Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Movie Review: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

The character of Fu Manchu was a supervillain created by British author Sax Rohmer in the 1910s. The criminal mastermind proved popular and appeared in a number of books, radio shows, comics, and movies. A series of five films starring Christopher Lee in the titular role were made between 1965 and 1969. I don't know how good the first four were, but the fifth made for a brutal MST3K subject

Our movie opens in tropical waters where the evil mastermind is using his freezing device to sink the Titanic. Well, it's not supposed to be the Titanic, it's supposed to be a generic luxury liner, but the stock footage comes from well known film A Night to Remember (1958). (The warmly dressed victims make the claim that the sinking has occurred in tropical water laughable.) Unfortunately for our villain, the device burns itself out and he needs the help of the brilliant Dr. Heracles to fulfill his plot of freezing the world's oceans.

Confident that he'll be able to carry out his threat, Fu Manchu starts to make demands of the world's governments. Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard is soon put on the case. Unfortunately, the designated hero is such a non-entity in this film that the plot could very nearly be summarized without actually mentioning him. Smith makes Diamond Head look competent and effective by comparison.

Anyway, since Heracles' technique requires crystals of opium, Fu Manchu decides to take over the governor's castle in Istanbul, which happens to have a huge opium reserve. To pull this off, he enlists the help of opium dealer Omar Pasha. However, once their combined forces have successfully raided the castle, Fu Manchu reneges on the deal and kills Pasha's men while imprisoning Pasha's assistant, Lisa. (Lesson number 1: never trust the word of a supervillain.)

Now in control of the castle and its opium, Fu Manchu runs into another problem; Dr. Heracles is dying of a heart condition. Heracles' cardiologist, Dr. Kestler, and his assistant Ingrid are promptly kidnapped with little resistance (while Smith is in the house, no less). The two are forced to perform a heart transplant... in a fully equipped operating room... in a castle in Istanbul. (The filmmakers' contempt for logic or sense is astounding.) Meanwhile, Smith somehow figures out that Fu Manchu is in Turkey and makes an alliance with a vengeful Pasha to try to get into the castle. Pasha meets with Fu Manchu and offers to hand over Smith in exchange for Lisa (it's never clear if this is part of their plan or if he's betraying Smith) and is killed for his trouble.

After recovering from his surgery, Heracles refuses to give up his formula... and in the very next scene Fu Manchu has somehow gotten it out of him. (Any review of this movie is bound to use the word "somehow" repeatedly.) In no time at all the formula has been weaponized; all the villain has to do is introduce it into a canal below the castle which leads to the Bosporus strait. Apparently the resulting chain reaction will freeze the strait and all contiguous bodies of water. Or something. I'm kind of guessing here since the filmmakers didn't really think we needed to be let in on the plot.

The audience is then treated to one of the most pointless, disjointed, and nonsensical climaxes ever. Smith infiltrates the castle with little problem and then runs around taking out Fu Manchu's men in poorly choreographed fight scenes. Kestler and Ingrid (who have gotten more screen time than our supposed hero) manage to escape. Smith rescues Dr. Heracles and Lisa, who has done absolutely nothing in the film since her capture and serves no function in the rest of the plot. Once Heracles is safe, Lisa returns to the castle to save Pasha (I have no idea how she knew he was ever in the castle) and is drowned in the canal. The freezing formula is released into the canal but the chain reaction fails for some reason. That's right, the world is saved because the villain's doomsday weapon simply doesn't work. In fact, all the hero ever manages to do is save Dr. Heracles since Lisa dies anyway and Kestler and Ingrid are smart enough to save themselves. Smith might as well have stayed home. Finally, just because, the weapon backfires, blows up the castle, and we're left with Fu Manchu's face superimposed over the dust cloud and his "ominous" declaration that he'll be back. (Actually no, he won't. This was the last of Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu movies.)

The Castle of Fu Manchu may very well be one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen. The hero is bland and worthless. Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu spends most of the movie looking bored (it could be the makeup that Lee wears) and is incapable of pulling off much in the way of super-villainy even when his arch-nemesis is incompetent. The plot is immensely hard to follow and the quality of the camerawork and the film stock is poor. The movie is so bad that it repeatedly reduces Joel and the 'bots to tears.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Last of the Wild Horses (1948)

I've seen a huge number of movies on MST3K over the years, but few of these were westerns. I've often wondered if it's because the western genre is harder to screw up than others. This late '40s b-western from MST3K Volume XXIII isn't as excruciating as other movies that Joel/Mike and the 'bots have covered, but it has its problems.

