Sunday, March 28, 2010

S01E03 - The Mad Monster


Short: After escaping from the moon men in the last episode, Commando Cody and his companions on the moon plan their next move. They decide to steal a large ray gun from the moon men's laboratory and take it back with them to Earth. With the help of one of his friends, Commando Cody infiltrates the moon men's base while unaware of the tank that is to give chase to them.

Film: Cast out of the scientific community by his peers, a mad scientist presses on with his theories of combining the essence of man and animal together. Using his mentally slow gardener as a guinea pig, he successfully changes the gardener into a werewolf. Not content with proving his theory correct, the scientist plans to get revenge on those who mocked him by killing them with his creation.

Movie Review

After watching the first episode of Commando Cody's adventures, I had hoped that the second episode might be an improvement in some way or other. Instead, the serial learns nothing from its initial outing and makes the same mistakes. I suppose this is a signal that I shouldn't expect much from these shorts (then again, I'm watching MST3K, after all).

After escaping from the moon men in the first episode's climax, Cody heads back to his spaceship and his friends, where...talking goes on. Just plain talking. What struck me was that the moon men did nothing to give chase or stop them, they just let him go. The reason given for this lack of chase is, frankly, pathetic. Are villains really that naive? Does a villain always display his superiority by letting the hero roam freely like this? It's utterly ridiculous, and it's sad that it's been used so much that it's become a cliche.

Beyond that, there's really nothing notable about this episode outside of the hammy acting. The cliffhanger is eye-catching, if only because one wonders how they'll escape it so easily.

The movie, The Mad Monster, is a good example of an almost unwatchable film. Why? Because it takes itself way too seriously. Of course, this doesn't always hurt a bad film, but in this case it really pulls down any enjoyment that a B-movie buff might look for. And for a movie about a werewolf, that's saying something.

Maybe it's the almost nonexistent score, which means all the silence is filled with movie static. Maybe it's the seriousness of the actors, who seem to believe they are in Casablanca. Or maybe it's the characters, who are bad caricatures of film roles the Academy Awards go gaga over. The most excruciating example of this is the gardener, Petro, who is mentally retarded. He talks slowly and plainly, trying to sound sympathetic but instead becoming an agonizing stereotype. His simpleminded-ness is merely an excuse for why Petro doesn't question being a guinea pig for the mad scientist's experiments - beyond that, it adds nothing to the character and comes dangerously close to being insulting.

The other characters are no better. The mad scientist's daughter seems to think she's Judy Garland and tries to act like a person with authority but still ends up doing little to actually move the story forward. Her would-be boyfriend the reporter is even worse, a quirky yet admirable fellow who is determined to get the story regardless of what stands in his way. And the mad scientist? Since this film was made in 1942, do we dare expect something other than a stereotypical raving lunatic? And let's not get into his grand scheme to sell his werewolf serum to the defense department to create an army of werewolves...okay, let's. It's completely ridiculous! And when, at the film's beginning, he imagines arguing with the scientists who cast him out about his plans, the imaginary scientists actually make more sense than he does regarding his idea!

Outside of the terrible set pieces (the swamp was particularly bad), the laughable dialogue, and the barely there plot, the most notable thing that stuck in my mind was a scene where werewolf Petro actually kills a child (off-screen, of course). The death of a child is one of those moments that tends to rub people the wrong way if done incorrectly, and I can only wonder what 1942 audiences thought of this moment. Or perhaps the really bad acting made them laugh it off, which is even worse.

In short, Mad Monster is bad, bad, bad. Just plain bad. Had the budget been any smaller, I could imagine it being virtually unwatchable.

MST3K Review

The riffs in this episode seemed to be a bit of a reversal of The Crawling Eye, where the joking started slow and picked up speed near the end. Here, the joking starts out strong and then peters out as the film goes on, ending on a bit of an unsatisfying note. Joel and the bots even leave the theater a few moments before the end credits, as if they could find nothing else to say in the closing seconds.

Thankfully, they do seem to be getting better about their timing, as they didn't talk over the dialogue as much as they did in the previous episode. Still, it's not one of the more memorable episodes that the series has done, which is to be expected. The film itself is also a piece of dreck (well, more so than usual), which likely made riffing a bit more difficult than usual (usual being the stuff I'm more familiar with, i.e., the Sci-Fi episodes...not the best comparison, admittedly).

