Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Zarth Arn of the Rawr: The Return of MST3k, Part 3


Here's a little story I've got to tell
About three space cowboys you know so well!
It started way back at Moon 13
With RED ROCK! LBJ! And me, CROW T!


[ed. note: In case you were wondering, the LBJ stands for "Lost Back Jack"]

Brief plot synopsis: An American rustler in Mehico learns that the natives' superstition about the cursed swampland isn't just sandeces. And this is after he romances his enemy's fiancee, loses a boy's alcoholic papa and makes an offer to Don Pedro he can't refuse.

Blazing Fossils, can it be true?! This Mexican-American production, filmed concurrently in both languages, is the Reptilicus of the ooooold west!

Or at least it would be had The Beast of Hollow Mountain not delayed the monster's appearance by a good solid hour. The stop-motion Allosaurus we do get must bide its time as the plot concerns gringo rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) and the many complications surrounding his cattle farm. There's a bitter rival, Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), who wants to covet Jimmy's land/livestock and keep his beloved, betrothed Sarita (Patricia Medina) away from the Gary Cooper cosplayer. There's little Panchito (Mario Navarro) and his widowed father Pancho (Pasqual Garcia Pena), whom Jimmy employs as ranch hands when 3/4 of his team are spooked away. Also, it keeps Pancho away from the cerveza and tequila.

The esteemed King Kong animator Willis O'Brien was not participating hands-on here, but this story credit was another stepping stone towards a long-gestating idea which his protégé Ray Harryhausen finally realized with The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Curiously, the creature both O'Brien and Harryhausen conceptualized resembled more of a Tyrannosaurus than an Allosaurus. So The Beast of Hollow Mountain could be possibly christened an Allsyranosaurus.

Unlike Reptilicus or Avalanche, this movie does a good enough job of character development and setting up suspense as to why Jimmy's cows are dwindling in numbers. Filmed in the 2.35:1 'Scope ratio, the Mexican plains are as vivid as something out of a Leone film. Guy Madison is a stalwart lead, with the gorgeous Ms. Medina and Carlos Rivas, who plays Jimmy's right hand Felipe, making admirable impressions (do note that Rivas and Navarro would return for The Black Scorpion, and producer Edward Nassour supervised the FX on Lost Continent). All these positives doesn't stave off the antsy anticipation of the title attraction. The arrival of the claymation creation proves more unwieldy and cruder than Reptilicus (again, confer Lost Continent), and the diminished budget does not assure a breathtaking horseback chase between Jimmy and the stampeding beast. The high point is when the frightened cattle charge into town as the abidingly petty Eduardo comes gunning for Jimmy and the beast corners Sarita and Panchito inside a shack. It's a surplus of action to make up for the constantly arid forward momentum.

The experience here is considerably less trying than that of Cry Wilderness or Avalanche, whose protractions were much less smoother. And it is another credit to Shout! Factory that they've licensed another pleasant schlock surprise, although the next episode I will cover might outdo all their other donations. But I recommend Bill Warren's book Keep Watching the Skies! for more context than I can provide as to this film's lukewarm reception.

As for the episode, this is the second in a row to make a nod to Better Off Dead (Jonah has to be diehard fan), this time during the monster attack. Jonah makes a running gag out of the Stones' "Beast of Burden," there are numerous rewrites of the theme to Mel Brooks' western comedy and a call back to Eegah! which is used twice (look out for The Touch of Satan). Even the classic Joel-era version of the "MST3k Love Theme" is good for a couple of inspired references. The geography throws the SoL crew for a loop or two, particularly the jungle noises in the Mexican marsh and Crow convinced one building resembles Machu Picchu. I also noticed jokes involving Seinfeld, both Night of the Living Dead AND The Return of the Living Dead, Rev. Jim Jones, and countless TV shows invoked whenever a character is distracted.

The bizarrely drawn archetypes and confrontations do wring non-stop laughs once Jonah Heston and friends drop the first remark. Jimmy and Enrique duke it out in public, demolishing a marketplace in the process, a moment of wide-eyed silence allowing for Jonah to quip: "I never realized your eyes were so beautiful!" Crow gets in a couple of zingers upon the monster's big reveal, wanting to file a suit for misrepresentation of the term "beast" and putting Panchito at a musical crossroads, forced between the "scary brass" of doom and the "gentle, beckoning flutes." His ill-fated father is taken as an oracle of the Most Interesting Man in the World gone to pot, and Jimmy's imperialist undercarriage is given a stuttering, slashing send-up to the point where Crow mounts a horse and rides alongside him to say "Up yours!"

