Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) – MST3K Review

This episode has the audacity to feature two short films before diving into the feature. The first is called Money Talks. A young man is bemoaning his lack of funds. He whines loudly enough that Benjamin Franklin rises from the grave! Well his shadow does at least. The founding father dispenses some solid financial advice and our young protagonist turns his monetary life around.

Up next is Progress Island. This was made by the Economic Development department of Puerto Rico in 1973. The short tells you all the reasons Puerto Rico is so darn amazing. It uses commanding narration, lots of montages and a super funky and hip (for the early 70s) soundtrack. It comes across as a bit desperate to tell you the truth.

The Beast of Yucca Flats was written and directed by Coleman Francis, which should tell you enough right there. But I suppose I can provide a bit more information. A defecting Russian scientist, Joseph Javorsky (Tor Johnson), arrives in the US with a suitcase full of secrets to share. Little does he know that the KGB has sent two crackerjack agents to take the briefcase and kill Javorsky. A shootout and chase ensue, but Javorsky manages to escape… right into an A Bomb testing site.

Well he gets irradiated and mutates into a lumbering murderous beast (hence the name of the film). The rest of the movie is comprised of him stumbling around, murdering random folks and waving a stick. A couple boys get lost in the desert, which is supposed to create tension. There are also two local cops who try to hunt him down, but really stink at their jobs. While The Beast of Yucca Flats isn’t all that scary of a monster, the movie itself has been known to cause brain damage.

Movie Review:
I think someone enhanced their chocolate milk,
if you know what I mean.
Lets start with the short film Money Talks. This is one of those educational shorts that is actually filled with good advice and solid points. It provides a nice introduction to planning and saving that any kid who is picking up some spending cash should know. It tries to shake things up by having Ben Franklin appear and dispense the wisdom in an attempt to keep the whole thing from feeling like an accounting seminar. I’m sure, on some level it could work, especially in the time it was made.

But our cruel cynical modern eyes will find most of this too goofy to take seriously. It is overly earnest in its approach. Our protagonist comes across as a whiny dork, and not an everyman. The silhouette of Ben Franklin ends up looking a bit noire and kind of creepy at times. For all that, the message is solid and handled well enough.

Historical beauty? Check. Fuzzy Guitar soundtrack?
Double check!
On the other hand you have Progress Island, which is way too eager to please and excite. It throws every trick in the book at the viewer to convince you that Puerto Rico is the next big thing. No matter what you need in life, Puerto Rico has it. Want a lovely vacation spot? Head to Puerto Rico. Want a solid education? Head to Puerto Rico. Want some cheap labor for your plant? Head to Puerto Rico. That last bit seems a bit odd to have in your sales pitch, but there it is.

There is actually some really lovely camera work in this short. Puerto Rico offers a lot of picturesque areas, so I’m sure the camera crew had plenty to work with. The whole thing goes wrong in the narration, which is constant and emphatic. YOU WILL LOVE PUERTO RICO! Combined with the ultra-dated soundtrack with fuzzy guitars and wacka-jo-wacka action, it becomes really hard to take seriously. Even the hyper-active editing to connote how modern and lively the island is, feels like the hard sell being slammed down. It’s an abrasive short on a lovely island.

One of the most questionable nuclear scientists
ever put on film.
Coleman Francis got his first opportunity to direct a film in 1961. He tackled the mutated monster genre and called it The Best of Yucca Flats. He got Ed Wood favorite, Tor Johnson to play the lead role, roped in a bunch of friends and family to cover the rest, and then trundled out to the California desert to do some shooting. This is the result.

In some ways you can tell this is a film by a first time filmmaker. It is way too long for its subject, but only clocks in at 54 minutes. Scenes are poorly edited, acting is questionable and there are scenes where everything is framed badly. The pacing is a slog. There are no interesting characters to latch on to. There is little to no tension. There is really nothing here to make a compelling film.

And yet, it has so many bizarre quirks and oddities, that in its own way, it is a fascinating watch. Not a good or entertaining viewing experience, but one that you find hypnotic in its horrible execution.

Scenes of Tor wandering around the desert comprise
83% of the film.
Like Red Zone Cuba and Skydivers before it, The Beast of Yucca Flats has some seriously bad camera work and editing. Being the first crack by Francis, he actually improved in his next two features. But this film is the worst. His technique for low angle close-ups starts here. I wonder if this was done so that he could insert them anywhere he wanted a transition or shift. The action scenes are tracked and framed poorly. Other times the scenes are so badly lit or captured from such a distance that it is hard to see what is happening. My screen shots make it pretty clear that this is a hard to watch.

The editing takes it to new level, with scenes cutting out for what appears to be no reason. Other times you get a series of inserts and edits, as if Francis was attempting a montage of some kind. But there is no flow or rhythm. The affect is pure confusion. You can’t tell if the images you see are related, or if they are affecting each other, or anything really. It starts to feel like a series of film sequences just slapped together to create some kind of story.

There is a story here. Javorsky becomes The Beast of Yucca Flats, kills a few people and then is killed by two police officers. But the film seems confused on who it is following and whose story we are working with. Is it the Beast? Is it the cops? Is it the lost kids? No idea. And the film never seems to make up its mind. Too much time is spent with all these storylines when they seem to be doing nothing more than walking around or climbing up and down desert landscapes. No characters are actually developed or created.

"Night on Butt Mountain"
Part of the problem is that the film was made without any synched sound. Or maybe the tapes proved to be unusable with all the desert background sound. In any case, nearly all the dialogue is added later, and very obviously. I’m thinking that Francis knew this was going to happen, because some of the odd framing in the film is designed to block out the characters lips. There are many shots of people from behind, or in shadow or talking off screen while we see a reaction shot. It actually makes the film very surreal in parts, almost David Lynch like. I don’t think Francis was going for surreal, but it is an interesting concept.

I have to mention that Tony Cardoza makes an appearance in this film too. Luckily he doesn’t have to deliver any dialogue (not even lines delivered in post). He plays one of the KGB agents sent to hunt down Javorsky. Yes he’s the least threatening gunman I’ve ever seen, but he does get blown up by an atom bomb, so there is that. The Beast of Yucca Flats is actually filled with familiar faces from the world of Coleman Francis, including coffee loving Joe from Skydivers and Cherokee Jack from Red Zone Cuba.

