Tag Archives: Mystery Science Theater 3000

“WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

For better or worse, the snark-meisters at “ are responsible for blowing the dust off a lot of truly unusual motion pictures, exposing these cinematic curiosities to a far greater and (relatively) more mainstream audience than they ever accrued in their unheckled forms. Only the most dedicated and tolerant moviegoers would have even heard of the legendary trainwreck that is Manos: The Hands of Fate had it not been immortalized at the peak of MST3K’s popularity, and a handful of the show’s other targets—Robot Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Horrors of Spider Islandhave also been honored with inclusion on this website’s eponymous list. (The show’s own movie adaptation was not similarly recognized). After ten seasons of plumbing the depths of movie misses, the last new episode was transmitted in 1999, and while audiences have had other sources for high-octane movie riffing (including efforts from the show’s stars), the special combination of comic commentary and curated curiosities provided by the original series has been unavailable.

Still from Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11

Thanks to one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns ever undertaken, that void has now been filled. Show creator Joel Hodgson has shepherded the show back onto the small screen (and the very, very small screen, as the show is available for binge-watching courtesy of Netflix), with a new cast of riffers, some higher-grade mad scientists, some even higher-grade cameo appearances, and a few tweaks to the host segment formula. It’s all in service, though, of the same basic low-fi approach to movie-watching: man and robots watch bad movie, man and robots make fun of said movie.

I don’t want to use this space to review the show itself (full disclosure: I’m an acquaintance of the actress who voices Gypsy and two Bonehead assistants in this iteration), except to say that it accomplishes the most critical and challenging task: it feels like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Instead, I’d like to recap the films selected to re-christen the Satellite of Love and consider their place within the canon of Weirdness.

Right out of the gate, the producers hit upon a solid formula: monster movies from other lands. The show’s original run set a high standard for making fun of giant monsters with five Gamera movies on the bill. The new season’s debut, Reptilicus (1961), riffs upon an especially funny logline: a giant lizard attacks Denmark. The notion of a ridiculous monster terrorizing the land of Hans Christian Andersen is so delightfully absurd that it inspires the instant-classic host singspiel, “Every Country Has a Monster.” There is much to enjoy, including poorly assembled rear-projection monster attacks, outstandingly negligent scientists, and interminable “comedy” from Danish clown Dirch Passer. It’s as endearing as you would expect a continental kaiju to be, and a solid hit right out of the box.

Monsters figure large this season, and one of the best is the low-rent Bigfoot at the center of Cry Wilderness (1987). Somehow, the legendary Sasquatch has taken off its gloves (literally) and befriended an obnoxious grade-schooler, and together they romp through a disconnected assembly of attractive California forest locales while befriending a number of wild creatures who should really be left alone. Continue reading “WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

“A cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women only to deface them with a burning hand!”–original poster tagline for Manos, the Hands of Fate

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Harold P. Warren, John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree

PLOT: After making a wrong turn on a family vacation, Mike and Maggie and their daughter Debbie find themselves lost in the Texas desert. As night falls they discover a lodge and its mysterious caretaker Torgo, who reluctantly agrees to let the family stay the night. As the night wears on the Master and his wives awake, while Torgo develops an obsession with Maggie.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, had a yen to become an actor, and met and befriended screenwriter Stirling Silliphant when the latter was in El Paso scouting locations for the television series “Route 66.” Warren made a bet with Silliphant that he could make his own horror movie. He scribbled out the initial outline to Manos on a napkin at a coffee shop.
  • Manos was filmed with a hand-wound 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time. There was no live sound and all dialogue was later dubbed in by the principal male actors (Warren, Reynolds and Neyman) and one uncredited actress voicing all the female roles.
  • John Reynolds, who played Torgo, was a heavy drug user who was often high on LSD on set. He committed suicide months after shooting concluded, before Manos‘ debut.
  • Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, almost never screened on television, only gaining notoriety after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993. (Manos became one of the show’s most popular episodes).
  • For most of its history Manos was available only in scratchy second generation prints with visible defects; many fans believe that the murky visuals add to the film’s outsider appeal. In 2001, cameraman Benjamin Solovey found a pristine work print of the movie  and crowdfunded a digital restoration of the movie, which he released on Blu-ray (via Synapse films).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a brief moment when all of Manos‘ bizarre characters share the frame at the same time. Arms outstretched, as always, to display the scarlet fingers lining the inside of his coal-black cloak, the Master points to a shivering Torgo, while two of his nightgown-clad wives pirouette towards him and drag him onto the stone altar, his massive knees pointing towards the nighttime sky. In her review of the film’s opening night, the local El Paso film critic refers to this as the scene where Torgo is “massaged to death.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Torgo’s knees; wives’ nightgown brawl; who the heck is ‘Manos’?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing, strange dubbing, and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny west Texas wasteland that’s similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.


