Tag Archives: Mystery Science Theater 3000

30 Days of Madness, Day 16 — Phase IV (1974)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

phaseiv-1

Directed by Saul Bass. Written by Mayo Simon. Starring Nigel Davenport & Michael Murphy.

Where has this movie been hiding my entire life? Why is it not an established classic within the genre? Going into my viewing of Phase IV, I was fully expecting a heaping helping of 70s cheese. What I got instead is a patient, thoughtful, intelligent, creative, and visually intriguing film. In fact, it’s one of only two legitimately good sci-fi/horror films I’ve ever seen to focus on ants, the other being the 1954 classic Them!, which featured ants mutated to giant size by radioactive fallout.

No giant ants here, though. Just normal-sized southwestern ants that start forming inter-species coalitions in the wake of some cosmic event and taking over the Arizona desert in which they dwell. Two scientists (Davenport and Murphy) set up an outpost there to study the phenomenon and find out what has caused this sudden change in behavior. But it turns out the ants have plans of their own.

The ant cinematography and “performances” are the most impressive thing about this film. It somehow manages to establish characters and plotlines among the insects. The film cuts back and forth between the men and ants, and it really feels like there are two intelligent forces at work studying and battling each other. It’s brilliant stuff. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it.

The title sequences to this film stands out as well, and that’s no surprise once you realize who the director is. This is the only feature film he ever directed, but Saul Bass is the designer of the title sequences for PsychoVertigoAnatomy of a MurderWest Side StoryGoodfellas, and Alien, to name only a few.

It seems Phase IV was featured during the KTMA “Season Zero” of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m going to have to check that out. As far as I’m aware, this has to be the best film they’ve ever showcased on my favorite TV show of all time. Why this film fell into such obscurity over the next 15 years that it ended up in the back-room license-free collection of movies at a local TV station and became MST3K fodder is a mystery I intend to explore. Because I am now this movie’s most newly converted evangelist.

(For more on ant-themed horror, check out my previous article on Empire of the Ants as well Episode 248 of our podcast, Spiders & Insects & Shrinking Guys Named Scott, on which I am the only one in my right mind when talking about Them!)

Final grade: A

My Flickchart ranking: #751 (out of 3260, a relative 77/100)

Webstuffs — “The world’s only turkey-monster anti-drug pro-Jesus gore film!”

Hello, Rant Pad readers. In honor of Thanksgiving (though it’s a dubious honor at best), and because I simply haven’t had time this week to work on an article of my own, I present to you an old personal favorite. I discovered the Agony Booth in late 2006, though it had been around since January of 2002, and it quickly became one of my favorite sites on the web. Having long been a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanatic, I was in bad-movie-lover heaven when I came across this site that did in-depth written reviews of bad, bad movies–often scene-by-scene recaps, in true masochistic bad-movie-lover style. Without a doubt one of the lowest quality and most bizarre films reviewed on this site is “the world’s only turkey-monster anti-drug pro-Jesus gore film,” Blood Freak. I am so hoping to review this film for myself someday, but until I get my hands on a copy of this obscure rarity, re-reading this article will have to suffice. But it does more than suffice–it makes me laugh out loud each time I revisit it. Enjoy your turkey, and Happy Thanksgiving.

–Tom

The Old Toy Chest — Harry and the Hendersons

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

I was born in January 1982, five months before the release of E.T., a film that has a solid place in my Top 20 films of all time.  As a child, I loved E.T. and watched it many times, despite how much it scared me. It wasn’t E.T. himself that provided the nightmare fuel, but specifically his slow death from being separated from the healing powers of his home planet, turning a sickly white and eventually wheezing his dying breath, as well as the human response to his presence (government men invading Elliott’s house wearing faceless hazmat suits and quarantining both the alien and the boy — who is also slowly dying, by the way — in a claustrophobic, sterile field laboratory).

How could you not love this face?

My love for E.T. only deepened when I finally watched it again as an adult (or at least, as a college student). I understood for the first time the profound psychic connection that develops between the boy Elliott and E.T., who I realized for the first time is also only a child. I understood that it is this psychic bond that causes Elliott’s near-death experience when E.T. begins to die. Perhaps most importantly, I understood at long last that these initially faceless suits who terrified me as a child (and still carry an aura of fear about them even now) are, in a fresh departure from the conventions and clichés of the genre, not true villains but rather humans concerned about the possible negative effects of this alien’s presence, both on the planet and on the alien himself, and that they are thankfully led by a man who views E.T. with compassion, even if not understanding. (Of course, these people still try to stop the kids from helping E.T. escape and make it back to a rendezvous with his home spaceship.)

