Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cry Reptilicus: The Return of MST3k, Part 1


The 'boooots aaaaare baaaack iiiin town!

In December 2015, Joel Hodgson closed out the most successful video-based Kickstarter campaign to date with $5.7 million in fan donations to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show he created for Minneapolis UHF station KTMA back in 1988. The runaway success cannot be overstated. Hodgson originally thought he'd hit a three-episode goal of two mil, but the excitement of a fresh take on the beloved series enticed tons of MSTies, myself included.

Put it this way: the closing credits of episode 1101 include a Revival League list hasn't gotten past the people whose first names start with A. The list of contributors is 48,270 strong. It's going to be a long wait to get to the Js, which is especially poignant since Joel has passed on the Gizmonic-brand jumpsuit to a man named Jonah.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3k for short) survived multiple shifts in personnel and two cancellations from cable stations to reach the massive cult it has developed. There has also been a crate-load of digital video releases from Rhino! and Shout Factory devoted to the original series' ten-season run. There's a lot of passionate devotion to specific episodes, specific hosts, specific Mads, and specific personalities. But series creator Hodgson, who left the series in the fifth season and made a return to shadowrama with Cinematic Titanic, has given his blessings to the new staff living in Deep 13:


The 14 episodes of the eleventh official season open as well they should, with the invitation to "Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)." The premiere even harkens back to the original's model exterior of "the big G," before taking us where no MST3k has gone before: into Gizmonic Institute's very own ground control room. There we are briefed on the hotshot back-jack sky pilot known as Jonah Heston, who is hauling a valuable supply of meteors to help Gizmonic through financial jeopardy. Little does Jonah know that the distress call he just answered will take him on the dark side of the moon, where the descendant of Gizmonic's greatest enemy awaits to carry on her father's legacy of Deep Hurting.

Enter Kinga Forrester of the Moon 13 research station, who has successfully space-napped Jonah with intent to profit off the cinematic torture she will inflict on him. Although she has stars in her eyes, Kinga and her assistant Max, who tries in vain to be called "TV's Son of TV's Frank," download via liquid media one Reptilicus, whose biggest name is Dirch Passer, a legend of his native Copenhagen and the most prolific Danish actor in history. It doesn't get any more esteemed than that.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, though, does possess an array of nerd-friendly casting choices as well as some choice cameos which I refuse to ruin for you. Podcaster extraordinaire Jonah Ray Rodrigues fills out the yellow jumpsuit with amiable glee, whilst Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) and Patton Oswalt (Reno 911!) were sure things the moment the news broke that they were the new Mads.

The real trick is the casting of the robots, as Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett lasted long enough in their tenures to leave indelible marks. Murphy established Tom Servo early on via a deep, TV pitchman tone and rapacious self-confidence, whilst Beaulieu was a sharp vocal impersonator (of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, especially) and always the most audibly puckish of the in-theater gang. The Mike Nelson years showed Murphy, Beaulieu and Corbett more or less speaking in their natural tones, but even those had their distinct personalities.

Baron Vaughn (as Servo) and Hampton Yount (as Crow) don't stand out as much as their predecessors (which also includes Josh Weinstein's original voice of Servo), although Crow's flair for mischief does give Yount an advantage at times. Vaughn's Servo still has that "Hey, world, look at me!" charm, but without Murphy's down-from-the-mountaintop authority. Whereas Jonah Ray shows a disarming ease filling in for Hodgson and Nelson, the real surprise is Gypsy's newly-modified voice, an actual female for once in the presence of Rebecca Hanson (who also appears on-camera as helper clone Synthia). No longer the dim Richard Basehart obsessive of yore, she actually drops by in-theater with "the payload" and gets in a honest belly laugh as opposed to the confused maintenance bot who couldn't hack it during Hercules and the Captive Women.

These are mostly just general impressions based on the handful of episodes I watched thus far. I really want to get a deeper look at the entire fan-funded inaugural season and pull my weight as a reviewer and a fan, even of many of the actors whose names may not ring bells for modern audiences. Besides, Caroline Munro is featured in two of these experiments, and my heart's a-fluttering. Let's begin with a breakdown of the first two installments of MST3k: Moon 13: The Return.


EPISODE I: REPTILICUS

Flimsy plot synopsis: The fossils of a mysterious creature are discovered on a mining excavation and regenerated in a laboratory. Unfortunately, the creature comes alive and wreaks havoc on nearby Copenhagen, leaving men of both science and military uncertain how to stop this "Reptilicus."

Reptilicus is actually a fascinating case in the annals of B-cinema, an attempt by the Great Danes to replicate the "atomic monster movie" formula which worked well in both the U.S. (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and Japan (Godzilla). Danish studio Saga co-produced with American International Pictures and went so far as to film two separate versions of the film that could play to their respective native tongues. However, co-writer/director Sidney W. Pink, who produced the trend-setting 3-D smash Bwana Devil, turned over to AIP head Sam Arkoff a disaster, with comically pronounced Danish accents and equally rickety special effects. Pink filed suit to prevent Arkoff and co-writer Ib Melchior from tampering with Pink's cut of the film, but after many testimonies from others in the industry, the case was dropped and Arkoff's alterations were made.

This producer's cut of Reptilicus is the version screened for Jonah and the returning tag team of Tom Servo & Crow T. Robot, and the riffing here is as exquisite as ever. With a newly-assembled writing team headed by bad movie specialist (hear: The Flop House!) and Daily Show staffer Elliot Kalan, the pitch of the riffs is a return to the awestruck sarcasm of Hodgson's glory days rather than the meaner edge of the Sci-Fi years. The difference is notable in the way the trio tackle the comic relief of Dirch Passer as Petersen, the Danish Andy Griffith (also "Al Capp's Lil' Abner"). No doubt added to provide some slapstick respite in the early stages of the movie, Passer isn't as over-the-top as Droppo or as insufferable as the guys from Attack of the Eye Creatures, but his tomfoolery sticks out like Gypsy's freshly-Midwesternized voice.

Fooling around with a telescope while eating a sandwich, the security-tasked bumbler Petersen prompts this jest from Servo: "And Jethro discovers he is the half-brother of a piece of cheese."

