Over the past few weeks, Lost in Translation has been looking at how to remake some movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Now it’s time to see what the films have in common, besides being not well made. Budget was a huge problem for each movie to the point where going cheap hurt the presentation. However, each film had its own reason for the low budget.
Remaking a bad movie requires that the original film have something worth bringing out. Each movie featured in the past month does have a core idea worth examining. Reptilicus is the first and only Danish kaiju movie; a giant sea monster wreaking havoc somewhere other than Japan or the US could be a draw. Danger!! Death Ray was a Italian spy movie taking advantage of the popularity of the 007 films; a remake could turn Bart Fargo into a franchise that is neither Bond nor Bourne. Robot Holocaust felt like someone’s post-apocalyptic tabletop RPG put to film; remade as a TV series, the setting could be expanded instead of looking like a number of encounters facing the player characters. Manhunt in Space was an early TV space opera; a remake could take a retro-pulp feel, crossing Star Trek with Flash Gordon. Manos: The Hands of Fate was a disaster of a film limited by its budget; remaking it could bring in the horror missing in the original. There is a core that can be dug out.
A large budget isn’t necessarily an instant fix. Battleship is the prime example here at Lost in Translation of a large budget still not leading to either a good movie or a good adaptation. Low budgets, though, mean that the necessities, including competent crew from the grips to the editors, are cut back. The goal is to find the right budget for the movie. A Reptilicus remake would need to invest in the special effects to make the titular monster impressive. A Manos remake, though, wouldn’t need the same budget; indeed, too much money may create new problems* for a film that’s essentially a horror story at the personal level.
Once the budget problem is fixed, the next is fixing the editing. Manhunt didn’t have the issues the other films had; its limitation came from being a TV series from the early days of television. Robot Holocaust needed to be tightened up at points. Reptilicus had a few moments where the limitations of filming were obvious, including a shot where it is easy to tell two different types of film were used, one for the monster and another for the victim being eaten. The other two had worse problems, with editing errors still getting into the released cut.
The format of the remake will be key. Robot Holocaust may be better served as a television series. Its setting needs to be set up and explored, with each of the various factions – the air slaves, the Amazons, the robot overlords, and even the Dark One – getting attention so that they all don’t feel like a check box. Manhunt could work either as a film, albeit one with a sequel hook if Cleolanta escapes at the end like all good pulp villains do, or as a pilot for a TV series about the Space Rangers. Danger!! Death Ray works best as a film, as does Reptilicus and Manos, the first two to take advantage of the large screen, the latter because the story is self-contained.
Special effects, while tied to budget, should be addressed. None had great effects, especially compared to today. The Death Ray remake needs to look like it wasn’t filmed in someone’s tub with Billy’s toys. Manhunt needs to be updated given how far technology has changed since 1954. Reptilicus, the monster, looked very much like the puppet he was. Robot Holocaust had similarly obvious puppets, making it hard to believe the characters were in danger from angry worms. Even Manos, despite having very few effects because of its low budget, could use some upgrades, especially for the Master’s hound. Today, CGI can help fix the problems, but it’s not a panacea. Good effects still won’t help if the rest of the film has problems.
Why remake the films, especially given that the originals weren’t good to begin with? Each of the films were featured on MST3K, whose popularity grew through word of mouth. Manos in particular is better known thanks to its appearance on the series. The audience expectations would be low; any improvements would be a bonus. The expectations could backfire with Manos, though; the draw is because the movie is so bad. As a bonus to studios, there’s already a commentary on what went wrong, MST3K itself.
It’s possible to learn from your own mistakes. It’s also possible to learn from someone else’s. The movies featured on MST3K all have problems. Figuring out what went wrong and how to correct it while remaking the movie is an exercise worth indulging in. Some of the movies may not be easy to remake, and some may be too far gone to be salvageable, but watching them with an eye to where the production made mistakes can help prevent your own.
* To be honest, Manos may be better served being remade as a student project. Today’s off-the-shelf video recorders have far greater capabilities than the 16mm camera used to film Manos, including a far greater record time than 32 seconds. The plot doesn’t need extensive sets or effects.
Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will look at how to remake some not so great movies by examining where they went wrong and how to fix it. And what better source of not so great movies than Mystery Science Theatre 3000? Movies that get featured on MST3K aren’t necessarily awful. The crew looked for films that could be riffed, so a dull film would get passed over. This means that there are nuggets in the featured films that could lead to a good movie. Up first, Danger!! Death Ray, originally released in 1967.