Tor Johnson plays the beast, and obviously he is here for his looks. Just like Ed Wood, Coleman Francis has Tor wander around the screen, bellow and threaten, and just act like he was a brain dead version of Lobo from Bride of the Monster. Thing is, Tor looks like he’s having trouble moving around. He has no speed, and even though he’s a big guy, he doesn’t seem to have much muscle mass. The result is a large fat man wandering in the desert with some make up on his face. Because Tor can’t move fast, it becomes very hard to believe that he could catch anyone fleeing from him. The most believable scene occurs at the end when the cops think they’ve downed him and get too close. It seems that Tor wasn’t dubbed most of the time, but he doesn’t have any actual lines, just grunts, howls and moans.

Tony Cardoza is a deadly KGB agent.
Instead The Beast of Yucca Flats has another character that does most of the talking: the narrator. It is Coleman Francis himself. He tells us the story, giving us background on Javorsky, the two cops, and the young boys. I suppose this narration is supposed to build the characters, but most of the time it just sounds like filler exposition.

Nearly all the lines in the film seem to ramble and shamble around (kind of like the Beast himself). It is something that Francis always seems to capture in his scripts. Here the narrator provides line after line of randomness. But the thing is, I don’t think these lines are as chaotic as they appear.

Coleman Francis had some very definite themes in his films. Red Zone Cuba was really his most obvious take on these themes, but The Beast of Yucca Flats has plenty of them too. Over and over again, Francis’ narration talks about the characters caught in the wheels of progress. Looking at it from that way, all the events in this film are because of the United States desire to obtain the best technological information. The line that stands out for so many viewers (including Mike and bots) is “Flag on the moon. How did it get there?”

Another character lost in the endless background
of the low angle shot.
Francis implies that our astronauts made it to the moon because they obtained knowledge and secrets from other countries. So Javorsky’s arrival in the United States is going to bring about some more technological change, but the cost is high. Javorsky is destroyed as a man. Innocent people are murdered. Children are threatened. In the end, the whole thing is pointless because Javorsky’s mind is destroyed and his secrets in his briefcase are burned up by the atomic blast (the camera holds on the image of the burning suitcase to make this point clear).

You see this mistrust of the United State government very clearly in Red Zone Cuba as well. While the theme is a bit oblique in The Beast of Yucca Flats it is there, and it does help explain why Francis has all these ironic lines about progress.

If it sounds like I’m giving Coleman Francis too much credit, well I’m not. I think people write off his movies as pure garbage. But I really think he was trying to say something in his films. It’s never a happy message, and his dreary and dower camera work makes the whole thing harder to watch. But the man had a definite theme to his films. Even a stupid monster movie like The Beast of Yucca Flats has this.

Tor is blinded by science!
But the movie fails in delivering its message. Most folks won’t notice this theme, because it is delivered so poorly. The movie also fails as a monster flick. Francis never builds any tension, suspense or dread. The endless scenes of people wandering in the desert or flying over the desert, or running through the desert don’t do anything but slow the pace of the film down. The irony is all these moments are filled with rapid cuts, angle changes and some interesting camera work. The scene where the father is chased by an airplane and shot at has some intense camera work that actually puts you in the action. It is a technique that I haven’t seen done again until 1998 in the film Pi where the lead actor wore a camera rig that locked the camera to him and kept his face in frame while the background moved around him.

It doesn’t matter. Francis keeps any of these long scenes from having any affect on the plot or the characters. People just wander around looking lost and hopeless (even the monster). It does create an atmosphere of doom, but little else.

One bright spot of the film is the ending, which according to stories was completely spontaneous. Francis captured the moment and used it to end the film. As the beast lays dying on the ground, a small rabbit hops up to his body and nuzzles him. He pets it and dies. It is actually the most effective scene in The Beast of Yucca Flats, and it keeps the film from being the absolutely worst film I’ve seen. But in all honesty it is probably right behind Monster a-Go Go. And that is not company you want to keep. So how do Mike and the bots hold up to this beastly film?

Episode Review:
"Listen to the dark voices... yes!"
This was the final Coleman Francis film that Mike and bots got to tackle, and they saved the most painful film for last. It is ironic that Mike started to lose his mind while watching Red Zone Cuba because The Beast of Yucca Flats is a much worse film. Still the boys give it one of their best tries, and things start off really well with some fun riffing of the short films.

Money Talks is a pretty straightforward piece, so the riffing is pretty straightforward as well.  Most of the riffs are solid, but unremarkable. When Benjamin Franklin’s silhouette appears Tom gasps and says, “Alfred Hitchcock!” But there is no mastery of suspense displayed after that. Instead they have some fun with the fact that our young protagonist is seeing ghosts and having full-blown conversations with them. In addition, the young man keeps seeing all kinds of things in his mirror – other than his reflection. After one such vision Crow remarks “That was my darkest vision yet.” I also love the moment where Tom impersonates the boy’s mom and says, “Are you talking to the founding fathers again?” Reminded me of a similar riff in This Island Earth “Are you boys making an Interossiter up there?”

All these folks could work for you, just come to
Puerto Rico.
That short is fun, but Progress Island is the real treasure here. In some ways the riffing reminds me strongly of the material we’d get in the Sci-fi era, much faster, much snarkier and a touch too mean spirited. But that doesn’t keep it from being really funny. And seriously, the short is really asking for it. The way it paints Puerto Rico as an amazing paradise of cheap labor, and does so with reckless abandon makes the whole thing seem desperate and insincere.

So the boys go to town. They riff on everything and everyone on screen. The hilarious ultra-mod 1970s score doesn’t help, but provides the boys with a quick rhythm to move the riffing along. Same with the rapid editing used to connote progress. But the winner is the narration, which is so over blown, but offers so many perfect pauses. The result has the riffing team adding all kinds of additional insights to the narration.