I also realized that those departures from the conventions and clichés of the genre are not really departures at all, because before E.T., the genre did not exist. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison’s wonderful film created the genre — a fantasy genre defined by a fish-out-of-water plot in which some strange benevolent creature, by some accident, is separated from its home and becomes emotionally attached with a human (or human family) who must then fight to protect it after its presence is discovered by the rest of humanity — and humanity’s response is overwhelmingly one either of fear (because I do not understand it, I fear it, and therefore I must destroy it) or of exploitative greed (usually by government agents).

THIS face, however....

E.T. also, for better or worse, intensified the cross-promotional market saturation begun by George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In stores, in fast food restaurants, on billboards, all over television and radio (and eventually in pop-up ads), you would from now on see and hear a film being sold as stuffed animals, as Happy Meal toys, as action figures, as board games, as video games, in sweepstakes, yada yada yada, ad infinitum. Then of course, there were the genre films themselves. They were never as good as E.T., but some were decent and memorable in their own way, such as Harry and the Hendersons (benevolent Bigfoot finds himself in the city and bonds with a human family) and Short Circuit (benevolent sapient robot escapes government program and bonds with Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and one very strange Fisher Stevens). Some were egregious rip-offs, such as Los nuevos extraterrestres (or as it is known to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, Pod People). Most were forgettable, such as… well, there you go. And then there was one, at the very bottom of the barrel, called Mac and Me, which I have to confess to owning on VHS and watching almost as many times as I watched E.T. (Perhaps I’ll eventually review that turd of a film as well. For now, you can watch this sample lunacy on YouTube. You can also watch this great film criticism video, which eerily has a lot in common with everything I’ve just written.)

Harry and the Hendersons was one of my favorites when I was a child in the late 80s. My whole family seemed to enjoy it. We loved the humor, the heart, and of course, the happy ending. As a fanatical animal lover, I particularly connected with how gentle Bigfoot Harry was with critters (the way he tames the family dog was especially endearing). I watched Harry and the Hendersons so many times as a kid that, when I watched it recently after not having seen it for the better part of two decades, I remembered most of the beats, like hearing an old favorite song for the first time in years and still being able to sing along.

A little of that old E.T.-style loveability.

It is difficult, as an adult, to be objective about a film you loved so much as a child. As I watched Harry and the Hendersons this last time, I knew I was not watching a very good film. It’s cliché (sort of a given considering that whole genre thing); its humor tends to be noisy and in-your-face (and noisy, in-your-face humor, for me, is the cinematic equivalent of scratching my fingernails across a chalkboard or rubbing my hands on a carpet–I can literally feel my sanity slipping away); and its script is absolutely awful much of the time. As I think back, however, I cannot help but remember it in fondness. But that doesn’t excuse its issues.

There are three major weaknesses in this film, if I’m not being nitpicky. One is that the plotting, at least for the second half of the film, is some of the most contrived and arbitrary storytelling you’ll ever see. The way in which Harry ends up at the Hendersons’ house is believable enough — the family is out camping in the Northwest woods and in a moment of distraction hits the Bigfoot with the car, then dad decides to strap the “dead” creature to the roof because it’s a major discovery and might be worth a lot of money. Makes sense, perfectly fine. (What is such an elusive creature doing on a well-traveled road in the middle of the day? Like I said, if I’m not being nitpicky…)

The real problems begin when the family decides the best thing to do is to take Harry back to the forest, maybe halfway through the film. In one single scene, the Bigfoot acquires the name Harry in the most contrived way possible and then runs off into the wilderness of Seattle, presumably out of sorrow from the impending separation (which happens after all of, like, a day and a half). After that, it takes a long, long time for dad to take it upon himself to track Harry down. Yes, the growing interest in the creature’s presence in the city reaches a boiling point (as most of that interest involves gun-nuts out to shoot the creature for profit), which is decent motivation for dad to want to rescue Harry, but if he believes Harry being loose in the city is his fault (which it is), why doesn’t he go looking for him the night Harry disappears?

Another major problem is one of physics (without going all Star Trek on it). Much of the humor of the film derives from Harry being a large humanoid creature who doesn’t always know his own strength living in a house too small for him. A lot of these are easy jokes, but I can live with easy jokes as long as a film has other things going for it. What drives me nuts is the inconsistency — Harry breaking things when the script calls for it but not breaking much more fragile things when the joke is over. The scene that best exemplifies this is when Harry sits in the dining room (by throwing himself backward, which is already humor gone overboard) and crashes through the wood floor and into the basement. (I know from experience that even dropping a huge piece of furniture on the floor doesn’t cause nearly as much damage to the floor. Unless the Hendersons’ real problem is not a Bigfoot but termites.) Harry then pulls himself out of the hole by reaching up and slamming his arm down on the dining room table, and using it to pull himself back up. No damage to the table. He sits on a sofa, it cracks in half; he puts his full weight on the edge of a table — nothing.