Even so, with this being season one, it's expected that there be a lot of kinks left to work out, so all we can do for now is just move on to the next episode.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

S01E02 - The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy


Short: Commando Cody is a scientist who owns a jet-pack that allows him to fly through the air. He is asked by the government to investigate a series of sabotage attacks against the US. Things quickly become clear that an advanced civilization that lives on the moon is behind these attacks, and Cody and his friends use their experimental rocketship to head to the moon to gather intelligence.

Film: A scientists calls in two of his friends for an important meeting at his house. There, the scientist tells his friends about his previous encounters with an Aztec mummy who guards two pieces of jewelery that reveal the location of priceless Aztec treasure. This treasure is being sought after a nefarious madman called the Bat, and his whereabouts have recently become known to the scientist. The story over, the scientist and his friends race to stop the Bat from obtaining the two pieces of jewelry by using a robot to defeat the powerful mummy.

Movie Review

In this episode of MST3K, we receive the very first short in the series (there were none in Season 0), and it happens to be the first episode in a serial. The first thing that immediately popped into my mind upon watching this short was, "Say, that looks a lot like the Rocketeer." Indeed, the 1982 superhero created by Dave Stevens (and later starring in a 1991 film) was an homage of Commando Cody, the eponymous hero of this serial entitled Radar Men from the Moon.

As someone who majored in physics in college, the science presented in this short is laughable. The short does have an excuse, though, having been filmed in 1957, about a decade before man first landed on the moon. Even so, watching the short nowadays displays just how much knowledge the creators of this short either lacked or intentionally ignored. For example, the rocket that flies Cody and his friends to the moon acts more like a plane than a rocket, even taking off and landing horizontally instead of vertically. And let's not forget that it takes them only several hours to go from Earth to the moon and the trip is treated like a scenic car drive.

Another thing to point out is something I mentioned in my review for The Crawling Eye, and I'll mention it again until I get bored of it: the blatant sexism. One of the female scientists who works with Cody in his lab goes along with everyone on the rocket ride to the moon, but he reasoning is so that the men won't miss a good home-cooked meal...something she herself points out. Now isn't that lovely? All those difficult degrees from MIT and she goes along on man's first trip to the moon to remain in the kitchen.

The story itself is fairly bland so far, told in the typical stiff dialogue and rehearsed scenes usually seen in poorly acted films of this era. The flying scenes are quite impressive, though, at least in some shots. The jetpack, though, doesn't feel integral to the story - in fact, it thus far appears to be nothing more than a quick means of transportation. Even the villains don't appear threatened over it, as they know full well about Cody's invention. Speaking of which, the villains leave something to be desired, though, with their cliched monologues and plot to take over the Earth (at least they give "thinning air on the moon" as an excuse).

Overall, a weak start to a serial with a gimmick. Perhaps the next episode might be more interesting.

And now for the movie...dear Lord, the movie. You know that a movie is terrible when the titular conflict only shows up at the very end of the film, and lasts for about a minute. Then again, one can't expect a film to be any good when about half of its run-time is dedicated to recapping the first two movies.

Yes, this wretched piece of cinema, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, is the sequel to two previous films, The Aztec Mummy and The Curse of the Aztec Mummy. While its potential to be an epic trilogy is likely not all that great, they could've at least not attempted to pad the third film with a horrendous recap that goes on and on and on and on. At least they tried to fit the recap into the framework of the film, but the execution - a discussion by the hero with his friends - is terrible with its poor dialogue.

And let's not forget the dubbing. Originally filmed in Mexico, the film was imported to the USA through K. Gordon Murray, who was famous for dubbing Mexican films and releasing them to an unsuspecting public as kiddie matinee films in the 1960s. Robot vs. Aztec proves to be as bad as one could imagine in the dubbing department, as the voice actors overact and over-read their dialogue.

And what of the mummy and the robot themselves? The mummy is seen more often in the film than the robot (since the last two films were about the mummy, after all), and the robot appears only at the end...and wow, is the robot laughable. The Bat sees the robot as a terror that can conquer the world, but the machine is so bulky and slow that anyone could fight it with half a brain. Then again, I don't suppose the poor guy inside the robot costume could really move that much inside such a heavy suit.

This movie is so laughably poor that it could almost qualify for a so-bad-it's-good seal of approval, though the recap in the first half of the film drags it back down to the so-bad-it's-bad zone. Less recap, more new content, regardless of how thin the plot may be.

