It wouldn’t be Halloween without this!
As I began to wrap up my Halloween “ridiculist,” I realized that there was one “monstrous failure” that I’d overlooked completely. I’ve been blogging about crappy movies and other geek obsessions for nearly seven years, yet I’ve never brought up one of the most infamous.
Throughout this series I’ve attempted to avoid the ground covered by the late, lamented movie-riffing anthology Mystery Science Theater 3000, partly because it would be too easy to fill a month of cinematic turkeys with MST3K fodder, and partly because approximately 300 skidillion words about the travails of Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot already clog the pipes of the Internet. (A few “Mistie” monsters–Megalon, Zigra, The Creeping Terror and The Giant Spider Invasion–have crept in because, really, who could stop them?)
Which is my way of saying that I’m going to break my self-imposed rule and write about Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Manos is widely regarded as the Platonic ideal of MST3K, but what makes it such amazing material for Joel and the Bots is its stultifying pace. A number of movies have been put forward as the worst ever, but Manos campaigns hard for the title. Its rambling speeches, endless driving scenes and disconnected cutaways to a couple making out in a parked car make for excruciating viewing, but the lack of anything happening on screen only elevates the game of the Satellite of Love crew.
Yet, the real star player is the limping housekeeper known as…
Torgo, who, like Cher, needs only one name, “take(s) care of the house while the Master is away.” That’s what he tells the lost family who show up on the doorstep of his desert home. The ominous furnishings inside include a number of hand-shaped knickknacks and a creepy painting of the aforementioned Master.
There’s really not much to tell. The Master is some manner of devil worshipper with a bunch of “wives” who lounge around the nearby altar dressed in negligees and granny panties. Always eager to add to his harem, he sets his sights on Margaret and her young daughter Debbie (ick). Torgo has his eye on Margaret as well. The Master does not approve. Hilarity and death ensue.
The film’s lore has it that Torgo’s strange gait and outsized knees are due to his being a satyr. If so, the film never bothers to mention it. According to the legend, the young actor who portrayed Torgo incorrectly wore the handmade braces that were intended to make him satyr-like, leaving him with chronic pain that persisted until his self-inflicted death by shotgun only a few months later. Best not to dwell on that.
As this year’s Halloween countdown comes to a close, let’s play ourselves out with Torgo’s theme music…
It’s one of the iconic images of filmic horror: Lon Chaney’s grotesque, vampiric makeup from his 1927 silent film London After Midnight. However, Chicago-area kids of the ’70s such as myself knew it from the title card of WGN-TV’s late-night monster movie series, Creature Features.
Chaney’s giant, hypnotic eyes–achieving through specially-made wire fittings–and wide array of pointed teeth were pure nightmare fuel. So, why is he the penultimate entry in my lineup of the lame?
That’s because his London After Midnight character, known only as…
The Man in the Beaver Hat!
…was a total fraud. A Scotland Yard investigator, frustrated by his inability to solve the Balfour murder case, decided to haunt the man’s former residence in disguise as part of an elaborate ruse to trap the killer. So, one of the most famous movie vampires wasn’t a vampire at all.
In 1967, the last known print of the film was destroyed by a fire in an MGM vault. While Turner Classic Movies has aired a “reconstruction” built from the script and surviving publicity stills, London After Midnight may well be lost forever. Which might be just as well; the context-free images of Chaney’s makeup are likely better than the movie itself.
In 1935, director Tod Browning (better known for the 1931 Dracula and 1932′s Freaks) remade his previous work as Mark of the Vampire.* In that one, Bela Lugosi played an actor hired by Lionel Barrymore’s investigator to portray the vampire Count Mora, once again to lure the story’s actual villain into the open.
*Take a second look at the slightly-ironic second feature of the double-bill in that Creature Features advertisement.
The TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer coined the phrase “The Big Bad” to describe the chief antagonist of a season-long story arc. Season Four’s Big Bad, however, was more of a Big Bore.
