Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.
Last week, Lost in Translation used The Mandalorian as an example of a streaming service adapting a work instead of doing something original for the headline. This week, The Mandalorian gets a closer look.
Created by Jon Favreau and produced by Favreau and Dave Filoni, The Mandaloran became the headliner for Disney+, Disney’s streaming service. While Disney has a huge back catalogue that could be used as hooks into the service, the company went with a new Star Wars series, building from the audience attention on the most recent films in the franchise. The Mandalorian is a space spaghetti western with a strong samurai/ronin influence about a Bounty Hunter With No Name, played by Pedro Pascal, who winds up breaking the bounty hunter code when he decides to not turn over a young target to the Imperial client (Warner Herzog) who set the bounty.
The eight 45-minute episodes build up to a climax that may be one of the best episodes of television, bringing together several plot lines introduced over the course of the season. While episodic, each episode builds on what happened before, invoking several western tropes and modifying them for the Star Wars setting. Every character has an arc, from the Mandalorian’s with the young charge he protected to Nick Nolte’s Ugnaught to Gina Carano’s ex-Rebel soldier.
Visually, the series looks like it should be on the silver screen instead of on even a wide-screen TV. The effects are what people expect out of Star Wars, with a mix of wonder, adventure, and lived in. But the series didn’t stop on the surface. Filoni and Favreau dig into an element of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, the Mandalorians, and pull together from previous works, including the animated series Filoni worked on, to show who and what they are.
If some of the episodes seem familiar, it’s because of the influences. As mentioned, The Mandalorian is a space western with samurai influence. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, as seen in A Fistful of Dollars is an obvious source, but so are Have Gun Will Travel and Lone Wolf and Cub. The first season can be seen as an extended homage to The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven as the people the Mandalorian helps come back to help him, including a reprogrammed IG-11 (voiced by Taiki Waititi).
Even the space spaghetti western with a dash of samurai films is just another layer to the series. The original /Star Wars/ took some of its cues from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, so the samurai element was always there in one form or another, particularly when the Jedi are considered. What makes The Mandalorian its own work, albeit an adaptation, is how it builds off the Star Wars mythos. Elements may come from westerns or samurai films, but the heart still lies in Star Wars even as the series expands that setting. The time after the fall of the Empire could be seen as the period following the American Civil War, but the details and dynamics between the two eras are different.
The Mandalorian takes a look at the fall out from the Empire’s fall, as warlords try to maintain what control they have, former Rebels try to figure out what to do now that the goal they’ve been fighting for has been achieved and now have to integrate back into galactic society, and former Imperial slaves come to terms with how they helped, even against their will, an oppressive regime. Even on the fringes of the galaxy, lives matter, actions matter, and motives matter. The Mandalorian has difficult choices to make, even with a code of honour to guide him. Choosing to save a youngling has consequences that may shake the New Republic.
The series is very much a story in the /Star Wars/ setting, even with the trappings. Star Wars does allow for a great range of stories, from warrior monks trying to cope after becoming leaders of soldiers to a young farmboy becoming a galactic hero to the scruffiest of nerfherders showing that he has a heart of gold. The Mandalorian easily stands beside such stories, with an emotional impact that makes the series memorable.
I’ve been in discussions with Steve of Seventh Sanctum and Serdar of Genji Press about the nature of adaptations and how some works could be done as pure originals instead of being tied to an existing property. There are a few examples of works available today or soon to be released that fall into this realm. The question is, why?
Streaming services are getting competitive due to the number of them starting up. To get subscribers, the services need something that will draw audiences in. Disney+, while having all of Disney’s library, went with The Mandalorian, a space western in the Star Wars setting with a lead dressed in armour similar to what Boba Fett wears and a very young version of Yoda. The series is beautiful to look at and has depth that the movies don’t have, mainly because of the nature of a TV series. CBS All Access went with Star Trek: Discovery and will follow up with Star Trek: Picard, banking on Star Trek fans wanting to subscribe just to watch the shows.
