Friday, November 18, 2011

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1958) – MST3K Review

This episode features the first segment in the serial adventure series, Radar Men From the Moon. This 1952 serial features the adventures of Commando Cody (George Wallace) as he first discovers the threat of the moon men on earth and then hurtles to the moon itself to bring the battle to them. Cody uses his super cool rocket pack to fly into adventure. He’s no slouch when it comes to fisticuffs or using his revolver, either. Cody’s a man of action and those moon men are in for some trouble!

You’d think the title The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy would reveal the entire plot, but no, this movie is filled to bursting with storyline. It all begins when Dr. Eduardo Almada (Ramon Gay) gathers his scientifical friends over to fill them in on previous events. In an e-x-t-e-n-d-e-d flashback, he reveals that he regressed his wife Flora (Rosa Arenas) into a past life and discovered that she was an Aztec priestess. This reveals the location of a valuable breastplate and bracelet. Eduardo grabs his pals and Flora and finds the artifacts, only to discover that taking the treasures raises the wrath of the Aztec mummy Popoca (Angel Di Stefani).

They are able to return the valuables before anyone gets really hurt, but the evil Dr. Krupp (Luis Aceves Castaneda) decides he wants the breastplate and bracelet for his own.  After a few schemes are thwarted by Popoca, he vanishes without a trace. This ends the flashback, and we return to present day. Krupp has created a robot that is a fusion of corpses and metallic parts. With this he can defeat the Aztec Mummy, but first he needs Flora to lead him to the treasure.

Movie Review:
When it comes to serials Radar Men From the Moon is pretty standard stuff, but it is entertaining if you come at it in the right way. The series is all about overblown fun, with fast editing, a silly plot, low budget special effects, and a cliffhanger ending. You usually get hammy acting, and the moon men provide that in spades, especially the leader Retik (Roy Barcroft). Wallace provides a sturdy hero in the classic ‘50s sense. He’s a square jawed scientist that has no problem getting into fights and shooting villains with his pistol.

What is surprising is how effective and fun the special effects are. For a low budget serial, there are some neat rocket effects, and of course the rocket suit itself. I also enjoyed the miniatures of the city. The editing moves the plot along at a brisk pace and the cliffhanger is a hoot.

Contrast this to The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy which is horribly edited, horribly slow and way too boring to be blessed with this title or its alternate: The Aztec Mummy Against the Humanoid Robot. To be honest the version we are seeing here is dubbed, and I’m not sure what kind of editing job the American distributors did with this film. But the final result has to go down as one of the worst movies in Mystery Science Theaters storied history. For whatever reason, nearly 70% of the movie is composed of flashbacks to the two previous Aztec mummy films: The Aztec Mummy and Curse of the Aztec Mummy. This means you get poorly edited footage with lame voice over provided by a bored English voice actor. Um, yeah its as much fun as it sounds.

What is killer here is the pacing. We’re talking glacial here. Some of this is done to create suspense. But everyone moves like they’re sleepwalking – not just the mummy! The scene where the mummy is first revealed is tedious. It’s composed of floating heads reacting to the slow, slow shadow of the shambling of the mummy. But you know what, maybe it worked fine in the original film. A horror movie benefits from building up to the scary images (especially true of classic horror films). But what we all came here to see was a mummy battling a robot. The fact that it takes so damn long to even introduce the robot is a bad sign.

One of the saving graces is the evil Dr. Krupp who is also known as “The Bat” for some unknown reason. Maybe because he rants and raves like someone whose spent too much time around guano? But once he gets his robot going, things move a little faster. But don’t get your hopes up. The movie still manages to screws it all up. The final battle between the mummy and the robot has to go down as one of the great anticlimaxes in film. You have to see it to believe it. But if you do choose to see this stink pile of a movie – see it with Joel and the bots.

Episode Review:  
This is only the second episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its comedy central years, and it shows. There’s a lot of stuff the team hadn’t quite worked out yet. The story goes that after a single viewing of this movie the crew asked Comedy Central if they could skip this movie and find something else to riff. They were denied and so they forged ahead, working on a movie that was so bad it confounded them. The result is a show that none of the crew was really proud of.

The best part of the episode is the riffing on Radar Men From the Moon. It’s actually up to standard quality for later seasons, with the riffs coming at a good pace. The serial gives the team plenty to work with. Tom keeps calling Cody in his trademark helmet “pumpkin boy”.  When a battle erupts between two scientists and some professional thugs, the scientists kick major butt and nearly win. Joel and bots speculate on what the scientists are studying that enables them to be so well versed in fighting. Then there’s the cliffhanger ending that just leaves the bots confused by the whole thing. All in all, the riffing the serials is usually a good time, and this first attempt at it sets the bar high.

But The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy just ends up clobbering the boys. Maybe they were so disheartened about actually having to work on a movie they found too horrible. The movie left such a bad taste in their mouths that they would avoid Mexican films for a good portion of their work (Santa Claus and Samson vs. The Vampire Women being the exceptions).

One of the worst things they have to deal with is the extended narrated flashback. Usually voice over works in the riffing favor. They can usually add lines to the narration to hilarious effect. But here the flat unemotional deliver of the dialogue drains any fun from that portion of the film. We’re talking 70% of the movie here!

There are a couple things that occur in this episode that were never tried again. In one scene a woman is singing, and Joel stands up and puts his hand over her mouth. They actually muffle the singing each time he does it. Joel liked to physically interact with the movies, but this is the only time that what he does affects the actual film. In another scene (the horrible mummy reveal), the heroes have their backs to the camera and their arms in front of them. They way they are lined up does look a bit like men lined up at some urinals. So the crew added some sound effects until they turn around. According to Mike, they are very ashamed by the gag.

The riffing does pick up once the new footage kicks in. The pacing is better and Dr. Krupp is chewing so much scenery that he adds to the comedy. Tom quips “Wow, they just covering the plot holes up in asphalt now.” During a long scene in a cemetery the boys do a whole Martin and Lewis routine as the comic relief character wanders around. They do some fun things with the mummy’s name. My favorite is Crow calling him the Beer Barrel Popoca. Of course the titular showdown gives them a bit to work with as well. The robot is sooo lame that the bot get up in arms at Dr. Krupps faulty invention.

For host segments, they experiment with a complete storyline that covers all the breaks. Things start off with the typical invention exchange. Joel creates an airbag for a motorcycle. The Mads create the “Chalkman” to play nails on chalkboard sound effects to drive party guests away when they refuse the leave. At the first break the Satellite of Love is swarmed by demon dogs! These are little plastic bone dogs painted red (and were originally a toy from the He-man toy series). Tom tries to tame them, but they think he’s a fire hydrant. At the next break the king of the demon dogs arrives and tries to make peace. Gypsy eats him. When the boys come out of the theater the next time, Crow decides to disguise himself as the demon dog king. They see right through it and relieve themselves on him. After the movie ends the demon dogs invade the theater. Joel fires a ball from the SOL and the demon dogs chase it!

This is one of those episodes that long time fans of the show may find interesting. Its neat to see how different the series was in these early shows, and what the crew tried to do to combat such a slow and painful film. But for casual viewers this is a real slog of an episode. See if you can find the Radar Men From the Moon episode on line, but there’s no real need to seek the full episode out.

I give it only one sacred breastplate out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XV.

1 comment:

  1. These serials still played on Saturday morning TV when I was a kid, and I loved the Commando Cody ones. I really wanted one of those rocket packs. I still can watch them with nostalgic enjoyment, and surely they were the inspiration for The Rocketeer, both the comic book and the movie. If I saw The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy, however, I've forgotten it. Apparently that's just as well.