When the voice over declares “Luxury Hotels!” over a shot of a huge building, Tom adds “Are desperately needed.” When the narrator exclaims “Yes, Puerto Rico offers something for everyone.” Crow adds, “Like flights out.” During a scene of folk dancing that seems to be filmed very strangely Mike says, “Yes no matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid.” As Progress Island wraps up Mike says, “I’d like to apologize to all the people of Puerto Rico… that we didn’t offend.” As nasty as it does get, the writers of The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide say that the target was the short itself, not the Puerto Rico in particular. It was all done for some fun, and not meant to hurt any feelings. Still we saw this kind of thing again in The Final Sacrifice with some Canadian bashing and Invasion of the Neptune Men when the boys go off on all things Japanese. Just saying.

Another victim, caught in the wheels of progress.
When the movie finally starts the boys seem ready and raring to go, and this is a good thing, because The Beast of Yucca Flats is a real slog. In a way it helps that they have taken on Francis’ previous films, and they use those as leverage for this one. This means there a plenty of callbacks to riffs and situations in Red Zone Cuba and The Skydivers, especially since many members of the cast return for this one. One of my favorites is when Tom says, “I love how deep Tony Cardoza gets into his parts.” And Crow responds, “Yeah he just goes in there and sits.”

There are plenty of riff about Tor Johnson, a gent who has appeared in a couple of their films before. Tom does a pretty good imitation of Johnson’s distinctive voice, and adds all kinds of dialogue to the film. Including a variation on everyone’s favorite line, “Time for go to bed” from The Unearthly.

They have a good time with Francis’ narration. Often they are lost with the rambling sentences. When the narrator says, “Flag on the moon. How did it get there?” Mike responds with “These are all just random thoughts folks.” The whole “Flag on the moon” line became a reoccurring riff used in many later episodes whenever a character said something bizarre or non sequitur.

Flag on the moon. Tor put it there!
Most of the riffs in The Beast of Yucca Flats end up revolving around how punishing the movie is. About half way through Tom says, “So anyway, you can see how this all adds up to a movie.” Later on as Tom stares at another scene of craggy terrain as Tor wanders around he says, “You know, this isn’t very flat.” Crow adds, “I get the Yucca part.”  Tom’s final thoughts, “This movie stops at nothing… and then stays there.

The host segments, much like the narration in the film, are pretty random. It all starts with Mike and bots attempting to wallpaper the satellite of love. The results cause Gypsy to leave the room screaming. The Mad Scientists gloat because they are introducing Proposition Deep 13, which turns out to be the two shorts and the film. The goal? To drive Mike and the bots completely insane and break them once and for all. They treat the whole thing like a political campaign. At the first break a space trailer turns up filled with party kids. Crow joins in the fun, but Tom scares them away. At the next break Crow keeps asking Mike if it 11:30 and then time for lunch. This is based on something that actually happened in the writing room on a regular basis. When we join the boys next time Crow is hosting FAP – the Film Anti-preservation Program. It is meant to let films like The Beast of Yucca Flats rot in peace. He offers that other films like Aspen Extreme or Stop or My Mom Will Shoot are perfect for this treatment. After the film ends, Mike and the bots have survived and deliver a glowing victory speech. The Mads deliver their concession speech.
Hey Crow, Martin Scorsese called. He said
you're a bad bad robot.

The Beast of Yucca Flats really is a victory for Mike and the bots. They take one of the worst films ever made (and I don’t use that term lightly, I’ve seen The Room), and make it very funny. Still, it is a dreary slog of a film and if you aren’t in the right mood, even the valiant effort by our guys may not be enough to help you. Riffing on Progress Island makes this worth checking out. As impressive as the feat is, I can’t in good conscience recommend this episode to everyone. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the riffing on Red Zone Cuba, then this give this a shot. But if Skydivers bored you to tears stay far, far away.

I give this three flags on the moon out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 collection, Volume XVIII.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Skydivers (1963) – MST3K Review

It all starts with a short film called Why Study Industrial Arts? This flick follows Joe as tries to explain to his buddy Bill why industrial arts courses in high school are worth the time and may lead to viable career opportunities. The boys get advice from the wood shop teacher as well as the basketball coach. In the end Joe convinces his doubting buddy that being handy with tools is a truly wonderful thing.

Once upon a time there lived a monotone pilot named Harry (Anthony Cardoza) and his jumpsuited wife Beth (Kevin Casey – no that is not a typo). They ran a skydiving school in the middle of the California desert. While both of them enjoy coffee a great deal, the spark is gone from their marriage. That is why Harry is fooling around with the local floozy, Suzy (Marcia Knight). But Suzy has another beau hanging around, the simple minded Frankie (Titus Moede). He used to work for Harry, but kept showing up to work drunk.

So Harry fires Frankie, gets in a fistfight with him, and Suzy feels slighted by this. So she hatches a crafty plan to get revenge on Harry. Meanwhile Harry’s old army buddy Joe shows up looking for work. He gets hired, but soon starts making googly eyes at Beth. Beth finds him attractive because he enjoys coffee almost as much as she does. I’m not even mentioning the strange party, the endless skydiving scenes and that bizarre folks who just seem to show up all to watch the perils and tribulations of The Skydivers.

Movie Review:
The Industrial Arts course is a hive of activity.
For Centron no topic was off limits for their short films. Why Study Industrial Arts is very typical of their work. It focuses on two high school teens as they explore the topic at hand and get advice from teachers and parents to guide them along the right path. It uses the typical Centron stark black and white photography. But unlike some of the more creative shorts, like Cheating, this movie has a pretty standard set up and direction.

One of the interesting elements to the short is its use of montage. You get three of them in the film, as Joe narrates his feelings about industrial arts, or while his shop teacher describes the types of jobs that utilize training in industrial arts. I don’t remember seeing so many montages in a Centron short before, and they offer some of the best riffing material. But before I get to that, let’s look at the feature film.

Coleman Francis wanted to make movies. He had been an actor for a number of years even appearing as the deliveryman in This Island Earth, but what he really wanted to do was direct. The three films he created are some of the most unique and fascinating in the Mystery Science Theater library. No, they aren’t good, but they are odd little creatures that keep the viewer wondering the simple question… why?

One of these fine folks doesn't like coffee as much
as the others.
If you are going to start with any of Francis’ movies than I suggest you start with Skydivers. It was his second film in the director’s chair, and it is overall the most cohesive and entertaining. It lacks the epic scope of Red Zone Cuba  (or Night Train to Mundo Fine if you prefer) and it is more accomplished than The Beast of Yucca Flats. It has characters, an overarching plot and even a climax of sorts. None of these elements are handled well, but the final result is watchable.