It’s understandable. The streaming services are competing for views, so they are going to maximize the headliner as much as possible, including budget. The services don’t want their headliner to look terrible. The Mandalorian has movie-level production values with casting to match. But the series is a space spaghetti western at its heart. The series adds to the Star Wars setting, but does the Star Wars setting bring anything to the story?
But the need to draw attention means that the services are going to go with their big guns. For Disney+, that’s The Mandalorian. CBS All Access’ go-to is Star Trek. The goal is to get subscribers. But once there are subscribers, why not create a new property? Obviously, if CBS goes for a space spaghetti western with a Bounty Hunter With No Name, with or without a young child, people will suspect the service is trying to follow in Disney+’s footsteps. But what about a new science fiction series, one that isn’t about exploration or isn’t a space western with samurai/ronin influences? There is a demand growing, even if adaptations are still the major draw at the box office.
The problem comes from budget. The headliners are getting a proper budget. The streaming services don’t have unlimited funds. Unlike Netflix, many of the newer services have a back catalogue to help fill time, but there’s only so many episodes of Big Bang Theory people are willing to watch in a day. There’s room for original works in the schedule. The question is, will there be a budget for the original works. Some of the subscriber fees will be going back into the headliners, since they are the draw. The rest, anything leftover after operating costs and CEO bonuses are taken out, may have a number of projects trying to get a chunk. Science fiction tends to be expensive, from special effects to specialized sets. Apartment sets can be redressed as needed. Starship bridges tend to be unique and recognizable.
It will boil down to demand. Will there be enough demand for a new work, and original series exploring new territory? Or will fans demand more of the same?
Time for the now traditional year-end wrap up with a look at the top ten movies of 2019, thanks to the list compiled by Box Office Mojo. The top movies are
1) Avengers: Endgame – sequel to an adaptation.
2) The Lion King – remake.
3) Toy Story 4 – sequel to an original work.
4) Captain Marvel – adaptation.
5) Spider-Man: Far from Home – sequel to an adaptation.
6) Frozen II – sequel.
7) Aladdin – remake of an adaptation.
8) Joker – adaptation.
9) Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – sequel to an original work.
10) It Chapter Two – sequel and adaptation.
Like last year, there is no original movie in the top ten. Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, was pushed out of the top ten in the final week of 2019 by Star Wars: Episode IX. The top ten consists of sequels, adaptations, or remakes. Aladdin is a remake of the animated film adapted from a folk tale. Superheroes took up 40% of the list, down from 60% last year. One movie, It Chapter Two, is adapted from a novel. Disney is the big winner of 2019, releasing seven of the ten movies. Warner Bros has two, Joker and It Chapter Two, leaving Sony to get one slot with Spider-Man.
Movie studios are still counting on known properties to draw an audience. Budgets have exploded, especially for summer blockbusters. If the movie fails to perform, studios lose money and execs lose bonuses. The effort to redo Sonic might not have been done if less money was involved. This won’t be changing anytime soon. Studios are risk adverse. Unless there’s a number of sleeper hits over the course of a year or several star-driven original works that gain attention, expect more adaptations. Disney and Marvel are at a point where the movies are their own universe, and missing one may mean missing a key part leading up to the big ensemble film. Warner and DC are trying the same, but have had more success with their television series.
However, there is hope for more original works. Us tapped a market that is usually ignored. The film also had a much lower budget. This combination could set a path for more original works in theatres. The problem may not be adaptations but excessive budgets. There is room for smaller budget films in theatres.
Last year’s wrap-up, I predicted that Captain Marvel and Valiant’s Faith may do well at the box office. Faith is due to come out February 2020, but Captain Marvel finished fourth overall in the top ten, following Black Panther dominating in 2018. Studios will have to pay attention to audiences outside the 18-45 white male demographic. However, 2020 won’t be that year. It takes time to create a movie, from story outline to finished product. Audience demand is starting to be seen. All that’s needed now is a hit that features an atypical protagonist for the dam to crack.
