Friday, December 19, 2014

Gamera vs. Zigra (1971) - MST3K Review


It all starts on the moon, when a candy colored space ship arrives and blasts a moon rover with a strange beam, causing it to vanish. Later, some marine scientists working at Sea World perform some experiments in their rowboat, when two things happen. Their kids Kenny (Yasushi Sakagami) and Helen (Gloria Zoellner) have stowed away, and then the aliens abduct all four. Turns out these aliens are comprised of one space babe (Eiko Yanami) and one huge beaked monster called Zigra. They have the power to cause earthquakes and eruptions, so that isn’t good.

Luckily Gamera (friend to all children) is on the case. He is able to save the four humans, and even attempts to take on Zigra. But little does he know that Zigra can grow to enormous size, fight with amazing skill under water and pretty much trounces Gamera. Meanwhile the space babe arrives in Sea World to kill Kenny and Helen, Zigra takes over the television and telling everyone how cool he is, and there is a really long scene with two men arguing about fish. You can bet your bottom dollar that this will all end with two monsters beating the tar out of each other while the Gamera theme song plays triumphantly, or else they wouldn’t have called it Gamera vs. Zigra.

Movie Review:
Joel tastes the rainbow of fruit flavors.
Every year since 1965, a new Gamera film hit theaters. But by 1971, the old rocket powered terrapin has pretty much run his course. The folks at Daiei had run out of stories, run out of monsters and run out of time as the studio went into bankruptcy after this film was released. Still, looking at the way Gamera vs. Zigra plays out, you could argue that the time had come to put the series aside and let some new ideas percolate. Gamera would return in 1995, with a new look and a new story line.

In some ways Gamera vs. Zigra is kind of like a celebration of the previous Gamera films, kinda like Die Another Day is like a celebration of the first 20 James Bond films. Another similarity is that both films aren’t that good.

One of the big problems with the Gamera film is that the story beats are oh so predictable at this point. One of the reasons Gamera vs. Guiron is so much fun, is because it goes in completely new direction with the giant monster storylines. Sure it’s a goofy direction, but it is still new and surprising. Here, everything that happens, you’ve seen before – and it was done better in the earlier films.

The space babe's plan is evil. You can tell by the
green under lighting.
Alien beings from space threaten earth and the space babe? Both right out of Gamera vs. Guiron. Alien unable to withstand the light? Got that one from Gamera vs. Gaos. The marine scientist and Sea World doctor look familiar? They both appeared in key roles in Gamera vs. Barugon. Even the space babes from Gamera vs. Guiron appear again, but in different roles as a housewife and … wait… as a space babe? To be fair, Daiei was using a pool of actors for all its films, very similar to the studio system in the golden age of Hollywood. So seeing familiar faces in films was nothing new. But it all adds to the feeling that you’ve seen this stuff before.

However, like all the Gamera movies from Gamera vs. Gaos going forward, Gamera vs. Zigra has a lot of just plain goofy and off the wall moments. The moon base abduction sequence seems to have no purpose at all, until a very odd late film revelation – that does absolutely nothing for the story. The Sea World angle just seems bizarre, especially when they have living facilities and a hospital on site. The side story with the bathysphere and the long, long sequence featuring two men arguing about fish sales will cause you to wonder if you put a completely different movie in your DVD player. There are little things like Helen obsessed with drinking Coke, and the cartoonish chase scene with the space babe and the kids.

"Let's keep mugging and bantering. We can
stretch this scene out 6 more minutes at least."
Then there are the visuals. Gamera gets a bit of a redesign. Well that’s not exactly correct. He gets a tongue, which sticks forward from his mouth in a very disturbing way. The Zigra spaceship is a very colorful and silly looking thing, with jutting points and rounded Skittles lights all over it. But Zigra itself is a pretty cool monster, a fishlike beast who can swim very quickly and has blades all over its body. Gamera gets pretty beaten up and bloody by this fishy creature. It looks a bit like a Goblin Shark, a disturbing deep-sea creature that is a living fossil.

One of the odd things about Zigra is that this is the first time the monster in a Gamera film can actually speak. And boy is he an arrogant blowhard. Some of his ranting and raving provides unintentional laughs, mostly because the dubbing is so poor. And yeah, I know I keep saying that, but Gamera vs. Zigra may have the worst dub of the series. Lots and lots of nonsensical lines and moments that attempt to match the lip flaps, but do so with the most bizarre lines or sounds we’ve heard yet.

Part parrot, part horseshoe crab, part manta ray - all evil.
Still it all makes for some entertaining moments. Unlike the slow pacing of Gamera vs. Barugon or the original Gamera film, at least Gamera vs. Zigra moves pretty quickly. The outlandish visuals are fun for a little while. And you can attempt to untangle the storyline, which seems to be really thrown together this time around (I’ll admit the edit used by MST3K doesn’t help things, it really feels like whole scenes are missing). As far as a finale for the monster series goes, well it could have been a lot better. But as a finale for Joel and the bots to celebrate their final Gamera movie on MST3K… well, read on and find out.

