does the riffing. Joel and the bots poke fun at the many inconsistencies and continuity issues that plague the movie, as well as the terrible performances. Pastrano always looks like his head will explode from his skull while he plays a “high strung” Banjo. “Hey Banjo, de-tune your G-string, baby!” Crow says.

One of the best scenes comes when Tillman goes outside the gang’s shack for a smoke and to bury a message for the cops (“Oh, he’s sending it by carrier vole,” Crow says). Tillman decides to hang out and play his guitar when Linda stops by and we slowly realize that Alaimo was using this movie to further a singing career. Is he trying to be the next Elvis or Sinatra? Joel and the bots can’t figure it out, but the song is terrible! And to top it off, it’s orchestrated. Where are these other instruments coming from? “Thank you, brother squirrel, for the saxophone,” Crow says, adding later “This must be the b-side to the 45.”

Speaking of Steve Alaimo, his singing career never quite got off the ground. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t making a living off of it. A good friend of the Allman Brothers, Alaimo co-wrote their song “Melissa,” one of their best known tunes. Thank God the band didn’t cover this dirge of a track he sings in the movie!

The sketches are also very funny, with a few focusing on Gypsy. In the beginning, she’s feeling sick and overtaxed, with Joel shutting down a few key systems on the Satellite of Love so she’ll feel better. We learn she controls the ships higher functions and, as a result, has a slower brain capacity when she’s doing this. Of course, when the systems are down, she ends up sounding like quite the intelligent robot. When things are back to normal, she continues her obsession with Richard Basehart. Speaking of which, when Crow makes a “Voyage at the Bottom of the Sea” joke while watching the movie, Gypsy pops into the theater thinking she’ll find Basehart. It’s a surprising and very funny scene.

Later, Joel croons to Gypsy, much like Tillman does to Linda in the film. Crow and Tom Servo, acting like Banjo and Jeeter, beat him up, with Gypsy looking at the camera and saying, “I’m in it for the kicks!” It’s a perfect way to mock the film.

In the invention exchange, Dr. F and Frank create the “hobby hogs,” which are appropriate for “Wild Rebels.” Joel takes his inspiration from “Star Trek’s” 3-D chess game to create the 3-D pizza. Later, the gang sings a “Wild Rebels” – themed cereal jingle and throw a party on the SOL to counteract the effects of the film.

The watchable movie and hilarious riffing make for a great episode and one that remains eminently watchable. It appears that Season 2 is picking up steam and rolling along quite nicely.

Rating: ***1/2

Side note: This episode is available on Rhino’s box set, Volume 9. Unfortunately, that box set became unavailable shortly after it was released, so it’s not cheap to acquire at this time.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

MST3K #206 - Ring of Terror, with The Phantom Creeps, ch. 3

“Life does begin at 40!” – Joel

Starring: George Mather, Esther Furst, Eddie Erwin, Austin Green. Writer: Lewis Simeon. Producer: Alfeo Bocchicchio. Director: Clark Paylow. Released in 1962.

Phantom Creeps – starring: Bela Lugosi, Robert Kent, Dorothy Arnold, Edwin Stanley, Dora Clement. Writers: George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish. Producer: Henry MacRae. Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. Released in 1939.

Original air date: November 3, 1990

There’s a saying that goes, “You’re never too old to go back to school.” The students in this film took that axiom to heart. “Ring of Terror,” the film featured in this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, follows a group of medical students as they continue with their studies and prepare to enter a fraternity. Problem is, they’re all well over 40. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that they’re supposed to be freshmen in college. Real freshmen. As in, they’re supposed to be 19 years old. I guess when they reach the end of their years in school, they really will be seniors! (Thank you, thank you very much. I’m here all week.)

This movie is ridiculously stupid. Is it supposed to be a morality tale, a campfire spook story, a character study of middle age adults looking to reclaim their lost youth? I can’t tell. And it’s another in a long line of MST3K movies that could actually be about a 10-minute short film, but instead is stretched into a feature. As a result, we get some very long scenes and needless characters. This film is a joke, except that no one associated with it understands that.