Clip from Manos: the Hands of Fate

COMMENTS: Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important Continue reading 223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)

“[CROW T. ROBOT and TOM SERVO are complaining to JOEL ROBINSON that the incoherence of the movie Robot Monster is making them physically ill. JOEL kind of likes it.]

JOEL: No, you don’t get it. Isn’t it kind of weird? There’s, like, a guy in a gorilla suit, and he’s got a robot head, and inside he’s got kind of a bunch of clay. I mean, I’ve seen Dali paintings that made more sense than this movie does.

TOM: Yeah, but I think there’s a fine line between surrealism and costume store closeouts!

CROW: I don’t get it, Joel. Is it cool to make no sense? Is it hip to be vague?

JOEL: No, it’s not cool, but it’s surreal…”

–“Mystery Science Theater,” episode 107 (Robot Monster)

DIRECTED BY: Phil Tucker

FEATURING: Gregory Moffett, George Barrows, Claudia Barrett, George Nader, John Mylong

PLOT: Young Johnny is playing spaceman when he encounters a pair of archeologists on a dig. Later, he is struck by lightning, we see footage of dinosaurs fighting, and Johnny awakens in a future world where mankind has been wiped out except for his own family and a few surviving scientists. The remnants of humanity are being hunted down by a Ro-man, an emotionless alien with a gorilla’s body wearing a diver’s helmet.

Still from Robot Monster (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Robot Monster was originally released in 3-D (which may explain why the producers thought floating bubbles were imperative to the story).
  • The film was shot in four days, mostly in Bronson Canyon, with no interiors. It reportedly cost $16,000 to make (which would be about $140,000 in 2013 dollars). As bad as it was, Robot Monster reportedly grossed over $1 million in its initial run, even before it became a cult item.
  • The inserted dinosaur footage comes from One Million B.C. (1940) and Lost Continent (1951).
  • The music is by composer Elmer Bernstein, who was just starting his career. Bernstein would go on to be nominated for 14 Oscars, winning once.
  • According to “The Golden Turkey Awards,” director Phil Tucker attempted suicide due to the negative critical reaction to Robot Monster. Although Tucker did try to kill himself after the movie was released, the idea that bad reviews drove him to it is likely to be wishful thinking on the part of Harry and Michael Medved. The story is usually repeated—with the kind of cheap irony that suggests an urban legend—as some variation of “upset over bad reviews, the director tried to shoot himself, but missed!” Bill Warren gives a more balanced account of the scandal in his 1950s sci-fi primer “Keep Watching the Skies!
  • Robot Monster is a mainstay on “worst movie ever” lists, including the Medveds “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”
  • Included as one of the experiments of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (Episode 107).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “robot monster,” with his diving helmet topped by a rabbit ear antenna, all perched on top of a shaggy Halloween ape costume—especially when he’s framed by the swirling soap bubbles arising from his atom-age alien technology.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s the bubbles that put it over the top. An incompetent apeman alien in a diving helmet I can accept. Dialogue like “I must—but I cannot! Where on the graph do must and cannot meet?” is absurdly awful, but period-appropriate. The random appearance of battling dinosaur footage is common detritus when you are digging around in the scrapyards of cinema. But the unexplained presence of the bubble machine—a piece of equipment important enough to get its own mention in the opening credits—nearly breaks the weirdometer. Where on the graph do “apocalyptic alien invasion” and “happy little bubble machine” meet?


“Trailers from Hell” on Monster from Mars [AKA Robot Monster]

COMMENTS: Plan 9 from Outer Space has long been recognized as the ultimate so-bad-it’s-good unintentional sci-fi comedy of the 1950s, and Continue reading 160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Green

FEATURING: Jason Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels

PLOT: Against her wishes, a surgeon keeps his fiancée’s severed head alive while he searches for a new body for her.

Still from The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Brain that Wouldn’t Die bypasses the rational portion of the frontal cortex and directly stimulates the part of the brain that responds to misogynist daydreams and deformed mutants in closets. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a cheesy, sleazy 1960s b-movie, but Brain shows a shameless and deranged imagination that pushes it into the realm of the genuinely strange.

