Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jungle Goddess (1948) – MST3K Review

This episode explodes on the screen with the first episode of a serial called The Phantom Creeps. In it, Bela Lugosi is the deranged scientist Dr. Zorka. Because of his goofy last name, he is out to make all kinds of crazy inventions, including exploding spiders, invisibility belts and one of the strangest looking robots in cinema history. The plot for this episode introduces Zorka as he tries to convince folks that a) he isn’t crazy and b) his inventions are valuable. He fails at both, and of course goes on the rampage. He is able to convince people he is dead, and then starts his homegrown terrorism project. It all ends with a cliffhanger as our heroes attempt to escape a plummeting plane after an exploding spider takes out the pilot. Yeah read that sentence again and try to imagine it on a shoestring budget.

Jungle Goddess starts in deepest darkest Africa (on a back lot somewhere) where sleazy bush pilot Bob (Ralph Byrd) and his straight-laced partner Mike (George Reeves) are just scraping by. Bob comes across a news report that declares a huge reward for finding the missing heiress Greta Vanderhorn (Wanda McKay). The two decide to search for the missing lass, and eventually find her... and a whole heap of trouble.

Because this is a movie of it’s time, the (black) natives of the jungle found (white) Greta and believed she was a goddess from the sky. She rules over them all, but is about ready to head back to civilization thank you very much. Bob discovers the village is situated on a huge deposit of a radioactive element – and he sees dollar signs. But his trigger-happy nature gets everyone in trouble with the natives. Can the Jungle Goddess escape with her newfound friends?

Movie Review:

Behold Bela's goofy beard and goofier robot.
Time for another serial, this time from Universal back in 1939.  The Phantom Creeps features Bela Lugosi being Bela Lugosi. It’s got crazy inventions, amazing coincidences and character motives and actions that don’t make a lick of sense. But it’s got that breezy feel that most serials have. They are only there to entertain you, get you excited about the cliffhanger and make you want to come back for the next installment.

This is the first episode, so it’s a bit exposition heavy. Dr. Zorka shows off all his inventions, even perfecting the invisibility belt in front of us. His lab is full of secret passages and hidden doors. In addition to interacting with his inventions, we also get to see him attempt to convince his wife and a potential financial backer about the usefulness of his work. The dialogue here is very silly and overblown, offering plenty of laughs by itself.

Two sequences in The Phantom Creeps stand out as completely hilarious. The first is where Zorka fakes his own death. So many things need to happen for this plan to work – and guess what? They all fall into place. It’s so ridiculous, the only response is laughter. The other classic serial moment is when the exploding spider takes out the pilot and causes the plane to spiral out of control to its doom. The visuals involving the invisible belt, the little spider, the feeble explosion and then all the ridiculous dialogue from the heroes are great stuff.

A scene that inspired the film "Arachnophobia"?
Although Bela gets top billing for his scenery chewing skill, the real starts of the serial are the inventions. First is the awkward, huge headed robot. He lumbers about, with that bizarre expression on his face. Zorka keeps claiming how useful it is and basically all it does in this episode is wander around. Then you have the belt that renders you invisible, which is really more blurry or cloudy than anything else. But the supporting cast keeps saying how they can’t see anyone wearing belt, so it must work. Last but hardly least are the exploding spiders. These little puppets move very realistically, you know, if you have your eyes closed. Their sole purpose is to be dragged along by a string to where a disc is hidden. Upon contact with the disc – BOOM! Surprisingly, a similar tactic was used by the villain of the 1980s futuristic action flick called Runaway with Tom Selleck. But in that film, the spiders were metal robots. Here, they’re just goofy spider puppets.

The Phantom Creeps is exactly what it needs to be, a crazy blast of serial entertainment. It’s pacing is a bit bizarre, but I chalk that up to the fact that it is the first episode, and there is plot and character stuff that needs to be revealed. But of the three serial adventures MST3K tackled, it seems the least thought out. Both Radar Men from the Moon and The Undersea Kingdom felt a little more coherent.