Joel and the robots do a decent job ripping on the film, especially the characters’ advanced ages. But it’s not as sharp as the previous episode and, as a result, the boring stretches in the film weigh down the episode. It’s not a terrible episode, just not one I’d consider re-watching often.

“Ring of Terror” follows med student Lewis Moffit (George Mather), as he studies corpses, makes out with his girlfriend, and acts like an oddball because he’s not afraid of anything. Why that makes him an oddball, I don’t know. Slowly, very slowly (this is a padded movie, after all), we learn Moffit has trouble in dark rooms, especially ones that have corpses lying around. Apparently it stems back to some childhood trauma that he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Word gets out about this fear and the fraternity elders devise a creepy hazing event for him. He must go to the graveyard and steal the ring off a cadaver the students worked on during an autopsy. Hence, the ring of terror.

Again, it’s a story that could have been told in half the time it takes to show a “Twilight Zone” episode. But since this movie is more than an hour long, we get a lot more crap. For instance, there are several long scenes of Lewis and girlfriend, Betty (Esther Furst), where they are making out or arguing that his medical career will be too stifling for her. There’s one terrible scene where Moffit tells Betty how much he hates “They.” He also reiterates to her that he’s afraid of nothing, “Except our intimacy,” Crow says. To illustrate this, Moffit fights off a snake that somehow crawls into his car. Betty tells her friends all about it: “We just had a rendezvous with a rattlesnake,” she says. “Didya touch it?” Crow asks...

There’s an extended scene where the med students’ professor (who looks to be about the same age as everyone else) performs an autopsy. It goes on and on and on, with plenty of scenes of students leaving so they can hurl. Lovely.

Then there are the fat people. They eat and they eat and they eat, and all the thin students find this hilarious and make fun of the fatties. And the movie hammers this home so many times. “Alright, you’ve made your point about them being fat. Now just stop it,” Joel tells the movie.

What is most odd about the film is the needless bookend scenes. I guess it’s there to ramp up the tension, but like the rest of the movie, it’s slow and pointless. The movie opens in a graveyard, where a narrator introduces the movie, then walks around the graves stalking and stepping on his cat, Puma, a name he utters about 4,000 times in one minute. Poor cat. “I’m calling Betty White,” Tom Servo says after the narrator’s foot clamps down on Puma’s tail.

The best jokes come at the expense of the students’ old age. Everyone looks like they should have their own kids in college. Who thought it was a good idea casting people in their middle years? “We’re thinking of taking advantage of the freshmen’s osteoporosis,” Crow says, mocking the senior fraternity guys. “Could you get that son?! Oh I forgot, I'm a College Student,” Servo quips when Moffit asks his friend to do something. “Oh, to be 40 again…” Servo later muses pretending he’s the professor.

You get the idea. The age jokes come often and fast, and are funny enough to make the episode watchable. The sketches that mock the film are great, as well. Joel and the bots come up with the idea of the “Old School,” a college for the elderly. Students can take classes in Advanced Nodding Off and Television as a Drug. And at this school, it’s always a good day for a BM, Servo reminds us. They also mock the autopsy scene by performing one on a hoover vacuum. It’s very funny and the bots can’t handle the brutality of it.

In keeping with the film’s theme, the Mads come up with a real life game of “Operation,” and Joel develops the “pin bolus.” Both are funny and creative.

But just when you though the episode was over, the Mads spring a surprise; Joel and the bots must watch another installment of “The Phantom Creeps.” Wonderful. It’s the only time the Mads send the short at the end of the feature. Like any serial, this one runs out of steam quickly, right around this third chapter, “The Crashing Timbers,” actually. And there are 12 parts to whole serial! Luckily, this will be the last time MST3K shows “The Phantom Creeps.”