Christmas movies can be hit or miss. The worst can appear on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. However, to become a MST3K classic, there has to be potential to the movie. Such classics include Space Mutiny, Danger!! Death Ray, Repitlicus, and even Manos, the Hands of Fate. This brings us to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a 1964 Christmas movie that was featured during the third season of MST3K on the Comedy Channel. That episode of MST3K also featured “A Patrick Swayze Christmas”.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians starred John Call as Santa Claus, Victor Stiles as Billy Foster, Donna Conforti as Billy’s sister Betty, Leonard Hicks as Kimar, Vincent Beck as Voldar, Bill McCutcheon as Dropo, and Pia Zadora as Kimar’s daughter, Girmar. This was Zadora’s first film role, and she was part of the children’s chorus singing the movie’s title song, “Hooray for Santa Claus”[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-TGnBOZj1U]. It’s obviously meant to be a children’s movie. Billy and Betty tend to carry the film and Dropo, a Martian, is comic relief. And, of course, there is Santa Claus.
The movie begins with a TV crew at the North Pole filming Santa, his wife (played by Doris Rich), and his helpers as they prepare for the Christmas Eve world tour. The footage is broadcast all around the world and into space to satellites in orbit and beyond. On Mars, children watch the broadcast raptly. The children of Kimar, the Martian leader, are no exception. Kimar consults with a sage, who saw the problem coming. To fix the issue of Martian children being too rigid, too controlled, Kimar comes up with the idea to kidnap Santa to help the children of Mars learn how to have fun.
Kimar takes several of his top Martians into a flying saucer to go to Earth. Stowing away is Dropo, who is atypical of a Martian – lazy, clumsy, and child-like. They make the trip across space to Earth orbit and search for a fat man with a long white beard and wearing a red suit and find many. Confused, Kimar orders the saucer to land. As Kimar and his small band search for answers, they find Billy and Betty. They interrogate the kids and find out that the real Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. To make sure that the Martian plot isn’t discovered, Kimar kidnaps Billy and Betty, bringing them on board the saucer.
The saucer takes off again and lands again at the North Pole. Kimar takes his top Martians and Tor, a robot, to grab Santa. Tor is sent in first, but Santa and his elves repair the robot, turning it into a toy. The Martians move in, paralyzing the elves and Mrs. Claus and take Santa. During this, Dropo befriends Billy and Betty, and helps them hide, but there’s not many places to stay hidden.
Kimar brings Santa back to Mars. Santa, Billy, and Betty meet Grimar and her brother. It doesn’t take long before all the children, Martian and Terran, to start laughing. A new toy factory is created for Santa, all automated. Mission accomplished! Except, some of Kimar’s top Martians aren’t happy with what happened and plot to eliminate Santa and return to the status quo of rigid, unimaginative, unhappy children. The automated toy factory is sabotaged, but the damage is easily repaired. The unhappy Martians kidnap who they think is Santa, but is really Dropo wearing Santa’s suit. One final assault on the toy factory goes horribly wrong.
As the Martian children gain happiness, Billy and Betty lose theirs. They are homesick. They want to go home. Once arrangements are made for Dropo to be the Martian Santa, the real Santa Claus takes Billy and Betty home.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians tends to wind up on worst movie lists. It’s not horrible, though. There is potential, but there are several factors holding the movie back. The biggest factor is budget. It’s very obvious low budget. Tor the robot is an actor in two cardboard boxes wrapped in aluminum foil with tubing covering limbs. The Martians’ ray guns are from Wham-O[https://wham-o.com]. The sets are very obviously sets.
However, the movie is meant for children. Their imagination can fill in the gaps. Tor lurches menacingly. The ray guns are real. Santa Claus is in danger. Don’t underestimate the viewers. This doesn’t excuse the low budget, but the audience determines the level of realism. A Christmas movie for children aren’t going to go out of the way to deliberately frighten the audience. The colours will be brighter, with more flashing lights, both of which require a budget.