Also watch out for a reference to a "hat that is just begging to be filled with salsa." During the next couple episodes, a classic Forrester subterfuge will make itself clear if it hasn't come to you by now.

Host segments include Servo's mock-fashion show, a couple classic Joel-style discussions between Jonah and the bots (on the topics of monster movie screenplays and the need to liven up existing films with ravenous thunder lizards) and a corker of a folk dance sequence.

Another plus of this episode is increasing confidence in the voice work from Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount. I especially thought Vaughn as Servo was starting to come up with some knockabout impressions of nature show hosts and trailer narrators, and both he and Yount were experimenting with the more gravelly registers of their vocals. Jonah Ray has also stepped up his game in establishing a rapport with his co-stars, as well as getting in a few spontaneous-sounding chuckles ("Is he expecting to hydroplane over the water?").


Brief plot synopsis: "Starcrash. A convoluted trek into the dangerously cost-efficient astronomy of a man who does not exist..." Stella Star (Caroline Munro) is a shapely but steely intergalactic smuggler who evades capture and hard labor by accepting a mission from the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe (Christopher Plummer) to track down his missing son, Simon (David Hasselhoff), and stop the dastardly Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) from blowing up the solar system.

A while ago, I tried to pursue a mini-retrospective of Cannon Films on the eve of reviewing Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley's clip-heavy documentary about the legacy of Golan-Globus. The trouble with watching 10 of their productions back-to-back is that, even if a couple manage to cheap thrill you into submission, the result is akin to Morgan Spurlock's disastrous diet of McDonald's. I felt my brain disintegrate into a viscous black substance which dripped out my ears and caused me to reconsider/regret the whole endeavor. Fearing for my own health, I couldn't finish what I started and just proceeded directly to Electric Boogaloo.

I mention this because one of the reviews I scrapped was Luigi "Lewis Coates" Cozzi's sci-fi revival of Hercules, clearly more in the vein of his earlier Starcrash than any of the vintage peplum movies Joel Hodgson/Robinson watched.

When the trailer for MST3k: The Return debuted, I was able to parse out one movie aside from Reptilicus (whose poster is glimpsed in the Kingachrome tube as Joel...I mean, Ardy proclaims "Movie in the hole!"), and that was Starcrash, whose cult reputation precedes and truly supercedes it. Shout! Factory's Blu-Ray release of the film alone has two audio commentarties by ultra-mega-über fan Stephen Romano, an extensive 73-minute interview with Elizabeth Hurley precursor Caroline Munro, a shorter but wildly enthusiastic discussion with Mr. Cozzi, various and sundry outtakes, a downloadable PDI-formatted script, and tons of production stills.

Munro and frequent screen antagonist Joe Spinell would reunite twice for Bill Lustig's notorious Maniac and Space Mutiny director David Winters' The Last Horror Film. Starcrash was released in the U.S. by none other than Roger Corman's New World Pictures, and Joe Dante edited the trailer as his final assignment for the company. Christopher Plummer wrote off his appearance in Starcrash as an opportunity to vacation in Rome, much like Michael Caine for Blame it on Rio and Jaws: The Revenge. And while Marjoe Gortner's star was fading, David Hasselhoff's was beginning to rise.

This post-Star Wars stab at low-budget opportunism does establish itself not just as a derivation of George Lucas' behemoth, but of a handful of other fantasy cornerstones including Jason and the Argonauts, Forbidden Planet, Flash Gordon (Zarth Arn's cut-rate Ming the Merciless) and, most certainly in the women's costume department, Barbarella. Not only is Caroline Munro decked out in provocative black leather combat lingerie, but there's an Amazonian tribe in midriff-baring, cleavage-enhancing Roman warrior ensembles. By comparison, the only thing revealing about the men are their perms and pretty boy cheekbones. Marjoe Gortner, playing the all-powerful sidekick Akton, bears more than a passing resemblance to Timothy Van Patten, and a dolled-up Hasselhoff is certainly lacking any of Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford's grit. 

