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Saturday, February 20, 2010

The enduring joys of MST3K

Almost 20 years ago, my mother and I were visiting my sister Shelley and her family in Maryland for Thanksgiving weekend. On that memorable Thursday morning, we went out shopping with the kids, and when we returned, Bob, my brother-in-law, cried out, "You gotta see this!" He was in the bedroom watching television and laughing like crazy. It wasn't the Macy's parade. On the screen was a Gamera movie with three little silhouettes in the lower right-hand corner. From time to time the silhouettes would make wisecracks about the movie.

Yes, this was my introduction to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, courtesy of Comedy Central's very first Turkey Day marathon in 1991. I was instantly hooked. I've always loved watching bad movies for the wonderfully unintentional humor they provide, and I've often supplied a running commentary of my own jibes with the help of some like-minded friends.

But MST3K was a different animal altogether. Tearing up the movies was what they were all about. Those three silhouettes turned out to be Joel Robinson (series creator Joel Hodgson) and his 'bots Tom Servo (voice of Kevin Murphy) and Crow (voice of Trace Beaulieu). Joel has been stranded in space on the Satellite of Love (yes, just like the Lou Reed song) by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (also Beaulieu, named after a character in This Island Earth) and his henchman, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff). Forrester and Frank live in an underground facility known as Deep 13, a nod to Universal's ridiculous 1956 film The Mole People. As a matter of fact, mole people frequently visit Deep 13, particularly on Turkey Day when Thanksgiving dinner is being dished up.

Taking a page from the 1971 Douglas Trumbull cult classic Silent Running, Joel uses parts of the satellite to construct four robots to keep him company. Gypsy, seen on the left in the picture above, runs the higher functions of the ship. Tom Servo and Crow don't do anything important, but they join Joel in the theater and help provide quips when Forrester beams bad movie "experiments" up for them to watch.

Tom has a rich singing voice, is somewhat pompous and easily offended. Crow also has an enlarged sense of self-importance and does most of the offending. Nevertheless, these hunks of metal manage to endear themselves to you more than you'd believe. And the puppetry that Murphy and Beaulieu perform add immeasurably to the characters. Cambot is the fourth robot on the SOL, but he is only seen in a mirror during the opening credits of the show, since his responsibility is to make a video record of all the goings-on.

What makes MST3K a cut above juvenile, sniggering fare like Beavis and Butthead is the high level of sophistication in the quipping, or "riffing," as it is properly known. The MSTies are certainly not above cheap jokes or scatological humor when appropriate, but they also draw from historical and current events, politics and the arts, performing and otherwise. You really have to keep on your toes to catch all the references, but when you get 'em, they're hilarious.

The MSTies loved to push the envelope, too, even for cable. They frequently used the term "dickweed" to describe a character in a movie who was...well, a dickweed. Other examples: when a creepy guy strokes a girl's hair in the Bela Lugosi cheapie The Corpse Vanishes, Joel moans "Lovely...lovely," the words uttered by the rapist/murderer in Hitchcock's sicko Frenzy. In Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell, a character has unidentified wet white stuff all over his face, and one of the MSTies cracks, "Guess what I've been doing?"

Sometimes they got censored. In the original broadcast of The Human Duplicators, Richard Kiel watches another actor walk upstairs, and Crow comments, in Kiel's voice, "He's got a sweet pooper." Certainly not the naughtiest thing they ever said, but I guess Comedy Central thought it was too gross and cut the line from subsequent airings. You can see it below. As an added bonus, I've added a string of riffs from the same film that's so fast and furious you can barely catch your breath.



Not all of the episodes are gold, though. The classics strike a perfect balance between bad movie and good riffing. If the movie is boring, no amount of clever commentary can save it. Teenage Caveman and The Lost Continent come to mind. Conversely, if it's not bad enough, the result is the same. The show really fires on all cylinders when taking on incredibly inept epics like Manos: the Hands of Fate, made in 1966 by a Texas fertilizer salesman, and I Accuse My Parents, a bizarre hybrid crime/musical/juvenile delinquent/family drama made by poverty row studio PRC in 1944. It's material like this that makes the MTSies shine. And, of course, the shorts—bizarre ephemeral educational films from the 50s and episodes of ridiculous serials—were always funny.