Episode Review:

No matter how hard Gamera tries, his new tongue
will never top Barugon's.
If Daiei studio was feeling some fatigue with the Gamera films, it is no surprise that the cast and crew of MST3K was also feeling some fatigue watching them. This comes through in the celebratory nature of the host segments, as well as the riffing of Gamera vs. Zigra. In a way, I kinda wish they spread out the Gamera (and Japanese movie) riffing over a couple seasons. It would have kept some of this a bit fresher for them. But when it is all said in done, we’ve got what we’ve got. Luckily the riffing is pretty solid for this episode.

What makes the best riffing are the really odd moments. These are still enough to give Joel and the bots material for funny jokes. When our marine scientists jump into the rowboat to head out for specimens, Joel quips, “Let’s get some tuna safe dolphin!” When the boys discover that the little boy is named Kenny they all yell “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the same time. Kenny from the first Gamera film really scarred them.

Does this shot look familiar to you too?
When the Zigra space ship is revealed the boys keep referring to it as a candy dish, and Crow tries to figure out if it is filled with Skittles, Dots or Jujubes. When Zigra starts talking Joel points out that “it is weird that the monster is badly dubbed.” One of the scientists asks Zigra why he does horrible things, Tom replies, “Because I didn’t get picked for cheer!”

Near the end after the Gamera vs. Zigra portion of the film concludes, Gamera does a kind of victory dance, to which Joel encourages him with “Bust a move, Gamera”. But then turns to Crow and says, “You know what? These films are weird.”

Unfortunately a portion of the riffing revolves around how familiar the plot is, how annoyed they are that they are watching another Gamera movie and a surprising amount of obvious observation (or State Park) jokes. It almost feels like an episode from Season One in that regard.

I'm not a real space babe, I just play one in Gamera
The episode begins with Joel and the bots enjoying a root beer kegger. They’ve got a Gamera piñata and they are ready to party. Why? Because this is the last Gamera movie they have to tackle. For the invention exchange, the mad scientists have created 3 Stooges guns. Should be seen to be believed. For the party Joel had turned Tom into the root beer keg and Crow into a shish-ka-crow. At the first break, Tom and Crow have crated a model show how Gamera works. It turns out Gamera has a game room inside of him as well as sleeping quarters for Kenny. Joel ruins it when he opens the secret door leading to Gamera’s guts. When we come back from the next break, Joel and the bots show off their dioramas featuring their favorite scenes from the Gamera films. When we come back Joel and the bots are visited by Kenny and Helen (Mike and Bridget badly dubbed). It gets kinds surreal. When the movie ends Joel the bots and the Mads all sing the Gamera theme song in different styles. This final sequence is not for the feint of heart.

The bots reveal the inner workings of Gamera!

When it comes down to it Gamera vs. Zigra is a fun episode, but it falls somewhere in the middle of the bunch. Gamera vs. Guiron is still the funniest episode, and I think I’d take Gamera vs. Gaos over this one too. But it makes for a solid finale for any MST3K Gamera marathon.

This episode is available on the MST3K vs. Gamera boxset (Vol. XXI).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten - Favorite Electronic Film Scores

On one of the film score sites I frequent, there was some discussion about favorite electronic or synth film scores. This ended causing a lot of debate about the perceived decline of orchestral scores, and the dominance of electronics. All that was interesting, but not something I wanna get into here. Instead, I found the various top ten lists of electronic scores to be fascinating.

Compiling my own list, I found that it leaned heavily on the 1980s. And lets face it, if there was a decade that was in love with the Casio synthesizer, it was the 80s. So a huge helping of nostalgia is at work in this list. But you’ll find some modern stuff on here too. You may also find a couple scores with an orchestral base, but where the electronics play a key or prominent role.

10. Tron Legacy composed by Daft Punk
When I heard they were making a sequel to Tron I wondered how they were going to handle the music. Would Wendy Carlos come back? Well, the creators decided to keep the electronic style of the music, but modernize it (as they did with the visuals and concept behind the film). The result was bringing in electronic duo Daft Punk (and some composers from Hans Zimmer's music team) to create a sonic world that fits Tron Legacy like a glove. The score has a very modern feel with the orchestra, but Daft Punk's retro/techno/funk combinations turn this into one of the best scores of that year. I wish Carlos' Tron theme had made an appearance, but all in all, this is one of my favorite scores of the last five years.

9. Dune composed by Toto and Brian Eno
In the 1980s there was a bit of a craze of pulling in pop and rock groups to compose film scores. The results were often mixed, but they were almost always interesting. This score is really an anomaly. Who would have guessed that a David Lynch film would get a score by Toto? Not me. But hell, it works! There are a number of bold themes, with full throated electronics. But one of the most interesting pieces is The Prophesy by Eno. This is an atmospheric almost etherial piece that combines the mystery and mysticism of the film. Lynch uses the music very well in the film, but it makes for a great stand alone listen.