One of the first things you’ll notice in Skydivers is the camera work and editing. There are a lot of close ups on faces, but framed from a low angle and often with too much background looming behind the floating heads. These often look like insert shots, but if you watch these films enough (and only a MST3K fan would do such a crazy thing), you’ll see that these shots are edited from other scenes. That’s when you realize the editing in the film is really hacked, slashed and chopped. Scenes seem to lurch from one moment to another; inserts are placed, and then jumped past (creating an almost montage effect, but without any rhythm). The editing doesn’t cause too much confusion, which is a lucky thing, but it is disconcerting none the less.

Typical Francis framing of a closeup. No matter how
it is framed Tony Cardoza always looks the same.
Sometimes I feel bad about pointing out the faults of actors in a low budget film. I know the director can’t afford the best, he makes due with what he can pay for. But Skydivers really suffers because the performances are so weak. The crux of the film is the tension and drama between Harry and Beth. I think Francis was trying to get us to care about the couple and want them to find some way to get their relationship back on track. The only problem is that the actor playing Harry is really one of the worst I’ve seen. Tony Cardoza just can’t seem to muster a single emotion. He constantly looks sleepy, bored or just plain confused about what he’s supposed to be doing. He delivers almost all his lines in a dreary monotone, even when he’s supposed to be angry, or excited or amused. He generates 0 chemistry with Suzy and 0 tension with Beth. A plank of wood would have been a better casting choice. But then you see that Cardoza was one of the producers, so maybe it isn’t too surprising that he is in the film.

Titus Moede as Frankie isn’t too bad. He plays the simple-minded but lovesick loser well enough. I think Francis hoped he would come across as a bit of a bad boy, but Moede just doesn’t have the presence for it, no matter how big his motorcycle is. He works better as stooge for Suzy. You almost feel sorry for the poor dope at the end of the film. Tomlin as Joe is pretty bad. I get the feeling that he was someone’s friend that decided to help out and be in the movie. He can’t deliver lines, he misses his cues a few times and he just seems a bit confused by the whole thing. Unlike Cardoza, who just seems to be bored and maybe half asleep, I think Tomlin isn’t a professional actor, and was doing the best he could with no experience in front of a camera.

Suzy the floozy squares off agains Beth the... um...
coffee fan?
The ladies in Skydivers fare a bit better. You can see that Casey is trying to make Beth work, but some of the dialogue is absolutely dreadful. Francis’ scripts tended to meander around sputtering into a pointless void, often leaving the actors without much to work with. One perfect example is the scene where Beth and Joe first meet. Casey works fine with the initial greeting, but afterward, when the lines go on and on about coffee, she just seems vacant and alone. Knight does vamp it up as Suzy and of the main cast she is the best. You can see she’s playing Frankie and she even lets her simmering rage show when she executes her plan of revenge.

The music appears to be stock tracks that were edited almost as brutally as the film itself. Francis overlays some interesting musical choices, many times they sound at odds with the visuals on the screen. It seems like a heavy-handed job and creates a kind of surreal disconnect to the film. The band, the Night Jumpers, aren’t too bad actually. They perform a couple of peppy numbers at the bizarre party and provide a little bit of joy to the dreary visuals of the film.

So for the most part it seems that none of the elements of the film work as they should. But the film is watchable for that very reason. Any scene with Cardoza acting is a joy to watch, because he is so wooden and the other cast members struggle to make it work. Or you marvel at the disconnect of the cheery child like score as a plane rolls on a runway in a barren and bleak landscape. Or maybe you’re wondering why coffee is mentioned so many times and seems to be a plot point that just never got fleshed out (don’t worry it shows up in Red Zone Cuba too). You can tell Francis was trying to craft an entertaining film, but he just couldn’t make it work.

"Your cheeks are really flapping today Bill!"
Proof of this comes with the filming of they skydiving scenes, which are done fairly well. You can tell that these skydivers are pros and are doing some pretty interesting stunts; all the while some cameraman is filming all this stuff. You get several scenes, so the film does live up to the title The Skydivers, but as interesting as some of the jumps are, really it’s the same thing over and over again. Plane goes up, guys jump out; they do some mid air antics, and then pull the chutes and land. Yes there is an accident and the infamous acid in the chute scene, but both of these are edited so poorly that they have little to no impact. Instead the stunt skydiving is most interesting camera work in all of Francis’ filmography.

The other element I love about this film are all the strange and random folks who show up, deliver a line or two, or just show their mugs for the camera and are never seen again. There’s a strange guy with a guitar, a random gent taking pictures for no reason, a man holding a chicken and you even have Coleman Francis himself playing a spectator. But the party scene is the king. So many oddballs show up: a bizarre man in a kilt and sporting a horrible mustache, a super skinny guy who can’t stop dancing, and my favorite the blonde Amazon who grabs the skinny guy and flings him around like a toy. Who are these people? Why are they at the party? Why aren’t they in the rest of the movie? Who cares, they make the whole thing that much more fun to watch.

The Skydivers gives you everything you expect in a Coleman Francis film: the bad editing, the horrible performances, meandering dialogue, obsession with coffee and small aircraft, scenes in the desert and an appearance by Francis himself. But what makes this film superior to his other two films is the simple fact that you can watch it, follow it and actually find it entertaining on some level. It also means that of the three Coleman Francis films that Mike and bots tackled, this gave them the most to work with.

Episode Review:
Joe dreams about the wonders of wood shavings.
And is it just me, or does he look like a young
George Lucas?
Season six of Mystery Science Theater 3000 sticks in my mind as the Coleman Francis season. The team tackled all three of his films in that year. This trial by fire proved that the riffing team was up to the challenge of taking on some of the dreariest, most incomprehensible and aimless of films ever put to film. They could turn them into riffing gold. While I think The Starfighters gave them their first real test, The Skydivers was a close second, and it gave them a taste of the pain that would be Red Zone Cuba and The Beast of Yucca Flats.