Like the previous installment, Dr. Zorka (Bela Lugosi) still lurks around, invisible or otherwise, looking to keep his inventions from the Feds and other nefarious parties. There are chases, gunfights and that giant robot, but it’s all confusing and uninteresting. Plus, everyone looks exactly the same, except for Mr. Lugosi. Crow even wonders how they can tell themselves apart. As in the other chapters, Joel and the bots rip into the serial by saying ridiculous things in the Bela accent, which is sometimes funny. What is kind of humorous is TV Frank’s song at the end of the show, which is an ode to Zorka’s long suffering chauffeur.

As I said earlier, this will be the last time “The Phantom Creeps” will be featured on the show, and the last time a serial will be featured until the fourth season. The repetitiveness of serials weighs down the show after a while and I think the writers realized this. Still, anytime that big metal beast is on screen it makes me laugh. I can’t really help it.

“Ring of Terror” is an average episode with some genuinely funny moments, and others that drag. Still, it should serve as an inspiration for anyone looking to go back to school. Hell, these guys are older than most graduate students. So go out there and learn!

Rating: **1/2

Side note: This episode is available on Rhino’s box set Volume 11. And it’s not out-of-print!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

MST3K #205 - Rocket Attack U.S.A., with The Phantom Creeps, ch. 2

“I never though the end of the world would be so annoying.” – Joel

Starring: John McKay, Monica Davis, Phillip St. George, Arthur Metrano. Writer, Producer and Director: Barry Mahon. Released in 1959.

Phantom Creeps – starring: Bela Lugosi, Robert Kent, Dorothy Arnold, Edwin Stanley, Dora Clement. Writers: George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish. Producer: Henry MacRae. Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. Released in 1939.

Original air date: October 27, 1990

Here’s a bizarre experiment for Mystery Science Theater 3000; part propaganda film, part cautionary tale, part spy thriller. All these ideas and genres blend together is this jarring and shoddy old movie that reminds us Russians are bad and Americans are good. Both sides have nukes and the Ruskies are itching to use theirs. The title of the film pretty much gives away the ending of the movie. And man, is this a dull and soul crushing film, complete with a narrator who sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else, as well. As the blind man says in the odd scene towards the end, “Help me.”

But thankfully, the writers at MST3K are up to the challenge of making this black and white crap-fest hilarious. What may have been a tough episode to sit through in the previous season zips along quickly thanks to the sharp writing and fantastic delivery of Joel and his robot pals. This couldn’t have been an easy film to work with, but they more than manage. It’s actually a highlight of Season 2.

Two pieces of this episode are worth mentioning: it’s the first time MST3K added what is known as the stinger. The stinger is a five-second clip from the film that the writers thought was especially funny or weird. The above mentioned blind man must have struck them as so strange, so odd, and so terribly bad and funny that it merited an encore. I agree completely. The scene features a blind guy walking with his cane down a city street before the imminent rocket attack. He puts his hands out and says, “Help me,” in a deadpan style, like a comedian telling his punch line. There’s no urgency in his delivery. Even Joel and the bots are mystified in the theater. Only Crow can manage a “What?!”

Also, Tom Servo gets a haircut. Apparently the writers and suits at Comedy Central were concerned about Tom’s big head covering up stuff in the theater. So they trim it down to a thin rod. It looks stupid and will only last a few episodes.
Before we get to the end of humanity, we must sit through another installment of “The Phantom Creeps” serial, starring Bela Lugosi. After the insane first chapter, the serial’s second chapter, “Death Stalks the Highway,” offers much of the same. Dr. Zorka (Lugosi) looks to steal back his inventions from his kooky lab, with plenty of chances for gunfire, car chases, and disappearing acts. This time around, Zorka is angry and even crazier because his wife was killed in the plane wreck from the last chapter. We also get another chance to see the gigantic robot with the mean face.

The problem with these serials is the manic pace that occurs. In hoping to pack as much plot and action into the short film, it becomes overwhelming. And it’s overwhelming to Joel and the bots, too. But they get a lot of mileage out of their Bela impersonations and the hilarity of the big machine (“He’s no good on light dusting, but on heavy jobs he’s just perfect,” Crow says in the Bela accent).