Lucky for us, Jungle Goddess is coherent. Unluckily for us, it’s also boring as all heck. In many ways it resembles the flick Queen of the Amazons. The plots are similar, the budgets both look pretty sparse and the use of stock footage is pretty rampant. What makes this film a little better is George Reeves and Wanda McKay. They both put in a fine effort and elevate the film from a painfully bad to just plain dull.

I thought Superman didn't need a plane to fly.
It’s the pacing that’s the killer here. The movie takes its time doing anything. The opening scenes involving Bob and Mike discussing their financial situation and the plan to go after Greta seems to take forever. Equally slow is the search through the jungle to find the wreckage of Greta’s plane, and then the long escape scene that makes up the “exciting” finale. Director Lewis D. Collins just can’t keep things moving briskly or with any interest. Now Collins is one of those directors who could crank out the low budget films (kind of like Sam Newfield of Lost Continent and I Accuse My Parents fame). In 1944 alone he directed 12 movies, including the intriguingly named Raiders of the Ghost City. So I’m guessing that sometimes he’d just run out of steam on some of these projects.

The plot is so uninspired in Jungle Goddess that I can’t really blame him. To our eyes, the whole concept of the white woman ruling over the black tribe is pretty offensive. But back in 1948 I’m guessing it didn’t do much more than raise an eyebrow or two. Besides with the tagline: “TEMPTRESS… of 1000 untamed men! RULER… of a savage empire!”, well I think we all know what was being promoted here – stock footage!

Yes all the low budget jungle film tropes rear their ugly heads. Lots and lots of stock footage is used. Most of it awkwardly edited into shots in some of the least convincing ways possible. You get some really bad jungle sets (very similar to the ones used in Lost Continent). Then you get the “natives” who are all pretty embarrassing to watch. The worst is Wanama played by single named Armida. The only reason she’s the worst is because she is a Hispanic actress in blackface speaking in broken English.

"Wait a minute, I thought Weissmuller was in this flick."
But surely Jungle Goddess must have some kind of action or adventure, right? Yeah, well, most of the action is Bob and Mike getting into arguments that lead to fisticuffs. The finale with the whole village chasing Greta, Mike and Bob is rendered extremely dull by scene after scene of them running or walking through the same patch of jungle set. A scene of stock footage animals is inserted every once in a while so Bob can shoot at something. But all told, the action is pretty limited and thrill free.

This leaves the acting. As I mentioned Reeves isn’t bad as the straight arrow Mike. He’s earnest and brave, everything you want in an adventure hero. But you get the feeling that a guy like this would have ditched Bob pretty darn quick. Byrd turns Bob into a conniving, greedy, jerk with an itchy trigger finger. This guy is more than willing to sell his “friend” out to angry natives, kill anyone who gets in his way and generally behave like an ass. He’s actually the true villain of the film, which is saying something especially when you see how anyone of color is portrayed in the film.

McKay is actually pretty alluring as Jungle Goddess Greta. Her interaction with Reeves actually has a bit of chemistry to it. So when they team up about halfway through the film, it works pretty well. Still she is given some pretty horrid dialogue, and you get the feeling that she is playing a role for a woman who is a bit younger than she was.

As poor as the pacing is, there are some good things about the movie. It actually has some interesting noire style lighting in a few scenes. Some of the stock footage is fun to watch. Byrd starts chewing the scenery at the end, and makes it a bit more entertaining. But all in all, it makes me realize how good the assorted Tarzan movies were. Even something as weak as Tarzan Escapes was better than this movie. But was the film enough to provide solid riffing fodder for Joel and the bots?

Episode Review:  
Even the robot is working for the weekend.
In many ways this is a standard episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s got a fun short, a goofy movie and some entertaining host segments. But nothing about it really stands out to make it really memorable.

As is often the case the short, The Phantom Creeps provides the most memorable laughs. But because this installment is a bit exposition heavy, it’s not quite as good as some of the stuff later on. Joel and bots have the most fun with the silly beard that Bela wears in the beginning of the episode and then with all his inventions. When Zorka puts on the invisible belt for a test run, it malfunctions and causes him to stagger around in agony. Joel quips, “Oh man, just a little issue with the four alarm chili.” Once Zorka gets it working and becomes a moving blur Tom says, “That’s a pretty good impression of Patrick Swayze.” This episode aired in 1990, so the movie Ghost made this a very current riff. But it’s the bigheaded robot that brings one most of the funniest moments. After Zorka makes a huge production about the robot, as the door slides open Crow says, “What’s the big deal? It’s s a big metal Richard Kiel.” This was before they all got to see Kiel’s tongue slopping up shaving cream in Eegah.