A spaghetti spy movie, Danger!! Death Ray is also known as Il Raggio infernale, or, The Infernal Ray, and starred Gordon Scott as Bart Fargo, international spy, Ted Carter as Frank, Maureen Delphy as Lucille, Albert Dalbes as Carver, Sylvia Solar as Mrs. Carver, Max Dean as Al, and Tor Altmayer as Professor John Carmichael. The film opens in a European country, following agents of a sinister organization, including Frank, heading to a demonstration by Professor John Carmichael of his new invention, a high powered laser he calls a “death ray”, though meant for peaceful purposes. The death ray is effective, cutting through thick steel in minutes. Satisfied that the device works, the agents kidnap Carmichael and escape in a hail of gunfire. The agents rendezvous with a helicopter, which then takes Carmichael to a submarine waiting offshore.
Elsewhere, Bart Fargo is trying to rest after his latest mission. His unnamed agency sends two couriers to give him his new orders, the recovery of both Professor Carmichael and the death ray. Fargo leaves for the mission with the promise of a proper vacation and a proper bonus afterwards. The flight is a flight, though Fargo does run into Mrs. Carver travelling under an assumed name. He does maintain his cover as a businessman. On the ground that night, Fargo starts his investigation, looking around the docks for signs of the sinister organization.
Fargo does find one of the organization’s hideouts. However, the men at the hideout are alerted to the investigation. Fargo does get the drop on them, sneaking in from a trapdoor. A fight breaks out, and as Fargo gets information from one of the thugs, a higher level agent knifes him. Fargo chases the knife thrower, X-3, to his base of operations where he learns the next step in the investigation is in Barcelona.
On the slow sub, Frank gets radioed by the knifed X-2 that an American has tracked them down. Carmichael laughs and points out that Frank just gave away the location of the upcoming rendezvous to a complete stranger. However, that allows Frank to prepare things in Barcelona for the interloper.
Fargo arrives in Barcelona under the watchful eye of one of the organization’s agents. In an odd coincidence, Fargo also sees Mrs. Carver from the first flight. However, work comes first and he somehow gets to a Moroccan restaurant that is another of the sinister organization’s safe houses. Fargo, though, successfully fights off the waiters and wounds his watcher. The gunfire, though, draws the other agents in, starting a foot chase through Barcelona. Fargo ducks into Lucille’s apartment. She helps hide him by distracting the pursuers when they break into her studio. Some small talk later, Fargo leaves.
At Fargo’s hotel room, his watcher arrives with room service and a pistol. The intent, kill Fargo while he’s in the shower. Fargo, though, realized that the bellboy wasn’t one and was ready. A short fight ends with Fargo removing the watcher’s disguise. The watcher isn’t done, though, and tries to tackler Fargo at the window. Fargo moves at the last moment, and the watcher goes for a short flight.
Fargo picks up the trail of Frank and Al, and, in what passes as the car chase, follows him. After a few minutes, the kidnapper decides to use an oil slick sprayer. Fargo can’t avoid the slick and drives off the cliff into the sea. The agents wait to see if Fargo surfaces before leaving. However, Fargo did survive by swimming away, and shows up a Lucille’s soaked.
Lucille takes him up on his earlier offer of dinner. At the restaurant, Al spies Fargo and heads off to ambush him at his hotel room. Fargo isn’t slowed down from his dinner date and is ready for Al’s attack. Again, Fargo wins the fight and interrogates Al. Mrs. Carver from the earlier flight tries to enter the hotel room. Fargo is surprised to see her again, but his prisoner is alarmed and bolts.
The next day, Fargo and Mrs. Carver go out for a day on the sea in a boat. Mrs. Carver signals the kidnapper, then dives off the boat. The kidnapper attacks with a machine gun. Fargo rolls off his boat before it explodes. He returns to his hotel and bursts into what he thinks is Mrs. Carver’s room, only to find that she’s not there and it’s not her room. Back in his own room, Al has returned, looking for help and protection from the organization. In return, Al tells Fargo everything he knows, that he should go to a villa thirteen miles out of town that night.
At the villa, Fargo sees Mrs. Carver and, after following her at a discreet distance, finds X-1, her husband, Carver. Fargo goes with Carver to talk. But Lucille has followed Bart to the villa. During the chat between Fargo and Carver, Mrs. Carver has summoned the rest of the agents. Lucille, still unaware of what’s really going on, stumbles into the situation and becomes a hostage. Carver has his people take them both to the villa. As Fargo is being bundled into a car, Al appears to rescue him. With some blatant bribery, Fargo gets Al to take him to the other villa.
