Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Red Zone Cuba (1966) – MST3K Review

Before we jump on the night train, we need to take a look at the short, Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance. This black and white film examines how the way the speaker looks and stands is as important as what he says and how he says it. The short talks about maintaining good posture, ensuring your clothes are in order and your hair combed. It even provides a nifty exercise called “the knee test” that will ensure you are standing with your feet the optimal width apart. The knee test is demonstrated numerous times to ensure you do it right.

The feature film follows an escaped criminal, Griffin (Coleman Francis) as he falls in with two ex-cons Cook (Harold Saunders) and Landis (Anthony Cardoza). The trio hears that the US military is giving 1000 dollars to join for a one time operation somewhere in Cuba. If they survive they will be given another 1000 dollars – no questions asked. The desperados decide to give this a shot, and most likely just run off with the 3000 they get for joining. But things don’t go as planned.

Eventually they find themselves trained as covert operatives to participate in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The trio make it to Cuba, but they are captured and imprisoned. Griffin uses a clever ruse to escape. The men return to the states and start a crime spree in which people are ruthless killed, a widow is conned and coffee is drunk. Before it is all over Griffin may wish that he had been killed in Red Zone Cuba.

Movie Review:
"Now you look ready to rub out Sonny Corleone."
Centron delivers another short revolving around public speaking. Speech: Platform Posture an Appearance is a bit different from most because is focuses on how to make a good visual impression. It is actually filled with good advice for a public speaker. It discusses how credibility can be hurt if you look sloppy and unprepared. A speaker whose shoes are shined and suit is pressed just looks more credible than the poor schlep who can’t tuck in his shirt and has his hair hanging in his face.

But the real focus comes when the short delves into posture. Again, it really isn’t something most public speaking classes cover, but it does make a difference. The short describes the various types of bad posture, giving each a cute name and cartoon image: tired farm horse type, telephone pole type, rocking horse type and turtle type. The narrator discusses how each of these can be avoided and then shows us The Knee Test.

This man has obviously not made the knee test.
The goal is to make sure you have a stable stance to work with, so you don’t end up rocking, or slouching or leaning on stuff. The Knee Test lets you determine this optimal stance, and you can build from there. The only trouble is, it looks incredibly goofy in practice – and the short loves showing it off over and over again.

Like all shorts form Centron, Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance is deadly serious in it’s presentation. The black and white cinematography and authoritative voice over make it even more ridiculous. Still it is a unique look at public speaking and provides food for thought – very earnest food.

For Coleman Francis’ final film, he wanted to do something impressive, important and filled with meaning. He wanted to explore the themes that had been hinted at in his earlier work: government mistakes, human brutality, vigilante justice, flight and coffee. Francis had a limited budget, but he had a story to tell, and now that he had learned a lot about film making during his work on The Beast of Yucca Flats and Skydivers he was ready to tackle it.

And now we know what happened to those
three dorks who hung out behind the gym.
He called it Night Train to Mundo Fine (translated to Night Train to the End of the World). The title was later changed to Red Zone Cuba. It was going to be the one he wanted to be remembered for. These days, I think more people are familiar with The Beast of Yucca Flats – because it is so horrible. But Red Zone Cuba is really Francis at his most impressive. He aims high, and misses spectacularly, and yet, because he is reaching so high, the movie is more interesting because of it.

Coleman Francis had cameo appearances in his previous films, but this time he takes center stage as the anti-hero Griffin. The acting isn’t perfect, and you can tell the director is really trying to make Griffin a real character. The man is a brute, filled with a world-weariness that threatens to consume him. At the same time he is capable of violent and sudden rages that can turn murderous.  Francis’ love of close-ups work well with his own craggy face. He looks like he’s been through a lot (I’m not sure if the director had been. His films certainly don’t appear to come from a man who led a happy life). This resigned face will suddenly go angry, sometimes with little provocation.  As the movie progresses his violence escalates and there really is no other ending for this character than to go down in a hail of bullets. Francis does a good job making Griffin believable and frightening. Not to say the acting is great or anything, but it easily the best performance in the film.