The pacing of The Jungle Goddess is what keeps the riffing from really taking off. This being a Season 2 episode (and an early one at that), the team hadn’t quite got the hang of really unleashing on slow moving targets. The riffs come along at a steady but slow pace. But there are some good ones in there.

Our heroes see the end of the jungle back lot. 
George Reeves is of course going to open up a bunch of Superman related jokes. When Mike first walks into the bar to talk to Bob, Joel asks, “Hey, seen my blue underwear. It’s got a big “S” on it.” Later when Mike and Bob end up in another fistfight, the boys wonder how Superman can be beaten by a mere mortal, and where Bob is hiding the kryptonite.

Bob’s trigger-happy jerkiness causes a bunch of jokes. When a native pops up from a bush and Bob blows the poor guy away Joel says, “Hope that’s an acceptable greeting.” Uh, yeah, not quite. During the finale as the white folk attempt to escape the natives, we keep seeing stock footage of animals. Tom riffs, “Hey Bob, there’s a living thing. Why don’t you swing into high and kill it!”.

Even the Jungle Goddess herself isn’t immune to the riffing. In fact she is the source of a running joke for the entire series. When Greta is talking with Mike about how homesick she is, she says, “I sure could go for a hamburger sammich and some French-fried potatoes.” The writers at MST3K picked up on that and it would pop up in other episodes, whenever hamburgers or fries were on the screen. It even plays a key role in one of the host segments for I Accuse My Parents. Later when Greta and Mike plot their escape, Greta says, “Obey my every command, no matter how strange.” Joel just sighs and says, “Oh wow…”

Joel Robinson is... The Jungle Goddess!
The host segments provide a mix of entertaining and kinda odd. The episode starts with Joel and the bots playing hide and seek – existentially. For the invention exchange, Joel creates a radio-controlled circular saw. Because the farther you are away from power tools the safer you are. It ends up with Joel in pain. The mad scientists put Dr. Forrester’s head on the end of the saxophone and Frank plays him… it… the thing. It’s really bizarre. At the first break Joel and bots make their own infomercial for The Phantom Creeps exploding spiders. This is a fun little sketch that keeps you chuckling the whole time. For the next break Joel explains the use of gobos to the bots. These are used to create the “binocular vision” we see in the film. This sketch goes on way too long with little payoff. The same goes for the next segment that has white imperialist jerks visit the Satellite and threaten to shoot everyone on board – except Joel, because he’s white. Yeah it’s a bit preachy. After the movie ends Joel and bots imagine the life of Mike and Greta back in the states in the form of a 50’s sitcom in the vein of I Love Lucy. It’s all very silly but provides a few chuckles  (and a few more Superman jokes).

In the end you get an average episode. The riffing is above average for the short and average for the film. Not bad for a lazy Sunday, but not one I reach for very often.

I give it 3 hamburger sammiches out of five.

This episode is available on DAP.


  1. They still played these serials on Saturday morning TV when I was a kid. Since the episodes often were played back-to-back, the cheat scenes became obvious. You know the ones. Episode 5 ends with the hero driving over a cliff with no discernible hope of survival. Episode 6 begins with the hero rolling out the car door just before the car goes over the cliff. "Hey, wait a minute! That wasn't in the last episode!" I watched them anyway but remember little of them except random scenes. (I do recall that goofy robot but nothing about the plot.) By and and large, they, as you say, weren't memorable.

    1. Ah the infamous cheat scenes. Yes. If I remember this one properly, you see the plane crash with our heroes inside. Then at the beginning of the next episode, you see them parachute out before the plane crashes.

      As Annie Wilkes from "Misery" would say, "They didn't jump from the caca-doodie plane!"

      The moment she references in the movie comes right out of "Radar Men from the Moon". When I first caught that episode on MST3K, both my wife and I burst out laughing and said the line from "Mistery" at the same time.