Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Crawling Eye (1958) – MST3K Review

The film begins with a couple climbers on a mountain in Switzerland being attacked by an off-screen horror. Whatever attacks them enjoys lopping off heads. Luckily Dr. Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) arrives shortly after to set things right. On the train he meets the lovely Pilgrim sisters, Ann (Janet Munro) and Sarah (Jennifer Jayne). Ann is a physic who travels and puts on demonstrations of her uncanny abilities, but something has drawn her to the mountain.

Meanwhile Tucker meets with some of his old scientist pals in their super high tech observatory on the mountain. They’ve been noticing some bitterly cold fog that appears to move in unnatural ways around the mountain. Soon enough more climbers are decapitated, missing climbers turn up acting strangely, Ann is called to the mountain and Tucker shouts at folks a bunch of times. The fog rolls in and with it the horrifying Crawling Eye. Will Forrest be able to save the village from this bizarre menace?

Movie Review:
The crawling eye... and brain... and tentacles?
In the long line of disembodied body parts that have come to life and tried to kill people, the enormous eyeball is rarely seen. Sure the gigantic Pancreas was all the rage, and who can forget the horror of the huge earlobe that tried to smash the city of Denver flat in the hit film “The Skulking Earlobe”. These are crowd-pleasing body parts that everyone loves to see go rogue and destroy towns. But the eyeball, well it just doesn’t get the exposure that others do. It was really quite daring for director Quentin Lawrence to pick it as the main antagonist.

What I’m saying is that The Crawling Eye is ridiculous. So why the hell is it so serious? Why spend the whole movie hiding the eponymous creature? Why have a psychic if you aren’t going to do anything interesting with her? Oh, we can ask these questions all day, but the answers are shrouded in mystery. Or you can just say, it was the 1950s and that is just how these types of movies were made.

That’s why bad movie watchers love them. If you’re up for the typical slow (tension free) build, the stiff acting, the doughy white hero and the hilarious creature in the final 10 minutes than it’s one to seek out. But at the same time, it could have been a bit more fun than it turned out to be.

Ann getting all psychic.
Like most movies of the era, The Crawling Eye is one talky monster movie. A huge amount of time is spent with characters that are basically fodder for the creature. We don’t really get to know them well, but we sit there and listen to them babble for scenes that run too long. There are hints at things that seem to be important. Brooks speaks about a something similar occurring in an expedition to the Andes, but nothing comes of it other than a sense that he must right a wrong from his past. Ann is given a huge build up with her psychic powers. But the filmmakers don’t let her do anything with it other than turn her into a damsel in distress. She didn’t need powers to be that. Her sister is there to look concerned and grave and… not much else. There’s even another male character to end up with Ann, and get some action scenes, but he’s so bland I can’t even remember his name.

Then you’ve got Tucker’s performance as Brooks. It’s typical 50s beefy male hero, who shouts a lot, is very earnest and punches a few people to get things done. In some ways he’s like Cal from This Island Earth but older and without the sonorous voice. Of course he figures out how to stop the creatures, when it’s been painfully obvious to the audience what’s going on. He acts like it’s a revelation, and we’re supposed to be impressed. Mostly I’m wondering if he felt silly doing battle with the tentacles in the finale scene.

Dry alien eyes? Try MST3K brand eye drops.
As for our creatures, well they are a hoot. Yes, they have an eye and they crawl, but they also have some kind of fleshy body that looks like a brain and tentacles that flail around and lift people up. These creatures are portrayed by puppets for the most part. The film does some fun things with them. When they finally show up near the end, you wish they had been present much earlier. A film like Fiends Without a Face did a much better job of creating horror with it’s devilish killer brains and spinal cords, and made them visible earlier in the film to great advantage.

The music in The Crawling Eye was actually pretty fun. It’s big, bombastic and injects some thrills and tension where they are needed. It kind of reminds me of the work of Albert Glasser without all the march-style tracks.

With a premise so silly you kind of wish the movie had embraced the inherent fun. Alas it seems to stumble along and never engage as it should. Luckily there is enough to riff on, and Joel and the bots are on hand for their first official riffing session for Comedy Central.

Episode Review:  
Forrest Tucker in a rare moment not shouting.
For the most part this episode will be a fan favorite because it was the very first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Comedy Central. Prior to this, the show existed only on a cable access station in Minneapolis. This was the first crack that the crew at Best Brains had with their “cow town puppet show”. So they revamped the look of the robots, the sets, the premise, and then picked what they felt would be the iconic movie.

The Crawling Eye in a lot of ways is exactly what you’d expect to find on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s black and white. It’s got a ridiculous and yet memorable monster. It’s got star power in the form of Forrest Tucker. It’s completely serious and yet completely goofy. It was an excellent pick to start the series proper.

But keep in mind this is the first episode of the first season. And it is pretty rare that what you see here is the best representation of the series. While the basics are in place, it wouldn’t be until Robot Monster that season one really felt like it was taking off. But that doesn’t mean you can write this episode off.

The main issue with season one episodes is that the riffing is pretty sparse and tends toward comments that observe the action on the screen, instead of actually making a joke based on the action. For example, when some fake looking clouds descend down the matte painting of the mountain, you get Joel and the bots saying something like, “Wow those clouds look fake on Mt. Matte Painting”. While a season two episode would have Crow yelling, “Hey Earl stop smoking behind the matte painting, we’re rolling!” or something like that. These observations became known as “State Park Jokes”, and this episode has quite a few of them.