One of Arkoff's major additions to Pink's film was the use of animation for Reptilicus' acid attacks, with green slime trailing down the screen to add unconvincing menace. Its resemblance to Nickelodeon gak is seized upon, as is the realization that Monster Energy may as well be brewed in Reptilicus' stomach (what, no Slurm jokes?). By the time this trick is repeated thrice, Jonah realizes that "The slime doesn't hurt anybody. It just transitions into another scene."

Indeed, it does. We never see the aftermaths or anybody writhing in pain from being doused in Reptilicus' biological weapon. Indeed, the most gruesome sight in the film is a cow's decapitated head to give the impression that the giant reptile has massacred a farm's worth of livestock: "That cow had a month to go before retirement, too!"

Bent Mejding plays the strapping young hero Svend, who initially unearths the remains of Reptilicus whilst mining copper and basically spends the rest of the movie as the resident chick magnet: "Even his collar has a collar!" Dr. Dalby, who devises the means of regenerating Reptilicus through nutrient-supplemented bathwater, invents "Reptiliberry Cherrysaurus" and sleeps on the job at the wrong time, thawing out the creature. The central figure of scientific authority, though, is Professor Martens (Asbjorn Andersen), who has two perky daughters and a heart condition. One of the girls, Lise, chances upon the dried-out monster carcass: "What did you to my [birthday] pony?"

And then there's Gen. Grayson, an American army official played by the very Danish Carl Ottosen. Whether reading his own biography in the paper or proving too numbly masculine to comfort Lise when her father is hospitalized, the zingers that follow him are uproarious.

One of the highlights of the in-theater riffing is Tom Servo's hover skirt, which allows him to fly towards the screen when the opportunity arrives for a close visual laugh, like when he is drawn towards Grayson's slicked-up hair and recoils with disgust: "Did you make a vow not to wash your hair until Reptilicus was dead?" Crow gets his own prop-based humdinger during Reptilicus' attack on Copenhagen, the trio intervene on a possible argument between Gen. Grayson and Prof. Martens and, as mentioned earlier, the feminine Gypsy finally becomes one of the boys ("Now, you're Mr. Filing Cabinet!").

The pop culture references are plentiful, with special nods to Tom Carvel, Blazing Saddles and Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and the music-based riffs diverse and giddy, from Glenn Miller to Prince (saluted twice), Frank Sinatra to Olivia Newton-John, Bobby "Boris" Pickett to the Village People. Even better, the revived series' first original song in the first between-movie host segment is a riotous rap number tracing monsters of all nations. Although there are a couple of noticeable lulls where one would expect an obvious joke, this sit-through of Reptilicus packs plenty of easygoing laughs.

It should be noted that Shout! Factory, who have licensed not just MST3k but a few of the titles featured, Reptilicus included, offered their HD-friendly widescreen transfer of the movie for the show. This is another breakthrough for MST3k, as previous seasons simulated the channel-surfing appeal of these off-guard B-movie riffs by retaining full-frame images suitable for vintage TV sets. In our LCD age, this time we return to This Island Earth grandeur for this entire season. We don't exactly get 2.35:1 Cinemascope (maybe in the future with luck), but here we get real compositions and remastered visuals.

Back in the Joel Hodgson days, they'd lampoon drive-in concession ads by jettisoning hot dogs and popcorn into space. As this new iteration of MST3k now proves, there's no new tradition like an old tradition.



EPISODE II: CRY WILDERNESS

Flimsy plot synopsis: Private school moppet Paul Cooper believes in Bigfoot after befriending him last summer over a dozen cans of Coca-Cola and a transistor radio, but he's naturally the only one. So when Sasquatch sounds a distress call one night, warning Paul that his ranger dad is in mortal danger, the boy runs away and meets up with not just his pappy, but also a way-too-jovial Indian companion and a mercenary big game hunter who also realizes Sasquatch might just be real...real killable.

Boutique label Vinegar Syndrome has anted up this film for the new MST3k as opposed to Shout! Factory. The invention exchanges have been carried over from the original series, and if you are familiar with Patton Oswalt's stand-up, Kinga and Max's latest get-rich-fast scheme is going to be even more of a treat. Jonah comes up with a new Turkey Day device that turns carving the bird into murdering Janet Leigh in the shower. I am also happy to report that I am getting more familiar with Vaughn & Yount's vocal tics as Servo & Crow, although there is a three-headed cameo for those who fancy MST3k's later years.

But the movie is once again the kind of rubbernecking schlock which is where the action is. If Reptilicus brought back memories of Sandy Frank's Gamera and the lower-tier Universal monster movies which were routinely roasted on the Satellite of Love, Cry Wilderness is the successor to J.P. Simon's Pod People. Somehow, Cry Wilderness director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen was given special thanks in the credits to Sleepless in Seattle; if his career is any indication, maybe Nora Ephron was able to make an entire movie out of unused footage from Joe Vs. the Volcano.

Schlossberg was a savvy cinematic recycler whose 1985 omnibus film Night Train to Terror was pieced together from three existing movies: the Cameron Mitchell vehicle Cataclysm (The Nightmare Never Ends), the Schlossberg-produced Dark Side to Love and an unfinished project called "Scream Your Head Off" starring Richard Moll. Cry Wilderness, meanwhile, seems to consist mostly of original 35mm footage shot for one particular movie, but is padded with library-sourced inserts of various wildlife to nudge it closer towards feature length ("At some point in your life, you might have to resort to YouTube to finish your film").

Making Cry Wilderness even more interminable are the stereotyped characters, from the annoying adolescent lead on down to three random bikers who show up apropos of nothing. There's even a swishy-looking mayor who keeps a swimsuit-clad blonde around for show. The saddest case is John Tallman as Jim, the mystical Native American who also doubles as a laugh track. Maybe watching Powwow Highway beforehand kind of kills this goofy characterization for me, as Gary Farmer seemed a lot more natural and humorous playing the spiritually-aware yet childlike Cheyenne in the Buick "pony." That was a really joyful experience, as Cry Wilderness tries desperately to drum up interest between travelogue montages of various critters.