Hodgson left the show in 1993, citing creative differences, and head writer Michael J. Nelson took over as the new human on the SOL. Though his sharper, more cynical attitude was a 180-degree turnaround from Hodgson's sleepy delivery, Nelson filled the role admirably. Prior to taking over as the lead, he had supplied original musical numbers and did cameos as various characters in addition to writing the show.

Comedy Central cancelled MST3K in 1995, and Sci-Fi (or Syfy as it is now known) picked it up the following year. Beaulieu and Conniff had already departed, and writers Mary Jo Pehl and Bill Corbett took over, respectively, as Forrester's also mad mother Pearl and the new voice of Crow. No longer in Deep 13, Pearl traveled through space and time in a converted VW bus with new henchmen Professor Bobo (Murphy), a Planet of the Apes-influenced speaking gorilla, and the otherworldly Observer (Corbett), a pale, supposedly omniscient creature from the future who carries his own brain in a large petri dish, causing Pearl to refer to him as "Brain Guy." Both are inept and worship their power-hungry—but equally clueless—mistress.

At first I thought the Sci-Fi episodes were the weakest, but having been able to revisit them regularly on DVD and online, I've had to revise my opinion. At first I missed Beaulieu's giggling, petulant Crow, but Corbett brings a hard-bitten Brooklyn sass to the character. One of the best in the SciFi series is Horrors of Spider Island, an inept nudie-cutie with horror elements that is absolutely ridiculous.

Every episode featured sketches provided by the cast during breaks in the film known as "host segments." Some were absolutely brilliant; others sunk like stones. Some episodes had terrific riffing during the films and lame host segments, others had great sketches and dull movies. Most often, however, everything worked.

Sci-Fi dropped the show in 1999, and despite an aggressive campaign mounted by loyal fans, including a full-page ad in Daily Variety, the Satellite of Love drifted off into deep space. Nelson, Murphy and Corbett moved on to The Film Crew and RiffTrax, both styled like MST3K in that they riff on movies, except that the cast can only be heard, not seen. I met the RiffTrax cast at ComicCon in 2008, and of course, I had to sing "Harry Alan Towers" to Kevin Murphy. If you're a fan, you know what I'm talking about.

Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff and Pehl started Cinematic Titanic in 2007. The cast stands in silhouette on multilevel platforms to do their riffing, keeping the MST3K legacy alive. They're joined by Josh Weinstein, who was the original Tom Servo and a staff writer on MST3K prior to the Comedy Central years. Both Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic do live shows around the country, and I understand they're very well received. I haven't seen them yet, but I hope to have the opportunity soon.

Conniff also appears in a Los Angeles-based live stage performance called Cartoon Dump, which I did see. A spoof of those regional children's cartoon shows with live host segments, it features Conniff as Moodsy, an anthropomorphized owl with a severe depression problem, supporting Compost Brite (Erica Doering), the bubbly, over--the-top host. Between sketches, they screen examples of the world's most wretched animation, fished out of a dumpster that is prominently displayed onstage. Occasionally Hodgson steps in to provide the voice of Dumpster Diver Dan, a puppet who roots around in the trash looking for cartoons. It's hit-or-miss, but when it's on, it's pretty hilarious. And some of the cartoons are unbelievable in their awfulness.

Children of MST3K these projects all may be, but I'm happy to report that the original hasn't even begun to pass its sell-by date. It's still just as much fun to revisit over and over again and even the then-current references haven't aged badly. I'm sure some sort of reunion is in the offing—it just has to happen! In the meantime, let me leave you with a prime slice of MSTie deliciousness.


