Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Gunslinger (1956) – MST3K Review


Welcome to the Old West! Or at least Roger Corman’s version of the Old West. In a small town Rose (Beverly Garland) is happily married to the marshal of these parts. But when her husband is gunned down in cold blood, Rose decides to take the law into her own hands, literally. She demands that the mayor make her the marshal until the new one arrives.

With this power, Rose starts tracking down the men that killed her husband. But she also suspects that the sultry, sneaky saloon owner Erica Page (Allison Hayes) is the real power behind the crime wave. Turns out she is right! Erica hires infamous killer Cane Miro (John Ireland) to kill Rose. But Cane takes a shine to the firebrand marshal. Erica is never one to put all her eggs in one basket, and begins to weave a web to destroy this lady Gunslinger and might take the whole town with it.

Movie Review:

"Do you think Corman is still filming us?"
No, this is not an adaptation of the first novel in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. It is a western written and directed by Roger Corman - Reading those words you kind of know what you are in for, don’t you? Well yes and no. Lots of the typical issues that arise from Corman’s low budgets and rushed production schedules are present but the film has some good elements too. The final result is a movie that doesn’t ever fire on all cylinders.

Let’s take a look at the good points first. Corman and his crew mostly filmed this on location. There were plenty of Western sets still in use when Corman tackled the movie. In fact many of the locations look like old Paramount Ranch, which appeared in plenty of movies and television series including Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman. In any case, the dusty trails, rolling hills, chaparral, and twisted oaks give Gunslinger a classic western feel.

Most of the indoor sets work well too, including the Red Dog Saloon and the marshal’s office. The only bits that doesn’t quite convince are the hotel rooms where Erica and Cane plot. As Joel and the bots point out, doors to hotel rooms don’t usually open out, nor do they have numbers facing the inside of the rooms. This leads to some very funny riffs about having trysts in the hallway of the hotel.

Erica doubts the veracity of your claim.
The other aspect that works reasonably well is the acting. Beverly Garland is really good as the no nonsense, tough talking, sharp shooting marshal. Her scenes with Erica and Cane give her plenty to work with. Rose comes across as not only confident and dangerous, but also clever. She also has a strong sense of needing to uphold the law, even if that means waiting until he has Erica caught in the act before she can bring the hammer down.

Speaking of Erica, Allison Hayes is just as good playing the deceitful antagonist in Gunslinger. She has an alluring way to her, and you can see why Cane and Little Man (Jonathan Haze) are attracted to her. But she also reveals a steely determination that matches Rose. Of course Erica is out for herself, looking to cash in on a huge property scheme. It is a delightfully devilish performance, only hampered by the clumsy dialogue she has to deliver.

Ireland plays Cane Miro as a typical tough guy who has a dark past. We get to know why he turned into a gunman for hire, and all around criminal (from Tombstone no less). When he’s playing up the cold killer aspects of the character, Ireland makes it work. But the scenes where Cane and Rose start falling for each other never really click. I don’t think the two have much chemistry, and it makes that portion of the film feel a little flat. But all in all, Ireland gives a solid performance.

"Breakfast any time? Well I'm ready for flapjacks!"
I like the supporting cast too. If you’ve seen enough of Corman’s films (or MST3K episodes) then you’ll recognize many of them. Jonathon Haze really comes through as Little Man. He is Erica’s slimy henchman who is a bit feeble minded and obviously in love with her. Haze really sells the role and may be one of the most pathetic characters I’ve seen in a MST3k film. You feel bad for the little loser by the end of the movie. Jonathan Haze is very good in many of the films he’s in. He usually goes for the part full bore and can play just about any type of character he needs to. I also like Martin Kingsley as the blowhard mayor. He won’t stop talking about the good old days during the Civil War. But when push comes to shove he shows his true colors. His story arc works well because his performance is believable.

The story at the heart of Gunslinger has a lot of potential. The idea of a marshal’s wife watching her husband getting gunned down and then taking up the star herself is full of potential. I especially like the idea of two powerful, confident women waging a battle against each other in this small frontier town. Each one doing what she thinks she has to do. In the middle of this is Cane Miro, a man that has a past with Erica and starts to fall for Rose. He becomes a key piece in the chess game, but who will end up controlling him? Executed with skill, Gunslinger could be considered well ahead of its time.

Alas this is a Roger Corman film. It just wasn’t going to happen.

She switched his coffee for flavor crystals.
Lets see if he notices.
ow, I know Corman is admired in many circles. I will say that when he made some good movies in his time. But I will also say that he showed potential in many films, including Gunslinger, that I think he had a real knack for selecting and writing interesting story concepts. But the execution of those stories, from the script level especially isn’t strong enough to build a really great movie on.

Knowing Corman, the actual script for Gunslinger was hashed out in a matter of days (or even hours). The result is an unfocused script that muddles itself far too often. Not that the film is confusing or complex, but it loses track of what it is trying to deliver.