COMMENTS:”The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculation and often lose themselves in error and darkness,” says an assistant mad scientist by way of explaining a mutant to a detached head. “Behind that door is the sum total of Dr. Cortner’s mistakes.” Now, substitute “filmmaking” for “experimentation, “in this movie” for “behind that door” and “director Joseph Green” for “Dr. Cortner” and you have a perfect description of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. This simple story of Bill, a surgeon who tries to find a new body for the decapitated fiancée whose head he is keeping alive in a pan in his lab, could have made a forgettable matinee monster movie, but the tale takes so many illogical and ill-advised turns that it wanders off into a cinematic no-man’s land and winds up in a perversely fascinating sewer. Forget about the fact that the head—who is so chatty that Bill eventually has to put surgical tape over her mouth (!)—couldn’t talk without lungs; that’s only the most obvious of this movie’s many problems. People in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die act according to an alternative psychology that is bizarrely consistent with the movie’s need for sleaze, but in no way natural for human beings. When Bill’s beloved Jan loses her head, he demonstrates the movie’s theory that the first stage of grief is lust as he’s immediately off picking up strippers, cruising the streets leering at female pedestrians, and lurking around figure modeling studios looking for a suitable replacement body. He’s not just interested in finding just any body to save his love’s life as expeditiously as possible; he has to find a donor who’s stacked. It’s the perfect chance to upgrade! Fortunately for him, most of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)

LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Harold P. Warren

FEATURING: John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren

PLOT:  Lost in the desert, a vacationing family seeks lodging from Torgo, who takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With The Horror of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats already certified weird, it’s hard to argue that any movie could be ruled off the List solely because it was “too bad.”  But as painful as those movies can be to watch, the dreadfully dull and incompetent Manos is another kettle of stinky fish entirely.  Spider Island and Yucca Flats developed slight cult followings on their own bizarre merits, but for decades 1966’s Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, only gaining notice after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993.  Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a few weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny desert that’s somewhat similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.  The question is, is that weird undercurrent enough to overcome Manos‘ dead air?

COMMENTS:  Abraham pleaded with God to save the city of Sodom from eradication via brimstone, if he could find only a few good men inside the city limits; similarly, I won’t condemn Manos as a completely worthless endeavor if I can ferret out just a few good things about it.  A brief recital of Manos‘ cinematic sins, however, makes the judgment look dire for this microbudget brainchild of a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. The issues begin with the film stock itself: Manos was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time.  The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like home movies from the 1960s, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition.  Since the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

“There’s a rare kind of perfection in The Beast of Yucca Flats — the perverse perfection of a piece wherein everything is as false and farcically far-out as can be imagined.”–Tom Weaver, in his introduction to his Astounding B Monster interview with Tony Cardoza

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Coleman Francis

FEATURING: Tor Johnson

PLOT: Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, defects to the United States, carrying with him a briefcase full of Soviet state secrets about the moon.  Fleeing KGB assassins, he runs onto a nuclear testing range just as an atom bomb explodes.  The blast of radiation turns him into an unthinking Beast who strangles vacationers who wander into the Yucca Flats region.

Still from The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Beast of Yucca Flats can always be found somewhere on the IMDB’s “Bottom 100” list (at the time the review was composed, it occupied slot #21).
  • All three of the films Coleman Francis directed were spoofed on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“.
  • Tor Johnson was a retired Swedish wrestler who appeared in several Ed Wood, Jr. movies.  Despite the fact that none of the movies he appeared in were hits, his bestial face became so iconic that it was immortalized as a children’s Halloween mask.
  • All sound was added in post-production.  Voice-overs occur when the characters are at a distance or when their faces are obscured so that the voice actors won’t have to match the characters lips.  Some have speculated that the soundtrack was somehow lost and the narration added later, but shooting without synchronized sound was a not-unheard-of low-budget practice at the time (see The Creeping Terror, Monster A-Go-Go and the early filmography of Doris Wishman).  Internal and external evidence both suggest that the film was deliberately shot silent.
  • Director Coleman Francis is the narrator and appears as a gas station owner.
  • Per actor/producer Tony Cardoza, the rabbit that appears in the final scene was a wild animal that wandered onto the set during filming.  It appears that the feral bunny is rummaging through Tor’s shirt pocket looking for food, however.
  • Cardoza, a close friend of Francis, suggests that the actor/director may have committed suicide in 1973 by placing a plastic bag over his head and inhaling the fumes from his station wagon through a tube, although arteriosclerosis was listed as the official cause of death.
  • The film opens with a topless scene that lasts for only a few seconds; it’s frequently clipped off prints of the film.
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is believed to be in the public domain and can be legally viewed and downloaded at The Internet Archive, among other sources.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Tor Johnson, in all his manifestations, whether noted scientist or irradiated Beast; but especially when he cuddles and kisses a cute bunny as he lies dying.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Coleman Francis made three movies in his lifetime, all of which


Trailer for The Beast of Yucca Flats with commentary from director Joe Dante (Trailers from Hell)

were set in a reality known only to Coleman Francis.  His other two films (The Skydivers and Night Train to Mundo Fine [AKA Red Zone Cuba]) were grim and incoherent stories of despairing men and women in desolate desert towns who drank coffee, flew light aircraft, and killed off odd-looking extras without finding any satisfaction in the act.  Though his entire oeuvre was more than a bit bent by his joyless outlook on life, his natural affinity for the grotesque, and his utter lack of attention to filmic detail, this Luddite tale of an obese scientist turned into a ravening atomic Beast survives as his weirdest anti-achievement.