As a stagecoach approaches Jacksonville, Oregon, a man wearing his black bandana as a mask watches from a hill. Before the masked man (who we'll later find out is named Duke Barnum) can try to rob the stagecoach, another individual rushes past with several (presumably stolen) horses and three armed ranch hands hot on his trail. Thinking that three against one is unsporting, Duke stops the ranch hands at gunpoint and forces them to turn back. When Duke's horse throws a shoe shortly thereafter, a passing young woman named Jane tells him that he can get his horse shoed at the nearby Double C Ranch. (Jane just so happens to be the daughter of the ranch's wheelchair-bound owner, Charlie Cooper.) When Duke ends up at the Double C, he finds trouble in the form of the three men he encountered earlier, as well as the Sheriff, who's looking for a would-be stagecoach robber. Duke, who is still wearing his black bandana around his neck, is arrested on the spot.

Before the Sheriff can even throw Duke in jail, a man by the name of "Remedy" (who has a passing knowledge of dentistry, medicine, etc. thanks to having taken numerous correspondence courses) and a young girl named Terry (I'm not sure whether Remedy is supposed to be her father or simply her guardian) claim that Duke is their new ranch hand and that he was nowhere near the stagecoach. The Sheriff doesn't fully believe them, but having little evidence either way, he releases Duke into Remedy's custody.

Duke soon learns of the tension between small ranchers like Remedy and the Double C; the region is home to a herd of wild horses from which all the local ranches acquire the necessary animals. However, the Double C Ranch has been raiding the herd more than anyone else and has been taking too many of the mares for the herd to thrive. As an outsider with little involvement in the dispute, Duke thinks that he can work something out with Cooper. When his daughter sides with Duke, Cooper reluctantly agrees to leave the herd alone for a year. This doesn't sit well with the owner's right hand man, Riley Morgan, who has been trying to start a fight with the other ranchers so that he can take over the Double C in the chaos. Morgan sends the other hands to round up "the last of the wild horses" and to leave behind evidence in the form of a Double C branding iron to accelerate his plans.

With the wild horses gone, the other ranchers are ready to take action. Morgan convinces the Sheriff (who is in office thanks to Cooper's influence) to deputize the Double C ranch hands to prevent any violence. Of course this only makes matters worse, since the new deputies begin planting evidence in ranchers' corrals in the form of Double C marked horses. When this practice leads to the death of one of the ranchers, the others form an angry mob. Duke is able to disperse the mob when he promises to talk to Cooper one more time. Cooper, unaware of the actions of his men, denies any involvement and orders Duke to leave his property. Angry at her father's stubbornness, Jane walks Duke to the edge of the ranch's land. As he leaves the ranch house, Duke unknowingly drops his trademark black bandana.

When Cooper overhears Morgan and Morgan's head goon, Rocky, discussing their plot, Cooper realizes that Duke was telling the truth. The Double C's owner confronts his assistant, but with Jane and Duke gone, he is immediately disarmed and strangled to death with Duke's bandana. The "evidence" is taken to the Sheriff and Duke is immediately put on trial for Cooper's murder. Remedy, the Jack of all trades but master of none, is pressed into service as Duke's attorney. The trial is quick and, if the movie's brief excerpts from it are to be believed, no evidence in Duke's favor is presented. When a guilty verdict is given, Terry hands Duke a gun. While Remedy's associates distract the deputies, Duke sticks the gun into the Sheriff's back and makes his getaway.

Duke decides to remain in the region to clear his name and is eventually wounded by Jane when he tries to convince her of his innocence (I don't think a rifle bullet would produce as little damage as it does here). He gets away and holes up in the hay loft of the Double C barn to recover (he reasons that nobody would think of looking for him there) while Terry and Remedy tend to him. Later on, Remedy leaves Duke to pick up his mail and is accidentally handed an incriminating letter meant for Morgan. Morgan and Rocky are only a short distance behind Remedy when he discards the envelope and reads the letter. The return address on the envelope is enough to panic Morgan and, after a long horse chase, Remedy is shot in the back while trying to cross a stream. Of course, since this is a b-western and since there are only a few minutes left, the wounded and waterlogged Remedy is able to crawl back to the barn and present the evidence. While the letter is rushed to the Sheriff, Duke returns to town and confronts Morgan and Rocky. Rocky is shot (and is actually killed since he's a bad guy) and Duke pursues Morgan into a hay loft. The villain is disarmed and Duke, being a stereotypical western hero, puts his gun away and finishes the fight with his fists. Of course Duke wins the fight, his name is cleared, and all is well.