8. Backdraft composed by Hans Zimmer
You can't talk about electronic fusion with orchestral power and not mention Hans Zimmer. The man has perfected this combination and it has had a huge impact on film music, coming to dominate most Hollywood action, sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters for the last ten years and counting. It all started with his work on Backdraft. This score remains one of my favorite incarnations of this sound. Zimmer uses bold masculine themes, uses the electronics to modify the sound of the orchestra and really add resonance to it. The result was something no one had really heard before. It's a great fit for the film, but makes for some great listening if you want to feel like you are kicking ass while doing household chores.

7. Hoosiers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith was never afraid to experiment with electronic sound effects, and used them in his scores as far back as the mid 60s. But the man really dove into the synth revolution of the 1980s and composed some really unique and interesting scores. My favorite from this period has to be Hoosiers. While a good portion of the score is traditional orchestra, Goldsmith uses synth percussion. Specifically, he uses the recorded sounds of a basketball on a wooden floor as his percussion. The result gives this score a unique sound. The score also features a full synth version of the main theme, which is so 80s you may feel you necktie getting skinnier as you listen to it.

6. 1492: The Conquest of Paradise composed by Vangelis
The Greek electronic guru was asked to tackle a historical drama for 1992 film exploring the voyages of Christopher Columbus. This production was truly an international showcase, and while the film certainly has its flaws, the amazing score is not one of them. Vangelis fuses three distinct styles into the score: middle eastern (representing the moorish influence in Spain), medieval style choral work (for the catholic church) and a world music sound for the island nations that Columbus encounters. All these are brought together with some distinctive themes, and of course lots of electronics. But there is enough orchestra and unique instruments to make this one hell of a colorful album. His 13 minute finale cue is worth the price of the album alone.

5. Alexander composed by Vangelis
Really it only made sense to have Vangelis score a film about Alexander the Great. How could Oliver Stone resist. Much like the earlier film, Alexander is far from a perfect film, but the music is really something else. Vangelis takes the listener on a musical journey from Pella in Macedonia, across the plains of Gaugumela, into the rocky wastes of Asia and into the jungles of India. Vangelis gives us a couple of powerful themes, but focuses on specially instruments and various audio colors (with lots of synths of course). While the album listen it's quite as fluid as 1492, I prefer the musical journey of Alexander. Its a shame the official album is so short, plenty of great music in the very long film never made it to the CD.

4. Logan's Run composed by Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith was used to creating unique soundscapes for science fiction films. His work on Planet of the Apes is considered a massive triumph of his early career. But I really love what he did with his 1970s synthesizers. For the scenes based around the computer controlled society in the city, Goldsmith uses a purely electronic score. What is amazing is that he creates a motif for the city's overwhelming power. At first you hear only electronic pulses, but they do create a theme, and that theme appears in various guises throughout the film. Goldsmith introduces the orchestra gradually into the story, as Logan moves further from the city. But the motif is never left behind and often appears as his friend pursues him into the wilds, played by orchestra - but still the same pulsing theme. This score rubs some listeners the wrong way, the 70s electronics are very much of their time. But to me, they really give an identity to the world of the film: cold, brutal and inflexible. Something the warmth of the orchestral final track really shatter.

3. Blade Runner composed by Vangelis
As much as I enjoy his work on the historical films, there really was no better fit for Vangelis then science fiction. It was really a stroke of genius that caused him to work with Ridley Scott on what ended up being one of the best science fiction films of the 1980s. One of the reasons the film is so effective is that Vangelis score builds upon the visuals and adds depth to the atmosphere of the film. While the score is primarily known for its electronics and its energetic end titles piece, there is a heavy vibe of noire music styling in the film. The saxophone (with some synthetic layering) has a prominent role in the score. In addition there are some very dark moments in the final portion of the score that create a dissonance that I've never heard from the composer. All in all, this score may be Vangelis' best, and certainly one that helped Blade Runner obtain it's place as one of the best science fiction films of the 80s.

2. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
This score appeared on my Top Ten Favorite Scores of the 1980s. So it really isn't a huge surprise to see it here. Once again we have a composer using electronics to create her own audio world for the film. One of the reasons I really admire this score is the way it ends up sounding so unique. Nothing else out there sounds like the score to Tron. Carlos uses a mix of orchestra and electronics, but her style is much closer to modernistic film styling of the 1950s and 60s. It deals more in atmosphere as opposed to Golden Age score methods focusing on theme and theme development. Carlos still takes us on a musical journey and there are a couple themes, but she fleshes out the emotions and world with her music. While not a unique approach, it wasn't something that was too popular in the 80s with the John Williams inspired Golden Age style resurgence. But Tron's fusion of electronics with that modern style is what make it so impressive.

1. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Well, here is another one from my Top Ten Favorite Scores of the 1980s. As much as I admire the skill and technique of Vangelis, Carlos and Goldsmith, sometimes you just need to rock out and have fun. Really it doesn't get much more fun than DiCola's score to Transformers the Movie. It's big, it rocks and it is bursting with action and adventure. To me this is the quintessential 80s synth rock score. No one could mistake this score as coming from any other decade. And once you tell someone that it is from a movie about transforming robots battling to save the universe... well what other kind of soundtrack can you really expect? But I don't want to sell DiCola short, because he does create themes and utilize them throughout the score. He does build a musical story, and carry the film along. He does what he was supposed to do with a film score. But he also made it one hell of a ride, and something that I love listening to over and over again, especially during the summer.