A simple example is how they handle the killers who targeted Rose’s husband. Rose manages to shoot one of the men as they two ride away. And then the other guy shows up at the funeral of the man he just killed! Who does that? Rose spots him and guns him down right there. The silliness of that scene aside, it would have made for a more compelling film to leave one or both killers alive, and focus on Rose putting together the pieces of the plot and hunting them down. We could see her skills as a detective, work in some action, and build up Erica at the same time. Erica would obviously be watching Rose work with rising concern and then send out for Cane Muro who would arrive in the middle of the film after Rose takes out the last of her husband’s killers.

I just came up with that solution, and it works much better than what we ended up with. The movie is filled with script opportunities like that.

Make out session in the hallway and Wormy
isn't pleased.
The script ends up with these aimless montage scenes where Rose and her deputy Joshua (Chris Acaide) stop a crime wave with relative ease. These montages are so badly executed you have to laugh. In one scene it looks like Joshua just walks into a bank robber as he makes his escape and is able to punch him out right there.

Cane Muro suffers the most. The idea of the lone wolf in the thrall of two women has plenty of story potential. But, as I mentioned, the chemistry between Ireland and Garland just isn’t there. Those scenes fall flat. But they could be avoided by having Muro admire Rose’s tenacity and skills. It doesn’t have to be love, but respect that increases as the movie goes along. He could even realize near the end that he is outmatched and outwitted by both women, and become a tragic figure in this. His final shootout with Rose could be a more desperate one, as he realizes that she’s just a better Gunslinger and his number is up. That would have made an even more edgy film, especially for 1956.

The final shooting script has too many silly lines, meandering conversations, and unclear character motivations, or moments that run contrary to what we think the characters are after. It’s a mess, and it impacts the acting too. I get the feeling that several members of the cast were just not sure how they were supposed to play certain scenes.

"Mayor, you got to get them to stop calling  me Wormy!"
This also impacts the pacing. All the strange pointless conversations end up dragging the film down. A well-tuned script could have made this a crisp exciting film. But we get stuck in the mire one to many times. Surprisingly this movie isn’t padded with walking scenes, something Corman is notorious for. He even manages some decent action sequences, including a full blown bar brawl. But these bright moments get drowned in yet another conversation between Erica and Cane that doesn’t give us any new character or plot information.

Gunslinger isn’t a horrible film. But with a little more time, a little more care, it could have been a fondly remembered classic that was ahead of its time. Hell, Beverly Garland could have become one of the greats of the genre if given a chance. She does ride off into the sunset at the end of this film. I bet she could have appeared in a follow up or two. Alas, we get a sluggish mess that in some ways is more frustrating than an out and out bad movie. But it provides Joel and the bots with plenty of material.

Episode Review:

"Love what you're riding. Pinto?"
For the most part Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled science fiction, horror and fantasy films. But every once in a while they would tackle a different genre and seem to have a blast with it. I Accuse My Parents is a melodrama that you wouldn’t think would make a great episode, and yet it is a fan favorite. Pumaman is a hilarious episode that makes me with they tackled the super hero genre more frequently. Danger! Death Ray is a hilariously bad 60s spy flick that MS3K turned into gold. So how do they do with their first Western?

In all honesty Gunslinger is one of those episodes that I have to be in the right mood to appreciate. It all comes down to the pacing of Corman’s movie. It is deadly dull in spots. If you are not prepared to be bored by aimless dialogue than getting through the film can be difficult. But if you are ready to take is nice and slow, this is really a well-riffed episode.

His only crime was making too many beans.
This episode comes in the middle of Season Five, one of the best seasons of the Comedy Central years. The writers were really experienced with pacing and timing. The riffing in general seemed a bit crisper and more rapid. It helps compensate with the movie’s slow pacing and dreary tone. You also get the feeling that they are just jazzed about tackling a Western, even if it is one as turgid as this one.

A lot of the riffing comes at the expense of the poor editing and some of the budgetary seams that start showing up all over the place. There is a hilarious moment where the camera pans to the right, and you can clearly see two riders waiting for their cue. Tom yells, “Action!” and they start riding “into frame”. A similar moment happens where the scene starts with Alison Hayes obviously waiting for her cue, and the start of the scene. Joel and bots just crack up and Crow sighs, “Corman!” with incredulity.

They are so naughty. Naughty they are.
I also get a chuckle out of the scenes that are shot day for night using an obvious filter. Tom comments “It is looking rather blue tonight”. Garland and Ireland are having a heart to heart discussion, but the lighting is so bizarre. It reminds Tom of 2001: A Space Odyssey. So he starts singing the monolith music whenever the camera cuts back to the spooky looking Garland.

The Red Dog Saloon is a source of a lot of jokes. Erica keeps insisting that “The Red Dog Saloon is open 24 hours,” to which Crow chimes in, “Breakfast any time.” Whenever the can-can dancers appear on the screen, Tom offers numerous back-to-back riffs on their routine including helpful choreography tips such as “Spank and spank and spank and you’ve been bad in the tushy.”

