Mystery Science Theater 3000: 11×01

 

It’s less than a week from the premiere of the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so if you’re like me you’re pretty excited to see what happens. Thankfully, Kickstarter backers past a certain level got to see an advance screening of the pilot episode over the weekend, and since I was unable to wait another week to watch it, I caved and booted it up. I’ll try to keep a ton of major spoilers out of this review, since this is technically a pre-screening, but be warned – there will be a few in here. You may have a number of questions now – Did Joel an co. recapture the Magic? Is Jonah a good host? Are the bots more than a shadow of their former selves? are the riffs pretty good? are there celebrity cameos? If you’d like me to answer yes to all the above – you’re in luck!

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On the host front, you couldn’t find a better fit than Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston. I’ve been a fan of his for a number of years largely due to his many podcast adventures on the Nerdist Podcast alongside Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira. While real life Jonah be be sort of curmudgeonly and grumpy, Jonah Heston is very cheerful and peppy – much like both of his predecessors. Considering that the entire point of the show is a group of mad scientists basically trying to drive a guy crazy, having the host be happy makes it that much more fun. The bots are also back in full force, with all of the voice actors doing a great job. The one jarring difference is that Gypsy, the sole female member of the Satellite of Love now has an actual female voice, rather than a husky voice provided by a guy for comic relief.

We do see a bit of the circumstances that lead to Jonah being on board the Satellite of Love (which is now tethered to a moon-base on the dark side of the moon), but they don’t dwell on it. there is no mention as to how any of the bots came back, or what happened to Mike Nelson, the previous host. Honestly, this is a show that doesn’t need to be bogged down with exposition, so I wouldn’t care too much if we never find out – keep in mind “Just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax”.

What we do know is that Jonah Heston is an employee of Gizmonics institute, and is in charge of delivering a cargo of asteroids harvested from deep space. Co-workers apparently talk him up to be one of, if not THE best at what he does, with his only downfall being a rebellious streak. He is minding his own business when a distress call rings through the airwaves. Our new “mads” headed up by Kinga Forester (daughter of Clayton Forester and Granddaughter of Pearl Forester) have concocted a plan to shanghai a good Samaritan, just like himself, and force him to be the new test subject for a new iteration of the Mystery Science Theater experiments.

The first experiment – a bad monster flick called Reptilicus.

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Repticilus is a 1961 “kaiju” movie in the same mold as Godzilla made by Danish filmmakers that really had no business trying to make such a film. In many ways, its like a lot of the early Hammer science fiction and Monster films, notably Quatermass and X: The Unknown, in that the main characters are scientists and they are fighting a monster that they do not understand. These films from nearly a decade prior had great acting for this sort of film, and cutting edge special effects – this one – Not so much. Honestly the entire films down down around the shoddy special effects and film quality of the monster itself – a creature that has been realized as a bad puppet with perhaps a single string making it’s head writhe around.

These scenes are notably inferior to other scenes to where it almost looks like an entirely different movie has been spliced in. One of the funnier riffs involves this disparity where someone exclaims that “it’s raining tar” due to the large amount of film imperfections on that given scene. Reptilicus becomes unintentionally hilarious when he starts eating people, an effect realized through a terrible mat overlay as far as I could tell, and his acidic green slime attacks. Sometimes less is more with films like this – a lesson learned from 1954’s Gojira (Godzilla) in spades. that film barely shows the titular monster so you’re never left to face the fact that he’s a dude in a suit – Reptilicus however overstays his welcome.

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I am left VERY happy with this new season so far. I think my only quibbles with this new version of MST3K is that some of the riffs are slightly too rapid fire – some scenes go from riff to riff without any real time to breathe. The good news is that the writing is pretty solid, so one never really gets too tired of the jokes. Also, this first episode is also pretty sparse on interaction between the SOL crew and the “Mads” – we see some some good interactions at the beginning, involving an invention exchange, and some pretty solid banter, but they disappear soon after.

I’m really looking forward to more MST3K, it really feels weird having new episodes considering I think I was in high school when it was still on in the past. Much like the revival of Doctor Who, there are some changes – some that won’t please everyone, but this is in every way classic MST3K. Welcome back, hope you stay a while!

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The Quatermass Xperiment (a.k.a The Creeping Unknown) (1955)

When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?

The Red "X" poster flaunting the X-rating
The Red “X” poster flaunting the X-rating

Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.

One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.

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Quatermass is not amused

The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.

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Oops!

I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.

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Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” was a big hit on the ship

There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.

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“You look fine, just walk it off, man!”

It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!

So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”

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These Texas cockroaches are HUGE!