Well there you have it. I had a few other special mentions that didn't make it onto the list. Anime composer Ko Otani provided a couple of excellent electronic scores for Outlaw Star and Tenchi Muyo 2: A Midsummer Night's Dream. You also have the incredibly awesome videogame score Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon which will remind you of Vangelis, John Carpenter and pretty much every action movie from the 1980s. And speaking of John Carpenter, the man has brought us some really fun electronic/rock scores like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. If you want to head into a more experimental style, Tangerine Dream also contributed a few scores such as Legend (for its US release) and Thief. You also have Giorgio Moroder who provided music for Cat People, The Neverending Story and a new score for the silent film Metropolis.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Anime Juke Box - Escape - Transformers: The Movie

Now some of you may be making faces because Transformers: The Movie is not technically an anime. But I think it sits right on the edge there. The series and toys originated in Japan, and the animation studio behind the original series was based in Japan. So I feel pretty good about including it in the Anime Juke Box.

The score was composed by an American Vince DiCola. It really is a blast. DiCola creates a number of themes and interweaves them throughout the film, often with fast paced and exciting action music. The score has a certain pop vibe to it, but it really fits the film, and he even gets some moments of wonder and even sadness with a beloved robot dies. DiCola's score fits the film perfectly and is oh-so-80s all at the same time. It ends up being one of my favorite scores from the 1980s and my favorite all synth score. 

Enjoy this track, Escape, which features various themes (and even a quote from one of the songs featured in the film, Dare). 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

I’ve always been a sucker for fantasy adventure movies. When I was a kid, it really didn’t get any better than the movies featuring Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation special effects. Some of the best Harryhausen work could be found in his Sinbad adventure films. This film fell in the middle of that trilogy, but was it a step down from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or was it an improvement on the crowd-pleasing adventurer and his journeys into the unknown?

Sinbad (John Philip Law) and his crew are returning from a successful journey when they run into a strange flying gargoyle creature. After shooting at it with an arrow it drops a golden bauble. Sinbad keeps this strange token. Unfortunately that little gargoyle was taking that treasure back to his master Prince Koura (Tom Baker) a deadly sorcerer. Koura pursues Sinbad, but the brave captain escapes to the city of a friendly Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who hates Koura after the wizard melted the Vizier’s face off.

The Vizier reveals that he too has a golden treasure that fits with Sinbad’s into a kind of map. It leads to untold power, and the Vizier warns that Koura must not be allowed to obtain it. The two join forces to race the lost island of Lemuria before Koura can get there. But the scheming wizard has many magical traps up his sleeve. Sinbad and his crew will face a living wooden figurehead, a centaur/Cyclopes hybrid, a griffon and more fearsome of all, a living six armed statue of Kali who wields swords like a demon. Will Sinbad, his crew and the lovely Margiana (Caroline Munro) survive The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or will evil triumph?

Good Points:
  • Amazing Dynamation effects by Harryhausen
  • A wonderful Golden Age style score by Miklos Rozsa
  • Maintains the feel of a real Arabian Nights story

Bad Points:
  • Some of the composite effects show their seams
  • Some broad acting choices lead to unintentional laughs
  • Takes a while to set up the adventure

Easily my favorite of Harryhausen’s Sinbad trilogy. The cast, Tom Baker in particular, sells the story and adventure. I love that the film feels like an actual Arabian Night story. This one also contains some of Harryhausen’s most unique and amazing creations – especially the living statue of Kali. Between all the action, wonder, Caroline Munro's slave girl outfit and adventure you get one of the best Harryhausen fantasy films.

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

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Score Sample: Blade Runner

When it comes to electronic scores, especially in the 1980s, you really couldn't escape Vangelis. The man had been working with electronic soundscapes since the 1970s, and had scored a documentary or two. But his real break hit in 1981 with Chariots of Fire. The score was popular and won him an Academy Award for best film score. Now you could argue the appropriateness of the music for the subject matter of the film (and how it could have beat the score to Raiders of the Lost Ark), but that is not the subject of today's blog.

Instead I want to talk a bit about his score to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Scott is one of those directors who is not very good with his score choices (at least for most film score fans). But I can't argue with his selection of Vangelis for this film. Blade Runner relies heavily on its mood and atmosphere. A huge part of that comes from Vangelis' score. Almost completely electronic, the score uses a mix of dissonant material, middle eastern singing, noire style blues and even an old tyme 30s radio show ballad. The result is a score that is very much part of the world it evokes. While I think Jerry Goldsmith could have composed something just as interesting for Blade Runner, I just can't imagine the film without Vangelis' score. The two are really linked together. Here is one of my favorite tracks, the synth sax tune called Blade Runner Blues, and this video includes shots over modern Tokyo just for kicks. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Ray Harryhausen had specialized in visual effects since the 1940s.  While his works were prominently featured in films like It Came From Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth never had a single film been dedicated to his creations. When the time came for Harryhausen to step up to the plate, he selected an Arabian Nights style fantasy to really show his stuff. Fantasy films were changed forever.