Once you get beyond the footage of antelopes, lemurs and skunks in their natural habitat, there's the little issue of Sasquatch, or "Homo-erectus Galifanakis," to deal with. You will believe the friendship between Paul and his mythical caretaker...until you realize Bigfoot has basically sent the kid to a death trap, himself. Then it stops being whimsical completely. Mr. Cooper's certain doom is a letdown when it finally arrives, and could've easily been avoided had Paul simply stayed away.

Take it from Servo: "Watching this movie is cinematic puberty. Nothing makes sense, and it never goes the way you'd expect."

The riffs come at you at a faster clip in this second episode, such is the incomprehensible nature of this particular slab of nature (even Patton Oswalt is thrown for a loop 45 minutes in). The opening scenes in the boys' school are ripe for Hogwarts call-outs. Paul hitches a ride from a trucker whose nondescript country song of northwest pride makes Jonah feel like he's "living upstairs from Rascal Flatts." A recurring joke stems from one commenter observing that Paul's dad may have to wing him with his rifle for the boy's own good ("Bang!"). The mean hunter in the mesh shirt, Hicks, researches Bigfoot after discovering a suspicious set of footprint: "Embrace the prophecy of Time Life books!" A Werner Herzog impression, some Purple Kush-flavored dope humor and the apparent lovechild of Louis C.K. and Chris Elliot are thrown in also whenever the commentary threatens to lag.

There's even a Rowsdower allusion, although Bigfoot's vocal resemblance to "warwilf" goes unnoticed.

Reptilicus and Cry Wilderness are a great one-two punch to start off MST3k: The Return. The former feels comfortably cheesy and jovial, setting the bar for later episodes to match, whilst the latter takes on a more idiosyncratic B-movie and reaps major dividends. The next installment of this complete series rundown marks the revenge of Ib Melchior and also includes some of the biggest names ever to appear in a MST3k feature since Gene Hackman. Join me again, won't you?





Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection



MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE TURKEY DAY COLLECTION
(Unrated, Best Brains, Inc./Shout! Factory, 480 mins., video release date: November 25, 2014)

I'm excited about the newly-revived Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well I should be. For you see, I'm not just a spectator...I'm also a donor! 


Joel Hodgson's record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to reintroduce his once cable-broadcasted cowtown puppet show to the Millenial generation reflects the goodwill MST3k has built up since the tapes were kept circulating. There has been the long-running RiffTrax for those weaned more on the Sci-Fi era iteration of the program, with Mike, Kevin & Bill. And there was Hodgson's own return to movie riffing with Cinematic Titanic, which reunited the original Mads Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Josh "Elvis" Weinstein alongside Pearl herself, Mary Jo Pehl.

But ever since the final axe fell on MST3k, the show's initial charms may have been diminished. Hodgson may have unwittingly rejuvenated the "creature feature" movie-hosting format which was once the domain of late-night local television. Not unlike what more glamorous personalities like Elvira or Vampira were up to, MST3k shone a sarcastic but sincere spotlight on arcane exploitation titles. It also worked on the level more sophisticated viewers must have felt at one point whenever they tuned into something so tacky and tedious they couldn't bear it no more. And holding it together was the handmade grandeur of the series' designs, from the wisecracking robot sidekicks to Hodgson's Gizmonic devices to the models used in the opening credits.

The series attracted such a critical and cult success that the Comedy Channel/Comedy Central would give the show its own day-long seasonal celebration, a tradition known fondly as the "Turkey Day Marathon." From 1991 to 1994, the network would host a day-long chain of reruns which, or at least starting its second year, led to the premiere of one new episode (and in ‘92, it was book-ended with two of them!). There were newly-filmed host segments and bumpers to transition each episode and provide a blast of funny during commercial breaks. In 1995, before the start of the seventh and final Comedy Central season, the 24-hours-plus feast was pared down, perhaps another sign of the show's cancellation. The Sci-Fi Channel even tried to do its own special Thanksgiving marathon, but it was a mere seven episodes deep, just like in ‘95, and even then they pre-empted it by airing a couple Star Wars movies.

But, to quote Crow T. Robot himself, "there's no tradition like a new tradition," and Shout! Factory revived Turkey Day in 2013 by streaming six selected episodes featuring Joel Hodgson himself as the host, alongside his robot friends. The Kickstarter campaign for the new MST3k coincided with Turkey Day 2015. And as I write this, the new season will be arriving on Netflix in nine days, and I confess this review is a roundabout way to honor this occasion by once again dipping into one of Shout! Factory's DVD sets.

The 31st official boxed set of episodes was dubbed The Turkey Day Collection, released on Thanksgiving Day 2014. Needless to say, the company has kept the compilations coming so that there are now 38 multi-disc (read: four or more) home video releases of the program, discounting a basketful of individually-released titles. At this rate, nearly the entire cable-sanctioned run of MST3k has been released, although one hopes for a boxed set containing Attack of the Eye Creatures (season 4), Girls Town (season 6), either The Deadly Bees or Quest of the Delta Knights (season 9), and Danger: Diabolik (the series' finale). At least I do.

But this "Turkey Day Collection," while a decent cross section of episodes from the Joel and Mike years, is not exactly a reflection of the worst or even the most flamboyantly cheesy movies ever mocked during those ten seasons. The 20 fan favorites which are streaming over on Netflix is its own Turkey Day marathon, spanning from earlier Joel-centric discoveries like The Sidehackers (a bikesploitation/vigilante flick which featured the tender ballad "Only Love (Pads the Film)"), Catalina Caper (a beach blanket zero with Little Richard and Carol Connors as musical guests, as well as Servo‘s beloved "Creepy Girl") and the immortal Pod People ("Trumpy, you can do stupid things!") to the schlockiest of the Sci-Fi seasons, namely Space Mutiny ("We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese!"), Werewolf ("This is absolutely fascinating") and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders ("Rock & Roll Martian!").

There's even Manos: The Hands of Fate for that extra, existential touch of Deep Hurting.

Volume 31's experiments, meanwhile, run the range from somnambulant (The Screaming Skull) to mediocre (Jungle Goddess, The Painted Hills) to actually entertaining (Squirm). The latter, of course, is Jeff (Blue Sunshine) Lieberman's nature-on-the-rampage cult favorite, shot on location in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which was given a new life thanks to an Atlanta Braves sportscaster Skip Caray. Unlike Laserblast, which was given the same three-star rating by Leonard Maltin as he awarded Squirm, or Boggy Creek II, this isn't another dull hicksploitation worthy of rousing "Sweet Home Alabama" references from Kevin Murphy, but a quirky little gem with some skin-crawling Rick Baker effects (many of which were edited for the MST3k airing), legit shock moments (that tree crashing the house is, to borrow one description from the movie, "a dilly") and a very unlikely but well-rounded hero in Don Scardino.