A larger budget means having Tor match expectations of what robots look like. Star Wars, Terminator, and even Wall-E and Short Circuit have all changed expectations on what a robot looks like, from R2-D2 and BB-8 to the T-1000 to Johnny Five. Cardboard boxes no longer make the grade. The Martian toy factory is a row of labelled doors, similar to a wall of original series Star Trek replicators. Some added flashing lights and moving parts will add to the visual interest of the scene, something that, again, needs a budget.
The story is solid enough. Tone drifts around, but not to the point of mood whiplash until the final assault by the rebel Martians. That assault was only missing cream pies being flung around. If that is going to be the climax, the rest of the movie needs to match that tone. Dropo, as cringeworthy a character as he is, matches. The storming of the North Pole is far more serious, especially with how Tor is treated. Children can handle frightening scenes, but mood whiplash is a danger.
Remaking Santa Claus Conquers the Martians just needs a better budget. Child actors can be hit or miss, but casting directors are always improving. Sets need to look better and less like they were built on a sound stage. And for a bit of stunt casting, bring back Pia Zadora for some role, even if it is Mrs. Claus. Have her perform the remade theme music as well.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn’t a horrible film, just one with a low budget and made in a time where children’s films weren’t seen as worthy endeavours. Remaking it just needs a decent budget, which will let solutions for any other problem fall into place.
Apologies for the lack of column this week. Lost in Translation will return next week with a seasonal installment.
November is Mystery Science Theatre 3000 remake month for Lost in Translation, where the column looks at some of the movies featured on MST3K and see where they failed and how to remake better. This week, Eegah!, featured during the show’s fifth season.
Eegah! was originally released in 1962 as a very low budget B-movie. It stars Arch Hall, Jr as Tom, Marilyn Manning as Roxy, Arch Hall, Sr, as Roxy’s father, and Richard Kiel as the title character. The plot is straightforward; a caveman, Eegah, lurking in the mountains near the California desert is discovered by Roxy. Or, Roxy is discovered by Eegah when he comes out to see what strange contraption she’s in. Before Eegah can do anything with Roxy, Tom arrives in his car, scaring the caveman away. Both Tom and Roxy do get a look at Eegah.
When Roxy tells her father, he arranges for a helicopter to take him into the mountains, where he plans to take a photo of Eegah. The caveman, though surprises him, leading to an injury. WHen Roxy hasn’t heard from her father in over two days, she and Tom head out to the desert in his dune buggy to start a search. Tom makes the decision for Roxy to stay in the car and honk if she sees the caveman.
Attracted by the noise, Eegah stalks out. He sees Roxy once again and, like any caveman in love, scoops her out, accidentally honking the horn. He fights off Tom and his shotgun and leaves with Roxy, returning to his cave. Inside, Roxy’s father is alive. His injury was self-inflicted from tripping over his own camera case. Eegah introduces Roxy to the family, long dead ancestors that are still around. The caveman even shows her his etchings.
To stay safe, Roxy does what she can to fend off Eegah’s advances. She even shaves off his beard after he sees her doing the same for her father. Eegah leaves to get flowers for his beloved, and Roxy and her father see a chance to escape. As they do so, they find Tom, and all three make a run in the dune buggy to get back to town. Eegah, though, is not easily dissuaded. He manages to track the trio back to town, searching through malls and streets and ultimately to the country club. Police are called because there’s a caveman threatening members, and before Roxy can stop them, they gun down Eegah.
Eegah! is not a terrible movie. It’s also not a good movie. It’s a solid B-movie with some problems pulling it down. The low budget isn’t helping, but the key problem is an inconsistent tone. The movie was meant to be a horror film, but along the way, the monster gets humanized. That tends to reduce the horror of the situation. Eegah is no longer the mysterious, dangerous other. But humanizing him is the right choice for the movie. It’s the attempt to pull him back to the other that falls flat.