Tony Cardoza is back and this time he's duller than
The other two leads are hopeless. Saunders as Cook seems lost most of the time. He flubs lines, misses cues and just can’t seem to portray anything more than a guy who wandered onto the set one day. There is very little intimidating about him, which means he can’t be the muscle. If that makes him the brains then we’ve got a real problem here, because Tony Cardoza plays his partner, Landis. If The Skydivers proved anything, it was that Tony Cardoza should not be allowed a major part in front of the camera. He is as lifeless, wooden and bland as ever. Even his lines delivered in voice over are in complete monotone. He shows no spark of intelligence, and you wonder how the hell a heist was planned between these two.

While Red Zone Cuba focuses primarily on these three gentlemen, a few other actors have significant screen time. Tom Hanson isn’t too bad as Bailey Chastain, an officer who attempts to befriend the men. He makes enough of an impression so that you feel bad when Griffin attempts to scam his wife Ruby played by Lanell Cado. She does a good job too, looking forlorn waiting for news of her husband.

"How do you like them apples!"
Receiving top billing is John Carradine, as a train engineer who is telling his story to a young newspaper reporter. This little prologue lasts less than five minutes and has nothing to do with the story. But hey, I guess they got John Carradine in their movie, so that’s cool. I wonder if he filmed this between The Incredible Petrified World and The Unearthly.

The rest of the cast is populated by Francis’ regular group of oddballs and random folks. While not quite as colorful as the acting team of Skydivers there are still plenty of fun appearances. Tony Cardoza gets to put on a fake beard and pretend to be Castro. It might be his most animated acting in all three of these movies. Then you’ve got Juan Cruz, a captured American soldier. He is killed by a firing squad. Then about five minutes later, the same actor is playing a Cuban guard. Yes, same guy, nearly the same outfit, and no attempt is made to hide his face. You also get Cherokee Jack, but more about him later.

Then there’s the haggard owner of the Frog Legs restaurant late in the film. He looks depressed, his story is depressing, and even his blind daughter makes you want to throw yourself into traffic. I’m not sure where Francis found these two, but man Red Zone Cuba moves into despair territory here.

"Imagine you're Castro and you see this awesome
Much like his other films, the editing is brutal. Scenes seem to be randomly cut short, jump to non sequitur scenes, or have inserts for no reason anyone can determine. No rhythm is evident, and in this case, all this ends up making the film very difficult to follow. Continuity is non-existent, so you will have a sequence of people chasing each other, one in the day one in the evening. Or you get a scene where it is obviously raining outside the plane, with water hitting the windows and thunder rumbling. But a quick shot of the plane flying shows a clear beautiful day. Has time passed? Was the editor asleep? We’ll never know.

The musical selections are jaw droopingly awful. Much like Skydivers, the music goes from over the top tension, to silly and goofy lighthearted marches at the drop of a hat. The “light” music is really the worst offender. It seems completely at odds with the dreary and dower visuals on the screen, even if the characters are experiencing some good fortune. One piece sounds disturbingly like Sleigh Ride. Then there’s the title song, Night Train to Mundo Fine. I kid you not, it is sung by John Carradine. Yeah, read that again. It is really an odd choice. But I have to say the swinging guitar version used at the end of the film is actually pretty good.

This leaves us with the story and themes. Francis’ wanted to say something about the Bay of Pigs invasion, the plight of men lost in the world with no hope in their future, the way justice can only come at the barrel of a gun, and that the world was a dark and dangerous place. It is a dreary tale about a man who is not redeemable and who plows through the lives of others, all the while powerless against the government, the law: the world itself. This bleak worldview oozes from every frame of the film, and makes it one of the most dower movies ever to be shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (with High School Big Shot or The Girl on Lover’s Lane maybe edging it).

Another character lost in the wheels of despair.
I will give Coleman Francis this, I think he was able to capture the mood and atmosphere he wanted this Red Zone Cuba (for the most part). Even his ham fisted editing adds to the brutality and sudden switch in fortunes for the characters.

But the film never comes together in a narrative way. This makes Red Zone Cuba a bit of a puzzle. You can tell Coleman Francis wanted to tell a gripping tale of a lost man pulled into the Bay of Pigs operation. The operation is a failure, and he is forced back on the run again, killing and destroying until he is gunned down with nothing but “a penny and broken cigarette”. But time and again he scuttles his own vision with scenes that go nowhere, dialogue that seems to mean something but doesn’t, and pacing that is quick and yet a slog at the same time (not sure how he manages that). It took several viewings of the film (and no one but a Mystery Science Theater fan should attempt that) to realize how the heck the men left Cuba and ended up looking for the Tungsten mine. The film feels like it wants to be an epic, but it can’t even manage to be entertaining. By the time the movie ends you are left confused, and a bit battered. But Mike and the bots are here to make it all better.

