Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Screaming Skull (1958) - MST3K Review


This episode starts with a short. It's time for Gumby and his pony pal Pokey too! In "Robot Rumpus" Gumby decides that robots could handle his chores while he enjoys some tasty crackers and milk with Pokey. Well things go horribly wrong when the robots go rogue and start trashing Gumby's house and yard. It's up to our claymation pals to stop the robots before the whole house is obliterated.

The feature film starts with happy newlywed couple Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni Whitlock (Peggy Webber) arriving at Eric’s huge home in the country. Eric introduces his new wife to the creepy gardener Mickey (director Alex Nico) who could be the 1958 version of Torgo from "Manos: The Hands of Fate". Wedded bliss is quickly spoiled when Jenni starts to see skulls everywhere, and hear strange screaming sounds in the night. Is the ghost of Eric's former wife, who died very mysteriously, haunting the home, or is Mickey the gardener up to something? Eric does his best to comfort his new bride, but is he as innocent as he appears? Soon, Jenni is a nervous wreck and begins to question her sanity with each howl of "The Screaming Skull".

Movie Review

As a kid I watched quite a few Gumby shorts. Seeing "Robot Rumpus" actually caused a minor flashback to buried memories I didn't know I had. Creepy when that happens.

Gumby is Gumby. He gets involved in some kind of adventure and then gets out of it. It's simple story telling with some kind of lesson attached. In this case, the lesson is - do your chores right the first time and you won't have to do them again. Ok, so maybe I'm interpreting a bit here. Maybe the lesson is, don't use bizarre toy robots to do your chores or your house will get trashed, your mom will get painted, and your dad will get a wrench thrown threw him.

I find stop motion claymation charming and fun to watch, but to most modern eyes, it's dated and funny looking. Gumby is kinda dumb, or as my wife said - a moron. Pokey stands around and makes faces. And there are weird little moments, like Gumby's dad stealing a fire truck, or the robot head mounted over the garage at the end of the short. In other words, there are lots of things to work with riffing wise. But would I call it bad? No. It's Gumby, you either like it or you don't. But you can't deny that it offers plenty of material work with.

"The Screaming Skull" on the other hand offers very little entertainment value. The plot is nothing new. Most of us have seen the "rich wife is harassed by scheming husband" before, so all the beats in the plot come as no surprise. There are attempts to make Mickey the gardener look suspicious, with him hiding in bushes and saying bizarre things, but any fan of mysteries knows a red herring when they see one. From moment one, Eric is our primary suspect. When you only have five characters in the whole film - well there isn't much hope for mystery.

Maybe Director Alex Nico knew this and decided to play up the suspense of the haunted house angle. This movie contains many, many long scenes of Jenni walking around the house, very slowly and looking frightened. But the result is boredom. Now, let me make this clear, I enjoy a good suspense film. I don't need constant action to keep me entertained. Some of the best horror films I know don't show anything at all, but use careful building of terror to unsettle and disturb the viewer. It can be done, but it takes skill.

The filmmakers didn't have this skill. The movie is limp and lifeless in construction. You cease to care about anyone about five minutes in.

Part of the reason is the characters. Jenni isn't very likable. She seems less nervous and more whiney than anything else. I'm not sure if Weber wasn't clear on how to play the part, or if she was just continuing the character she played in "The Space Children". She generates no sympathy, so her fate doesn't drive the story. John Hudson doesn't do much as Eric either. He comes across like a jerk most of the time, so it's no stretch of the imagination to see him as the scheming husband.

Only Alex Nicol as Mickey provides any entertainment. He does his best to make Mickey appear suspicious, but the performance is silly. Mickey is obviously supposed to be a little slow, but Nicol portrays him as slightly smarter than a rock. I think Gumby could outwit this guy. He's never a threat, never a friend - just has some odd lines and funny gait when he runs.

The neighbors portrayed by Tony Johnson and Russ Conway provide solid turns as the voices of reason and compassion. The script doesn't give them much to work with, and it's almost funny how quickly they go from disbelieving Jenni's ghost stories to believing that Eric is villainous.

The final result is poorly plotted, poorly executed, poorly edited and poorly made movie. The opening sequence offers a free coffin if you die of fright. Don't worry, you'll die of boredom first.

Episode Review

This is another one of those episodes where the short film provides tons of laughs, but the feature can't quite measure up. The Gumby short is hilarious, with Mike and bots going to town on all kinds of things. How come Gumby can wander around without clothes, but his mom wears cloths? Why crackers and milk. Why did the robots run amok. Everything is fair game and it all climaxes with the moment when Gumby uses a construction crane to destroy a robot. Tom Servo and Crow scream in terror and demand to know why they are watching a horror film. This conversation carries over into the host segments.

If only the movie could keep up the momentum. Once again, a painful slog of a film ends up putting our boys to task. They give it a solid go, and they come up with some great stuff for Mickey and the random skull appearances. It's the long scenes of Jenni walking around the house that create huge gaps in riffing. They don't really get cooking again until the climax where Eric ends up being haunted and chased around the property by skulls and ghosts and screaming. If more of this paranormal spazziness had occurred throughout the film, it would have been a gold mine. Instead, this episode ends up working best at its bookend moments.

The host segments are a mixed bag. Things start off with Tom Servo deciding that he's a butterfly. Then Pearl and her crew call up. They are dressed in penguin costumes (?!?!?) and waddling all around, demanding to know why Mike and bots aren't in their penguin costumes. Mike and the bots are at a loss and quickly dress in random animal costumes. Pearl reveals that it was all a poorly planned joke, and she ends up looking like an idiot more than Mike and bots do. The best part is to see crow dressed as a sheep and saying Baaaaa! After the Gumby short, Tom and Crow create their own movie about clay and robot relations. Turns out they are a little angry at Gumby's final solution. Because of the movie's offer of a free coffin, Tom tries to scam one - with silly results. Then Crow pretends to be a screaming skull - and Mike is so terrified he attacks. This results in the funniest host segment. The episode ends with Tom's coffin showing up and Bobo trying to trick Mike and the bots again. He fails and is shrunk down in size. See - it's a real odd mix of segments.

By itself the Gumby short is one of the funniest short subjects they've tackled. I can easily give it five stars out of five. But the feature is so dull that it drags down the score quite a bit. The host segments will make you smile, but nothing really stands out. In the end, I have to say it's a subpar episode. But if you can find the riffing of "Robot Rumpus" online, it's well worth seeking out.

I give it two little green slabs of clay out of five.

This episode is available in DAP.

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