One of the things that really gets the episode rolling is the wonderful riffing on the Why Study Industrial Arts? short. It has to be in my top ten riffs for shorts in the whole MST3K series. The topic alone gives the boys plenty of fuel for riffing. When the title appears Crow reads it aloud and then adds, “Because you’re bad at math?”

"I can't get this thing back in my pants, Earl."
But the riffing gold comes from the three montages in the short. The first shows various actions taking place in a shop class: cutting planks with a table saw, working with leather, using a chisel and even a close up wood shavings. Joe narrates how much he likes the shop class, “the smell of wood shavings, the feel of chisel against wood, the sound of the table saw.” The boys can’t help it. They start adding all kinds of lines to the list, including “The piercing scream of a freshman” or “I like to sneak in at night and lay on the table saw.” Tom asks, “What about girls, young man?” Crow answers for Joe by saying “No. Chisel.” Joe sums up by saying, “And it feels good, because I’m a craftsman”… to which Mike adds, “And not a killer!”

Yeah they get dark with this one, but that seems to be the case with most of the shorts. Why Study Industrial Arts? continues to deliver the laughs, with the next couple montages and the “semi-nude club” that appears around the basketball coach. Even if the feature doesn’t float your boat, you’ll get plenty of laughs from the short.

Huck Finn and a guy holding  a chicken.
But what about The Skydivers? As bad as this movie is, and make no mistake it is a bad movie, it does provide Mike and bots with plenty to work with. From the poor acting choices, the odd pacing, hideous editing, deranged musical selections, random characters appearing and disappearing and the close up of flapping skydiver cheeks, the boys have a great time with this one.

But all of Coleman Francis’ films have a very dreary feeling to them. Even when the film tries to shine a little joy on the screen, it fails. I still haven’t been able to put my finger on how he managed it, but Francis’ films are all dower. Skydivers ends on a down note, with Harry dying and Beth left alone on the airfield. But the characters are so thin that it is impossible to care. And yet, you feel that part of your soul has died along the way.

What I’m trying to say is that all of Francis’ films can be stifling and overpower folks who are not ready for them. The Skydivers is the best of the bunch, but it still manages to feel depressing. This can make it hard for some viewers to get past the pain of the movie and enjoy the riffing.

Coleman Francis makes his cameo. The woman next
to him would appear in "The Beast of Yucca Flats".
But Mike and the bots go after the film full bore. They unleash a steady stream of riffs and use the jumbled pacing and editing to their advantage, often delivering devilishly quick quips for quick shots. One of my favorite is when a woman with a straw hat is shown on the screen for about five seconds. Tom manages to use his old woman voice and say, “I’m Huck Finn I tell you!” It’s delivered with perfect timing and you almost have to jump back and see if you saw and heard that.

They boys mock the film making elements in Skydivers. Crow feels, “Someone with attention deficit disorder edited this film. Mike says, “It seems like they forgot to have things happen in their movie.”

They tackle Beth’s complicated hair, with a couple of good quips. When she nearly crashes a plan as she attempts to take off Mike has her say, “I saw my hair in the mirror and I panicked.” Later on Mike adds, “I predict that in the finale she jumps from the plane without a parachute and her hair opens up!”

One of the airplanes has what looks like a face, and Mike creates a Pee Wee Herman inspired voice for it. He declares it Petey Plane and adds all kinds of silly comments to the proceedings.
"Hey did Death come up and play chess with any
of you guys?"

The party scene provides some of the best riffing. All the bizarre folks give Mike and the bots so much to work with. Crow is fascinated with the Amazon gal, and gets excited whenever she’s on the screen. As we watch all the folks twisting to the music, the camera gives us a nice long shot of a polka dot behind shaking. We keep returning to this rear end and Tom observes, “Right here. That’s the butt of choice”. Mike agrees, “Yes. It won the Palm de Butt at Cannes.”

I could go on and on but you get the idea. There is a lot to work with here and even when Mike says, “It’s not The Right Stuff it’s just some stuff”, you get the feeling that there is more than enough stuff to make this one heck of a riffing session.

Mike is made ill after seeing Dr. Forrester's victory dance.
Nice outfits guys.
The host segments in this episode take a strange turn. Things start off with Tom Servo refitting himself into a planetarium projector. Crow ruins the show by repeatedly asking about Uranus. The Mads declare a swing choir competition! Everyone dresses up in hideous costumes, sings silly songs and make general fools of themselves. It’s pretty funny. At the first break, the bots attend an industrial arts class run by Mike. Crow ends up not following proper safety precautions and cuts himself in half. At the next break, Crow finds himself in a double jock lock – a feat that has to be seen to be believed. He won’t ask for help, because this will come up again and he needs to figure a way out. When we return from the theater the next time Crow is admiring his new car. Tom Servo flies by in a plane and blows it up. What a jerk! The final segment revolves around Tom and Crow both tangled up in parachutes while Mike tries to read a letter. Not sure why they decided to heap abuse on Crow, but there you go.

Even if the host segments are all over the place, the short and the film make this episode a winner. The Skydivers provides plenty of laughs if you are willing to accept the punishment of a Coleman Francis movie. But things would only get more disturbing in their exploration of his bleak world.

I give this episode four acid covered chutes out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater Collection Volume 1.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sing the Praises of Pants!

Every once in a while I run into folks who enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000, but don't like the host segments. For me, the host segments were part of what makes the show so entertaining and appealing. Especially during the Comedy Central years, you got a real feeling that these folks were just having a good time making you laugh. Sure not all the host segments work, but a lot of the time they were fun, and some times they were hilarious.

One of the things that the crew used to do quite often is create and perform a song or two. Some of these had direct connections to the movie they were watching. Tom's song about Tibby the Turtle from Gamera is one example. Other times the gang went nuts with a song for no reason. The whole swing choir challenge from The Skydivers is a perfect example of that.

One of my favorite songs is the Tribute to Pants. They boys have been watching Hercules Against the Moon Men, and were subjected to several scenes where men in togas or tunics bend over, fall down, or climb somewhere exposing areas that Joel and the bots would rather not see. As the first break rolls around, Joel and bots have had enough and come up with this song. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Horrors of Spider Island (1960) – MST3K Review

Gary (Alexander D’Arcy) is taking a group of dancers to exotic Singapore (or maybe it’s exotic dancers to Singapore… anyway) for a tour. Along the way the plane goes down somewhere in the Pacific. Gary and the girls are able to find a deserted island and explore it. 