Episode Review:

Gentlemen, start your knees!
For the crew at Mystery Science Theater 3000 this film came in the middle of season six, and in the middle of the Coleman Francis trilogy. As such I’ve seen this episode called one of the worst in the history of the show, yes even worse than the dreaded Hamlet episode. But there are plenty of folks (and yes I’m obviously one of them) that think this episode is a testament to the skill of the writers and riffers. The fact that that can turn such a nonsensical mess of a movie into something so entertaining is really amazing.

Things start off with the short Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance. The boys were no stranger to Centron’s style and had tackled a previous speech short with lots of “lip and tongue action”. This was a natural continuation for them, and they do a fine job with it. As the short starts Mike wonders if “ancient toastmasters made this film”. The narrator starts in on how “appearance is a powerful factor”, Crow answers with “I learned that the hard way.” Then as the narrator describes all the negative types and shows the silly drawings of the various types, the riffers go to town on the short.

But the best material has to do with “making the knee test” (which Mike absolutely refuses to do). As the narrator carefully describes the actions to make it work, the riffs come fast and furious with Tom declaring “Just don’t do this during your speech.” As far as shorts go, this one is a lot of fun, and worth seeking out, even if the feature hurts too much.

Coleman aka "the Wild Curly" in captivity.
One of the great things about Red Zone Cuba is that it is filled with so many oddities, bizarre characters, strange lines and unclear plot points, that it really offers tremendous riffing opportunities. They aren’t the obvious type, but they are there and Mike and bots make the most of them. When John Carradine appears in the prologue scene Crow thinks “he makes Keith Richards look positively dewy”. When the young reporter asks Carradine if he remembers the desperados back in ’61, Tom answers “Which century?”

Because the sound is so bad, they can’t hear Sgt. Chastain’s proper name, and keep calling him Justine throughout the film. When his superior officer calls him into a meeting Mike says, “Sgt. Justine I want you to call me Lt. Vivian.” That only leads into a whole host of military jokes. Because of the limited budget, the “invasion force” is only about six guys, filmed over and over again from different angles. The boys have a great time with these scenes with Mike saying that “Charro could have planned a better invasion”. The term “shove off” is used frequently in these scenes and Mike and bots turn it into a repeating riff, getting mad at the actors when they use the term.

"Yeah, I'm Cherokee Jack."
Another running joke comes from one of the most famous characters in Red Zone Cuba: Cherokee Jack. Taking a page from The Beast of Yucca Flats, most of Cherokee’s dialogue is given when he is off screen or hidden behind something. The way he delivers his immortal dialogue, “Yeah, I’m Cherokee Jack” combined with the bad editing made him an instant favorite for MST3K fans, and the writers. He would get named dropped in several episodes in the future, usually by Mike who could imitate the cadence and delivery of the line perfectly.

Of course many of the riffs are just about how poorly the film is made. Crow thinks, “It doesn’t waste any precious time with a plot.” About half way through Tom says, “At this point the movie throws up its hands and says ‘I don’t know!’” (this has become a favorite line around my house when something goes wrong). When a quick edit happens in the middle of a scene Mike is concerned that his “neck got broken from that jump cut”. Crow sums up with “This film dares you to watch it!”

"When a wild Curly dies, it provides food for other
Mr. Coleman Francis is not immune to the riffs. With his close shaved head and rounded features the boys start referring to him as Curly. During his initial escape from the law Mike says in his movie trailer voice, “Coleman Francis is Curly Howard in The Fugitive.” Tom does a very good imitation of Curly Howard and provides plenty of Stooge based jokes. But my favorite series of riffs comes at the end, as Francis is chased down by an airborne vigilante squad. The camera tracks him low to the ground, and looks a lot like a nature documentary. So the boys just roll with it, talking about how fast a “wild Curly” can run, and how long they live in the wild versus living in captivity.