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman Report

Well, The Wolfman has been seen—at 1:05 this afternoon at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks. The comical digital sign in the picture to the left greeted me at the entrance to the auditorium, setting the stage for who-knows-what.

For those of you who don't know, the Arclight Cinemas are upscale movie houses in Los Angeles with full-service cafés, gift shops and state-of-the-art projection and sound. Before each film begins, an employee walks in front of the screen, welcomes the audience and delivers a spiel designed to help us maximize our viewing experience. The poor young woman today got to Benicio Del Toro's name and completely caved. We knew what she was trying to say, because she kept going: "B...B...B...."

Now to the film itself. Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a noted stage actor in America, who is called away from a London run of "Hamlet" by his brother's fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt), because his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared, and she wants him to join in the search. He arrives too late, though—Ben's body has been found torn to pieces by an unknown but powerful creature.

Talbot is received at his rundown family estate estate by Gwen and Sir John, his distant, eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins), who seems oddly unmoved by his son's death. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), a Scotland Yard detective, arrives to investigate, and the stage is set. We all know what happens next: Talbot is attacked by the creature and becomes a werewolf himself. Other things happen, too, but I'm not going to print any spoilers here.

The cast is excellent, but I expected it would be. Everyone brings real commitment to their performances. Del Toro, looking like a cross between the original Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr., and Oliver Reed, the werewolf in Hammer's Curse, plays the tormented Talbot with the requisite angst; Blunt brings British stiff-upper-lippedness to her performance (actually I think she has a stiff upper lip).

No one can do "dry" like Weaving, and his inspector character is a welcome addition to the story. Geraldine Chaplin could have gone more over the top, actually, as Maleva, the gypsy, and Hopkins shows everyone else how it's done with his performance as Sir John. This character is an empty, emotionless shell but he remains compelling because Hopkins keeps giving us hints about the dark secrets that dwell within him.

The production design, art direction and special effects are great, too. Computer creations are seamlessly blended with real locations to vividly recreate London in the 1880s, a Hammer-esque country village and especially Talbot's creepy family estate. Cobwebbed and neglected, it's easy to imagine Miss Havisham occupying the rooms upstairs. Baker's Wolfman is a magnificent beast. He looks just enough like the original Chaney creature to satisfy fans, but about a thousand times more ferocious. The transformation scenes are intense and painful-looking, and—best of all—he charges along on all fours when he's on the hunt.

The killings are suitably splattery, and there are even some visual nods to the Universal classics. When he's standing atop a gargoyle in London howling at the moon, it brings to mind nothing so clearly as the studio's classic Phantom of the Opera, perched atop the statue of an angel, red cape blowing in the wind. When Talbot undergoes primitive electroshock procedures to cure him of his "delusions," the instruments the doctors use look like they came straight from the set of Bride of Frankenstein. And of course scenes with torch-wielding villagers storming through foggy woods are a Universal requirement. Oddly, there's also a battle sequence that recalls Alan Bates' and Oliver Reed's nude wrestling match in Ken Russell's Women in Love!

Danny Elfman's score certainly adds atmosphere to the proceedings, but I think he wrote too much of it. I don't recall a single second of silence in the entire film. As I'd feared, the script is what's the problem here. It's pretty perfunctory, and it's slow going for the first half-hour or so, but when the first transformation kicks in, it picks up pace. Some of the scenes between Del Toro and Blunt are borderline mawkish, through no fault of their own; it's just that the writers seemed unable to get a handle on how these two characters would talk to each other. Hopkins' Sir John gets some nice development, though, and Weaving's inspector, whom I'd feared would be an afterthought, also contributes interest. Everyone knows the basic story; it could have used more kick.

So is it a worthy update of a classic character? I don't think there's any way to add to or update that legacy. It's completely of its time and of its place, and any earnest attempt to recreate it would be laughable to today's audiences. Having said that, it's not bad. Everything about it looks great; it just really needed a better script. And if only they'd made it in 3D...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Clap for The Wolfman?