"You can't goof on something that's already a goof," Lieberman has once said in his defense about the MST3k treatment of his film. That's not completely true, since self-deprecation wouldn't exist without it, and then I'd never have changed my Twitter profile name to Niltsson Pickett. Besides, if Leiberman was that miffed by Best Brains, I can only imagine the aneurysm he'd get if ever watched the Nostalgia Critic's episode on The NeverEnding Story III...which he wrote!

But even though the gang gives Squirm an honorable quota of hits for their penultimate performance, the humor which misses is decidedly more mean-spirited than I'd imagine Joel-era MST3k would stoop to, especially the knocks against both Geri and Alma Sanders (Patricia Pearcy, Fran Higgins). Pearcy is likened to that venerable Virginian character actor Brad Dourif early on, but that's nothing compared to a trinity of grossly unflattering likenesses ("A moldy Slim Jim!") she's barraged with in the dark. The worst of the jibes at Alma, whose platform shoes and patched pants are ripe targets, simply deem her mannish. At these moments, Mike, Kevin and Bill simply sound like, for lack of a better term, dickweeds.

The best of the host segments revolving around Squirm isn't so much Servo's coming down with a case of Southern Belle's Disease (cf: the Sanders sisters' dotty mom), but a joke on the implausible nature of the worm's homicidal tendencies which is like a passage from a certain Thomas Rockwell book. The best of the in-theater riffs involve the character of Roger (R.A. Dow), a whipping boy yokel who betrays his sympathetic side by making a creepy pass at Geri on a fishing expedition and whose petty nastiness blooms once he's attacked by the ravenous worms. Why did they do it? "Well, he's got a layer of topsoil, honey. You can't blame them." A couple of well-placed Hamlet allusions, a memorably blue twist on motherly concern and a patented end-credits roundabout (always a reason to make it through any MST3k experiment, especially during the Mike years) are also hilarious.

Without a doubt, what makes the episode truly memorable isn't so much Squirm itself as the short film preceding it, the immortal A Case of Spring Fever. From the producer of Hired! comes this frightening, Faustian nightmare in which a golf-happy schlub named Gilbert curses the existence of sofa springs and is paid a visit by Coily, a single-toothed imp who removes all traces of spring from Gilbert's life. Thus, the phone doesn't work, his watch stops, all doors refuse to close, and there's no brakes on his car. All the while, Coily cackles: "NO SPRINGS!" Can you bet on how insufferable Gilbert will become once he realizes the folly of his wish? Squirm is Ravadem Patel compared to Coily, who along with Mr. B Natural, Joe Doakes and Johnny At The Fair are the Brains' own Glengarry leads.

The Painted Hills, flashing all the way back to season five, also leads off with a classic 10-minute attack, this time on Body Care and Grooming. This instructional short from 1947 has all the hallmarks ripe for dismantling: squeaky-clean conformity, scolding narrator, bright-smiling extras, even a Carnival of Souls-style camera trick or two. Easily the most pretentious of all the films on this set, Joel and friends go to town on the latent sexism, repression and OCD beneath the life lessons on display: "We just took your libido and starched and pressed it!"

The movie itself is a feature-length vehicle for Lassie, the last of seven produced by MGM starting with Lassie Come Home (1943). Though played once again by canine star Pal, with Rudd Weatherwax giving the cues, the collie in The Painted Hills is named Shep, I guess because the notion of Lassie becoming a snarling vigilante needed sugarcoating. Yes, Roddy McDowall's former best friend enacts vengeance when her aged owner Jonathan (Paul Kelly) is murdered over a gold claim by partner Taylor (Bruce Cowling), who for me can be summed with "Phil Hartman is Fred Dobbs." Shep convinces boy sidekick Tommy (Gary Gray) of Taylor's guilt, but when nobody believes him, it's up to Shep and him alone to avenge Jonathan's death.

One can imagine Joe Camp was severely influenced by The Painted Hills more than any other Lassie film when he conceived Benji, what with his Candy Snatcher villains and traumatic dog abuse. Here, Lassie is quite literally flung by the unscrupulous Taylor and poisoned, too, which leads to some black comedy when Tom Servo pushes Crow's animal-loving buttons: "Two paws in the grave...She will make an attractive rug." The notion that Lassie's an alcoholic and a serial killer ("Life is pain, Tommy!") also get bandied about. But the jokes here fly by thick and fast compared to Squirm, which increases the batting average and also nets tons more belly laughs: "First thing I'm gonna do is buy me a montage!" Also, the series' best mondegreen in the presence of one "Pile-On Pete."

The host segments include another debate, a la Mr. B Natural's sexuality, over whether sloppy or neat is more attractive, as well as Crow's riotous history lesson on president Rutherford B. Hayes ("he was admitted to the bar, although he did not drink lustfully from it"), whom the doomed prospector in The Painted Hills resembles. Since Joel is on board, we also get the requisite invention exchange, including Dr. Clayton Forrester's unorthodox new energy source, at the expense of TV's Frank.

Continuing the theme of memorable MST3k shorts, season nine's The Screaming Skull starts off with a half of a Gumby cartoon, 1956's Robot Rumpus. Art Closkey's anatomically-incorrect claymation is perfectly harmless ("Mom threatened to make me into a bowl!") until Servo and Crow are scarred by the image of a wily android snatched up by the jaws of death, his head mounted like a trophy above the garage door. Alas, the feature itself is a tough sit, the story of an already mentally-distraught newlywed (Peggy Webber) convinced that her husband's late former wife isn't ready to move on, an attitude shared by menial-working manchild Mickey (cf: Roger from Squirm, or even the dread Torgo). Director Alex Nicol plays the "wide-awake nightmare" himself, and while he does generate creeping atmosphere in mundane isolation, if only to stretch it out like the rubber band from Are You Ready for Marriage?, the script falls apart in the all-important third act.