Frank and Dr. Forrester make the knee test.
The host segments focus on two items. One is how the bad the movie is, The other is Frank’s little problem with the mafia. Things start off with Tom acting as a lottery ball dispenser. Mike has to call the numbers as they shoot out of the top of Tom’s head. Frank then reveals that he owes the mob 50 large. They send a palooka to rough him up, but Frank uses a clever ruse, and Dr. Forrester gets beaten up instead. At the first break, Dr. Forrester is in a full body cast, and Frank chastises him for not rising above the pain. He forces Dr. Forrester to make the knee test! When we come back from the next break Mike has turned into Carol Channing to help deal with the pain of Red Zone Cuba. The bots are confused by this. Meanwhile Frank reads all messages from various folks wishing Dr. Forrester a speedy demise and a painful death. It includes anti-condolences from Mother Teresa and Jimmy Carter. At the next break, Mike is still having problems coping with the film. And we watch as Dr. Forrester has a very long and protracted death scene. He manages to survive only to get beaten up again. When the movie ends, Mike and bots are really depressed, but they sing a happy song about silly things and it makes them feel a lot better.

"Griffin ran all the way to hell, with a penny and
a broken cigarette."
I have to be honest, this episode left me really cold the first time I saw it. The movie was too dower and too much of a mess to enjoy. The riffing, while spirited was not enough to overcome that. But one day, a co-worker at the video store declared that Red Zone Cuba was a puzzle he was determined to solve. So we both watched it that night and did our best to figure out what the hell was going on. And so my appreciation of the riffing grew, and grew with each subsequent viewing. In addition I ended up seeing Francis’ other films and in the scope of things, I began to appreciate Francis’ work for what it was. To me Red Zone Cuba was his opus. Combined with this oddly fascinating film is some of the best riffing out there, matching the feature’s punishing blows with well timed and hilarious jokes. Yes, Red Zone Cuba is an acquired taste, I’ll admit it. But to me, it is easily one of the best episodes out there, and one of my favorite from this season.

I give it five Cherokee Jack’s out of five.

This episode is available as a single DVD. 


  1. We often are exhorted to “just do your best.” What if our best isn’t very good? All of us face this question sometimes since none of us is good at everything. I suppose one should give credit to those who go ahead and do it anyway. Colman Francis also might have considered the option of moving to some small country with no significant filmmaking tradition. (Several come to mind, but out of politeness I won’t mention them.) There he would be feted as the nation’s Fellini.

    1. You make a very good point. Part of me feels a bit bad about picking on Francis. You cant tell he was really trying to make films that entertained or delivered a message. But the plain fact is, he didn't have the skills to pull these off. They are dreadful films, some of the worst I've seen.

      And for all that, MST3K has made two of them really superior episodes that make me laugh quite a bit. Without Francis' films as the base, those episodes wouldn't exist. So even though his original versions didn't deliver what he intended, I have to say that I'm glad he made his films.

      I once ran into a review (and I tried to find it to link to this review) where the writer was convinced that Coleman Francis was an edgy, ahead of his time master of the art film. He found "Red Zone Cuba" to be an amazing critique on the By of Pigs operation, and done in such an avant-garde way that no one understood it.

      I think the reviewer was giving Francis a bit too much credit, but it was an interesting read none the less.

  2. Good insight in saying that normally Francis films would have been lost along with a lot of other B films that just weren't up to par, but due to the Misties, they've made it memorable, hip, and gave it to a new audience. I'm always amazed at seeing some of these directors like Ed Wood, who didn't have a clue, but was given free reign in Hollywood to make a film. It's good he also could make a living off his acting. My how things have changed.

    Over the Thanksgiving holidays they ran a continuous MST3K marathon. I didn't find out about it until late, but they were showing: Space Mutiny, I Accuse My Parents, Werewolf, Cave Dwellers (which is the one I saw, I think), Final Sacrifice, and Mitchell. I wondered if you had a top five list of favorite MST3K?

    1. You know, I think part of the reason these gents were around making films and given money for films was due to the nature of movie distribution and the way theaters handled double features, and drive in fare. I've read that many times the A features were ready and willing, but the studio needed a quick and cheap film for the B side of the double feature. Guys like Ed Wood and Coleman Francis could make fast and cheap films for that B side. It was more to fill the space in the drive in. Most of those folks weren't watching the movie anyway. :)

      Heh heh heh my friend. I have a post waiting in the wings for my top 10 favorite MST3K episodes. Look for it later this month!

