Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It Lives By Night (1974) – MST3K Review

Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) would rather go on a tour of caves then spend some serious bedroom time with his newlywed wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew). Perhaps it’s karma that causes them to fall into a chasm and John to get bit by a bat. At first it all seems fine, but after some bizarre convulsions and nightmares, John takes himself to see Dr. Kipling (Paul Carr). Kipling thinks that some pre-emptive rabies shots are needed. But when a nurse is murdered at the hospital John is staying in, we begin to suspect something else. So does Sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki), especially when he finds evidence of John at this and other crimes. With a death toll mounting Cathy wants to protect her husband, even if he is a man-bat.

Movie Review:
It’s a 70’s monster movie, so that mean’s it’s going to have that vaguely depressing dreary feel to it. While it moves faster than The Touch of Satan it isn’t far from the squishy antics of The Incredible Melting Man. We also get a doctor as the main character in this film, but instead of trying to help the mutating creature – he is the mutating creature. Still, there isn’t much difference between Dr. John Beck and Dr. Ted Nelson. They even seem to have the same wardrobe.

But let’s leave the melting man behind and focus on our winged mammals here.
This movie (also known as The Bat People) has a serious made for TV vibe to it, from the way shots are composed, to the style of acting. The whole thing feels like what you’d see late Saturday night, after you tucked the kids away. You might be hoping for some spooky fun, a few jump scares, and of course a mutating monster terrorizing a small town. Well you don’t quite get that. For a while it almost seems like Dr. Beck is a bit unstable to begin with, and his encounter with the bats has left him rabid and deranged. It almost could be interesting, but the movie tips its furry wing too early with Beck’s hand transforming into a furry long fingered freak limb. So we know he’s a monster, even if the movie proceeds to never show Mr. Man-bat until the end. Most of the time we get to see close ups of John’s eye, or reaction shots of his victims. Once you do see Beck fully transformed, running around in his oh so 70’s turtleneck and furry face, you understand why they kept him hidden.

The actors aren’t too bad, just kinda bland actually. Moss plays Dr. Beck as a kind of weasely guy, whose lack of interest with his randy wife and fascination with caves makes you want to slap him. When our hero is infected, Moss sweats a lot, flails and looks to be in a state of constant annoyance. I think he was supposed to be afraid, but it never really looks that way. As for his convulsions in bed – well you have to see them to really appreciate the full impact. McAndrew makes Cathy caring but ultimately a little too devoted. It’s pretty obvious that John is mutating and killing and Cathy just goes along with it. McAndrew never really allows us to see why she accepts serial murder. She just does, after sleeping with John and being infected too. Carr as groovy Dr. Kipling has the 70’s porn actor mustache and the demeanor to go with it. If I walked into any scene with him and a nurse or Cathy, I’d think we were watching a very different kind of movie. On the other hand you’ve got Pataki as the crusty and folksy Sergeant. He plays it well enough, but he’s so craggy and abrasive, you don’t end up rooting for him to catch John.

That’s really the whole trouble with this It Lives by Night (and Incredible Melting Man and Dr. Z for that matter), who are we rooting for? John’s a spastic jerk. Cathy’s a wet blanket who accepts her murdering husband. Dr. Kipling is sleazy. And the Sergeant seems more interested in tormenting John, and not really solving the crime. Without a likable or relatable character in the bunch, it’s hard to be pulled into the story and thus – be afraid. Modern horror movie’s take the same tactic, but usually provide unlikable characters because they are all going to get killed off.

The audience gets its sadistic thrill from watching jerks die. But in this film (and many of the 70’s monster films) that isn’t the case. There is just a dreary overtone that seems to say “Hey everyone in the world is an abrasive jerk. We’re showing you real life here man… well real life if Man-bats existed”.

There are other problems here. When we first meet John he is already in tune with the bats. He seems to hear them calling to him and is fascinated by caves. After we see that, he and Cathy fall into the little pit and he gets bitten by the bat. So are we assuming that John was already a little nutty? Like I said earlier, this actually could be turned into an interesting psychological script: John is obsessed with bats, and the bite makes him think he’s a Man-bat, when in fact he’s just nutty. But that angle is never taken. In fact his fascination with bats before the incident is never addressed. Am I over-thinking this? Sure. But I only do so because after Cathy is infected, she hears the same sound that John does at the beginning. She becomes obsessed with caves and wanders into one, then the credits roll. We assume she will become a Woman-bat. So that begs the question – was John already infected when It Lives by Night starts – or is he just eccentric?

