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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