MST3K Review

As if feeling bad for the long pauses between jokes in The Crawling Eye, Joel and the bots make up for it by riffing the movie more frequently throughout the film here. However, the more rapid pace of the jokes exposes another flaw that the MST3K crew has yet to address at this stage in the series: the timing of the jokes. Many of the jokes told are indeed humorous, but too often the jokes are told at inappropriate moments, such as a couple seconds too late or while dialogue is spoken in the movie.

There is one moment in the film where the camera shifts abruptly between several characters, which prompts Joel and the bots to make wisecracks at the quick cuts. Unfortunately, their timing lags in such a way that the next camera shot is almost finished before their riff, destroying the timing of the joke. This is an extreme case, though, and it also demonstrates the relaxed atmosphere that the MST3K crew seems to have in these early episodes.

All in all, the boys demonstrated better riffing than the first episode, but need to work on their timing. Practice makes perfect, after all.

Monday, March 22, 2010

S01E01 - The Crawling Eye


A United Nations investigator is called in to visit the mountainous town of Trollenberg, Switzerland, where a series of unusual deaths have been occurring. He is followed by a pair of young women into the town, one of whom appears to have a strong psychic ability. Together with an investigative reporter and a local scientist studying a bizarre cloud on the mountain slopes, they all discover that Trollenberg is the location of a deadly invasion from a group of giant eye aliens.

Movie Review

The nationwide exposure of MST3K began with a black-and-white 1958 monster movie called The Crawling Eye, originally known as The Trollenberg Terror outside of America. Why the name change? I'm willing to guess that the American distributor believed audiences wouldn't flock to a movie in which the monster wasn't already known, hence changing the name to something identifying the creatures as giant crawling eyes (though it's peculiar that "eye" wasn't pluralized, since more than one crawling eye is in this film). Considering that the creatures only fully appear well over halfway in the film, this is likely the case. And guess what that leaves us?

Yep, over forty-five minutes of men and women standing around talking, yakking, and more talking. Oh, sure, there are a couple scenes were people get killed, but the eyes are always off-screen, forcing us to wait impatiently for their grand entrance. And while we wait, we have to listen to the UN investigator make discussion with everyone around him, including the two women whose inclusion in the film is solely so the film isn't a sausage-fest. The little action in this film is always bookmarked by long lengths of talk, which is made worse because of the film print's poor sound quality (several minutes are even marked by a horrible scratching sound). Perhaps if the dialogue were better written or the actors were interested in this film then all the talking would be tolerable, but since neither of this is the case...well, you know.

As for the girls, the roles of the two women in this film will likely be something I expect to see a lot in these kind of films: blatant sexism. The one sister who is psychic gets to play the role of damsel in distress not once but twice, and her contribution in the film is to act as the passive psychic link to the eye creatures (a plot point that is mentioned briefly then waved off). Her more assertive sister does little better as she acts like a caretaker to her weaker sibling and little else. And let's not forget the end of the film, where the intrepid reporter (whose own role in the film was quite flimsy) initiates a "coupling" with the young psychic woman by taking her outside for fresh air, while the older sister accepts a smoke from the UN troubleshooter. Not overtly blatant sexism, but the need for some kind of coupling at the end was unexpected and forced.

And what of the monsters themselves, the giant crawling eyes? Well, what can you say about a race of tentacled eyeballs that chose to live on the side of a mountain in a radioactive cloud as they tried to adapt to Earth's atmosphere? Hmm, they have the same intelligence as the aliens in Signs, who could be killed by water yet chose to invade a planet primarily composed of water? Sounds about right. I can only surmise that these aliens were waiting to fully adapt to the atmosphere before mounting some kind of invasion, but if that's the case, why blow their cover by hiding with their radioactive cloud so close to a Swiss mountain town with an observatory? These aliens are psychic, surely they saw this coming...right?

This movie is a typical creature flick of its era: cheaply made and poorly written. There were some nice effects used to make the monsters look convincingly real, but that's about the only slight positive. The characters are all disposable one-note archetypes and the crawling eyes are generic movie monsters, making a film's biggest upside that it's just not that memorable.