There is a funny scene at the end of the car chase. Zorka turns himself invisible for the hundredth time and flees his car. The Federal investigator and his hot blond reporter friend (there’s always one in these serials) look into his car. Off screen, in something that sounded like it was added in post production, the Fed says “The driver is gone or he’s hiding” in a vaguely Ronald Reagan-esque voice. Crow then says, in his best Reagan, “Welcome to Death Valley Days.” In many, many future episodes, Crow will do his best Reagan with this line whenever he feels a scene calls for it.

There’s also a moment where Zorka’s bumbling assistant gets shot several times while escaping from the house. After he collapses, the Fed comes by and says he’s only stunned. Huh? “Stunned!? He took six bullets!” Crow says. My thoughts exactly. Nobody ever said these serials were any good.

After “The Phantom Creeps” comes the film, “Rocket Attack U.S.A.” This black and white movie sees the world in black and white, us versus them. It feeds of the paranoia common during the height of the Cold War and is actually kind of prescient seeing it was released only a few years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Still, this is an awful movie with some truly wretched performances. My favorite in the worst actor department is the narrator. It sounds like he was coerced into reading the script and resents the fact he’s making less than union scale to work on the movie. A bored, disinterested and vaguely frustrated narrator is not someone you want working on your movie. Joel and the bots realize this and run with the gags every chance they get. And each time is funnier than the last. I found myself laughing so hard I missed some jokes.

The movie is ridiculously simple; U.S. intelligence discovers Russia is building a nuclear rocket, so they send their best agent into the communist country to blow it up. Their “best” is apparently inept because he pretty much gets himself and everyone killed while failing at his mission. This results in the “tense” last third of the film, where people go about their daily lives until the bomb is dropped on New York City. It’s the feel-good movie of the year!

During the film, we’re treated to a lot of padding, including Russian officials speaking importantly, a long dinner scene with terrible dancing and music, and an endless scene of the rocket launch preparations complete with an annoying ringing sound. There’s also the Russian guy that looks like Tor Johnson and the British agent who doesn’t have a British accent.

But the jokes come fast and furious. There plenty of cracks at communism to be hard: “Remember guys, this is filmed in color, it’s just that everything in Russia is gray,” Joel says. During the dinner and dance scene, there’s a running gag about how the American agent can’t get any service (“I. Would. Like. To. Order. PLEASE!!!” Crow shouts). The disturbing scene where the female agent talks to our hero about how Tor Johnson likes to come and stay and “do things” to her is lightened when Joel says “I’ll only watch until I run out of quarters.” Then, when, she later wonders why he doesn’t go home to his wife at night, Servo says “Because she’s fat and bald, too.” Near the end, as the prospect of a nuclear strike is apparent and the radio announcer expresses his love for his wife and family before signing off, Crow heckles the moment by shouting, “What a wuss!”

My favorite scene is when the Russian generals go to inspect the missile by standing in a field and looking up at it. Judging by their shadows, they’re looking up at nothing. Just the sky. Apparently the director didn’t realize how painfully obvious this was. “Must be a stealth missile. There’s no shadow,” Crow quips.

Along with the riffs in the theater, the sketches are quite strong. The Mads invent a water polo/foosball table that looks like it could be a lot of fun. Later, before the film begins, Joel discusses the Cold War and McCarthyism with the bots, using cartoon characters to illustrate his point. It’s funny and effective at the same time.

Joel then hosts a nuclear quiz show, asking questions on the Cold War, with some hilarious answers. Mike Nelson also has memorable moment when he arrives at the Satellite of Love as a Russian cosmonaut. And at the end of the film, Joel and the bots really let the Mads know how angry they are at the quality of the movie. Funny, funny stuff.

Many who feel that the more awful the film, the better the MST3K episode have a strong argument with “Rocket Attack U.S.A.” Great riffing makes this one to watch again.

Rating: ***1/2