Here it comes. After what seemed like years of delays, restarts and reshoots, Universal is finally releasing the remake of one of the biggest jewels in its crown, The Wolfman, on Friday.

The original 1941 Wolfman (see my earlier post) is a classic, one that gave me childhood nightmares and prepared me for my permanent residence in Weird Movie Village. Chaney's sympathetic portrayal, along with Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya and even a pivotal cameo by Bela Lugosi, combined with that wonderful music and those fog-bound sets made for a magical experience.

While it's certainly not possible to duplicate the charm or the atmosphere of the original, let's hope that the remake was worth the wait. It's certainly got a stellar cast, Rick Baker is supplying some good old fashioned prosthetic effects and it was rated R by the MPAA—thank God!

Now let's discuss some areas of concern...

It was directed by former visual effects artist Joe Johnston, who made The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A workmanlike director, he'll certainly be able to handle the mayhem, and if the rest of the crew is up to snuff, the atmosphere will be there.

But what about the screenplay? One of the writers, Andrew Kevin Walker, also wrote the beautiful but boring Sleepy Hollow and Se7en, which isn't exactly a period piece. It was reportedly doctored by David Self, whose credits include the awful 1999 remake of The Haunting but also the nice Road to Perdition (2002), so who knows?

It's being released on Valentine's Day weekend—Valentine's Day weekend—and Garry Marshall's titular, all-star romantic comedy is sure to trounce it at the boxoffice. If you think women aren't going to make all of the moviegoing decisions next weekend, you're crazy. And the following week brings Scorsese's Shutter Island and the remake of George Romero's The Crazies. Let's hope for Universal's sake it has legs...four hairy ones.

Not only was The Wolfman in production forever, with a number of directors being attached at different points, different editors, including Walter Murch, were brought in to patch it up. Danny Elfman's score was at first rejected, then used. It's like nobody could decide what to do with the picture. I sincerely hope all this extra effort was lavished to make it just right. When you look at the trailer, it does have the atmosphere—and Baker's effects look great.

Test screenings, as reported by such sites as Ain't It Cool, were pretty enthusiastic. Brutal As Hell saw a 90-minute cut (and still liked it), although the running time of the film we'll see Friday is 125 minutes. Wow...35 minutes is an awfully long time. It could mean a lot more atmosphere and character development...or a lot more boredom.

Again, thank God it's been rated R by the MPAA. I like my horror full-blooded. I'm sure Universal was campaigning for a PG-13, since the wolfman is a kind of "kid-friendly" monster. Ratings are rather meaningless these days, anyhow. It'll show up on DVD and pay-per-view in an unrated "director's cut."

The cast seems to be more than up to the task. Hopkins will be great, even if he nibbles the scenery a bit, and Blunt handles period pieces with aplomb. Del Toro, with his Hispanic looks and heritage, may ironically bring to mind Hammer's superb 1961 Curse of the Werewolf, which is certainly not a bad thing. And the wonderfully weird Geraldine Chaplin is on board to recreate Ouspenskaya's gypsy, which will definitely be worth watching. Odd man out is Hugo Weaving, who plays a Scotland Yard investigator (shades of Sleepy Hollow—egad!). He'll be fine, but I hope his character is well-integrated into the story.

The most important aspect of whether this film makes it or tanks is the commitment of everyone involved. Del Toro serves as a producer in addition to being the star, and a lot of the people involved (Baker included) have spoken about their love of the Universal classics and their passion for the remake. We'll find out if they really meant it and weren't just providing the requisite balloon juice.