Starcrash is a fool's bounty of sci-fi tropes and tried-and-true story beats. Idealistic renegade heroes, noble diplomat, cackling despot, alien turncoat, interplanetary confrontations with cavemen and sword-wielding robots known as "golems," a comic relief cyborg with a cornpone voice...all of these plus a finale straight out of Star Wars itself, the Death Star recycled in the shape of a claw. Throw in laughable dubbed voices for the British Ms. Munro (fresh from playing the exotic villainess in The Spy Who Loved Me, note Bond movie composer John Barry's credit in Starcrash) and the Noo Yawrka Joe Spinell (Rocky Balboa's bookie), Cozzi's candy-colored and painfully chintzy faux pas passing themselves off as scope and enough awkwardly protracted and or circularly-composed blunders, and Starcrash may not be an "important work of art," to echo Romano's niche-minded pretensions, but it's so beautifully bad as to make Ed Wood shed a tear in his/her grave.

And it works galactic wonders with the renewed MST3k treatment.

The last episode featured a writing credit from Kate Micucci, one half of Garfunkel & Oates, whereas Starcrash boasts three names from the classic MST3k seasons: Paul Chaplin, Bill Corbett and Mary Jo Pehl. I can imagine Pehl came up with the internal dialogue of Stella Star's erotic fantasy involving Akton while Corbett and/or Chaplin wrote Elle to be the disbelieving swain (I also wonder if Corbett came up with the Slim Goodbody riff). This particular tangent is given a thorough airing, complete with the dreaded "friend zone" for the robot companion. A lot of Andrew "Dice" Clay impersonations find their way into this one, and Akton is mistaken for Dee Snider, Gene Wilder and Barbra Streisand. Of all the easter eggs for fans, the one I'd like to point out involves Mike's red hot invention from The Starfighters. My hat rocketed off the top of my head when I heard it.

There's plenty of hover skirt action for Tom Servo, including a bit I'm surprised Gypsy and Tom didn't attempt during Avalanche. Stella's such a beacon of glamour that Servo and Jonah, who whips out a camera for the occasion, act like fashion shoot photographers. The bots lust after a giant golem with chrome breasts, then proceed to get on Jonah's case when he himself is turned on by Stella romping through the sand in sexy self-defense. Not that their robot pride isn't tested: when their "metallic beloved" is destroyed by Stella's starship, Crow is so disdainful he tries to exit the theater on a Biblical reference, and Tom follows suit until human casualties arrive seconds later. And just like Crow's bad puns during Gamera once drove Joel into tearing off his arm and lobbing it to the floor, a similar fate befalls Servo during Starcrash's final act.

Jonah waxes lyrical again, this time in regards to Marjoe Gortner's likeness of William Katt, and even jams a Beach Boys-style acoustic surf ditty about hopping in a complete stranger's UFO. Servo gets a spiffy Star Wars-themed overhaul for the invention exchange before Lucasfilm's legal department muscles in ("They said they'd smash my globe!"). Crow reaches back into his writerly ambitions to come up with a space adventure screenplay inspired by a certain board game as much as Starcrash. And Jonah gets to playact as both a hilariously pathetic Akton and a nitrous-addled Zarth Arn on separate wraparounds. And there's a hotshot venture capitalist named Freak Masterstroke who touches base with Kinga and Max, guest-played by the titular star of a famous show referenced in the previous episode. 

The Beast of Hollow Mountain might be the better episode next to Starcrash, despite all of the tempting trimmings I just mentioned. The chemistry between Jonah and the robot companions as well as the overall quality of the film give off casual vibes, whereas Starcrash takes a decidedly antagonistic turn in the reactions towards the movie and within the trio. But at least they're engaging with both films rather than ironically pushing back against it with their wisecracks. Hence the frustration of waiting for the monster to show up in one and the understanding that a mock commercial for die-cast Starcrash fleet figurines can drive a mug crazy if pushed past the limit.

With six episodes down and eight to go, my next installment will take on another Hercules-themed episode, headlined not by Steve Reeves or Alan Steel but by Jayne Mansfield(?!), as well as an Amicus production that might just be the dog's meat, if you've seen it.

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