Adventurer and all around hero Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is returning to Baghdad with the lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) when his ship takes an unexpected detour to the island of Colossa. There he meets Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) a scheming sorcerer who has just pissed off a huge Cyclopes! Sinbad and his men rescue Sokurah and discover that the man has a magic lamp complete with Genie (Richard Eyer). Unfortunately the Cyclopes have taken the lamp, and Sokurah demands it back. Sinbad knows a no win scenario when he sees one and he refuses. They sail from Colossa with a grumpy Sokurah in tow.

When they reach civilization Sinbad parties it up with the Parisa, but Sokurah uses his dark magic to shrink the princess to a handy pocket size. Of course the only way to restore the princess to her proper height is to return to Colossa and obtain the shell from the egg of a huge bird called the Rok. Sinbad grumbles, but he decides to go back, and face the dangers of the island. But it is more than just lumbering Cyclopes and huge birds. He will also face a fire breathing dragon and even an animated skeleton. Will The 7th Voyage of Sinbad be his final journey?

Good Points:
  • Impressive Dynamation effects by Harryhausen
  • Creates an immersive world on the island of Colossa
  • Wonderful golden age score by Bernard Herrmann

Bad Points:
  • Everyone seems awfully white and American to be from the Middle East
  • Some over the top acting (especially by Thatcher) leads to chuckles
  • Some of the effects lack the polish that we’d see in later films

Harryhausen knocks it out of the park with this one. His creatures are amazing and impressive, giving everything an overwhelming scale that hadn’t been seen since King Kong. Beyond that he builds his fantasy world using classic mythic tropes and fairy tale plot points. It makes for a fun ride, even if Mathews feels more like a cowboy than Sinbad. I also love Thatcher, in spite of the fact that he’s the exact opposite of subtle. While it is not my favorite of the Sinbad trilogy, it is a lot of fun.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Top Ten - Strangest Movies Watched on Mystery Science Theater 3000

So according to the theme song for Mystery Science Theater 3000 the mad scientists subject Joel or Mike to “cheesy movies, the worst we can find. La la la.” Now, you could make a fair argument that some of the movies featured on the show aren’t even that bad. Cheesy I’ll give you, but not the worst.

But one of the reasons I love the show so much is that it exposed me to a whole world of weird, off the wall and just plain “the hell?” movies that I’d never heard of. Some of them may be sparks of genius that we will never understand, and others must have been created by a fevered brain boiling with ideas inspired by the beings from another dimension… or drugs. It could always be drugs.

In any case, I picked my top ten strangest movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I selected one film per season, but I’ll also mention a few runners up (because some seasons were rich in weirdness). Watch any of the following at the risk of your own sanity, or at least the loss of a few brain cells. Ready? Let’s go!

Season One: Robot Monster
In a post-apocalyptic future a bizarre alien torments a young boy and his family. He is called Ro-man, short for Robot Man. Thing is, he doesn’t look like a robot, at all! He uses a bubble maker to create a shield of bubbles. He wanders around a wasteland and kills a couple people. It doesn’t sound too strange, right?
  • Ro-man the alien is a gorilla suit with a deep-sea diving helmet. Wasn’t that a ghost on Scooby Doo?
  • Ro-man has some very odd meandering speeches about the Hu-man
  • The bubble machine gets a mention in the credits – because it is that cool!

Season Two: The Ring of Terror
This odd little film starts with a funeral director looking for his cat named Puma. Eventually he tells us a story about a group of medical students, and how a hazing goes wrong. Someone dies. There is a ring, but I have yet to experience any terror.
  • What is the deal with the whole looking Puma sequence that goes on way too long?
  • Why are all the medical students in their 40s and 50s? Seriously these folks look way too old.
  • Is this a dark comedy, a teen (mid-life crisis) comedy, a horror film or just a huge mess?

Season Three: Pod People
A spaceship lands on earth and the aliens who look like furry brown elephant things wander around. One of them is murderous and kills some egg poachers and then starts killing off a teen pop band that his vacationing in the woods. The other meets a young boy and befriends him E.T. style.
  • The aliens are not scary looking at all, but they are supposed to be cute… kinda.
  • The three different sets of characters seem randomly thrown together.
  • Is this a horror film, a family friendly adventure, or just a huge mess?

Season Four: Monster a Go-Go
An astronaut returns from space in his super tiny capsule. But he has been mutated in a lumbering huge hulk of a monster that kills and kills and kills. Soon scientists and the military are mobilized to stop him, but he is nearly impossible to catch. And the movie just kinda stops.
  •  All key plot points are provided by rambling narration
  • Scenes seem to be haphazardly edited together
  • “… there was no trail. There was no giant, no monster, no thing called “Douglas” to be followed.” That’s the end folks, right there!
Runner Up – “Manos” the Hands of Fate, Bride of the Monster

Season Five: Santa Claus
I don’t like to pick on child friendly fantasy films, because they are made for kids and just have to be colorful and entertaining. But this movie… even with Santa Claus, even with the fact that it is dubbed, even considering it was supposed to be silly and fun… this movie is just plain strange!
  • Santa comes across as insane, bonkers, mad as a hatter and just plain scary.
  • The antagonist is a demon from hell. I’m not even kidding.
  • This movie has so many strange things in it.  To list them all would take at least three pages.
Runner Up – The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, Alien from L.A.