Will I be in line for the first matinee on Friday? Possibly. At any rate, I'll be posting my review on this blog soon, along with reminiscences of my favorite werewolf/wolfman films of years past. It's been a long time since this hairy beast has menaced the silver screen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Horror Hags Part Three—The Exciting Conclusion

By the end of the '60s, horror hag films weren't bringing in customers who were more interested in adult fare like Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge, so the genre moved to television. Shelley Winters jumped right in, making Revenge (1971), about a deranged woman who imprisons in her basement a man she thinks seduced her daughter, and in The Devil's Daughter (1973), she plays a deranged satan worshipper who imprisons a young woman whose mother had sold her soul to the devil. Then, in 1978, she played an evil housemother in The Initiation of Sarah, featuring Morgan Fairchild and Morgan Brittany. I don't think she imprisons anyone.

Bette Davis also took the plunge with Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), a Psycho clone about a girl who takes a job as a caregiver for an elderly woman and her insane daughter, only to discover that all's not right at the house. Come on—wouldn't you get that idea immediately if Bette Davis answered the door? Much better was The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978), in which she played the sinister matriarch of a small northeastern village that puts a young couple under its sinister spell.

Happily, Harvest Home initiated an upturn in Davis' fortunes (her character name was Widow Fortune—ha!) and she was able to make some notable television and theatrical films until illness (and the execrable Wicked Stepmother) ended it all in 1989. Old nemesis Crawford only made three more appearances, all on television, after Trog. She died in 1977.

Even television couldn't support the horror hag genre forever, and by the end of the 1970s, it was all but over. But in 1976, it roared back into theaters when Piper Laurie appeared as the ultimate mother from hell, Margaret White, in Brian DePalma's classic Carrie. Earning an Academy Award nomination and the lasting affection of horror fans everywhere, her performance, even after all these years, hasn't become "camp" in the least.

Laurie followed up her triumph with Ruby (1978), a real throwback to the old style that gave birth to the genre. As the title character, she plays a washed-up nightclub singer and gangster's moll who runs a drive-in theater with the old gang serving as her employees. But years ago, her lover, Nicky, had been betrayed and murdered by the gang, and how they're beginning to meet mysterious grisly fates. Curtis Harrington was on board to direct, so Ruby very much has that What's the Matter with Helen? feel, but the story is a mixed bag, tossing in elements of a ghost story, a murder mystery—even a supernatural thriller, complete with Exorcist-style scenes.

Then, in 1981, the strangest mutation in the genre occurred when Faye Dunaway portrayed Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Wildly over-the-top in every scene, Dunaway's performance is jaw-dropping to say the least but eminently enjoyable. So great in Bonnie and Clyde, Network and Barfly, Dunaway here is strictly B-movie level, but I think it's because she and the director, Frank Perry, had decided that Crawford was an awful actress whose entire life was one nonstop performance.

While it's not technically a horror film, the child abuse depicted and the way she endlessly tortured Christina psychologically—not to mention the bizarre make-up topped off by greasy-looking eyebrows—firmly places it in that category. And, like Valley of the Dolls, it's a rich camp classic made entirely by accident, which is the only way it can happen.

Kathy Bates brought dignity back to the genre with her Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's Misery (1990). Hmm...that's two Stephen King novels that fit into the category. What is essentially a two-hander between Bates and co-star James Caan is transformed into a true nail-biter as crazed fan Annie keeps romance novelist Paul Sheldon imprisoned in her home after rescuing him from a car crash. Bates' performance is brilliant. She transforms Annie from a slightly creepy fan to full-on nutzoid while keeping her recognizable as an actual human being.

Even Jessica Lange briefly entered the market with Hush (1998), starring as the psychotic mother-in-law of Gwyneth Paltrow. While I haven't personally seen the film, I've read that it's pretty dull, but her performance can be compared to Joan Crawford.

Alas, the genre is all but dead, with horror hags popping up these days only in supporting (or animated) roles. The last time I saw Baby Jane was in an actual theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art just a couple of years ago. Of course, the audience knew every line of the film and shrieked every time Davis did something awful to Crawford. I was laughing, too, but I couldn't stop thinking about how well it was crafted, how well it still held together, and how beautiful it looked in black and white on that giant screen.

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