I’ll end with a discussion of the dreams. Once he’s tainted, John has dreams of bats. Most of these poor little guys are being held by the wings and are looking for escape. I think the director hopes they look scary, but they look annoyed or afraid most of the time. There are countless shots of flying bat puppets, and stock footage of bats on cave ceilings. Mixed with super 70’s spooky music and you’ve got one hell of a hallucinogenic fugue going on. These scenes pad the film out, but they are so random and silly that you have to laugh. Coupled with the furry make-up for man bat and the finale involving dive bombing bats, and you’ve got a movie perfect for Mike and the bots.

Episode Review:
After the experiment that was Hamlet, the crew gets back to a classic genre – the monster movie. But instead of a 50’s one, like we got so frequently in Season Eight, we get a 70’s one. Season 10 has quite a few 70’s monster movies in it, with this movie, Track of the Moon Beast, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z and Squirm. I’m not complaining, it’s just an observation. It was probably a calculated move, especially since Hamlet was so black and white, they probably wanted something with at least some color in it -even if that prevailing color was brown.

Luckily It Lives by Night is pretty lively for a 70’s flick. It moves along fairly well, even with the padding of the dream sequences. It’s got characters that behave so strangely that Mike and bots have plenty to work with, even if we don’t get to see the monster till the very end. John is such an odd knucklehead that he’s perfect for riffing. He delay of sweet honeymoon action for a guided tour of a cave starts off the jokes at his expense. Really, what young newlywed male is going to act this way? During the credits we get a song (supposedly sung by Cathy) that is a slow folk tune. This gives our riffers the chance to add new lyrics and comment on the style. When we get to the cave tour and our heroes plummet into the chasm, well all bets are off. These people are too dumb to be nice too.

The riffing is pretty steady and most of it is amusing. Comments range from simple exclamations of “Squeak!” whenever John looks annoyed/afraid, to references to 70’s television shows that look like they used the same sets. The “Squeak” running joke had me cracking up, because the timing was golden and the expression on John’s face was just made for it. The dream sequences provide lots of laughs as Mike and bots provide some silly comment from all the bats being shown. They even use their rough and tumble animal voice (if you’ve seen The Giant Gila Monster episode, you know what I’m talking about) for most of them, and it works perfectly. I also enjoyed the climax when the Sergeant and Cathy are racing to a cave to find John. Suddenly a swarm of bats bombards the police car. At least it’s supposed to be a swarm of bats – it looks more like tomatoes. The Sergeant starts panicking. Infected Cathy looks vaguely evil. The result is riffing gold.

Still, you get a few quiet spots, or sequences that are too dreary to work with. As usually happens they show up in the middle section of the film. Also, there are quite a few 70’s pop culture references going on, and quite a few went over my head. So I think your mileage may vary with It Lives by Night.

The show starts with Mike and the bots painting the Satellite. Mike tests the theory that paint color affects mood. Pearl declares that she is not spraying poisons on the satellite. Of course she is and even Observers’ legal disclaimers can’t prove otherwise. At the first break Crow is determined to prove that he is more like Mary Tyler Moore than Cathy in our film. This sketch is worth seeing, especially when Mike does his killer Ted Baxter imitation. At the next break, Mike is rabid and the bots must administer a series of painful shots. I think they enjoy it too much. At the next break, everyone is inspired by groovy Dr. Kipling and grows a 70’s porn star mustache. Pearl is the test subject this time! After the movie ends, Tom has joined the Buddy Ebsen Hat Distressing Corporation. Turns out he might have been scammed. The show ends with Pearl giving a slide show about all her husbands - who died and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

When I’ve watched It Lives by Night with my wife we both have different reactions. I enjoy it quite a bit, and she finds it funny but not distinctive enough to remember it. Her tolerance for the dreary 70’s movies is lower than mine, and I think you need to take that into consideration. So I’ll average the grade to reflect this. 

I give this episode three annoyed bats out of five.

This episode is available on DAP.

No comments:

Post a Comment