The film's producers gimmicked up the works by offering to pay funeral expenses for anyone who dies of shock watching The Screaming Skull. In between the film, Servo half-heartedly prank calls the studio to receive his own casket. A lot of practical jokes occur between Mike, the Bots and his captors in the interim, from bogus costume parties to Crow's head being painted up like a skeleton. But Nicol's dragging, dreary spook show is best summed up by this particular quip: "The movie that dares to graphically depict sometimes seeing peacocks and sometimes not seeing peacocks."

Lastly, the "Turkey Day Collection" returns to the second season of MST3k from 1990 with Jungle Goddess, preceded by the first in a Bela Lugosi-flanked serial called The Phantom Creeps. Ralph Byrd and George Reeves, the one-time Dick Tracy and the soon-to-be Superman, set out to locate a missing heiress who has been adopted by an indigenous tribe of African natives as "Mata Greta" (Wanda McKay), "white goddess." Byrd's Bob is the knavish, trigger-happy heel who threatens to undo the escape plan cooked up by Reeves' Mike and Greta, who is easily wooed back to civilization by the promise of a nice hamburger sandwich and some French-fried potatoes. Oh, and hats. 

Jungle Goddess contains copious amounts of wildlife stock footage, provocative scenes of tribesman doing the "dance of death" and plenty of "Oh, brother!" moments like when Greta twists her ankle on the run, not to mention Bob and Mike's constant fights over who gets to carry the revolver. In other words, it's a perfect fit for the Joel Robinson days of MST3k. Take Greta‘s flashback to how she got shanghaied in the jungle: "There I was, surrounded by salad fixings for miles," Crow mock-narrates, "and no Mandarin orange vinaigrette in sight." Host segments include a sitcom version of an imperialist fantasy, Joel demonstrating various camera scopes (such as the "Scopes Monkey Trial Scope, or Inherit the Wind-owrama") and an infomercial for the detonating spider Bela deploys in The Phantom Creeps. 

Jungle Goddess was the third episode broadcast for the inaugural Turkey Day ‘91, and among the extras on this 31st volume set are wry but gracious interviews with Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Joel Hodgson reflecting on their own Thanksgiving traditions as well as the legacy of the Turkey Day marathon. The Painted Hills disc collects the various host segments and bumpers from three years' worth of Dr. Forrester's attempted holiday takeovers. All four movies come complete with new Hodgson introductions, and alongside theatrical trailers, The Screaming Skull gets its own making-of featurette and there are interviews with Squirm star Don Scardino and Joe Closkey, son of Art.

If the bonus features aren't as exhaustive as the best MST3k releases, that's because the combined effect of these four episodes is tryptophan for the soul. But Shout! Factory have done Turkey Day right by simulating an experience at the dinner table with this compilation. Treat yourself to some dark meat carved from the collie, generous helpings of candied worms and French-fried sweet potatoes and a slice of Pokey Pie before you fall asleep in front of the Screaming Skull parade float, with visions of Coily the Spring Sprite bouncing in your head.


 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mischief

MISCHIEF
(R, 20th Century Fox, 93 mins., theatrical release date: February 8, 1985)

I spent the inauguration day of Mr. 45  watching Better Off Dead, but there was nothing nostalgic about it. The effect felt like putting an old friend out to pasture after having been bitten by a slavering zombie. It should have felt like a reason to believe, but failing that, it became a requiem for whatever amber waves washed over the detritus of pop cultures past.

2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Porky's, and so when I revisited it, I tried to understand how something like that could have been such a blockbuster given that it was riding coattails of previous heavy-hitters like American Graffiti and Animal House. I still don't consider Bob Clark's movie to be in the same league as Lucas or Landis. Not even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I really like, could compare to either of those, let alone Diner. And dopier fare like The Last American Virgin, with its unearned "poignancy," or Zapped!, aka "Carrie in Charge," just leaves me cold.

To cut a long intro short, I don't fetishize the 1980s model of mindless adolescent entertainment as much as others do. If pressed to do so, I would look to 1985 as the definitive year of the teen comedy, because overall they were far more diverse and refreshing than the umpteenth "let's get laid" jaunt. Yes, you still had Porky's Revenge and Fraternity Vacation and Hot Chili and whatever other sludge was at the bottom of that well. But there was reason to be cheerful in the deathless deluge of teen capers that were still made-to-order.

Heaven Help Us, itself an evocative boys' club caper located in parochial school, may be the most underrated of the pack because script, direction and acting were all at peak warmth. Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing incorporated old-fashioned romance into its sexual confusion and "snob vs. slob" antagonism. Vision Quest had Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, which went a long way towards humanizing another athletic perseverance curio. Better Off Dead made surreal strides towards being a live-action cartoon, although I think Joe Dante bettered Savage Steve Holland with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Just One of the Guys has its minor merits, as does watching both Fred Ward and Lori Laughlin in Secret Admirer.

Even Back to the Future, despite its sci-fi trappings, sprung a novel twist on the "coming-of-age" template by placing a contemporary boy in a 1950s environment to play matchmaker to his future parents, Zemeckis & Gale milking the scenario for all the metaphysical and hormonally-conflicting anxieties they could.


Between the poles of hackneyed and inspired came Mischief, which is where '80s nostalgia meets '50s nostalgia and threatens to cancel each other out. Norman Rockwell's Porky's, the critical consensus was likely to refer to it back then. The writer and executive producer, Noel Black, once directed Pretty Poison and made a music-only short film which was a smash at Cannes. Then in 1983, he directed Private School, to a lowest-common-denominator majority. It had Linda Barrett, Mr. Hand, Emmanuelle teaching sex ed, the aforementioned Modine, topless Betsy Russell, and a bawdy ol' Harry Nilsson break-up anthem for its opening credits, the single best musical cue of any teen sex comedy of its time. And yet, the Porky's curse was still casting a pall over the movies geared towards teens.

Whereas Noel Black once possessed enough clout to make Private School seem like the proverbial thankless task, the director of Mischief is Mel Damski, who delivered his own turkey the same year as Black with Yellowbeard. There's nothing in his biography worth mourning. 