MST3K Review

The Joel era of MST3K got started during the KTMA episodes, but it's here that he is first seen outside of the confines of Minnesota. As someone who grew up with Mike Nelson and the eldest incarnations of Crow, Tom, and the like, it's fascinating to see the show in its original form. For starters, in addition to Joel playing the human character instead of Mike, the bots are not voiced by Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (Crow), but instead Josh Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu, respectively. Additionally, there is also no sign of Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy, and Professor Bobo, but Dr. Clayton Forrester (played by Trace) and Dr. Laurence Erhardt (played by Josh).

The most jarring difference for me is the different sound of Tom Servo's voice. Granted, Crow's voice is also different, but the difference between Trace and Kevin's voices isn't as jarring as that between Kevin and Josh. I'm sure if I compare both Tom Servo and Crow's original and and later voices there would be a huge distinction in both of the bots, but personally I cannot stop noticing the disparity between Weinstein and Murphy.

Perhaps part of that can be attributed to how the jokes are told in this initial episode. Compared to a Sci-Fi-era episode, the riffing in The Crawling Eye is a lot less rapid. Whereas jokes in Werewolf would shoot out around five jokes a minute, here it seems to take almost thirty seconds between riffs. I often felt myself waiting for a joke to be made during a boring segment in the film, only to have the moment pass by. And when a joke is made, it sounds lethargic, almost care-free compared to the carefully scripted riffs of later seasons.

That's not to say the riffs in The Crawling Eye are poorly done, just simply very different than what I've been used to. The jokes start out very slow initially, with long pauses between riffs at the start of the film. Near the end, though, once the crawling eyes have shown themselves, the riffs are made more frequently, and as a consequence are a little funnier. There is certainly a roughness to the format at the moment, but brilliance is clearly visible beneath the inexperience.

Revisiting MST3K for the first time

Way back in the 1990s, while channel-surfing on an early Saturday morning, I happened to fall upon the Sci-Fi channel (long before it chose to rebrand itself with a name that resembles Polish slang for syphilis). It was there that I noticed they were showing a really terrible film, which wasn't out of the ordinary. But though the identity of the film escapes me, what couldn't escape was a peculiar silhouette taking up the bottom portion of the film, a silhouette of a movie theater seating row and three people seated in that row. But why were two of these occupants robots, one shaped like a gumball machine and the other with a duck beak and a catcher's mitt on his head?

Before I could contemplate the meaning of this, the shadows in the "seats" started talking. Commenting about the movie? Yes, but that doesn't sound true...wait...that was...yes, that was actually pretty funny, I realized. And then they spoke again. And again. And again. By the end of the film (curse you, poor memory for being unable to recall its name!) I was in stitches, and a new fan of MST3K had been born.

Since that day, I became a devoted fan of Sci-Fi's reruns of their three seasons of MST3K, watching each episode every Saturday morning until the channel finally removed it from their schedule. But by then I had made several of these horrible films with commentary by Mike and the bots my own personal "classics." Puma man. Werewolf. The Final Sacrifice. Space Mutiny. Future War. Hobgoblins. These and more were the lifeblood of my budding interest in terrible movies , an interest that has extended to films that are so terrible that they are beautifully entertaining (give me the chance and I shall expound upon the glories of cinema dreck such as R.O.T.O.R., Gymkata, and Deadly Prey).

Ah, but I soon realized that my exposure to MST3K was lacking. Though I had watched countless times the three seasons that ran on Sci-Fi, there other episodes of Mike Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo that had aired long ago on Comedy Central. And what of the man who had come before Mike, Joel Hodgson, who had led the show through a local access station in Minnesota before taking the show to the big state on the Comedy Channel?

I've decided that it is time for me to correct this. Though I doubt I will have the same experience as those lucky enough to watch the show since its first episode, I still wish to see as much of the show as necessary to full appreciate where the show came from and how it gradually changed into the final three seasons that are so dear to my heart. Thus, I will perform the following task: watch every MST3K from season one* and onward, writing a review in this little blog afterward of each episode.

*I've chosen to begin with season one and not with the KTMA episodes of MST3K for several reasons:

1) Several of the initial KTMA episodes are "lost," i.e., no fan-copies are known to exist. The only copies are likely held by Best Brains, Inc., who don't wish to share them for obvious reasons.

2) Some of the KTMA episodes are reused in later seasons, which makes their inclusion a bit redundant.

3) I feel it would be best to begin where a national audience would be exposed to them.

And then we'll see where things go from there. So without further ado, let's get things rolling!