Saturday, February 28, 2015

Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1961) – MST3K Review

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.?

Movie Review:
No matter how hard you try Joel, you can't
climb out of the theater.
I covered the concept of the serial in my review of Jungle Goddess, which featured the first episode of The Phantom Creeps. Much like that episode this storyline seems thrown together. Lots of stuff happens, but the plot doesn’t really move forward. Everyone still think Zorka is crazy (gee I wonder why) and the cops are after him. We get lots of action in this episode. Planes explode, there is a shootout in Zorka’s mansion, and you even get a car crash. Lots of stuff happens, and it’s filmed in that speedy serial fashion, barely slowing down to let you take a breath.

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
scientist ever."
I’m just going to come out and say it; Rocket Attack U.S.A. is a very strange film, even for a cold war scare film. Because make no mistake about it, this movie is supposed to scare the crap out of you. Yeah it’s got a heroic spy, yeah it’s got sneaking behind enemy lines, and yeah it’s got a tepid romance. But what you really get from the film is the futility of everything. The U.S.A. is doomed in this film because the Soviets have better technology, and they don’t have a spy who is an ineffectual as Mr. White.

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.
What fascinates me about this movie is that is doesn’t take the patriotic “We can win no matter what!” mentality. It’s a pessimistic film, something you would not have seen ten years earlier. But by 1961 the film creators just weren’t seeing the rosy glow at the end of the fallout from WWIII. No, they wanted to scare viewers into taking some kind of action. I don’t know what that action could be, because based on what the film shows us, American scientists are morons and American spies are fools.

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.
Mirroring these sequences are similar scenes with Soviet high command talking about how they need to take the initiative and bomb the hell out of the Yanks! What is really interesting about these scenes is that they are performed in Russian. I was really surprised. This adds a layer of realism to the film, and was probably done to increase the scare factor. “Hear them talking folks? That is what it sounds like when they decide the fate of New York in Russian!” A voice over provides the translation and some color commentary to these scenes.

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"?
But for me the real reason this movie brings the chuckles is the espionage story. Agent White is pretty much useless. His story doesn’t have much tension in it, and he pretty much walks into Moscow without any issues at all. While the Soviet high command scenes play out in Russian, the rest of the story unfolds with everyone speaking English with American accents – even the British operative. I’m guessing that means he speaks Russian or all the Russians speak English… still haven’t sorted that out.

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!
Oh no my friends. Because Rocket Attack U.S.A. is trying to scare you, the film switches back to the states. Where we are introduced to a whole set of new characters: a truck driver, his wife, a radio news broadcaster, his wife, a businessman and his lackey. We watch these people engage in everyday activities. The truck driver buys a tie to impress his wife. The news broadcaster reports about Russia entering peace talks. The businessman talks about how he’s raking in the cash because of the paranoia. Well, the conspiracy theory becomes reality as the rocket launches! There’s a panic and a random blind man saying “Help me” and the reporter reports and the bomb hits and a burning tie and… the end.

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.

Episode Review:
That is a flaming tie. It took the crew at MST3K
three viewings to figure that out.
Even though this episode comes near the beginning of season two of Mystery Science Theater 3000 it really reminds me of something we’d end up seeing in season six. It’s got that black and white grim attitude that permeated the later season with films like High School Big Shot, The Violent Years or the Coleman Francis Trilogy. Is this something Joel and his more casual riffing style can handle?

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?
But we also get a funny running joke that would carry over through the Comedy Central years. Near the end of the film the detective comes across Lugosi’s abandoned car. As he sneaks forward a random bit of voice over (and obviously not the actor) says in a voice that sounds like Ronald Reagan with a head cold, “The driver is either hiding or he’s dead.” The boys get a kick out of that random moment. From that day on, variants of that line would come up whenever anyone mentioned Ronald Reagan during the riffing. Usually Crow would say the line and follow it with “next on Death Valley Days”.

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.
I think the spy storyline provides the best riffs of the episode. As Mr. White’s plane taxies into a field in Russia Joel quips, “The White zone is for loading and unloading of spies only. No parking.” Later on Crow (who seems to get all the good lines this time) observes that the Russian missile “must be a stealth missile. It doesn’t cast a shadow.” And he’s absolutely right! Mr. White makes a rendezvous with Tanya in front of a ruined little building, Crow says, “I’m standing in front of a shotgun shack in another part of the world.” Fans of Talking Heads will chuckle at that reference.  When Tanya shows up, Mr. White asks her if the British agent gave her the TNT. Crow answers for her, “Well, he gave me the T and the N, but forgot the other T. I brought the A.”

The alien monolith observes the action.
The scene where White attempts to sabotage the missile provides a hilarious visual gag. There’s a block of concrete standing off to the side of the screen. The shot is lit with darkness surrounding the block and it appearing to loom over the other characters. It looks for all the world like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This causes Joel and the bots to start singing atonally, just like the music during the scenes featuring the monolith in the famous film. They would return to this joke in later episodes and it always cracks me up.

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. 
For the invention exchange Joel creates an adding machine that prints results using candy. Perfect for tax season! The Mads combine the foosball table and water polo to make a water-foosball hybrid. It looks messy but fun. Check out the little players on the table, they are dressed like Dr. Forrester and Frank! At the first break Joel explains the cold war to the bots, and discuss the horrible puppetry fear of the Charlie McCarthy trials. Lambchop named names and Davey and Goliath served time. For the next break Joel and the bots play Civil Defense Quiz Show. The questions and answers are silly and a little bit preachy. When they boys return from the theater the next time, they find a Russian cosmonaut (played by Mike) waiting to speak to them. He has robots of his own and makes really bad jokes. This skit gets so ironic it nearly folds into itself. When the film ends, Joel and the bots are filled with outrage by the depressing film and yell at the Mads. This only pleases the evil scientists more.

Monk and Zorka doubt the veracity of this movie.
For me, Rocket Attack U.S.A. is an average episode. The serial is fun, but really nonsensical. The movie is fascinating in its construction, but as a film it is pretty dull and not effective. It works more as a curiosity. The riffing for both of these is pretty good. But I think that Rocket Attack U.S.A. was made for the more energetic and snarky riffing style of Mike and the bots. If they had tackled this one in Seasons Six or Seven it would have been gold.

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.

"Help me."
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.


  1. I've seen the enjoyable badness that is "The Phantom Creeps," but somehow I missed "Rocket Attack USA." This is surprising, as it was very much up my alley in the day. In part this was because I'm of the era when nuclear bomb drills at school were as common as fire drills, and much more exciting for kids (who don't take either very seriously). Movies about nuclear war such as "On the Beach", "Panic in the Year Zero", "Dr Strangelove", et al. were on my view list. I'm wondering if it was given less TV play than other such movies by TV stations for some reason -- and if so, what reason.

    1. Yeah, until MST3K I never heard of "Rocket Attack USA". I know MST3K did find a bunch of forgotten movies for their show. I mean literally forgotten. "The Dead Talk Back" was in someone's garage and when the person found it they went to comedy central to see if MST3K would be interested in it. I think a similar thing happened with "Teenage Strangler". This is an odd little movie that is for sure.