For a low budget b-western The Last of the Wild Horses isn't too bad. The characters are likeable enough and the source of the conflict seems realistic. And I have to admit that the women in the cast, Jane Frazee (Jane) and Mary Beth Hughes (Terry), are rather attractive. It's with a little bit of reflection that the film's weaknesses become obvious, though. The worst flaw is its reliance on coincidence to advance the plot: Duke just happens to be the only one in the area with a black bandana, the ranchers just happen to find the Double C branding iron after the wild horses disappear, Duke just happens to leave his bandana nearby when Morgan needs a murder weapon, Remedy just happens to be handed the letter that incriminates Morgan, and then he just happens to leave its envelope behind where a nearby Morgan can find it.

Another major problem is the fact that Duke is never given any real background or motivation. When we first meet him, he's planning on robbing a stagecoach, but he's quickly presented as a decent and laid back guy. Right after being placed in their custody, Duke admits to Remedy and Terry that he had never robbed a stagecoach before. We're never told what drove an otherwise honest man to consider such a crime nor does Duke appear to be desperate for money. The only reason for including the interrupted robbery seems to be to cause the town and the Sheriff to remain perpetually suspicious of him.

The movie's title doesn't make much sense, either. The focus of the first half of the film is on the dispute over the wild herd and on convincing Cooper to leave it alone for at least a year. But the herd is never mentioned again once the Double C ranch hands have rounded up the rest of it and driven the horses out of the region (at least I think that's what happens; it doesn't seem like they're added to the Double C's stock). Once the conflict turns violent at about the halfway point, the film loses interest in the wild horses and never mentions them again. In fact, the audience isn't even told if the horses are returned. Given it's role in the plot, Mike and the 'bots suggest the alternate title Coincidence: The Movie.

Next time: a movie so bad that Joel and the 'bots spend most of the host segments crying...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Movie Review: Code Name: Diamond Head (1977)

I finally finished the last three movies of MST3K Volume XXIII (I discussed the first film in a previous review). Of the three movies, two were merely average while the third (and the only one with a relatively well-known actor) was absolutely terrible. The first of the three, Code Name: Diamond Head, was actually meant to be the pilot for a new TV show produced by Quinn Martin. Like so many failed pilots before it, Code Name: Diamond Head ended up as a forgotten TV movie.

We begin our film with the arrival of an ersatz priest in Oahu, Hawaii. The man is quickly spotted by a counterintelligence agent who suspects that he is actually an enemy agent known only as "Tree". While the agent follows him, Tree meets up with two assistants: an assassin and... well, I don't know what the other guy does. The agent eventually follows Tree to a church only to be ambushed and killed.

Suspecting that Tree intends to infiltrate a military or intelligence project, the counterintelligence agency (I assume it's the CIA, but the movie isn't very specific) activates "Diamond Head"; a top notch agent who is posing as a gambler and a drifter. Unfortunately, a surprisingly large number of secret projects are active in Oahu and no one knows which one is Tree's target (although that doesn't cause anyone to consider beefing up their security). Diamond Head's task is therefore to determine what Tree is planning and to stop him. Our protagonist enlists the help of Zulu (a large Hawaiian gentlemen who makes for an absurdly conspicuous agent) and Tso-Tsing (an agent whose cover was blown years before and is therefore easily compromised).

Diamond Head follows the two henchmen for the bulk of the movie while learning absolutely nothing about Tree's plot. In the meantime, Tree impersonates an Army General in order to infiltrate the world's worst protected chemical warfare laboratory. By the time our hero even figures out what's going on, the villain has stolen the formula for a chemical weapon, he's kidnapped Tso-Tsing, and his henchmen are about to kill Zulu.

Code Name: Diamond Head doesn't have much going for it. The main character is pretty useless as an agent; he discovers Tree's plot pretty much through dumb luck and when it's nearly too late. The Hawaiian locale is completely wasted since so much of the story takes place in the kinds of locations that could have been filmed anywhere in the United States. And the movie's conclusion seems like the unimaginative end to a lackluster TV pilot. Oh wait, it is the unimaginative end to a lackluster TV pilot. No wonder the networks weren't interested in it.