Season Six: The Starfighters
Some pilots arrive at an air force base and are trained to pilot the F-104 Starfighter. They refuel in mid-air… a lot. They play stupid pranks. Mostly we get to see a bunch of flying and guys jumping into a pool in their “poopie suits”.
  • Bob Dornan is the main character and romantic lead.
  • All the mid air refueling footage adds up to be about 10 minutes of screen time, an eternity!
  • Who the hell was the target audience for this film!?
Runners Up – The Creeping Terror and The Dead Talk Back

Season Seven: The Incredible Melting Man
An astronaut is exposed to solar radiation through the rings of Saturn. His spaceship returns to earth, but he is an oozy drippy mess. He is also insane and must kill! So he spends the rest of the movie melting and killing. Dr. Ted Nelson loves crackers in his soup but is also tasked with finding and stopping the melting man before it is too late.
  • How can someone who is melting get stronger and faster?
  • There is an incredibly long scene that follows an old couple in an orchard.
  • Yelling, “I’m Dr. Ted Nelson.” will get you shot by the police.
Runner Up – Laserblast!

Season Eight: The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies
Surprisingly the title only tells part of the story. A group of friends go to a carnival and have their fortunes told. Jerry acts like an ass so the fortuneteller hypnotizes him and he goes on a killing spree. In the meantime there we get to see a lot of singing and dancing featured in a burlesque show. There is a mutated looking guy named Ortega. Jerry ends up getting gunned down by cops at the end.
  • Singing, dancing and even bad comedians are all featured prominently in the film – for pretty much no reason.
  • The dream scene where Jerry gets caught in some kind of modern dance hell
  • There are no zombies in the movie – at all.

Season Nine: The Puma Man
An Aztec travels to London to find the savior of the world, Puma Man! It turns out to be a dweeby guy, who whines a lot and can’t fly without failing his arms like a spaz. Donald Pleasance wants to take over the world using papier-mâché heads. Puma Man attempts to stop him but is really just inept. Oh yeah and there are aliens somehow worked into the plot.
  • The sidekick is more effective and likeable than the “hero”.
  •  The flying sequences are so, so bad.
  • Is this supposed to be funny, thrilling, or is it just a mess?
Runner Up – The Hobgoblins

A grandpa tells his grandson a few strange stories about Merlin when the power goes out in the house. The stories contain pet murder, horrible mutations, evil spirits, child endangerment, and an old man asking women if they have seen his monkey. By the time the movie ends you will question your sanity as well as the sanity of the storyteller – Ernest Borgnine!
  • Did the director really think that cobbling together three different films/storylines was going to make a cohesive film?
  • So many strange things happen in this movie it is competing with Santa Claus.
  • Who the hell was the target audience? The movie feels like a Tales From the Darkside episode with whimsical moments inspired by The Princess Bride.
Runner Up – Future War

Strangest Short: Out of this World
I couldn’t make this one up if I tried. So an angel and a devil are chatting away about bread salesmen. They decide to tempt one bread salesman to resume his lazy ways as part of a bet. But he faces down both of them proving that maintaining grocer goodwill and plus volume is the only way to succeed in the business of bread delivery and sales.
  • What the hell is going on with a devil and an angel hanging out in heaven together?
  • Why are they obsessed with bread delivery and sales?
  • Why the hell was this made?
Runners Up: A Case of Spring Fever, Once Upon a Honeymoon, Design for Dreaming

So there are my picks for the top ten strangest films in the Mystery Science Theater library. So if you feel like something a bit unusual, you can’t go wrong with any of these.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969) – MST3K Review

The story starts when two boys Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) and Tom (Christopher Murphy) see a flying saucer land in the field near Akio’s house. They get pretty darn excited about this and head off to investigate. Akio’s little sister dogs their trail and they manage to avoid the goofy local cop named Officer Kondo (Kon Omura). When they find the saucer they discover that the ramp is down. So they just walk right on in and start messing with the controls. Well wouldn’t you know it, the ship blasts off and they are traveling the solar system to a mysterious planet.

Gamera (friend to all children) tries to save the boys, but the saucer is too fast for him. When the boys land on the mysterious world they meet two space babes named Florbella (Reiko Kasahara) and Barbella (Hiroko Kai). The two gals try to convince the boys that they want to meet peacefully with the people of earth. But obviously something sinister is afoot. They control a horrible monster with a knife shaped head and a lousy attitude. His name is Guiron, and he’s just itching for a fight with the biggest monster of all – Gamera! Will Akio and Tom escape the clutches of the space babes and survive the epic showdown of Gamera vs. Guiron?