They also have a lot of fun with Jonathon Haze’s character, who they dub “wormy”. When he tries to show Erica how he can take out Rose with a rifle, pretending his broom is the firearm, Crow chides, “Wormy, that’s an O Cedar!” And when Haze attempts to mount a horse for a secret mission, Joel provides the voice of the horse grumbling, “Oh no, not Wormy. Have some mercy!”

The pacing does present a challenge, as do some of the longer talking scenes between Erica and Cane in the hotel/hallway. But the boys do a pretty good job overall.

Pony express... or Gypsy express?
The host segments come in different flavors and most of them are amusing. The episode opens with Tom’s head replace by a balloon inspired by the game Kaboom! Crow can’t wait to blow up Tom’s head! For the invention exchange the Mads have created a manual to blow up people’s heads like the film Scanners. The result is pretty hilarious. Joel becomes obsessed with the whiffle ball and wants to turn everything into whiffle: including whiffle hat, whiffle cup and my favorite whiffle cheese (which is Swiss cheese, “natures own whiffle”). At the first break, Joel and bots lie in caskets and imagine their own funerals. Tom wants elephants, lots of them! When we join them again, Tom uses the pony express (Crow riding on Gypsy) to send a message to Joel. It goes really poorly and takes forever. The next break has Crow and Joel trying to figure out how John Ireland kept teleporting all around the town during a chase scene. Joel thinks its because the town is made up of false fronts. Tom proves that John Ireland can warp time and space using quantum linear super position. It all ends up with  Tom demonstrating and warping time and space like Doctor Who. After the movie ends Joel and the bots compare and contrast the 1870s and the 1970s. Frank seems to have had his head scanned into a million pieces, or maybe he just watched Gunslinger.

For me, this episode is a fun one, not a favorite, but one that I usually enjoy when I revisit it. If you are a fan of westerns, Beverly Garland or even Roger Corman, you’ll probably get a bigger kick out of it than I do. Still this is a Season Five episode and most of those are in the top tier of the series, so you can’t really go wrong here.

I give it three wormy-guys out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Vol 6 and by itself.

Wormy auditions for "The Rifleman".


  1. There is something to be said for ignoring the constrictive values of 1950s mainstream moviemaking, as it seems Roger did here. Corman is always slapdash thanks to his “Get it done on time and under budget” ethic. Yet, by getting things done on time and under budget he created a string of fun movies that could not have been made any other way. I don’t recall ever having seen this one, but it sounds entertaining for both right and wrong reasons. I’m sure the MST3K crew had fun with the latter.

    1. I agree. Because he didn't have massive studio oversight he could get away making a western as unique as this one. But it is a two edged sword. If he had a bit more time to work on the script, this really could have been something.

      Hollywood should remake this movie instead of "Ben-Hur".

  2. Garland is or was a good actress when she was working. That's probably why Corman would use her and other actors he felt he could work with. I guess that's why other similar lower budget, indie filmmakers do the same today. A lot of young people might write off Corman as a schlock director, and they're not too wrong, but at least he could bring a picture in on schedule, and within budget with pretty good results. Granted now, they make pretty good MST3K fodder. Still he has fans and those that can appreciate his films. No less the actors that got their start with him still give him respect. Sadly I think I read or saw where he and his wife got into some financial trouble with some bad advice or money manager, I don't know how that turned out.

    You mentioned that at one point in the film the killer showed up at the funeral for his victim. Actually that does happen, at least when speaking about serial killers. I saw that mentioned and happened on one of those true crime channels.

  3. Oh if you want to see another weird western without the MST3K treatment check out Nicholas Ray's, Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford. A lot of critics give this film respect saying it's stuffed with sexual symbolism, but it's just bizarre to me. Crawford's performance in it is strange, and equal to something Lynch might have dreamed up. All the film needed was Tab Hunter. :)

    1. I've heard of "Johnny guitar" but never saw it. Sounds very interesting.

      Yeah Corman is someone I can admire from a business/producer point of view. The guy knew what it took to make a movie and make a profit. I can't argue that. But the folks that say how great of a director or writer he was are looking at many of his films with rose colored glasses. So many of his films have a lot of potential, but they just aren't fleshed out enough edited poorly to really work. Of course you could argue that they were good enough for drive-in fare. And sure, I won't argue with that. But again, that seems more like a business decision and less of an artistic decision. Now I will say that I really like his Poe adaptations. Those feel (for the most part) like enough time and care was given to them. But sorry, something like "Gunslinger" just doesn't cut the mustard.

  4. Dr. F's claims to the contrary, this wasn't strictly speaking their first Western. That would have been The Painted Hills.

    The minor character Freddie is portrayed by George Offerman, who was Jimmy Vale in the Batman serial Rifftrax did a while back.

    1. Good point. For some reason I never really think of "The Painted Hills" as a Western, but as a Lassie movie. But it is pretty much a Western through and through.