Before Gary can feel pretty good about living on an island with a bunch of sultry ladies, they find remnants of an expedition on the island. But it appears that the expedition was destroyed by a giant spider! The giant web gave it away. Seeing no sign of the spider Gary and girls enjoy their time – until Gary disappears. Now the girls have to fend for themselves and hope help arrives. Will the confident Georgia (Helga Frank) be able to keep buxom Babs (Barbara Valentin) and the other girls away from the Horrors of Spider Island?

Movie Review:
I'm surprised SyFy hasn't attempted a remake. It would
probably be an improvement.
Girls in bikinis trapped on an island and being chased around by a mutated guy. Sounds like it might have some good points, right? If only the people behind the camera knew what they were doing. Sorry to say that the Horrors of Spider Island or Body in the Web as it is known in German, has more to do with inept film making than a scary monster. But they did get the girls in bikinis part right.

Let’s start with the basics, you know, the plot. This movie’s goal to was to show girls in bikinis and have them get attacked by a monster. So I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare (we already had that episode). it is about as flimsy as you expect. Characters are either broadly drawn archetypes (Gary is certainly the alpha male, Babs is the rowdy tough gal, Georgia is the competent one, etc) or they are just bodies with little personality, but look good in bikinis (most of the rest of the girls).

It looks like some thought was given to actually get Gary and the girls into the plane. The whole audition scene seems to be an attempt to show Gary and Georgia's relationship. Even the goofy "crossing the legs" move seems to be an attempt to give them some background. But after the ridiculous plane crash sequence, the movie devolves into the girls wandering around, looking pouty and being almost attacked by the silly looking mutated Gary. Even the injection of the returning expedition members, Bobby (Rainer Brandt) and Joe (Harald Maresch) does little to make the movie any more interesting. Mostly this is because the characters are so thin that you don’t care what happens to any of them. Part of this is the writing, but it also falls on the acting.

Georgia is too stunned by the battle of Babs to
realize she is in danger!
Horrors of Spider Island was made by a German cast, and that means what we get is a dubbed mess. You’ve got some seriously bad voice acting in this movie. With Gary getting the super masculine deep voice, and all the girls being dubbed by what sounds like three women. All these women were directed to coo, and pout and sound like they are all on some kind of depressants. Some distinctions are made in the voice work – Babs sounds about as tough as she looks, but for the most part its a really poor job.

As for the physical part of the acting, well it’s about what you’d expect. The girls are good at showing off their assets. Gary is good at looking beefy and masculine. Even the two researchers are good at being annoying and jerky. So really I guess they all fit the parts, but there is silliness to the performances. Or maybe it’s the fact that they all know they are in a movie called Horrors of Spider Island, I don’t know, but the cheesiness goes from the script right into the acting.

"Captured by sexy women? Sure I'll surrender!"
If you’re looking for hot girls and studly guys, well you might find something to like. The guys are uniformly beefy and lumpy. Most of them end up with their shirts off at some point, but it doesn’t help matters. And for those of you who like watching guys punch each other – well there are a couple fight scenes between the dorky Joe and Bobby and then between Joe and mutated Gary (who still has his shirt off in mutated form – but retains his slacks).

As for the ladies they are all pretty or sexy in an early 60’s European kind of way. Some of them will have more appeal than others, only because they get a little more screen time. Georgia is the smart one who takes command. Then there’s the sweet Ann who falls for Bob. And of course there’s Babs, the Amazon of the group. Tall, blonde and built like a linebacker, Babs intimidates all the girls and even stands up to Gary. Of course the filmmakers spend lots of time showing us Babs, and one of the movies key scenes involves Babs wrestling one of the other girls. Yeah – it’s a key scene for this film, which doesn’t say much. Oddly Babs and Gary remind of a low budget beefy German version of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni from La Dolce Vida which was made the same year! Coincidence? I think not!

The professor was caught practicing his jazz hands.
So what about the horrors and the monsters and such? Well our titular spider is really a goofy looking puppet that hides in a tree most of the movie. This thing would make Roger Corman blush – maybe. Its big scene is when it attacks Gary, but it takes so long to get to the scene, that you begin to wonder if Gary’s shirtless chest is the horror of Spider Island. Anyway, after Gary gets bitten, he gets a furry face, funny looking teeth and a clawed hand. He looks nothing like a spider, more like a were-wombat or something. The rest of the movie Gary will move his hand threateningly toward one of the girls and then hides. When he finally kills someone he does so by waving his arms until they fall off a cliff. The other “special” effect is the huge spider web that our castaways find at the beginning of the movie. It’s very fake looking. The poor dope playing the professor caught in the web like he’s doing jumping jacks, or was caught in the air during a fabulous dance montage moment. Mike and the bots have a field day with this in a host segment.

Flowery bikini or not, Babs will BREAK you!
When it comes down to it, Horrors of Spider Island was made for the guys. It’s got girls in bikinis, and lots of jumping and running and wrestling. It’s also got a really misogynistic feel to the dialogue as well as the whole tone. Certainly this is nothing new for a bad B film. I’m just warning you. Don’t expect any respect for any of the girls in this movie. 

That’s funny because I get the feeling that Babs could kick the ass of any of the guys in this movie. If anyone demands respect – it’s Babs… well maybe not in that flowery bikini.

It was just a joke Babs. No seriously put down that chair! NOOOoooooo!

Episode Review:
And now you see the horror of spider island. Not
too impressive is it?
In many ways this reminds me of a classic Mike episode from season six. The movie is black and white, it’s got that early 60’s feel to it. It’s even got enough women in bikini’s to rival Mike’s first episode The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. You’ve got the beefy guys and cooing girls. Sure lots of the movie spent with characters wandering around or writhing around but that should be easy. Mike and the bots had a lot less to work with in films like Starfighters or Racket Girls or one of the Coleman Francis trilogy. So Horrors of Spider Island  should be a great episode.

Yeah, you saw the “but” coming didn’t you.