Mischief was also looked at by film reviewers in '85 as less the progeny of American Graffiti and more like a blue spawn of TV's Happy Days, with Doug McKeon from On Golden Pond in the Ron Howard role and first-timer Chris Nash as Henry Winkler. This is another modernized "period piece" that communicates its story purely though signifiers and stereotypes, only the seams stick out more by virtue of its Johnny Come Lately development. There's even a snippet of Rebel Without a Cause thrown in to set up an impressionable chicken race which is a transparent excuse for one of those most egregious teen comedy clichés: the "hilarious" destruction of a borrowed car.

You don't need to be Janet Maslin or Owen Gleiberman to stifle a yawn at the predictability factor here.


McKeon plays Jonathan Bellah, the self-described "dreamer" who would've been played much more colorfully in a contemporary setting by Anthony Michael Hall. He's got the rolled-up khakis and dentist's heir glow of the introverted geek. Nash is Gene Harbrough, the new kid in Nelsonville, Ohio, with the whole PG-friendly greaser accessory kit (slicked-up hair, leather jacket, blue jeans, motorbike) and stern concert violinist father, who we realize too late is played by Terry O'Quinn(!) Gene is Jonathan's new neighbor, and the awkward kid finds a big brother surrogate in the hip stranger. More pertinently, he finds a new tutor.

The reason for that is Marilyn McCauley, the local sexpot, played by Kelly Preston with deliberate shades of both Norma Jeane and Cybill Shepherd from The Last Picture Show. Jonathan wants a shot at her in the worst way, and bored Gene decides he'll make it his mission in life to turn the spaz into a stud. Not that Gene will have to go away empty-handed, as he himself is smitten with Bunny Miller (Catherine Mary Stewart), a perky sweetheart in an arranged courtship with loutish preppie Kenny Brubaker (D.W. Brown). On the margins of these competing courtships is ugly duckling Rosalie, a soda shop waitress who is biding her time until she can shed the braces and thick glasses and emerge bodaciously as the Jami Gertz we all recognized back in 1987.

The plot synopsis needn't go any further, and sadly, despite all the names I just listed in the cast, neither the characters. That's the fault which damns Mischief in the worst way: the rigid confines of these characters slouching and strutting through the equally limited plot. Jonathan realizes his wildest fantasy come true, but it means shattering both his naiveté and his appeal. Gene wastes no time establishing his delinquent-with-the-heart-of-gold bona fides and is ridden with angst over Bunny's inability to stand up against Kenny. Marilyn's more experienced ways throw Jonathan for a loop at the last moment, and he counters perfidy with petulance in the vomit-inducing tradition of Boaz Davidson, although Mel Damski directs his actors far better.

Earnest and laconic is the way Black fashions his script, which helps out immensely in the friendship that develops between Jonathan and Gene. Yet his oft-risible dialogue often betrays the loose tone and Damski's direction can't rise above anything better than workmanlike. These combine to give the scenes between Jonathan and Marilyn, which are the crux of the movie, a toxic sense of apathy. From the way Jonathan cavalierly clutches at Marilyn's breast after taking a pratfall to their inevitable bedroom encounter, in which Jonathan bluffs his way out of his lack of rubber-centric preparation but still climaxes traditionally, Jonathan's sexual awakening feels at once passé and piggish.

All Mischief truly delivers on is the Eisenhower-era nostalgia, from the sock hop outfits to the tacky Studebakers (I can hear Kathleen Turner laughing in my head), from the county fair kissing booth raising awareness of polio to the long-needled immunity shots (where's Wade Walker when you need him?). Just like American Graffiti and Lemon Popsicle, the period oldies are ladled over liberally: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Mickey & Sylvia, a little Elvis, and Bill Haley's Comets giving Jonathan an ultimatum to "See You Later, Alligator" as he sneaks out through Marilyn's window. If you can get past some minor issues with the film's stated setting of 1956 clashing with the release of a few 45s (particularly the late Berry's), you can enjoy the swinging soundtrack on its own terms.

Other than those chestnuts, Mischief goes according to plan for anyone who has seen enough teen farces. Jonathan takes his first swig of hard liquor and commanders Gene's trusty but anachronistic Triumph, with obvious results. The conflict involving Kenny is good for a salacious prank at the expense of his dad's department store, but mostly it's tediously prolonged fight sequences and upturned milkshakes. And when the heroes find themselves in romantic straits on prom night, the one who's been recently kicked out of his house is forced to sleep out in the barren countryside.

With a better-than-average cast on board (Catherine Mary Stewart, despite being raised in Edmonton, credibly plays the all-American girl here as well as she did in The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet) and a willing assemblage of pros to make the pastel-pretty visuals come alive (including DP Donald Thorin, set decorator Ernie Bishop and costumer Mina Mittelman), it's a shame Mischief works only on a strictly superficial level. This is yet another film that takes an obviously '80s (or '70s, in the cases of Davidson and Lucas, who gets ribbed right at the opening) sensibility to '50s growing pains. Two schools of "they don't make 'em like they used to" thought combined to excuse a film which begs to have been made better than it did.

If that's your kick, then seek out Diner or Heaven Help Us, instead.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Home + The Id


HOME
(Unrated, Inception Media Group, 87 mins., DVD release date: Mar. 1, 2016)

THE ID
(Unrated, Hutson Ranch Media, 87 mins., DVD release date: October 25, 2016)

It has been a brutal series of months since my last review, so it's only fitting that I return to the fray with yet another two-in-one, thematically-paired, no-holds-barred SHOWDOWN! 

Previously, I decided to evaluate the early '90s transitions of two B-actors into more hands-on filmmaking: Keith Gordon, who played the misfit in Dressed to Kill, Christine and Back to School; and Steven Antin, who played the meathead in The Last American Virgin, The Goonies and The Accused. The winner of that bout turned out to be Mr. Gordon with his wintery-wartime adaptation of William Wharton's A Midnight Clear.

Gordon directed a promising ensemble (Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg, etc.) to their best abilities, displayed a breathtaking visual style and showed admirable humanism towards both sides of the armed conflict. As hindsight beckons, I find A Midnight Clear to be one of my favorite movies of 1992, and an underrated gem I wholeheartedly recommend. On the opposite end was Antin's maiden voyage into screenwriting with Inside Monkey Zetterland, a headache-inducing vanity project directed clumsily by Jefery S.F.W. Levy and showing no empathy towards Antin's proxy's struggles with work and family, as well as boasting unfocused, improv-heavy exaggerations from an overqualified cast (Martha Plimpton, Rupert Everett, Sandra Bernhard, Katherine Helmond, etc.).