  3. I'm glad that you too acquired the taste for this movie. Unlike you, I enjoyed it from the beginning, but over time I have grown to love it, and now consider it my favorite episode of MST3K. I disagree with your review on a few points. I don't consider the movie to be unrelentingly bleak and dour -- for me, that's "Skydivers". Somehow despite all the darkness and desperation, I think the little moments of lightness, such as small acts of human kindness, pull it out of the abyss. And I even enjoy the goofy lighthearted library music Francis uses during those moments.

    And I thought Harold Saunders was great as Cook. Saunders seems like he was plucked out of a successful 1930s cinema career by a time-traveller, and Cook comes across as such an amiable, stand-up guy for a career criminal. It's telling that Cook was nowhere to be seen while Griffin and Landis were murdering Cliff Weismeyer and raping his daughter (a scene I've never seen since I haven't seen the non-MST3K version of the film; it's quite possible I wouldn't feel as positively towards the film and as sympathetic towards hapless Griffin if I were watching that scene on every one of my dozens of viewings). It's true that Cardoza is hyper-wooden, but I dunno, to me it works for this character -- a man whose life circumstances have left him cynical, dysfunctional, and dysphoric. I think Saunders and Francis provide plenty of character such that it's fine for Cardoza to pretty much just be the straight man. And on the other side of the coin, I'd say Tom Hanson "isn't too bad" as Chastain only in the same sense that $35 is "not too bad" an offer from Cherokee Jack for the trio's perfectly functional truck. To me, Francis managed to coax an ahead-of-its-time naturalism from the majority of the performers, but with Hanson, you can always see him acting, and he delivers his lines in a very stagey way.

    And I never found "Red Zone Cuba" difficult to follow, despite the ham-handed editing and lack of time-jump transition cues. I also disagree highly that the film can't even manage to be entertaining -- MST3K episodes like "Skydivers" or "The Beast of Yucca Flats" that aren't entertaining movies on their own right, I don't like to rewatch, but "Mundo Fine" entertains me every time, via the content of the original film itself, not just the top-notch riffing. I think ambitious cinephile Coleman Francis managed to pull a minor classic of a B-movie out of his ass, riddled with laughable flaws though it might be, and achieved something which can be seen as a legitimate piece of outsider art in a way that the more famous bad movie directors like Ed Wood, Roger Corman, and the like never got close to.

    P.S. Interesting that you also cite "Hamlet" as a fellow contender for worst MST3K episode ever -- that one is also one of my favorites, and one that I've watched over and over. Like "Cuba", I thought that film had a ton of shining moments to pull it out of its dark and dreary hole, mostly due to Maximilian's Schell's perfect nihilistic performance as Hamlet -- that German TV movie is actually still my favorite production of "Hamlet".

    1. It is good to hear from another fan of this episode and such a brave defender of the film as a whole. I don't run into too many MST3K fans that appreciate this movie all that much.

      As I mentioned it is an episode I admire quite a bit. I think Mike and the bots do a really great job with a tough film. But in all honesty I usually watch "Skydivers" more frequently. I have to be in just the right mood for "Red Zone Cuba". But when I am, I always enjoy it.

      I think we'll have to agree to disagree on many of your points. I resisted this episode last week and my opinion hasn't changed much about the film itself. I still think Saunders isn't very good in his role, but I might have been a little too harsh on him in my review. But Cardoza... sorry, he just doesn't work for me in this one, unless he's got the beard on as Castro. :)

      That said, I still admire Francis' attempt here. You can tel he really put a lot of himself and his cares into the movie. It is still a fascinating watch, and I would really be curious to see an unedited version, just to see if those transitions are any easier.

      And for the record I don't think "Hamlet" is the worst episode of MST3K. It is actually one of my favorite episodes, and might be my wife's all time favorite. But I run into a lot of people that hate that episode with a fiery passion. So that I why i mention it. In all honesty we usually end up watching "Hamlet" at least once a year. It is one of our "comfort food" episodes. I think we can quote most of it.

      I think the movie itself is a real mess, but the riffing is a perfect fit for it. But I agree Schell is pretty good in the part, but it isn't my favorite screen version of the story. I might have to go with the Branagh vision for that.

    2. "Good evening, Mr. Doobie Brother." Heh heh. Yes, I would very much like to get ahold of the uncut version some day as well. Oh, also, I realized after I submitted my comment that regarding Ed Wood and outsider art, I should have said "except for 'Glen or Glenda'" -- that one does qualify.