COMMENTS:  Touch a button on the DVD player.  Things happen onscreen.  A movie Continue reading 59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

A FEW ODD YULETIDE FAVS

1. Rankin & Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) : There’s a reason this has become a perennial cult and popular classic.  Hands down it is the best of the Rankin & Bass holiday shorts. Most of the team’s holiday specials, such as Year without a Santa Clause (below), have memorable moments, but don’t really add up to a great whole.  Rudolph does.  It’s a great (probably unintentional) weird mix.

A bigoted, misogynist, unlikeable, bitchy Santa, an equally unlikeable reindeer coach (with a baseball cap, no less), Rudolph’s jerk of a father, an abominable snow monster, a winged lion, straight out of apocalyptic literature, who oversees an island of dysfunctional toys, including a polka-dotted elephant, a Charlie-in-the-box, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich.  On top of that is Burl Ives as a talking snowman, a too-cute girlfriend reindeer for our hero (with a bow atop her head), an elf who wants to be a dentist and a prospector by the name of Yukon Cornelius, who steals the  entire show.  Yukon “Even among misfits I’m a misfit”  Cornelius has rightly become a cult figure all by himself.  Oh, and then there’s Rudolph himself, who is understandably a bit bland in comparison but is the necessary catalyst for such a brew.

No amount of eggnog is going to help this fav seem traditionally orthodox.  Max Fleischer did a more straightforward version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), although Max’s style is still all over it.

2. Pee Wee’s Christmas at the Playhouse (1988) : Pee Wee Hermann’s  holiday gathering at the playhouse with guest stars Dinah Shore, Charo (!!!), Little Richard, Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, Za Za Gabor, Magic Johnson, Cher, Frankie Avalon, Santa himself and the normal Playhouse gang.

Its almost as divine a time capsule as Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special.  The only disappointment is not getting to see Pee Wee looking up the girls’ dresses with his mirrored shoes.  Fans of the Playhouse will walk away beaming.

santa-claus-conquers-the-martians3.  Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): You know we had to include this one. Before Pia Zadora had her ten seconds of fame (10 seconds too long), she “starred” in a film  so abysmal, so bad, so weird that only the bravest can get through it.  Try to watch the MS3TK version, it almost makes it bearable.

4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) : Rankin and Bass again, but this one doesn’t altogether work (as mentioned above).  We could care less about Santa, the elves, or the reindeer, BUT, the sight of Mr. Heat Miser, son of Mother Nature, doing a jig in the pit of hell Continue reading A FEW ODD YULETIDE FAVS

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

Ein Toter hing im Netz, AKA A Corpse Hangs in the Web [literal translation], It’s Hot in Paradise, and others   

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Böttger

FEATURING: Alex D’Arcy,  , & buxom German exhibitionists

PLOT:  A plane carrying team of eight dancing girls, along with one male and one female manager, crash into the ocean en route to Singapore.  There they find a cabin with the body of a man hanging in a giant spiderweb.  The lone male is bitten by a spider and turns into a spider-human hybrid, who then briefly terrorizes the girls at a party to celebrate their impending rescue after two men row ashore.



BACKGROUND:

  • With some brief nudity included, this German/Yugoslavian co-production was originally released in the US as a sexploitation feature under the title It’s Hot in Paradise.  After the nudity was clipped out, the movie was re-released under the present title and marketed as a horror film.
  • The movie was featured in the tenth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (show 1011).
  • Horrors of Spider Island is believed to be in the public domain.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The puppet-like evil spider, with it’s large, shiny, almost cute eyes and clawed hands.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDHorrors of Spider Island takes place in an alternate universe that’s nothing like our own.  The poor dubbing, including a mangled deep south accent, immediately takes us out of reality and makes suspension of disbelief impossible.  The plot is thin as a wire, made to hang chauvinistic male fantasies on, and often seems to be improvised on the spur of the moment.  Horrors of Spider Island already seems like a half-remembered bad dream, even as you’re still watching it.

4 minute clip from the film, including spider attack, courtesy of Something Weird video

COMMENTSHorrors of Spider Island is a movie that falls into the “so-bad-it’s-weird” category.  It’s quite obvious that the film was made with little Continue reading 4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)