The irony is that Sofia Coppola, back when she was still being raked over the coals for The Godfather Part III, would go on from her minor role in Monkey to make this kind of movie with elegance and insight as both Lost in Translation and Somewhere. And funnier, too.

So with the Revenge of the Nerd having come to pass, now we flip the gender and confine the action to one universally-beloved genre touchstone. Thus, I welcome you to MISS ELM STREET 2016!

Wes Craven passed on in August of 2015 of brain cancer and the sting of his death still lingers. I had nothing but the utmost respect and adulation for the man, who remained a vital force in horror for three decades on the strength of the controversial Last House on the Left, the commercial Scream series and the slasher-defining surrealism that is 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. 2016 was a pivotal year for me, since I got to meet Robert Englund, Ronee Blakley and Amanda Wyss at Texas Frightmare Weekend (as well as Mitch Pileggi, Matthew Lillard and David Arquette). My only gripes were that I missed Lance Henriksen's table and wasn't able to reacquaint myself with the fourth major figure of this micro-Nightmare reunion, Heather Langenkamp, whose I Am Nancy screened at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2011.

Freddy's first victim and Freddy's first victor are the subjects of this dual-review, which flashes forward 32 years in time from Craven's masterpiece of fantasy terror.


Langenkamp began her screen career with walk-on gigs for Francis Coppola's two S.E. Hinton-based youth pictures, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, but those were sadly excised. Then she made her starring debut in Nickel Mountain, a love story involving diner owner Michael Cole and pregnant teenager Langenkamp. Alas, it was Langenkamp in the buff that was the only thing which was memorable about that one, and another instance where, like Diane Franklin's back-to-back exploitation movie roles of 1982, a budding talent was being trivially misused. Luckily, the comely Tulsa native won the coveted role of lieutenant's daughter Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the rest is history.

Well, chances are you may not recall that Langenkamp was the endangered princess in ZZ Top's video for their 1985 hit "Sleeping Bag." If you aren't familiar with 1980s sitcoms, maybe you forgot that she was once Marie Lubbock in the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us which once aired on ABC-TGIF (around this time, sadly, Langenkamp was attracting overzealous fan mail). And in her spotty career, mostly for the small screen, she played a different Nancy in a teleplay based on the Tonya Harding controversy and was cast against her wholesome, chipper type in an after-school special ("Can a Guy Say No?") where she played temptress to...Steve Antin, in another rare moment when he didn't play a macho creep. And his dad was Beau Bridges, go figure.

Langenkamp settled down and started a family with Oscar-winning effects artist David Anderson and has herself done cosmetic work for some prestige pics (Cinderella Man, Star Trek into Darkness) in between sporadic returns to independent film acting. Amanda Wyss, meanwhile, has popped up on my site a couple of times in Better Off Dead and Shakma, which ought to give you a clue as to how this blonde bombshell of the 1980s kept on in the wake of Tina Grey's ill-fated, post-coital beauty sleep. Yes, she was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High a couple years earlier, stating rare autonomy in a sideline girlfriend role: "I don't want to have to use sex as a tool, Brad." But she also closed the decade out by giving in to erotic impulses in To Die For, a yuppie Luca Westerna who emasculated her beau by hissing "You fuck like you have your nose in a book."

Where do you go from there?

Wyss persisted in the 1990s with guest roles on TV and bit parts in action schlock, her claim to fame at this point being Randi MacFarlane in the Adrian Paul era of Highlander. In the previous decade, though, Wyss threatened to break out of cult stardom with appearances in the likes of Silverado and Powwow Highway, where her pluck and beauty were undeniable. She had the charisma and tenacity to become a great journeywoman among her 80s starlet peers. And yet, to this day, she remains just another best kept secret. Wha?!

Now we come to 2016, in the wake of Heather Langenkamp further questioning/solidifying her place in pop culture history with I Am Nancy, an assemblage of candid interviews, convention footage and comedic clips (including well-edited Paul F. Tompkins stand-up), and Amanda Wyss finally getting some overdue leading roles now that she's in her mid-fifties. And their roles are juicier than ever in the cases of HOME and THE ID. UCLA grad Frank Lin [giggle], who previously directed Fabio(!) in an ethnically-diverse rom-com called American Fusion, helmed the former; Thommy Hutson, who looks eerily like Ira "Will, the Wizard Master" Heiden, makes his debut with the latter following extensive production/writing work on such franchise retrospectives as Crystal Lake Memories, More Brains and Never Sleep Again (he also wrote the book of that same name focusing exclusively on the making of Nightmare 1).



Langenkamp previously played a distressed mom in Jonathan Zarantonello's The Butterfly Room opposite Barbara Steele's wicked witch-next-door. In Home, she's the mater of an interracial lesbian nuclear family. Didn't see that coming! The shock of Miss Wyss as Meredith Lane in The Id comes purely from the psychological toll exacted on her by her invalid dad, who makes Burt Young's serially abusive, gun-polishing mook from Amityville II: The Possession look like Ward Cleaver. Whereas Home is a spookshow about an overnight caregiver in the recent tradition of The House of the Devil and Babysitter Wanted, The Id is an eerie chamber drama in which the aging caretaker ferociously claims a life of her own, even if it means murder.


Like in Babysitter Wanted, the central character of Home is a young woman of strict Christian breeding who clings to her scripture in the face of unnerving terror. With her missionary father away in India, Carrie (Kerry Knuppe) arrives at the recently-purchased house of her mother Heather and her lover Samantha. Since a Kerry plays a Carrie and Samantha is played by Samantha Mumba, aka Irish Rihanna, you can deduce who plays Heather. Hint: her last name's not Locklear. There's even a Lew (Temple) and an Aaron (Hill), in case you doubt this movie's attempts at naturalism.