That year saw the U.S. Government take an interest in the supernatural doings in Buffy’s hometown of Sunnydale, California. They secretly built a vast, underground bunker called “The Initiative” and filled it with special ops forces who began to capture Sunnydale’s demons and sequester them for scientific experimentation. Professor Maggie Walsh’s work in “Lab 314″ resulted in the cybernetic hodgepodge known as…
Part human, part demon, part robot, Adam was a uranium-powered Frankenstein equipped with a retractable skewer and even a mini-gun. With that description from which to work, you would be forgiven for thinking that he was pretty hot stuff. And if, after murdering his creator and subsequent escaping from The Initiative, he’d gone on a stabby, shooty rampage through the streets of Sunnydale, I’d be inclined to agree.
Instead, he spent most of the latter half of the season hiding in a cave, pointedly not stabbing or shooting anyone. Ostensibly, this was because he was conducting his own experiments with the aim of building an army of cyborg demons, but mostly it was because he was The Big Bad and therefore needed to wait until the end of the season.
Japan’s terrible terrapin Gamera was the star of seven movies in seven years. You may be surprised to learn that they were not very good.
The last and least of his aberrant adversaries was a silver fish from beyond the stars, a finned freak known as…
He came to Earth to put human beings on his surf n’ turf platter, but he was literally defeated by a well-thrown boulder (seen above). Lodged onto Zigra’s spiky nose, the extra weight pinned him to the beach. Gamera picked up another rock to deliver the coup de grace, and…
…used Zigra’s fins as a xylophone. To play his own theme song.
If there is a sadder way to be defeated by a fire-breathing turtle, I have yet to hear of it.
My love of horror film icon Bruce “The Chin” Campbell is unqualified. Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness remain among my favorite films, and Campbell’s star turn as an aging, mummy-fighting Elvis Presley in Bubba Ho-Tep was surprisingly poignant.
However, his more recent films have been less endearing.
It’s a crime that Campbell’s square-jawed looks, amiable screen persona and considerable cult cred have failed to win him mainstream success. While he’s enjoyed an ongoing supporting role in the USA cable series Burn Notice, his latter-day leading-man gigs have been a deathly string of SyFy Original films: Alien Apocalypse, The Man with the Screaming Brain and My Name is Bruce. (Campbell co-wrote Screaming Brain and directed both it and My Name is Bruce.)
I wouldn’t have thought that it was possible to go downhill from Alien Apocalypse, but My Name is Bruce provided strong counter evidence. In it, a Bruce Campbell fan recruited the man himself–more precisely, a fictionalized version of Campbell even more down-on-his-luck–to battle a real-life monster in a plot lifted straight from Three Amigos and/or Galaxy Quest (only far less funny).
His foe? The Taoist god of war…
Someone–possibly Mark Verheiden, who wrote this mess–must have thought it was hilarious that Guan-Di is also the patron god of bean curd sellers. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a horror film in which the characters eat bean curd, talk about bean curd and use containers of bean curd to ward off Chinese war gods–and you’re not in the mood for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining–My Name is Bruce is the movie for you. My sides, they are splitting just thinking about the bean curd-related humor.
And that’s not even considering the film’s frequent musical interludes featuring a country ballad called “The Legend of Guan-Di.” (Guan-Yu / Guan-me / Guan-Di / Guan-Di is his name!)
I love you, Bruce, but you gotta stop this shit.
House of Dracula, released in 1945, was the last hurrah for Universal Studios’ classic monsters. They would make one further appearance the following year in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but House of Dracula was the final time they would be taken seriously.
Now, you might think that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man in the same film would be a sufficient draw. But the posters for House of Dracula promised five–count ‘em, five–monsters! In addition to the Big Three, “The Devil’s Own Brood” included Mad Doctor! And…
Okay, the “Mad Doctor” Edelmann technically could be classified a monster in that the unintended transfusion of Dracula’s blood into his own veins unleashed his inner Mr. Hyde. But the “Hunchback” was a nurse. Whose only qualification for “The Devil’s Own Brood” was a bad case of kyphosis.
Someone really needed to take Universal’s marketing department out behind the woodshed.
If I’ve been picking on Doctor Who a bit in this series, it’s certainly not out of a lack of affection. Instead, it’s a testament to the show’s longevity; over 48 years, it has spawned enough outer space terrors to fill several Monster Manuals. And the notoriously low budgets of Who‘s early years ensured that a fair number of them would be among the laughing stocks of interstellar villainy.