But, this isn’t a great episode. It’s really lacking in a lot of areas and the big one is energy. There is a real lethargy in the riffing, and long stretches without much of a comment. When they do come they aren’t anything really memorable. In fact when I remember this episode, I remember the movie itself more than the actual riffing. Gary’s little leg crossing bit, or Babs, or Gary as a spider in slacks, or Babs, or the crash sequence, or Babs. But when it comes to specific riffing, I don’t remember much at all.

Upon rewatching Horrors of Spider Island, some of the funnier moments revolve on how sleazy the movie is. Crow asks, "Should we have on our filthy raincoats to watch this?" After the umpteenth scene involving half naked women writhing around Crow says, "This is too much, even for me. Can we see a couple elderly scientists talking for 2 hours, nonstop?"  

"Hi, I'm Bob Boxbody."
Speaking of Gary, he’s a good source of comedy. From his opening moments with his auditions, to his final moments as a crazed hairy not-spidery-at-all monster – Gary provides laughs. His booming voice is easily imitated by Tom and he makes the already misogynistic dialogue worse. Although Tom observes that "He has Torgo area!" which is a horrifying thought.

Of course there’s big ol’ Babs, who’s brute force and [cough cough] charms makes her a focal point for riffing. Her scenes on the island and during the wrestling sequence are pretty funny by themselves. But Mike and the bots add some more humor, with Tom fainting whenever she’s getting really provocative. Babs is just too much woman for him! I love Crow's comment about the scene below, "I usually have to go online to see this kind of thing. Like"

So what are the boys final thoughts on Horrors of Spider IslandTom concludes that "By this point I think the name Spider Island is misleading". Crow adds, "I'm not just wondering if there is a point to this movie, I'm wondering if there is a point to life." Mike delcares, "Too bad we can't squish this movie with a tissue and flush it down the toilet". So yeah, they didn't like it too much.

The host segments are have some good moments. Things start off with Mike discovering that Crow has a syndicated opinion column in many newspapers in the US. Crow has a lot to say about not too much at all. Then Mike checks on the Pearl in Castle Forrester and finds out that the castle is gone! Pearl moved so she wouldn’t have to pay so much for Bobo’s monkey license. But the move has made everyone crabby and so Pearl inflicts Horrors of Spider Island on Mike and bots because she’s so cranky. At the first break, Mike is caught in a giant web. The bots tease him and enjoy the bounty of giant insects they’ve caught with it. At the next break, Mike and the bots hold auditions just like Gary in the movie. Pearl, Observer and Bobo all try out. This is probably the funniest of the bunch. Next up, the bots want to know that if you survive a plane crash do you become all helpless and whispery like the dancers in the movie. They test the theory and the results are predictable, but pretty amusing. After the movie ends, Mike has turned into a monster – kinda – not really. Meanwhile Pearl is moving the castle back, and they’ve stopped at a truck stop. It gets a little creepy from there on.

Mike just had to jump out of the theater, and now he's
caught in a web of deceit!
A couple of funny host segments just don’t help. Horrors of Spider Island is so goofy that it would be OK to watch without any riffing. But the reason for the show is so you get to see the pros do it. But I get the feeling that with only two more shows left after this one – the cast and crew just weren’t into it. The lack of energy and low rate of jokes make this barely worth seeking out. To me its even more disappointing because this could have been a classic episode, or at the worst, an average episode. But what we get here is a movie that is really asking for it, and a crew who doesn’t seem to be that interested. Its’ a sad mix, that that makes it below average.

I give this two Babs out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 11.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A New Top Ten at John Kenneth Muir's Blog

My pal John is at it again! This month he asked for a rating of the top ten science fiction films from the 1970s. As usual he asked for opinions, was posting them all last week and compiled the results. 

You can check out those results here. There were some very surprising results in the mix, with some real classics in there, as well as a few people may find bizarre. Check it out!

This list certainly looks like it went boldly
where no list has gone before.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ed Wood (1994)

Edward D. Wood Jr. often gets labeled as the worst director to ever come out of Hollywood (I’d dispute that little title, because I’ve seen the cinematic cannon of Coleman Francis). In the spirit of being contrary Tim Burton decides to do a biopic of a director that is often mocked and derided. The result may be one of Mr. Burton’s best films and a loving look at the less glamorous side of Hollywood in the 1950’s.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) has big plans. He’s going to be a world famous director just like his idol, Orson Welles. Ed is going to do this by making the types of movies he wants to make. These tend to include mad scientists, monsters, and a huge helping of Angora. He just has to get his foot in the door. He joins forces with his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the infamous Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). 

Unfortunately as enthusiastic as Ed is about his films, he just can't manage to make movies that resonate with the public. But Ed battles on, each film becoming larger and more complex then the last. After Glen or Glenda fails to find an audience, Ed finds himself trying to drum up cash for his new project Bride of the Monster. All this is leading toward his magnum opus Plan 9 from Outer Space. But even the Amazing Criswell (Jeffery Jones) might not be able to predict the fate the man we know as Ed Wood.

Good Points:
  • Great acting by just about everyone in the cast
  • The production design captures the dreamlike feel of 1950s Hollywood
  • A score balances 50’s style horror and sci-fi with bongos!
Bad Points:
  • The black and white cinematography might turn some viewers off
  • Ed and his pals may be a bit too colorful for some people
  • Burton romanticized Ed’s life - those looking for facts may want to look somewhere else
For anyone who loves a good bad movie or at least appreciates the work that goes into making a movie (no matter how small or goofy it may be), Ed Wood is worth checking out. Burton’s film creates a likable character that does his best to follow his dreams no matter how bad things get. The mixture of fact and fantasy works well. The cast really gets into their parts. I’ll admit it’s not a film everyone can enjoy, and it helps if you’ve seen at least one of Mr. Wood’s works. For me, it’s one of Burton’s best films, and an overlooked gem of 1990’s cinema.

Scores (out of 5)
Visual: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 5
Music: 5
Script: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total: 5

In Depth Review:
Ed pitches his latest film idea: Bride... of the ATOM!
Edward D Wood Jr. just doesn’t seem like the type of guy you’d want to see a whole movie about. I mean he’s not a household name, and those that do know of him, may wish they didn’t. Yet, there are a lot of people out there who enjoy watching "bad" movies and are curious to know just what kind of mind is behind the process. Tim Burton has always been interested in the concept of “the outsider” and Ed Wood is just that. But rather than simply create a biography, Burton infuses the film with a layer of fantasy. It’s a world that seems to fit Ed and his off the wall friends perfectly. 