Lin treats Carrie's fundamentalism as a form of teenage rebellion (abstain from fleshy lusts, she certainly doesn't) and Heather becomes an apologist to atheist Samantha for such defiant acts as dressing formally for Sunday dinner and saying grace, not to mention Carrie's irresponsibility in looking after Samantha's moppet daughter Tia (Alessandra Shelby Farmer, who screeches more in repose than in jeopardy). Eventually, once Samantha and Heather leave for a business trip, Carrie and boyfriend Aaron become internet-trained exorcists as random phenomena suggests the previous homeowner, an occultist/ventriloquist, still holds a grudge. 

Home spices up its gumbo of funhouse clichés (spooky dolls, spooky paintings, spooky upstairs noises, spooky children, and so on) with welcome quirks and attempts at intimate domestic drama which sadly don't go all the way in alleviating the solemn familiarity of it all. Once again, like with Monkey Zetterland, the decision to encourage ad-libbing doesn't graft structure or depth upon the strained relationships of Heather/Samantha, Heather/Carrie, Samantha/Tia, and Carrie/Tia, despite mostly solid performances from the cast. Heather Langenkamp, in particular, has matured with greater warmth than ever and Kerry Knuppe shows the same potential Langenkamp did back when she was a dream warrior.

The improvisation backfires completely in the case of Lew Temple, who plays an elementary school guidance counselor who awkwardly introduces himself to the gay couple and whose earnestness carries a lecherous subtext. This character may have been intended as comic relief, but the humor falls flat.

Frank Lin pulls a fast one on viewers by treating Old Man Roberts as a red herring of a poltergeist, with a big reveal that is truly shocking if as anemically handled as the character dynamics. But there isn't any freshness to the atmospheric slow-burn style which makes up the majority of the film, which was definitely not the case with either House of the Devil or Babysitter Wanted. Lin just goes through the motions, as TV sets power on of their own accord and glass shatters from on high. This isn't as oppressively mundane as any of the Paranormal Activity movies, but it's no more novel. 


Home is more commendable for its tokens of acceptance rather than its fright potential, whereas The Id gets much nastier in the battle of wills between sheltered, doting Meredith Lane and her sarcastic, belittling Father (Patrick Peduto). Lin shuttles Langenkamp out of the ensuing panic, but Thommy Hutson refuses to shy away from Amanda Wyss' deteriorating faculties. The moments of respite wherein Meredith numbs the pain with television and erotic fantasies in the bathtub are capsized by the karmic wave of Father's cruelty. Even his incontinence becomes a snickering form of one-upmanship.

Meredith refuses to be patronized by well-meaning social worker Tricia (Jamye Grant), who stops by every morning to drop off food, but she's nostalgic to the point of desperation and pitifully unable to follow up on any stand she takes against her dad. Not just any desire to leave the house, but even the act of wearing lipstick stirs him into a mocking fit. In Better Off Dead, Lane Meyer's shrine to Wyss' Beth was an caricature of romantic idealism; Meredith Lane's room of high school memories is decidedly more tragic in its codependence, especially after her senior year sweetheart Ted Harborough (Malcolm Matthews) calls her up one afternoon.

For all the dementia and hostility Father shows daughter, Meredith is about to pay it back in the name of stunted independence.

Clearly having studied his De Palma as well as his Craven, Hutson plants his tropes on firm psychological topsoil and splits his screens for symbolic clues and stark contrasts. He strips his leading lady of all glamour and focuses the camera harshly upon her; even when she's dressed up in her old prom night gown, the bags under Meredith's eyes leap out just as much as the red of her fabric. The unreliability of Meredith and the irascibility of Father creates a mysteriously hostile bond, though Father does quote fanatically from the Book of Revelations and uses almost every vulgar word for "loose woman" he can think of. Father is right to assume that Meredith is still "daddy's little girl," meek as she is given that she's been withdrawn so long. Meredith is right to presume sexual jealousy in her father's acidic outbursts, because if his current state is any indication, no woman on earth could stand being married to Mr. Lane.

Patrick Peduto is also rendered compellingly unphotogenic as the Father, but unlike Wyss, he has no grace notes in Sean H. Stewart's screenplay to seize. He simply slanders the women in his life and flaunts his superiority over Meredith with all the subtlety of Montgomery Burns.

The movie follows a trajectory worthy of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, as Meredith sinks further into madness even after she's cut the umbilical cord. How one will react to the latter half of the film, which uses phantasmagorical "Boo!" moments and sepulchral voices liberally, depends on the identification one feels towards Meredith. The movie pushes her into areas of outright nastiness which threaten to undo all the goodwill Wyss builds up, including some obscene yearbook annotations which renders Meredith irredeemably perverted in her longing for aged Ted, who is now a doofy, bald-headed husband. On the way to its fateful conclusion, the movie demonstrates the same kind of nihilism cloaked in morality as Father, which is all too easy and way too much. 

The Id works best as a belated showcase role for Amanda Wyss, and it's clear she and Thommy Hutson have thought about the character very deeply. She plays Meredith so close to the bone, it's the celluloid equivalent of osteoporosis.

So who makes the best impression after 32 years of "One, two, Freddy's coming for you" chant-alongs? This isn't as cut-and-dry as when I championed A Midnight Clear over Inside Monkey Zetterland. Heather Langenkamp's innate maternal instincts and time away from the spotlight makes you treasure her all the more, whereas Amanda Wyss' hard work and perseverance has rewarded her the role of a Lifetime. The films themselves have to be taken into consideration, too. Home is hardly as ambitious as The Id, even though I appreciate its minor idiosyncrasies in the wake of Hutson's caged cauldron of resentment. But all the depth I craved in Lin's film is more ample in Hutson's movie, and Wyss deserves to be in the same Fangoria Chainsaw Hall of Fame as Nancy on the strength of Meredith Lane.

I'm tempted to call it a draw, though I really should settle for Amanda Wyss. Nancy was a symbol for homely young girls across the world to act on their survivalist impulses, and Langenkamp will go down in history for it. Wyss deserves better than being that one chick who dumped both Judge Reinhold and John Cusack, as well as finding a new life away from Tina. The Id, whatever its flaws, has opened doors for her to do so, and it's about time.

So congratulations to Amanda Wyss, Miss Elm Street 2016. No longer the girl in the rubber bag, now she's proudly wearing the tassel.