The episode kicks off with another chapter of the serial thriller, The Phantom Creeps. When we left our heroes they were plummeting in an airplane thanks to the cute spider bomb used by Dr. Zorka (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately the crash kills Zorka’s wife and this fans the flames of his rage to do evil deeds. His thuggish assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) keeps putting the two of them in more peril and Zorka must use all his gadgets including his invisibly belt, walking bombs and his huge ugly robot to escape capture. The episode contains a shoot out and ends with a car containing the bland detective hurtling off a cliff thanks to Zorka’s ingenuity. Can the madman be stopped in time?
The feature films starts with the realization that Sputnik was just hurtled into space by those pesky Soviets. America is caught with its pants down. No working ICBMs, heck no working rockets at all! Much scrambling ensues to get something… anything up into the air. As our scientists flail around (and presumably The Right Stuff occurs off screen) a CIA agent is sent on a top-secret mission. His name is John White (John McKay) and his job is to sneak into Russia, contact an undercover cutie in Moscow named Tanya (Monica Davis). She’s “seeing” a Soviet general with information on the space program. White discovers that the Soviets are planning to launch a missile at New York! Now he must attempt to sabotage the missile and escape from Russia. But does he have a hope in hell of preventing Rocket Attack U.S.A.?
|No matter how hard you try Joel, you can't
climb out of the theater.
Lugosi is hamming it up still, and it works great. His interaction with his assistant Monk is hilarious. Monk seems eager to help, but is just a bumbling guy. He nearly blows them all up. We also get to see the robot at work - because he opens a secret door and lumbers around some more. I was hoping to see him take out some of the cops, but not in this episode. You also learn that Monk can take seven or eight bullets, and he’s only stunned. And I thought the robot was tough!
As far as serials go, The Phantom Creeps continues to be breezy fun, with a lot of completely convenient and silly things happening to make the plot move forward, and Lugosi is around to keep it entertaining.
|"The president called. He said you're the worst
I’m afraid I have to go into spoiler territory here to really write about this film, so SPOILER ALERT!!!!!! The sabotage attempt fails spectacularly and the missile comes crashing down on New York. So at least you can say the film lives up to its title.
|Joel tries to convince her to stop dancing.
Rocket Attack U.S.A. presents a government flailing around to get a working rocket into the air. They want to stall the Soviets into thinking we have some kind of ICBM ability. But time and again the tests fail. I was strongly reminded of the montage from The Right Stuff when the various test rockets fail in spectacular and silly ways. The budget to this film didn’t allow for that kind of visual, but lengthy dialogue scenes between scientists and government officials imply the failure.
|Russian high command making a fateful decision.
Since I brought him up, I should tell you a bit more about the voice over. It is constant. The whole film is aided by this domineering voice telling us the background to the events and even commenting on the action. It’s like watching a Centron film about the start of WWIII. In a way I can see how this was done to give Rocket Attack U.S.A. a documentary feel. But at the same time it gets to be ridiculous. The voice won’t stop talking and pointing out things that the visuals clearly show.
|The scene that inspired "The Spy Who Love Me"?
Anyway, he manages to get into the least heavily guarded site in the entire Soviet Union, even though a top-secret rocket is preparing for launch from there. He’s able to sneak right up to the missile and plant his explosives. But he ends up getting detected at the last minute, runs away and then gets himself shot. The explosives are removed and detonated by a loyal soviet soldier in a suicide run (quite literally). So mission fail, end of the movie, right?
|Who the hell are these people? Dead meat!
So yeah, that happens.
Rocket Attack U.S.A. is certainly a movie of its time. But it is also an interesting attempt at honest to goodness fear mongering. It’s fascinating to watch how the film attempts to manipulate the viewer, and by doing so goes in unexpected directions. I’ve never seen a film of this era where the CIA and the power of science in the United States are so impotent. Having the Russian high command talk entirely in Russian is clever and surprising. Even the “we are all dead meat” characters at the end of the movie are simultaneously ridiculous and yet it almost works. It is a unique film in a lot of ways. But it really isn’t a good one. The low budget hampers many scenes, especially the ones that play out in Russia. The acting is uniformly weak (and downright bad at times). Much the dialogue and voice over is unintentionally funny. It’s got a lot of elements that make it perfect for Joel and the bots.
|That is a flaming tie. It took the crew at MST3K
three viewings to figure that out.
Well things get started off well with The Phantom Creeps. Once again the boys have a blast with imitating Lugosi and providing extra dialogue for the befuddled henchman Monk. When Joel sees the opening title he asks the bots, “Now is Creeps being used as a noun or a verb?” Good question, and one that is never answered. Later when the grumpy robot is wandering around the lab, Crow comments that “for a robot he has a flat butt.” He is certainly not as curvy as Gypsy. I also got a chuckle out of a scene where the invisible Lugosi picks up a tree branch and sneaks up on the detective. Joel says, “Walk invisibly and carry a big stick!”
|One of these three is not wearing pants. Guess who?
So The Phantom Creeps gave us a durable callback riff, what does Rocket Attack U.S.A. give us? Well the movie itself doesn’t move very fast, and that slow pace contrasts with the speed of the serial. As is the case, the boys do a solid job, but I wish they pumped up the energy just a bit more in the riff.
One element gives them plenty to work with. The endless voice over commenting on the action is perfect for them to just add additional lines or riff right back at. Some of the funniest parts are little one-liners or words the boys add to the end of the narrator’s lines.
|CIA operative is spotted in about 14 seconds.
It's a new record.
|The alien monolith observes the action.
As the film heads into the third act the music becomes very bombastic. Tom observes, “The music implies something exciting is about to happen.” Crow replies with “The end of the movie?” And when it is all said and done Crow observes that “I had no idea the end of the world would be so boring.” Ah my metal friend, you haven’t seen Birdemic: Shock and Terror yet, have you?
The host segments for Rocket Attack U.S.A. are an odd bunch. Most of them have a funny core idea, but end up running way too long. This movie must be really short. The episode starts with Joel giving Tom Servo a haircut. Now his round clear dome is a narrow cylinder. This was done to respond to some viewer feedback that Tom’s rounder head obscured too much of the action on screen. Keep in mind this was only season two of the show, so they were willing to give things like this a try. Tom’s haircut only lasted a couple episodes before it returned to the round shape.
|The tin foil fashions also protect from fallout.
|Monk and Zorka doubt the veracity of this movie.
Still this movie did provide us with one important piece of Mystery Science Theater 3000 history. It contains the first stinger. The stinger was a short segment from the film that was shown right after the end credits of the episode rolled. It was usually a bizarre moment or dubious line read that isolated from the film is even funnier. MST3K turned stingers into a comedic art form and there were plenty of great ones through the years. This one features the random blind man saying “Help me.” The stinger would go on to inspire others. I’ve seen both the Nostalgia Critic and Obscuras Lupa add stingers to the end of their reviews for one more laugh.
But even with the addition of the stinger I can only give this episode three burning ties out of five.
This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume XXVII.