Friday, August 29, 2014

parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) - MST3K Review

Richard (Tim Donnelly) is living the good live in a utopian society. He spends his days participating in good-natured exercise, learning about the mythical land of America and hanging out with his friends. But for all the fun and games, Richard feels like life is missing something. When he meets the lovely Lena (Paulette Breen) she feels the same way. The two begin to notice this little society has some odd elements. The guards seem to talk to no one. People disappear without a trace. Even the wise Dr. Jameson (Dick Sargent) appears to be lying to them.

When Richard does some sneaking around he discovers that the facility they all live in is called Clonus, and that he is a clone of a man named Richard Knight. Richard doesn’t quite understand everything he finds, but it is enough to get him in trouble. Soon he is on the run from Clonus security. Richard escapes the facility and makes it to the big city, but he finds the world completely alien. Can an old reporter Jake Noble (Keenan Wynn) lead Richard to find his original? Or will Clonus and all it’s powerful backers make sure the secret remains buried? Peter Graves rounds out the cast in this paranoid sci-fi thriller.

Movie Review:
"You're swell." "I like how keen you are."
So lets get the obvious out of the way. If the plot to Parts: The Clonus Horror (which I’ll just call Clonus from now on) sounds familiar, that’s because the main story elements were essentially borrowed for the Michael Bay film The Island. It caused a bit of a legal issue that got settled out of court. The two the movies are really similar, with the biggest difference being the budget.

Most of the film is comprised of location shooting around Southern California. The facility for Clonus was filmed at two colleges with some interesting architecture. It looks not quite futuristic, but is certainly a vast contrast the scenes in downtown Los Angeles and in the suburban neighborhood we see in the second half of the film.

The clones all wear variants on the same clothing, essentially shorts and a polo shirt. The guards are dressed in tracksuits with baseball caps. Then you have the doctors in their traditional lab coats. It gives everything a kind of bland conformity that fits the utopian opening of Clonus and contrasts to the late 70s fashions we see in the “real” world later.

Oh Darren, does Sam know what you're up to with Dr.
Mario over here?
While the movie is a science fiction movie, it goes light on the special effects. This is much more of an X-files variety of sci-fi, conspiracies and paranoia. We don’t see the cloning in action, because these clones are grown over a long period of time. We do get to see the preservation process for the clones, as they replace the blood of one clone with green fluid and freeze the poor guy.

The sound effects are pretty standard for this type of film. The score is mostly electronic, with some interesting vocal effects for the more sinister moments. For the low budget it works pretty well.

Clonus does feature some big names in the cast and they do most of the heavy lifting in the film. Peter Graves has a small but crucial role as Senator Jeff Knight. He is very much aware of the Clonus project. When his brother Richard (David Hooks) confronts him with evidence in the form of the clone Richard, Jeff convinces his brother of the need for the facility and the clones. How else are the chosen few supposed to get perfect organs for transplanting in their old age. Graves does the smooth talking Senator role very well, and has some good interplay with Hooks. You believe the two are brothers.

They argue a lot, but the sex is great.
Keenan Wynn as the craggy reporter and Lurene Tuttle as his wife Anna inject some humor into the grim film. They playfully bicker the entire time they are on screen together. This banter also gives us some background on the characters and gives something new for our clone hero to watch and be confused by.

Dick Sargent plays the deceptive Dr. Jameson. He’s obviously in this for the pure science aspect and doesn’t consider the clones to be humans, but treats them as experiments. He does most of his interacting with Dr. Nelson (Zale Kessler), but has a few good scenes with clone Richard.

For the most part, Clonus follows clone Richard on his quest to learn about his isolated world and then to survive the pursuit into the outside world. It isn’t an easy part, because he has to balance a child like naïveté with curiosity and fear. Unlike many of the other clones, he isn’t drugged, or lobotomized, but his education is severely limited. So while he appears to be a bit dense at times it makes sense for the character. Donnelly does a good job with this tough role, although he does seem to go a bit overboard at times, it is hard to judge how a child-like mind in a full grown man’s body would react in these situations.

"Architecture by the Sydney Opera House."
Most of the clones face this challenge in the acting department. Some play this child like simplicity a little too broad coming across as stupid or slow. I don’t want to judge to harshly because it is difficult to conceive how someone would act if they were raised in such a limited environment.