Movie Review:
Guiron attacks the city of tomorrow!
To me this is the best of the Gamera films from this era. It has Gamera beating up monsters, it has bad dubbing, it has creative miniatures and special effects, it has a couple kids caught up in the action – it just hits all the right beats. But on top of all of that, Gamera vs. Guiron goes completely off-roading in the plot department. This nearly breaks the goofy meter and makes the whole thing a blast to watch.

Most of these movies, from Gamera to Gamera vs. Gaos (and most of the Godzilla movies as well) have a standard plot. A Major metropolis is threatened by giant evil monster. Japanese scientists and the military attempt to stop the threat, but fail. The Hero monster shows up and faces the villain monster. Much property is destroyed, but the hero monster fails. Villain monster goes on the rampage, and our primary human characters are threatened. The Hero monster returns and proceeds to beat the tar out of the Villain monster. More property damage is caused, but in the end the earth is saved.

The only way that saucer could pass me was if
was running on Nitro.
Gamera vs Guiron eschews that plot and focuses on the adventures of two young boys. This plot is something that only a young boy who has grown up on Japanese monster movies could come up with. Our heroes live the ultimate adventure! They ditch their parents and little sister. They outrun a ROCKET POWERED TURTLE! They find an alien planet. They meet space babes. They see a super scary monster that has the head of a knife and can shoot shuriken (ninja stars) from his face! Then it turns out the space babes want to eat the kid’s brains (see, girls have cooties and are scary!)  Finally Gamera arrives to rescue our heroes, trounce the monster and save the day. When the boys get home, they are famous, praised for their bravery and Akio even delivers an emotional speech that inspires the adults. I’m telling you, this film was aimed directly at the target audience and delivered.

So yeah, the 8-year-old boy in me thought this one was just great.

Space babes provide Akio with a close encounter.
One of the reasons this film is more interesting to watch than the previous ones is the amazing creativity on display for the alien world and technology. Granted it isn’t anything super complicated, but it is all bright, colorful and just plain wacky looking. The space babes are dressed in ridiculous costumes, and I love that their normal language is sped up chipmunk style gibberish. The transporter pyramids and triangle buttons are really cool looking. And then you have all the model work for the alien world, which provides Gamera vs. Guiron with plenty of material to destroy and use in the battles. The flying saucer is cool looking even sporting fins and spinning lights. But one of my favorite bits of technology is the trap the space babes use to shave Akio’s head so they can devour his brains. One of these devices should be in every home.

Guiron himself is ludicrous looking. He crawls on all fours, slices and dices with his knife head, and can shoot shuriken in just about any direction he wants. Only a kid could come up with that creature. When we first see him, he actually fights with a Space Gaos (a silver version of the monster seen in Gamera vs Gaos). Guiron makes quick work of the monster and starts slicing him up like a sushi roll. The amount of monster blood on the screen is surprising. But this also makes the viewer realize that Guiron is one bad monster. Remember how much trouble Gamera had with Gaos? Well Guiron just kicked Gaos’ ass without even trying. Damn!

I swear this looks less obscene in the movie... kinda.
Needless to say the monster fights are a ton of fun . With so many whirling blades, Gamera really takes a licking. In fact Gamera is spouting blood from many wounds by the end of his first encounter. There are a few classic moments in these battles that you have to see if you love giant monster films. Gamera swings Guiron by his tail in one scene. In another you witness Gamera perform some gymnastics… a scene so hilarious it matches Godzilla popping a wheelie in Godzilla vs. Megalon.

One of the new elements of Gamera vs Guiron that immediately catches your attention is the score and song by Shunsuke Kikuchi. The score is comprised of some really catchy tunes. Unfortunately they are played over and over again, so you may start to lose your patience with them. But this is also the first film to feature the Gamera theme song! This puppy is an instant earworm, and you’ll find yourself singing along in Japanese before you know it.

Here's a tip, if the door to the alien craft is open...
don't wander in!
Let’s talk a bit about the dubbing. Yes, it’s horrible. But we knew that going in. What is really strange about this dub is the odd stilted way the kids are performed. Most of their dialogue sounds clunky and way too elaborate to be coming out of kids who are in the single digits. I’m not sure if this was done to match the lip flaps, or if it a more accurate translation. The final result is some stupendously awkward line readings by Akio and Tom. Another oddity is that they keep referring to planets as stars. So when the boys land on the strange alien world, they keep referring to it as “a newly discovered star”, even though the planet is still in our solar system. Also of note is the scientist in the opening sequence. His speech during the press conference is absolutely horrible. The way the script is written he…. keeps pausing… at the strangest…. times, and …. often confusing the point…. he… was trying to…. make. It is so stilted you’re wondering if it is supposed to be funny, or just one of the worst dubbing jobs you’ve ever seen.

Kon-chan finds a clue.
Aside from that, most of the acting works OK. Akio and his little sister are probably the best of the lot. Tom is a bit wooden, but hey, if you watch the Japanese version, you’ll notice that he and his mother are actually speaking their lines in Japanese. Not bad for gaijin. Comic relief comes in the form of Officer Kondo, who the kids call Kon-chan. By adding “chan” to the end of his name, this make it sound like he’s a little kid, and Kon Omura plays the part very broadly like a child-like adult. He is the only one that believes the little sister (Miyuki Akiyama) that her brother flew away in a saucer. He is also the first person to believe that Gamera may be able to save the boys. Kon-chan mugs quite a bit, but he doesn’t have much screen time.