Next time: a b-western whose plot is almost entirely driven by outrageous coincidences...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

It Came from Mystery Science Theater 3000

I received Volumes XXIV and XXV of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for Christmas, which meant that I had some catching up to do. Not only did I have two new volumes to watch, but I had two prior volumes to finish. Ever since I got into Warhammer 40,000 I've found very few free evenings to enjoy movies at the bottom of the cinematic bell curve.

While my wife, kids, and I were visiting San Diego over Christmas vacation, my mother and I watched two episodes of Volume XXV. (My mother and I watch MST3K whenever we get together whereas my wife absolutely hates watching bad movies.) Shortly after we got back to Idaho, I watched my final unseen film from Volume XXII and my first film from Volume XXIII. The films ranged from disappointing (Revenge of the Creature (1955)) to absolutely horrible (King Dinosaur (also 1955)).

Revenge of the Creature (1955) (from MST3K Volume XXV)
I've commented before on this immensely disappointing sequel to the excellent Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). It was the first movie riffed on MST3K during its run on the Sci-Fi Channel and represented one of the better known movies to appear on the show.

Although the original strongly implied that the creature had been killed, two scientists attempt to capture a very much living gillman with the help of the captain from the first movie. The scientists stun the creature by tossing dynamite into the lagoon and then make the common monster movie mistake of transporting a vicious prehistoric creature into the modern world.

Once secured in a Florida oceanarium, the creature is studied by animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (a very bland John Agar, who was much more entertaining in The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)) and ichthyologist Lori Nelson (Helen Dobson). The bulk of the movie is spent on the developing romance between Ferguson and Nelson, which turns the creature into a secondary character. Watching two boring characters fall in love is not what I want out of my monster movies.

The creature eventually escapes, kills a few people, and kidnaps Lori, resulting in a very dull manhunt (fishhunt?). Revenge of the Creature would simply be mediocre if it weren't for the fact that its predecessor is one of the most iconic and memorable monster movies of the '50s. Mike and the 'bots do a pretty good job, but it's hard to make fun of a movie that's dull and predictable rather than outright bad.

Kitten with a Whip (1964) (from MST3K Volume XXV)
A movie called Kitten with a Whip should not be as bland as this one is. Ann-Margret plays Jody; a young woman who breaks into the home of senatorial-hopeful David Stratton (John Forsythe). Jody claims that she's on the run from an abusive step-father and Stratton takes pity on her. Although he goes out of his way to keep the girl's presence in his home a secret (his wife is out of town and he doesn't want any sort of scandal to hurt his political career), Stratton buys Jody a new outfit and pays for her bus ticket to a relative's house.

Almost as soon as he has the girl out of the house, Stratton discovers from a news report that Jody had actually escaped from a juvenile detention center after stabbing the matron. Soon Jody is back at his house and is using the threat of scandal to manipulate him. Eventually Jody is joined by three of her friends: a nondescript girl, the girl's boyfriend who has a penchant for violence, and another young man who comes across as an oddly philosophical beatnik (nothing the beatnik says makes any sense, but he was easily my favorite character).

The group ends up in Tijuana where the relationship between Jody and her friends breaks down, David's lame attempts to get away from the group show him to be completely inept, and the plot is neatly wrapped up with a deus ex machina ending.

Mike and the 'bots try their best, but I actually found that much of the movie itself is funnier (unintentionally) than some of the jokes made by the Satellite of Love's crew. Ann-Margret's behavior throughout the movie is completely bizarre and comes across as humorous rather than disturbing while the beatnik's gibberish sounds more like what adult scriptwriters thought the era's youth talked like.

Mighty Jack (1968/1986) (from MST3K Volume XXII)
Like Time of the Apes, Mighty Jack is another product of Sandy Frank's chainsaw. The Japanese TV series Maiti Jakku originally ran for 13 episodes in 1968. Eighteen years later, Frank took the first and sixth episodes of the series and combined them into a feature-length movie. This explains the sudden shift in plot between the first and second halves of the film.

Sometime in the future, an international peacekeeping group that seems extraordinarily understaffed uses its flying submarine(!), "Mighty Jack", to fight a vast terrorist organization known only as "Q". The first episode half of the film focuses on the kidnapping of an agent and his rescue by two of the Mighty Jack's officers. (After some friction between the agent and the officers, it's revealed that the rescued gentlemen had been designated as the new commander of the submarine.) The second half of the film deals with unmeltable ice that will (inexplicably) allow Q to take over the world.