Visually Burton elected to film the movie in black and white. This may alienate some viewers, but I think it’s a masterstroke. I gives the film the feel of an actual 50’s horror or sci-fi film. It adds to the visual fantasy that Burton was trying to create. The visual design goes out of its way to evoke the type of films Ed made or inspired him. Film noir style lighting and framing are used in many of the scenes with Bela Lugosi. Lightning and thunder fill the air in key scenes. Even montages are set up in a way that fits perfectly in something like Bride of the Monster or Bert I. Gordon’s The Beginning of the End. The costumes, cars and set design all fit in the 50’s period. The sound work follows along with the visuals. The stormy sequences are particularly effective.

Ed directs his actors on the set of the renamed,
Bride of the Monster
Howard Shore who was best known for his moody and dark scores for director David Cronenberg seemed like an odd choice for Ed Wood at the time. Shore knew exactly what the film needed, creating a classic main title sequence including use of the Theremin (an early electronic music device used in classic sci-fi soundtracks like The Day the Earth Stood Still). Much of the score is actually low key, but uses a lot of bongos and Latin style beats that were popular in the 1950s. The fun stuff occurs when Ed is making his films. Shore goes full bore with the over the top horror or sci-fi music in the style of 50’s composers like Albert Glasser (who scored movies like The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth vs. the Spider). It is so different from his usual moody dark work and yet so well realized. It shows that Shore was capable of creating excellent music if given the chance. He got that chance a few years later with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Amazing Criswell tells us the truth... from a
certain point of view.
The script of Ed Wood is a mixture of fact and fiction. You can feel Burton’s influence in some of the style of the story, but that’s not a bad thing. The movie opens with a slow pan into a creepy old house (obviously a model) and inside The Amazing Criswell appears from a coffin to tell us that what we are about to see is based on true testimony made by the individuals who lived the events. The setting, the music and Jeffery Jones acting combine to set the stage – and tell us that this isn’t true, even if Criswell is telling us otherwise. Would you believe a man in a sparkly tuxedo rising from a coffin? 

Later in the film we see Criswell telling Ed that all his predictions are bull, and the he makes all of them up. On top of that, we see nearly the exact same introduction by Criswell used for Plan 9 From Outer Space. Essentially, what we have here is Burton telling us that the film is not based on fact, but a wonderful mix of entertainment and truth. Ed Wood is primarily a fantasy film.

Ed deals with "studio" issues. The wig doesn't help
The focus of the script is Ed, but Bela Lugosi is a major part of the story. His friendship with Ed and the way that interaction is crafted provides the emotional core of the film. These two men are both outsiders, and Bela feels his star fading fast, Ed is filled with hope and optimism that things can only get better. These two losers need each other and the writing between the two is really excellent. Once Bela disappears from the film, Ed has met Kathy (Patricia Arquette), a woman who understands and accepts Ed and all his oddities. That relationship is really sidelined by the force of Ed’s will as he tries to get Plan 9 From Outer Space off the ground for his departed friend Bela. While the real Dolores Fuller did not behave as Parker portrayed her, it is important to the story that she leaves Ed. It take away the last support that he has. Unfortunately the movie tends to jump around quite a bit, but this is a problem common to many biopics.

Bela in full puppet-master mode.
A lot has been made of Martin Landau’s performance in Ed Wood, and it is really quite entertaining. He turns Lugosi into a real showman, but one who is crippled by drug addiction and depression. His accent seems a bit much, but it fits a lot of people’s memories of Lugosi. A combination of age make up and latex appliances add some of the features necessary to complete the image. Landau’s acting that completes the character. We feel sorry for him, but he entertains with his eccentricities and outbursts. It’s a top notch performance, for certain.

Johnny Depp is always very good at bringing oddballs to life, and this is a delightful performance. You like Ed for all his eccentricities and delusions. He loves movies. He loves making movies. He just wants to entertain people with his stories. He doesn’t see his ineptitude at all. Instead he sees many of his cost cutting measures as creative. His corny dialogue sounds like Shakespeare to his ears. His “one take” mentality is easily explained by lack of funds, money or a desire for realism. When Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) walks into a doorframe and shakes the entire plywood set, instead of doing another take Ed says, “No, it’s real. You know, Lobo would have to deal with that problem every day.” Depp’s performance sells the character.

"Now that's an alien!"
The supporting cast is all top notch. I’ve already mentioned a few of them but I can’t forget Lisa Marie looking sultry as an annoyed Vampira. Bill Murray steals quite a few scenes as Bunny Breckinridge, one of Ed’s close friends. Jeffrey Jones is also a lot of fun as Criswell, the television psychic who makes up all of his predictions making each one is more outlandish than the last. I also liked Mike Starr as George Weiss, a film producer who made some real duds. He hires Ed to direct Glen or Glenda. Check out Mystery Science theater 3000’s take on Racket Girls to see some of Weiss’ skills in action.

Burton’s direction of Ed Wood is spot on. It may not be as dark and gothic as some of his other films, but there is a spirit of fun that is present here. I also love the way that Burton captures what it must have been like to work on these horrible movies. When you these scenes, it’s obvious that Burton and the cast had to watch Ed’s films quite a few times to really capture the feel of an Ed Wood opus.  The montage of making Plan 9 From Outer Space is so funny because it exactly fits what the final film looked like. I admire is the way Burton really fuses all the elements of the film and makes them work as a whole. From the black and white visuals, to the use of gothic images and Shore’s over the top score, Burton creates a world that never existed, but we kind of wish it did. It is one of Burton’s best realized films.

Ed enjoys the fantasy he has brought to the screen.
I admit, it is a bit slow in a few places, and Bela’s storyline does move into some depressing territory, but for the most part this is a real movie lover’s movie. I enjoy this movie each time I watch it and often I’ll give it a spin after watching Plan 9 From Outer Space or Bride of the Monster or The Sinister Urge. I do recommend that you check out some of Ed’s films first, it makes some of the scenes especially humorous if you’ve got a point of comparison. For anyone who loves "bad" movies, this is one you must catch.