Of course, the horror in the remake is the realization of who really is the monster. Eegah, for all his menace, is still a caveman, without the veneer of society built up over the past few millennia. He doesn’t have to be portrayed as simple; Richard Kiel’s version of the character has an intelligence to him that stands out. Eegah isn’t aware of modern advances, like doorknobs, so expecting him to use them is silly. It’s how everyone else treats him. This can set up the tragic ending that the original had with Eegah’s death by the hands of the police.
Time has not been kind to some of the elements in the movie. Tom will need a new job. The one he has in the original is a gas station attendant, complete with the neatly pressed white suit. Unless the movie moves to Oregon or New Jersey, Tom’s job is long gone. The music will need to be updated. Eegah! took advantage of cars, girls, and rock-and-roll as a draw, and there’s nothing preventing similar additions. “Beauty and the Beast” and even “Samson and Delilah” are classic stories, so tapping into those veins gives a base to work from. The original touched upon “Samson and Delilah”, with Eegah’s tragic course locked in once Roxy shaved him.
The biggest issue the movie had was the budget. The movie doesn’t neem blockbuster levels of money, but a little more would help with tightening the script. creating sets, and adding to the number of extras to make the town feel lived in. Little touches that help make the movie immersive, bringing the audience closer to the characters.
Eegah! is typical of movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, not so bad to be unwatchable, but, instead, falling well short of its potential. With work and a real budget, it is possible to pull out the good movie lurking within.
A new Sonic the Hedgehog trailer was released earlier this month and it corrected the biggest problem that the movie had. Sonic now looks like Sonic.
That may not mean much, but the original trailer had Sonic looking like a normal hedgehog mutated to be blue and big. Which could have been recoverable at the time, except Detective Pikachu had trailers showing various recognizable Pokémon interacting with live action as well with no sign of changes from the original designs.
What could Paramount Pictures do when faced with this hurdle? Delay the release and call in a fan, Tyson Hesse, who has worked for Archie Comics on their Sonic titles. The result, the new Sonic design which actually looks like Sonic. This is key. Video game adaptations have a poor reputation, thanks to such early releases as Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. Adapting from games has been discussed here at Lost in Translation, but the biggest hurdle is translating gameplay into a narrative. It should be simple, but what works as a game – running around gathering rings to defeat the villain – doesn’t always translate well.
The studio’s decision to bring in a fan, though, shows that video games are being respected more. People do get annoyed when a favourite book gets mangled for the sake of a movie or TV series, the result being an audience that fails to show up. Video games, much like comic books, are now being given the same treatment; the fans have an expectation that the studio has to fulfill instead of the studio slapping a name on a project.
However, there’s another change in the newest trailer. Tone. The first trailer goes for the action feel, a fight against overwhelming odds. The latest turns the movie into more of a comedy. It could be that the movie is an action-comedy road trip, and that’s not a bad thing with the character. The change is noticeable, though, down to the choice of music. The new trailer introduces a sense of fun to the movie. That may be the film’s salvation. People are willing to forgive a movie for not being great if it’s at least fun to watch. Cleaning up the main problem – Sonic’s appearance – and adjusting audience expectations will go a long way to get an audience interested.
The biggest problem with the new trailer is that it almost tells the entire story on its own. While the goal of a trailer is to entice the audience, it’s possible that the only thing left untold is the ending, and there may be enough hints already to see how the end will happen. This isn’t a problem unique to Sonic. Far too many studios will use the key plot points in advertising to get attention without realizing what is being given away. Paramount may have gone too far in correcting the original trailer here.
Will Sonic the Hedgehog be a great movie? Probably not. But it’s not aiming for that level. It’s trying to be a fun movie, judging from the latest trailer. Audiences will get to decide for themselves in 2020.
November is Mystery Science Theatre 3000 remake month for Lost in Translation, where the column looks at some of the movies featured on MST3K and see where they failed and how to remake better. This week, The Crawling Hand, featured during MST3K‘s first season on Comedy Channel.