Joel and the 'bots make Mighty Jack just barely watchable.

King Dinosaur (1955) (from MST3K Volume XXIII)
Although I love MST3K, I'm not always a fan of the early episodes. In the few first season episodes I've seen, the jokes are few and far between and are often little more than random asides or comments. It seems that MST3K's creators originally intended for the audience to laugh at the inherent absurdity of the movie rather than at what was being said by Joel and the 'bots. Apparently, this approach didn't last beyond the first season since I was pleasantly surprised at how funny Joel and the 'bots are during this second season episode (although this might have something to do with how bad the movie is). I must admit, though, that many of my favorite episodes are from the final few seasons of the show when it was easy to miss a good deal of a film's dialog thanks to the MST3K team's rapid-fire comedy.

A look at King Dinosaur's poster may suggest that it's a halfway entertaining film. However, the seasoned b-movie viewer knows all too well that it was a common practice of filmmakers to produce a poster before the story was developed in order to drum up studios' interest in a film. Only when financial backing was obtained did the filmmakers bother with such things as a plot, a script, actors, etc. After seeing King Dinosaur it's obvious that the only reason this cinematic abomination exists is because of a passable poster.

Through a drab narrator who isn't heard from again once the main characters are introduced, the audience learns that scientists have discovered a new planet called Nova. After watching a long sequence of stock footage, we're shown vignettes of our protagonists: four experts (two men and two women) who are to be sent to the new planet. Mere minutes into the film the four explorers leave Earth via stock footage of a V-2 rocket.

Apparently each of the two male crew members has paired off with a female crew member by the time the rocket reaches Nova. Heck, the first couple on the planet's surface are actually holding hands. Since we saw none of the voyage and don't know anything about the crew's interaction during that time, this display of affection is just odd.

The crew explores the planet in typical '50s b-movie fashion; e.g., subjecting us to interminable hiking sequences that make no real attempt to entertain the audience, shooting any animal that looks even remotely threatening, and handling any other animals and plants without any concern for disease or toxins. And despite the fact that the women are supposed to be accomplished scientists, they're prone to irrational behavior and hysteria (but at least no one asks them to make the coffee). Eventually their explorations reveal a nearby island that one of the scientists insists on visiting.

While the mainland is populated mostly by animals that are identical to those on earth (snakes, alligators, owls, etc.) and the random giant insect (which is shot, naturally), the island turns out to be dominated by "prehistoric" creatures and "dinosaurs". The most aggressive of these is called "King Dinosaur" by one of the crew and is humorously said to resemble Earth's Tyrannosaurus Rex (I'll take his word for it, but it looks like a giant iguana to me). While two crew members huddle in a cave, the "Tyrannosaurus" <*snicker*> ends up fighting a giant alligator and an enormous lizard.

The other two crew members eventually come to the aid of their friends and the quartet makes a run for it while being pursued by the big reptile. They leave behind an atomic battery which can also be used as an atomic bomb(!). Racing against the clock, our dimwitted heroes paddle towards the mainland and find shelter immediately before the bomb goes off. As a mushroom cloud rises into the sky, King Dinosaur gives us this exchange:
Crewman 1: "Well, we've done it."
Crewman 2: "Yeah, we sure have done it: brought civilization to Planet Nova."
Now, one would expect that the latter line be delivered in an ironic tone since setting off nuclear weapons shouldn't be the defining characteristic of civilization. But given how clueless the whole production is, I have to believe that the filmmakers were actually serious; that they really believed that nuking the indigenous life of a newly discovered planet was actually part of civilizing it.

And I feel compelled to say something about how King Dinosaur treats its live animals. I'm not really an animal lover, and I don't have too many problems with a movie depicting fictitious violence occurring to an animal, but I certainly have a problem with the genuine cruelty shown during the dinosaur fight scenes. The iguana playing the "Tyrannosaurus" and a juvenile alligator or caiman were agitated to the point of attacking each other for this film. Later, the iguana and another large lizard were also pitted against each other. At the end of each fight scene, the loser is shown covered in blood (the movie was shot in black and white so it's hard to tell if the blood was real) and disturbingly still. Either the animal was heavily sedated or it had actually been killed. Given what the filmmakers had already inflicted on the creatures, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter. A lousy movie like King Dinosaur was definitely not worth either animal's life.


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