Joel and the bots are right under that arrow, honestly!
Season one’s pacing feels more like folks watching the movie for the first time and chiming in here and there, instead of the well oiled riffing machine that would evolve later. So there are long stretches of riff free action in The Crawling Eye. It wouldn’t be so bad if the movie weren’t so dull and so afraid to show it’s main monsters.

But there are some gems here. The opening credits contain a strange set of imagery, with arrows pointing at various members of the cast. When the “Directed By” credit appears, the arrow seems to be pointing at Joel and the bots, so they call out “Directed by us!”. The presence of Forrest Tucker leads to all kinds of F Troop jokes. Having never been a fan of the show, most of those went over my head, but they didn’t go crazy with them. In a scene where a snow globe is used a prop during one of Ann’s psychic performances, Crow adds, “Hey when you shake it, the climber’s heads come off.” Later on, Ann is using her ability to see the fate of two climbers. We cut from her babbling to scenes of the men doing exactly as she describes. Of course they get attacked in the fog. Tom realizes, “Hey maybe she’s controlling them. If she shuts up maybe they’ll be OK.”

To be honest the first half of The Crawling Eye is pretty weak. The riffing is infrequent and the state park jokes abound. The second half kicks in with one of the climbers returning to the cabin. This is were things get rolling. This clown is possessed by the creatures and goes around with one eye shut and trying to kill Ann. With his squinty eye and his murderous glowering, the boys start making Popeye jokes. Then there is the fiery finale with Forrest Tucker running around shouting, throwing Molotov cocktails, and battling tentacles. The eye puns come fast and furious. But one of my favorite riffs comes from Crow. Tucker is ordering the ingredients for the Molotov cocktails, and calling the local NATO base for a firebombing. As he barks orders over the phone Crow adds, “Also, deliver six tons of onions and a giant eye chart.”

Undead climber or murderous Popeye?
When it comes to performances in the host segments by our crew, everyone is pretty much in character. Josh Weinstein as Dr. Ernhardt and Trace Beaulieu as Dr. Forrester have the mad scientist shtick down pat. I was never a huge fan of Ernhardt’s character, but he is supposed to be annoying. I just think Weinstein did it too well. However Weinstein makes a great Tom Servo, and some of his riffing is top notch. Josh was only part of the show for this season, but he provided plenty of laughs and his work in the first episode is proof that he was a welcome member of the team. It wasn’t a surprise when he joined Joel Hodgson for his most recent riffing project Cinematic Titanic.

The Crawling Eye also brings us the Joel Robinson character fully formed. Hodgeson pretty much played himself for his entire run of the show, but it was nice to see the more fatherly relationship with the bots already in place in this first episode. Joel’s good-natured riffing is also obvious here, with few of the more aggressive riffs that would become a hallmark of the later years. Trace’s performance as Crow is also exactly what you’d expect. I think there is quite a bit of Crow in Trace and so the character was easy for him to express. All in all, most of the characters are in place in this first episode.

Joel quizes the bots about the film.
While the performances during the host segments are handled well, the segments themselves are pretty rough. This was typical of the first season, most of the host segments just doesn’t click like they did in later seasons. One of the things I always forget is that in these early episodes the mad scientists controlled the experiment, so you’d always start with them babbling about something or other. It works fine in this first episode, as they establish the premise of them controlling Joel’s fate on the Satellite of Love and the experiments with the bad movies. The first segment focuses on this and the invention exchange. Joel creates an Electric Bagpipe, which is a leaf blower and bagpipe combination. The mads come up with the ultimate antiperspirant, which turns you into a dog, because dogs don’t sweat. Dr. Ernhardt demonstrates and starts panting almost immediately. At the first break, Joel has to explain to the bots why humans die if they are decapitated. The second break Gypsy uncoils herself and makes a huge mess. At the third break Joel has to explain why a giant eyeball is horrifying to humans. This turns into a funny discussion on what kind of world would lead to the evolution of a giant eyeball as a dominant life form. The final host segment has Joel asking the robots to give him one good thing and one bad thing about the movie. If they do, they get a ram chip. Of course even the “good things” about the movie are backhanded compliments. This ram chip segment was something that occurred in a few season one episodes.

The Crawling Eye is definitely an episode that will intrigue fans of the show. It’s neat to see this first episode of a favorite series. But for casual fans, all the typical season one issues are here. It’s a slow movie, with a casual riffing session and host segments that aren’t terribly entertaining. I end up comparing the season one episodes to each other, but deduct one star when comparing to the entire series.

I give this one three headless mountain climbers out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII boxset.


  1. This is the kind of movie in the awfulness of which I can revel. It is, in fact, on my shelf. The more you think about it the sillier it is. How did the aliens get there and why do they not use any technology? Couldn't they have chosen more isolated mountains than the Alps on which to establish themselves? and so on.

    1. You know, this movie isn't half bad, as long as you know it's pretty talky going in. It actually moves pretty well in the second half. Yeah, the more think about the monster the more ridiculous it gets. I think that's why I hoped it had been a bit more obvious about how silly it was. But at the same time, because everyone is so damn serious, it makes for great riffing. :)