As far as the direction and story construction, Clonus actually works really well. It has decent pacing, and sets up some solid thrills and tension. Because Richard has no clue about our world (or his world for that matter) he makes for a good protagonist. The odds are obviously against him, but we keep hoping that he can escape his horror before it is too late. But this movie was made in the 1970s and that pretty much guarantees that it will all end badly with the government and Clonus winning out. I also love how all the big backers we see are old white men. I’d be curious to see what the women who invested in Clonus are like.

They just started to watch  Manos: The Hand of Fate.
I get the feeling that this movie had been released before 1977 it would be better remembered. But Star Wars came along and changed everything. From that moment on, sci-fi meant space opera and space adventures. Movies dealing with sci-fi concepts in our real world were just not as appealing to audiences.

Yes, Clonus has budget limitations. Sometimes the acting isn’t that great. Sometimes the dialogue is hard to make out because of poor sound work. Sometimes the seams show just a little to clearly. But the movie works as well as you could hope. No it isn’t Logan’s Run, and some elements certainly seem inspired by THX-1138, but the final result is a solid sci-fi thriller that aims high, but ends up a little short. That doesn’t mean that Mike and bots didn’t have much to work with, because there are plenty of odd moments that make Clonus a great target for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Episode Review:

"If I'm elected, Biography for everybody!"
I’ll admit that Parts: The Clonus Horror is a favorite around our house. Not only because it is a really funny riffing session, and a solid movie on top of it. No, we really love this episode because the two colleges that serve as the  Clonus facility are the two colleges my wife and I attended. The first time we saw this episode when it aired in 1998, we were stunned. It couldn’t be, but there they were: both college campuses, shown through a funky 70s filter. It was odd to see what changed and what remained exactly the same nearly twenty years later. I admit we spent most of the film attempting to figure out where they filmed the keys scenes. Because of that little bit of trivia, I freely admit a  bit of bias toward this episode.

Mike and bots have a lot of fun with Clonus, even if I think they end up coming down a little too hard on it. For me, this is similar to the way they ended up approaching TimeChasers, Overdrawn at the MemoryBank or even Soul Taker. All of these are good solid movies with low budgets. The stories make sense, are paced well and provide some entertainment. They are certainly superior to films like Werewolf, Hobgoblins and Horrors ofSpider Island. But the crew treated these films all about the same, which I never thought was fair.

"She really was on top of old smokey."
So you get some pretty harsh slams on Clonus. They go to town on how unattractive our lead character is. They claim the movie makes no sense (something I never understood, because I always thought it was very clear).  They continually say how bad the movie is, and well, I just don’t buy it. I suppose when you have a basis for comparison that includes something like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies, well something like Clonus is fine art.

So if you ignore the pretty harsh attacks on the film (a syndrome of the Sci-fi channel years), you get some really fun riffing. The clones make for some of the best jokes in the first half. The happy go lucky community, with the constant smiles and shirtless wrestling opens up lots of riffing opportunities. As Richard and his pal participate in a topless pushup competition (surrounded by clone onlookers) Tom declares it “The longtime companion Olympics.” Later we see two clones wrestling (again without shirts) and Mike advices, “Gentlemen you are doing this on your own, this is not sanctioned.”

Clone Richard is perpetually confused by everything.
The clones are told that at some point they will go to America, and live a life of pure joy. Of course the clones that do end up “going to America” are spirited away to be preserved and stored. But the doctors and clones constantly use the phrase, “Going to America” to which Tom will belt out in his best Niel Diamond “TODAY!” Crow is offended by the films message that “we kill and bag people in America”.

Richard’s nearly constant confusion provides a ton of riffing opportunities. When he finds a can of Old Milwaukee in the river he contemplates it for a long time. Mike references The Gods Must be Crazy when he says, “The little Bushman doesn’t know what to make the can.” When clone Richard goes to a “confessional” to ask about the can, he enters what looks like a phone booth and puts on headphones. Crow declares him “Charles Van Dorkin”, and if you saw the film Quiz Show that line will crack you up. Later Richard is snooping around the facility and finds a map with Milwaukee on it. This revelation is punctuated by Mike declaring, “This is the most interest anyone has ever paid to Milwaukee, EVER.”

Peter just got that feeling that someone is watching
him... on Biography!
Peter Graves opens up a whole host of other jokes. I figured they would go for some Mission: Impossible lines, or even callbacks to other episodes featuring Graves in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 catalogue (such as The Beginning of the End or It Conquered the World). But Clonus is best remember by MST3K fans for the running gags based on Graves hosting the television series Biography. This running joke is hit or miss. Sometimes I find the whole thing terribly funny, other times it feels like they just beat it into the ground. They pretty much riff the entire end credits as Peter Graves providing voice over for a Biography episode about various cast and crew involved in Clonus. If this starts to rub you the wrong way, it is a saving grace that Graves isn’t in the movie very long.