The third major problem seems to be one of scripting and/or directing not aligning with actual performance, and this falls squarely on the villain, Jacques Lafleur. Actor David Suchet is actually a fairly intense actor, and he brings some of that intensity to his role as the hunter whose life goal is to bring down a sasquatch. But while he seems to be playing Lafleur with absolute seriousness, the folks behind the camera seem to be playing him for laughs. Occasionally this mismatch works, but for most of the film, it leaves me wondering if I’m supposed to be afraid of this guy or if he’s supposed to be more like comic relief. The nature of the character would suggest that fear is the appropriate response, but it’s difficult to maintain that when his competency shifts from one scene to the next, depending on whether the scene is supposed to call for a laugh or not — or, of course, to conveniently let Harry escape unscathed.

Other lesser gripes involve the family’s reaction to finding the Bigfoot very much alive and holding dad up against the wall by the neck (more bemusement than fear); how quickly the family becomes attached to Harry; and how trusting they are of this creature, even after I as a viewer am on board with the familial attachment — what I mean is, the filmmakers have thrown in our faces how Harry doesn’t know his own strength at the expense of the furniture and structural integrity of the house, yet it’s okay for the little boy to sleep on the floor right next to him. I’m not a Bigfoot, but I know how easily I could roll over and crush a living thing that’s a third my size. (In the same scene, the little boy is also sleeping next to the old man they just met, so…)

And then there is that great late 80s/early 90s family-film tradition of having the main character experience a groin-meets-solid-object collision. Nothing is quite so funny, nor quite so reflective of the “family comedy” genre, as watching a Sasquatch getting kicked in the nads.

Oh gosh, I forgot the scene where Harry is splayed for the camera.

Having said all that, I still like this movie. The talented cast includes the aforementioned David Suchet, John Lithgow as the dad, M. Emmett Walsh as his dad, and Don Ameche as the aforementioned old man. Ameche’s Dr. Wrightwood, a longtime Bigfoot believer who has grown jaded after years of disappointment, is actually a likable character, scoring one of the film’s best moments in the scene where he meets Harry (fulfilling his lifelong dream of seeing an actual Bigfoot) and, unable to contain his youthful enthusiasm, bellows, “Yaaa-hooooooo!” I know it sounds corny, but Ameche totally sells it. Boy, I miss Don Ameche. The film’s best casting decision, however, was Melinda Dillon. She’s played other, more memorable moms in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story, but she brings that same natural acting ability, which is full of wonderful surprises, to her role here and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. (On the other hand, there’s Lainie Kazan…)

The character of Harry is himself pretty wonderful in many ways (scripting inconsistencies aside). He is played, in a believable Sasquatch-suit, by Kevin Peter Hall, whose biggest claim to fame is in another film that came out the same year as Harry and the Hendersons – he played the title role in Predator, as well as in Predator 2 three years later. The pure physicality of his performances as both the Predator and as Harry is great — the way he walks, the way he stands, and, particularly in Harry’s case, the things he does with his arms and hands. The Harry performance would be incomplete, however, without the genius of Rick Baker and his crew of makeup and effects artists. Harry is one of of the best animatronic creations in the history of cinema, so at least Harry and the Hendersons has that superlative to be remembered by. Although occasionally creepy (and for this I put the blame more on the way the camera is used), the range of emotion in Harry’s face is pure movie magic.

Aside from these things, and amid all the cheesiness and pedestrian film techniques, the film has a big heart and a handful of truly inspired moments, and altogether it is still one that is worth going back to from time to time. It might even be fun to make a more in-depth analysis of the film’s merits and shortcomings at some point. It’s a film I’ll probably want to introduce to my own children, when I have some, especially before they stumble upon one of the many, much-lesser Bigfoot-themed films that followed in Harry’s wake. (See? Harry and the Hendersons launched its own spate of terrible rip-offs!) I’ll probably even sit them down and explain how this film is the result of an era of family-film-making that tried and failed to replicate the quality of a film that can never be replicated. Maybe I’ll even make them read this article. Then, when I feel they’ve grasped the seriousness of the situation, I’ll let them loose to watch this and whatever other middling-to-poor family fantasy fare they set their little sights upon.