Originally released in 1963, during the Space Race portion of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Horror movies look at what’s happening and make events go wrong on the worst way possible. The first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission, was still six years away, so no one knew what could happen on the moon’s surface. This opens the door for horror movies to imagine whatever they want happening in the cold, dark depths of space.
The Crawling Hand begins with a lunar mission going wrong in the worst way possible. The astronaut on board the returning capsule has been out of communications for far too long with dwindling oxygen. When he finally does appear, looking gaunt and haunted, he begs mission control Steve Curan (Peter Breck) to hit the rocket’s self-destruct. With great reluctance, Curan does so.
When a rocket is blown to bits, bits of rocket tends to land on the ground. A young couple, Paul Lawrence (Rod Lauren) and foreign student Marta Farnstrom (Sirry Steffen) are at a secluded beach and spot one of those bits, the astronaut’s arm. With the romantic interlude shattered, the two leave, but Paul, being a medical student, notes the arm. As the young lovers drive away, the arm twitches.
Paul returns later to retrieve the arm and take it to the room he rents from Mrs. Hotchkiss. When no one is looking, the arm starts crawling around, the hand dragging the rest of the appendage. The hand is possessed by a murderous alien, somehow, and finds its first victim, Mrs. Hotchkiss. Paul discovers the body and calls for the police. Sheriff Townsend (Alan Hale, Jr, a year before landing the role of the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) arrives to take notes, examine the crime scene, and start the investigation. After calling the coroner, he leaves to follow up on his questioning.
The hand is not satisfied with just one victim. Paul nearly becomes the next and is strangled, but instead of killing him, the hand infects him with the murderous spirit. The coroner arrives and finds the pick up to be a two-fer. Paul recovers in the coroner’s wagon beside Mrs. Hotchkiss’ body. He escapes and returns to his room.
The film becomes a fight between Paul and the alien within on controlling or succumbing to the murderous impulses. Paul becomes the Sheriff’s prime suspect after several attempted murders. Curan and his colleague, Dr. Weitzberg (Kent Taylor), arrive after hearing of some of goings on and tracking debris from the rocket’s explosion. The scientists have made the connection but, in order to prevent a panic in the general public, are keeping their hypothesis to themselves.
Paul has also come to a similar conclusion. He grabs the arm and makes a run to the town’s junkyard. The police are hot on his heels, but arrive too late to see the hand disappear into the piles of junk after it escapes Paul. The danger of the hand ends by the paws of two hungry cats, releasing Paul from the alien’s influence.
The biggest issue the movie has is budget. To quote Joel, “You can tell it’s a low budget movie because they can’t wreck the cars.” Throwing money at a problem isn’t always a solution, unless the problem is insufficient money. The Crawling Hand is a B-movie. There is potential, but budget limitations creates restrictions. The biggest restriction is special effects. Mission control is a meeting room, not the banks of computers and operators monitoring 24/7 that NASA regularly shows. The crawling hand is closer to Thing from The Addams Family than a creeping threat. Jump scares and hands pulling open gates and doors get used to build tension.
The start of the movie lingers on mission control longer than needed, especially considering the 89 minute running time. A shorter introduction at mission control, done by actually showing what’s going on, gives more time to the rest of the movie’s run time to build up tension. Again, part of this is budget; if the movie can’t damage a car, forget about blowing up a (model) rocket. The scientists are almost in their own movie, separate from Paul’s problems until they come in to save Paul’s bacon.
The ending has a serious problem. Cats eat away the muscle of the hand. That’s more, “We’re running out of budget,” than a proper ending. It takes away from the characters the audience has been following from the beginning. A Deus ex cattus that comes from nowhere. It’s not satisfying. Paul, Sheriff Townsend, Curan, any of these three stopping the hand would make the ending decent. A random cat that was never shown before? That’s more an ass-pull.