Time for us to kick this film up a notch.
One of the biggest improvements Gamera vs. Guiron shows ever the likes of Gamera vs. Barugon is the pacing. The movie plugs along at a fair clip, always putting the boys into new adventures, new environments, or adding a twist to the plot of the Space Babes. The only slow part is that fairly useless sequence with the scientist at the press conference at the beginning of the film. It doesn’t have much impact on the rest of the story, and it drags like you wouldn’t believe. But once the boys show up everything starts moving a lot better.

To me, this is a very entertaining giant monster movie. It’s creative and fun. It has moments that come out of left field. It has some bloody and brutal monster action. Best of all, it moves at a really good pace. As much fun as Gamera vs. Gurion is without any riffing, for Joel and the bots, this is a gift-wrapped present that they can’t resist.

Episode Review:
He looks great so far, but will he land the dismount?
Mystery Science Theater 3000 had a lot of fun with dubbed Japanese movie riffing. Godzilla vs Megalon is a classic. Time of the Apes and Fugitive Alien are some of the best riffing of compressed televisions shows into movies they’ve ever done. But when it comes to Gamera, Gamera vs Guiron is the funniest episode by far. Everything is fair game and the writing just nails all kinds of riffs from the obvious and silly to the absurd and obscure. There is so much good material here, I don’t want to spoil any of it, but I’ll give you a few ideas of where the boys go.

Some of the funniest riffs come from the score and the Gamera theme song. In the early portions of the film, a silly little tune plays as Akito and Tom attempt to reach the saucer. Joel, Tom and Crow come up with various lyrics for the tune that will crack you up. But the big musical winner here is the Gamera theme song. It is so catchy and exciting Joel and bots can’t help but bounce around in their seats and soon adapt lyrics for the song. This spills over into two musical host segments based on the Gamera theme.

Cornjob is filled with surprise and delight at Gamera's
This episode also features a couple of running jokes. Because of the poor dubbing, Joel and bots don’t hear that the kids call Officer Kondo, Kon-chan. Instead they hear, Cornjob. So the rest of the film they keep calling him officer Cornjob and take off with the riffs on this buffoon.

The other running joke is that little Tom looks a teeny tiny bit like Richard Burton – you know if you squint real hard. So the boys just have a field day with all kinds of Richard Burton jokes and lines. So yeah Gamera vs. Guiron now has a connection to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Who knew?

Of course the monsters get a lot of attention by the riffers. Guiron with his knife shaped head induces all kinds of cutting and knife puns. Just when you think the boys are spent, they come up with another clever play on words. Gamera’s actions inspire plenty of riffing, especially his turn at acrobatics. I love when Gamera comes charging in and Crow gasps, “Gamera is playing chicken!” Tom responds, “No, he just tastes like chicken.”

"Don't start with me Akio!"
The model work on the alien world also gets its share of riffing. Tom decides it looks like “a Ramada Inn from 1976.” But Joel thinks it looks like “Fraggle Rock”. But once Guiron explodes from the earth, Tom decides, “Oh they landed in California: earthquakes, no water, giant monsters.”

Near the end of the film a group of scientists rush to the saucer-landing site, Tom quips, “We are form the padding department. Show us to the plot hole.” Crow determines that Gamera vs Guiron “is just like Hamlet.” Tom replies, “Yes. There are many parallels…. Wait, WHAT?”

The host segments are pretty solid too. The episode starts with Tom and Crow discussing trading school lunches from MST3K lunch boxes. For the invention exchange, the Mads create Rorschach test centerfolds. They see some pretty steamy stuff in those inkblots. Joel creates a collapsible trash can for camping. At the first break the boys hold a “Let’s Go Gamera” sing along! At the next break Joel attempts to saw Crow in half using Tom as Guiron blade. Crow ruins the whole skit. When we come back again, the Crow is Richard Burton and Joel narrates a biopic of his life. Tom rounds out the cast as Liz Taylor and Lee Majors. When the episode ends, Joel and the bots attempt to sing the Gamera theme song in Japanese. This is either really silly or borderline offensive. I can’t deiced which, but it is pretty darn funny either way. The episode ends with Mike playing Michael Feinstein crooning to the Mads and telling them the origin of the Gamera theme song. The Mads are driven to kill.

The Gamera Theme song gets mutilated by Joel and the bots.

Well this may not be a Shakespearean epic, but it is a lot of fun. I’ve just given you the tip of the riffing iceberg, so go ahead and seek this episode out. You will not be disappointed.

Gamera will return in Gamera vs. Zigra!

I give Gamera vs Guirion five gymnastic rocket turtles out of five.

This episode is available on the MST3K vs Gamera boxset (Vol. XXI).

And now, the Gamera Song, so you can sing along at home...