Go, children, and enjoy…

... but always remember the best.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

30 Days of Madness, Day 29: Attack of the Puppet People

Shakes and Lefty are back, and Shakes doesn’t seem to like the latest movie.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958) Written by George Worthing Yates & Bert I. Gordon. Directed by Gordon. Starring John Agar, John Hoyt, June Kenney.

Bert I. Gordon is notorious for his cheesy sci-fi/fantasy/horror flicks. I’ve already written about him in my review of Empire of the Ants, so I won’t go into much detail here except to say that Attack of the Puppet People is better than the rest of his films that I’ve seen but still not what I would call a good movie. The story (screenplay by George Worthing Yates, who also wrote one of my favorite 1950s sci-fi flicks, Them!) involves John Hoyt as a doll-maker who has some real loneliness issues and has devised a method of shrinking people down to doll-size so he can always have company.

According to the trivia section on the Internet Movie Database, it was “rushed into production by American International and Bert I. Gordon to ride the success of Universal-International’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.” All I can say about that is, I’m not surprised, nor am I surprised that not much has changed in Hollywood in this regard in the past 50 years. Writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s adaptation of Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man is one of the greatest sci-fi films of the 1950s. Attack of the Puppet People is a lame coattail-rider.

I didn’t take as many notes as I usually do on cheesy movies like this, but here are the few I did write down:

–I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to deal with John Agar this month. Thankfully, here he is nowhere near as annoying as he was in The Mole People (a favorite of mine from Mystery Science Theater 3000). Still, in his first scene he immediately earns my contempt. Something about his face just makes me want to slap it around. (If that’s a latent rip-off of something Elmore Leonard once wrote, I apologize.) How his obnoxiousness lands him a date with the woman whose face he brays into like a jackass in their first scene together is beyond me.

–The woman, incidentally, is June Kenney from the movie Bloodlust, another MST3K favorite.

–Gordon’s two protagonists (Agar and Kenney) go on a date at the drive-in, where they are watching yet another MST3K favorite of mine (and Gordon’s previous film), The Amazing Colossal Man. We get to watch almost an entire scene from that movie. Way to pad out the running time, Gordon. Has anyone ever done such a thing, featured their own previous film in their immediate next film, before or since this? Even Spielberg never sank to such depths of self-promotion.

–Gordon is known for films that use the effect of superimposing one image over another to create the illusion of abnormally-sized creatures. Somehow it works better here, in which he shows shrunken people against a giant world, than it does in his other films where he shows giants. Still not the best special effects in the world, though. The limitations become more prominent toward the end, when the effects shots start to pile up. There are some real perspective problems throughout, but never so obvious as when Agar and Kenney are being chased through the streets by a rat. Unless New York City has rats half the size of automobiles. (Then again, this might be more accurate than I thought….)

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness, Day 25: Empire of the Ants

Empire of the Ants (1977) Written by Jack Turley & Bert I. Gordon. Directed by Gordon.

Oh boy, this was a bad one. Empire of the Ants is supposedly based on the H.G. Wells short story of the same name, though they have nothing in common but uncommon ants. Director Bert I. Gordon apparently holds the distinction of having the most movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. His films include The Food of the Gods (another H.G. Wells story), Earth vs. the Spider, and, featured in one of my personal favorite episodes of MST3K, The Amazing Colossal Man. Here are some of my notes on Empire of the Ants (spoiler alert):

Steve, your damn dog won’t get his head away from my crotch again!

–The film opens with a documentary-style voice-over telling us all kinds of scientific stuff about ants, followed by some kookoo-bananas stuff that sounds vaguely scary. “This is the ant. Treat it with respect.” I endeavor to treat all my ants with respect, and my uncles as well. Thank you!

–Here’s a choice bit from the opening narration: “Pheromones give an order than can not be disobeyed.” Well, that absolves me of an awful lot!

–Did humans ever really just cruise around dumping barrels full of radioactive waste into the ocean? (Yeah, we probably did.)

–I can’t decide which of these the musical score is ripping off more: Jaws or The Twilight Zone.

–The radioactive waste looks a lot like T-1000 in liquid metal form.

–Why would ants go out of their way to the edge of the ocean to splash around in metallic radioactive waste?

–We spend about 15 minutes mingling at some weird beach cocktail reception with characters I don’t like. At least it’s realistic, because it’s just as unbearable as spending 15 minutes mingling with real people at a real cocktail party.

The ants are always watching you!

–Here is the most ridiculous aspect of a movie full of ridiculousness: the ant-vision. There are several shots from the perspective of the mutated ants. It’s like looking through a pile of PVC piping.

–So, this amazing tropical resort they’re at, the beauty of which they keep commenting on? Looks a lot like an Ohio State Park, only with more palm trees and less nice scenery.