The general plot works, though. Something in space causing people to re-enact The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While the film doesn’t reference the Robert Louis Stevenson story at all, and has its own approach, the two are similar. The main difference is that the change is caused by an external stimulus. For a horror movie, the key will be the build up to Paul’s first on-screen murder attempt. The hand needs to be a factor, being the title character. The effects budget for the hand needs to allow for it to lurk in scenes.
As for characters, the scientists need to either be limited to the initial scene setting up the arrival of the hand on the beach or be a presence throughout. They can’t disappear for half of the movie and reappear out of nowhere. Paul and Sheriff Townsend are needed. Paul’s love interest is almost an afterthought, used to show how far gone Paul is and what makes him fight back. A trope for the era, it won’t fly today.
The Crawling Hand has potential, but to fulfill the potential, it needs a proper budget, some adjustment in focus, and a far more satisfying ending. It did deserve its time in the MST3K spotlight, but only because it could have been much more than it was.
Two weeks back, Lost in Translation reviewed The Raven, a film “suggested by” the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. While the movie is a showcase of horror, especially with Lugosi’s portrayal of a man who took a flying leap off the precipice of sanity, it really didn’t have much to do with “The Raven” other than set dressing and an odd interpretive dance number. The film itself is well worth watching, so changing it might break some delicate balances.
Instead, the proposal is to change the “suggested by” from just “The Raven” to “inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.” The movie pulls in from many of Poe’s work, “The Pit and the Pendulum” being the most obvious, and a twist on “A Cask of Amontillado” with the sliding walls. The idea is less focused on any one of Poe’s works. A quick look at Wikipedia and the list of Poe’s works and collections show that he published mainly in newspapers and magazines. The best title may for the film may come from Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, but that may not have the draw that “The Raven” does. The goal is managing audience expectations; the film uses Poe’s works for inspiration and mood, so that needs to remain.
Remaking The Raven will require a deft touch and the right cast. Modern technology can make or break the remake. Today’s makeup skills have improved since 1935, thanks to new materials and techniques. While impressive for the time, Karloff’s fake eye after Bateman is subjected to Dr. Vollin’s tender care looks, well, fake in close ups. Today, makeup and prosthetics can have the eye look and behave as a real eye.
However, the temptation to go overboard has to be fought. The Raven works as horror because of what lies beneath the surface. Vollin appears as a respectable surgeon up until the point where the facade shatters. Until that happens, the horror has to be kept simmering beneath, not out in the open. The tone of Poe’s works can act as a guideline here. The Raven doesn’t have to be effects heavy. Good use of lighting and background music can help scenes feel off kilter.
What may also help is lengthening the film. The Raven ran just over an hour, a length not seen in today’s films. Today, films are at least ninety minutes long, and some can run up to three hours, though those are rare. An extra thirty minutes can help build up the obsession Vollin has for Jean and set up the deathtraps at the end. Lingering shots over Vollin’s bookshelves showing key works, including Poe’s, to hint at what’s to come at the end.
The climax is where the danger lies in a remake. The temptation to go all action works against the story. Sure, there are deathtraps, but they work on the idea of an awaited death that steadily creeps closer and closer. Rushing the ending removes the tension. In the 1935 film, what stops Vollin is his own madness; he is the cause of his own downfall through his torment of Bateman, Having Jean be the instrument takes away much of Bateman’s torture and Vollin’s narcissism. Jean, too, is a victim, but not one that Vollin wants to torture right away like he does with her father and with Bateman.
Last piece to work out is the title. Again, The Raven was merely suggested by “The Raven”, and while it does include the poem in a couple of scenes, it’s more the raven as a symbol of death that gets used by Vollin. However, to get the audience in the proper frame of mind to enjoy the remake, the title needs to invoke Poe. As discussed above, Poe published his works singly, but Grotesque and Arabesque may just work, especially if Jean remains a dancer in the remake.
Improving a work like The Raven is difficult. The film is a study of one man’s madness and how he takes it out on others, with Bela Lugosi delivering a brilliant role as Vollin. Remaking the film would take a delicate touch, even with the modern techniques available now, and one wrong note could sour the entire movie.