The Fourth Doctor encountered such do-it-yourself baddies as the bubble-wrap larvae of the Wirrn and the crackling cellophane of the Vardans. The Third Doctor’s era counted among its lowlights the bouncing blobs of the Ogron god and the Gell Guards. The Quarks, the Ergon, Meglos and the mutant clams of the planet Skaro further filled out the ranks of the risible.
But for my money, there are few creatures in the Whoniverse as endearingly pathetic as…
The Taran Wood Beast!
Making a brief appearance in the 1978 serial “The Androids of Tara,” the Taran Wood Beast shambled into view to threaten the Doctor’s friend Romana.
At least the bubble-wrap larva was a clever, if unconvincing, attempt to create an unusual creature. The Taran Wood Beast was clearly a Halloween-store fur costume topped with a googly-eyed, paper-mache mask and inhabited by a twitchy stagehand.
My love for Doctor Who is unbounded, but when the monster is less terrifying that the children who watch the show…
In the interest of fairness, I will admit that I have not seen the subject of today’s entry. But I firmly believe that first-hand experience is unnecessary to declare that the 2011 version of…
…is one of the most unnecessary follow-ups ever.
I’m not the biggest fan of either of the previous adaptations of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World has excellent direction and a terrific score, but it drops the shapechanging alien of the original story in favor of James Arness in Frankenstein makeup. John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing is a more faithful transfer, but it emphasizes gross-out effects at the cost of anyone worth caring about. That said, the ’82 film is well-regarded and it was perhaps inevitable that someone would make another one.
However, rather than a sequel or a remake, the 2011 Thing is a prequel to Carpenter’s movie. Now, what you need to know about the ’82 film is that the initial discovery and revival of the alien (from a crashed spacecraft buried in Antarctic ice) occurred off-screen. Unlike the ’51 version–which detailed the recovery and thawing of The Thing–Carpenter had his characters explore a wrecked Norwegian base where all of the initial running and screaming had already taken place. In other words, the most important thing about the Norwegians was that they were already dead.
That’s why it boggles me that Universal would drop 38 large to tell the story of the hapless Norwegians. Who (SPOILER) all die. If you have seen the ’82 Thing, you know more or less exactly what happens in the ’11 Thing. If you haven’t seen it, you probably couldn’t care less about the Norwegians.*
Apparently a lot of folks agreed, and the new film made only about $11 million domestically in its first week. Some Things are better left alone.
*No offense, Norway.
It took only five years from Spider-Man’s 1962 comic-book debut before he was awarded his very own Saturday morning cartoon series. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know the theme song (Is he strong / Listen, bud / He’s got radioactive blood).
The first season of Spider-Man was a straightforward adaptation of the comics, with appearances by familiar villains such as the Scorpion, Mysterio and Dr. Octopus. For the second and third seasons, the production was turned over to animator Ralph Bakshi, who later went on to direct feature films including Fritz the Cat, Wizards, The Lord of the Rings and Cool World.
The combination of a reduced budget and Bakshi’s penchant for hallucinogenic visuals turned those later episodes into a trippy phantasmagoria. The episode “Vine” saw Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s true identity) accidentally set loose an ever-growing plant monster from a seed pod he discovered in a scientist’s abandoned house. Finding a working time machine, he surmised that the secret to defeating the stupendous stem lay in the past.
Arriving in 3 Million B.C., he encountered a lost civilization taken over by an entire race of plant creatures, led by the dreaded…
Yes, this was the time that Spider-Man battled a talking flower. Sitting on a throne. (To be fair, the throne room was left by the city’s original, humanoid inhabitants.)
I really love this little guy, one of Master Vine’s minions.
Anyhow, Spider-Man whacked the villainous vegetation by stealing the “radium gems” upon whose radiation they relied, then returning to our time and feeding the jewels to the plant monster threatening New York. (Yes, they were both a kill and a cure.)
And, thanks to the miracles of budget-cutting, he got to do it all over again the following season in the episode “Rollarama,” a nearly shot-for-shot remake.
You can watch both versions (as well as the rest of Spider-Man ’67) on Marvel’s web site!