–In true monster-movie fashion, when a person sees a giant ant coming toward them, they just stand there and scream.

–The ant noises vacillate between goofy 1950s-era space age effects, cicada sounds, and women screaming. I imagine the cicada bit freaked out many a child who saw this movie and then heard the same noise coming from the trees in his backyard. As for the sound effect of a screaming woman, that gets real confusing, when the ants are attacking a woman and they are the ones screaming like a girl.

–Here’s how I imagine the director got the emotional response he was looking for out of his protagonist Joe: “Alright, you’re looking at the trees, and the trees are covered in ants the size of horses. I want you to look… mildly perplexed.”

–The most hilarious scene in the film: The group is running through the woods. They hear the sound of the ants. They stop to listen to determine where the sound is coming from. The leader looks around a bit, points, and says, “There!”–at the half-dozen giant ants swarming three feet away.

–You don’t have to outrun the ants. You just have to outrun the old couple. (And two more problems here: Why is no one overly concerned about letting the old couple fall behind? And hadn’t anyone working on this movie ever actually seen an ant move? They’re kinda fast.)

–I suddenly realize I am watching a scene I remember from my childhood, one that scared me, when the old folks leave the building they’re hiding in only to find it covered with giant ants. I must have repressed that memory.

If this were Kevin Costner, he might be saying, “My boat.”

–EVERYBODY in this movie is a huge downer. I swear, every character gets a “My life was such crap… and now this is happening!” monologue.

–The visual effects are occasionally believable but frequently terrible.

–I have to say that watching ants fight other ants is awesome. When I was in Belize I witnessed one of the most incredible acts of nature I’d ever seen. If you can imagine an aerial view of an entire battlefield, it was like that–I was looking down upon a battlefield, maybe three feet by two, upon which were at least three different species of ant and two species of wasp, all locked in an epic battle. Ants fighting ants, wasp-dive-bombers… it was like witnessing the Battle of Five Armies complete with the Great Eagles of the northern mountains! (I’m a nerd.)

–Just when you thought it was as bad as it could get, you find that ants have systematically enslaved humanity in the nearby town. They’d been doing it for weeks. How they did this when they only came into contact with the toxic waste the previous day? Well, I guess those are some bad-ass time-travelling ants.

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5) for the cheesy fun of it.

–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness: Day 1 — Nightbeast

By Tom Kapr

 

Nightbeast (1982) Written & directed by Don Dohler. Starring… nobody.

Best Tagline: I can’t decide which I like better: “If you have the guts… he wants them!” or “The Sc-Fi Thriller Made in Baltimore!”

Let’s get any faint praise out in the open right away. The monster in this movie? Scary-looking. Yes, the design of the creature, an alien with a thirst for violence, is right out of a nightmare. Just look at this picture:

 

He may be suffering from acute gingivitis.

 

Scary as hell — in a still. As soon as you see the thing moving on film? Not so much. For one thing, you realize that a jaw structure like that is really impractical, even for a bloodthirsty monster. Second thing you realize is that the creature’s face never moves. Yep, just a guy in a mask. An ugly, nightmarish mask.

Here’s what else you get in this movie: Spaceship sound effects right out of a Jetsons cartoon. A “character” who looks like Jim Henson and sounds like Kermit the Frog. More plaid flannel shirts than you can shake a .30-06 at. A cast that looks as if they each took a handful of Prozac before filming. A deputy with a femullet. A surprisingly ambitious musical score–sometimes; when it’s not really going for it with the symphonic sound, it’s your standard synthesizer crap. Two police officer “heroes” who decide to take a break from the exhausting work of running for their lives from the killer alien monster and failing to save random citizens to indulge in a strangely tender sex scene at her place. One of the fakest-looking heads ever to be ripped off a dummy. The standard call for outside help from the state troopers — 63 minutes into the 81-minute running time. 16 people billed as “pool party guests” in the end credits — for a scene in which the boozy mayor throws a pool party with all of his random co-ed friends for the visiting governor. Governor of what? I’m assuming Maryland, where this appears to have been shot. And not a flattering image of either.

Yes, Nightbeast is some truly MST3K-quality cinema, one of those aimless monster-on-the-loose flicks where just a spoonful of mental competence would make the body count go down. An auspicious beginning to my month-long horror parade.

My Netflix rating: 1 star (out of 5)

[Editor’s note: I learned after writing this that the original music and sound effects in this film are co-credited to one J.J. Abrams. Nightbeast is his earliest credit listed on the Internet Movie Database.]

 

Go to Day 2 — Redneck Zombies

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)