You know... for kids.
You’ve got some fun host segments in this episode. Things start off a bit fuzzy, when Mike shows off his new 70s mustache. The bots mock him mercilessly, so he shaves it off. Then they mock his bare lip. Meanwhile Pearl, Brain Guy and Professor Bobo encounter the horror of the Space Children. Not to be confused with the movie of the same name, these little brats remind me more of the super powerful kids from the old Star Trek  episode. They proceed to torment Pearl and her posse. At the first break a game of Candyland causes Brain Guy to cheat! Meanwhile Bobo gets hit in his area by a baseball. At the next beak Candyland has gone horribly wrong, so Pearl begs Mike and bots to recreate an education television program for the kids to watch. Crow and Tom are you puppet hosts and Mike shows off the letter and number of the day. It goes pretty well until the boys switch in a Spanish language version with loud music, horrible outfits and ridiculous camerawork. The space children burst into tears, and Bobo gets hit in his crotch again. When we return to the space children they are asking Pearl and Co about the birds and the bees. It doesn’t go well and Bobo takes one to the junk again (see a pattern here)? After the movie ends, Crow shows off his new nose and Tom shows off his new lullaby, guaranteed to lull children to sleep. It sounds like a polka on crack and that wakes up the space children. Pearl is less then pleased.

For me the riffing on Clonus is a bit stronger in the first half, when clone Richard is interacting with his fellow clones and wandering around the facility. But my bias at seeing my old university back in 1979 might have something to do with it. The Graves Biography riffing kicks into high gear in the second half, so that keeps it from being a top notch episode. Still this episode is one I have no problem recommending.

Richard finally arrives in America... TODAY!

I give it four confused clones out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 12.

When Candyland goes horribly wrong.


  1. I had seen the non MST3K version of this years ago (early 80s maybe?) but had long since forgotten about it. Yes, it is a lot like "Island."

    Golden Age scifi writers were such an imaginative and prolific bunch, that true originality in scifi concepts has been hard to find since the 1970s – possibly since the 1950s. This has led to quite a few legal issues, such as the Harlan Ellison complaint that “The Terminator” took its plot from his “Outer Limits” episodes: “Soldier” with two (accidentally) time-traveling future soldiers and “Demon with a Glass Hand” with a (purposely) time-traveling robot. Ellison is now acknowledged in “The Terminator” credits. Another “Outer Limits” episode (“The Man Who Was Never Born” by Anthony Lawrence) sports a traveler who goes back in time to kill the mother of a bio-weaponeer, which might have sparked another challenge but, so far as I know, didn’t. I suppose HG Wells could have sued every writer who used a time machine in a story. He didn’t, but, oddly, he unsuccessfully sued the British government for royalties, claiming he had invented the tank in one of his short stories a decade before World War 1.

    1. Yeah the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun seems to be the case these days. And this concept of cloning for organ farming is probably not even new to "Clonus". But "The Island" really seemed to be heavily influenced by this, as in nearly all the story beats and structure are the same, not just the concept. That's where it gets dicey.

      I never really thought about it, but I guess Wells really did invent the concept of the Time Machine. Now the tank, I'd never heard of.

  2. I don't think I've seen Clonus, though it sounds like an interesting enough plot. I didn't know The Island was modeled after it. I thought that movie was a nice throwback to the earlier days of SF, though some didn't care for it. Yes, I imagine the bonus of being filmed around your old alma mater was a bonus. I feel the same way about the Linklater movie, Slacker--though I didn't go to school there, I used to live in Austin a short while. He shows a lot of locales from the city, which brings back memories.

    At any rate, Clonus seems like something I might enjoy because the plot is pretty interesting, and you get a few jokes along the way.

    1. Yeah and as per normal MST3K had to make some edits to the film. Mostly for time, but I hear there is also a bit of nudity in the unedited version. So you may want to seek out the uncut version first and then see the MST3K treatment.

      According to the director, when he found out his film was going to be on MST3K he got angry, but after watching the first 10 minutes or so he had to laugh. He thought they actually pointed out some very funny things he never noticed, like the "old smokey" image in my review.