With Fargo on the way, Carver’s people are getting ready. However, they aren’t aware that Al has switched sides, and Fargo gets inside while hidden in the back of a car. The stealthy approach works for a bit. Fargo manages to stash several guards, including one in drag, in a closet. But one thug doesn’t go down so easily, and Carmichael’s kidnapper shows up. Fargo wins, but Mrs. Carver shoots Al, mortally wounding him. Al gets his final words out to Fargo, who then takes the dead man’s machine gun. Fargo kills Mrs. Carver and chases Carver back into the house.
Inside, Carver reaches his basement control room. He keeps an eye on Fargo through closed circuit cameras and tries to kill the spy using remote guns. Fargo gets past the sentry guns down to the control room, but Carver has one more ace up his sleeve, a working death ray. However, the death ray has one critical flaw as an anti-personnel weapon – it doesn’t traverse well. Fargo can dodge the lethal beam and shoot Carver. The death ray is recovered, and Lucille and Carmichael are rescued.
The biggest problem the movie has is budget. The sinister organization’s helicopter and submarine are obviously either models or toys, and the ocean is suspiciously tub-like. Fargo’s car at the end of the “car chase” is also either Airfix or Matchbox. The European locations look good, but should be expected from an Italian studio. While increasing the budget won’t necessarily make things better automatically, having actual equipment that doesn’t look like it came from the toy box of the director’s kid does help with the look.
The film’s editing needed a lot of work. Scenes needed to be tightened up. Elements that should have been removed, like the tossing of Fargo’s watch communicator into the pool at the end of the film. Part of the problem may be related to budget; you get the editing quality you pay for. However, proper cutting would take out some of the slower portions and remove the bizarre moments altogether.
Also related to the limited budget is the music. /Danger!! Death Ray/ has two main themes, “Badupadupadada” and, to use the name given by Mike and the Bots, “Watermelon Man“. While there is some other music, these are the two tunes heard the most, and they don’t always fit the scenes they’re in. “Badupadupadada” is a light, jazzy piece. “Watermelon Man” is more frenetic and does work for some of the action sequences, such as they are. However, music in movies has evolved. Variations of a theme isn’t as common, and even in films where variations are in use, the composer will adjust the score, the beat, and even the key to reflect the tone of the scene. A great example of this comes from the /Star Wars/ prequels; “The Imperial March” appears as a leitmotif in Anakin’s scenes, either as an undertone to hint at his coming fall or as a somber moment when the character edges down the path to the Dark Side. Danger!! Death Ray isn’t that subtle.
As mentioned above, Danger!! Death Ray is a spaghetti spy film; an Italian version of a 007 film much like how a spaghetti western is an Italian version of a Hollywood western. The form is there, but not necessarily understood. Bart Fargo is a pale imitation of James Bond, but without the charm that made 007 films popular. Again, the budget is not helping matters. The same year Danger!! Death Ray came out, Sean Connery starred as Bond in You Only Live Twice, which featured SPECTRE stealing rockets from both the Russians and the Americans and had 007 flying Little Nellie, an autogyro kitted out with more weapons than most modern jet fighters. The only gadgets that appeared in Danger!! Death Ray were Fargo’s watch radio and the oil slick sprayer used in the “car chase”.
With all the problems pointed out above, what can be done to remake Danger!! Death Ray and improve on it? The core story is decent enough, though needing some fixes. The big one – no one creates a death ray for peaceful purposes, or, if they do, it’s not called a “death ray”. The sinister organization can call it that; Carver, as the villain, could do so with great glee. But Carmichael should be calling it something else, like a mining laser or an anti-ballistic laser. Or, given that lasers are more common now than in 1967, call it something else, like a microwave-based maser, particle accelerator, or meson ray; something that sounds good but isn’t generally known.
Keep the general plot; it works as a good base even if the original result wasn’t. Tighten the script, let Fargo get hit a few times. Bond and Bourne have taken punches, and it adds to the tension if the hero isn’t guaranteed a win every time. Shorten the opening kidnapping; the chase does start to drag, though demonstrating the death ray is needed, as is the actual kidnapping. The stakes need to be set early. Show Fargo investigating, though that could be part of the edits for both TV and MST3K. Don’t let the action drag; the trailer for the original sums up most of the action as it is, and while movies can’t be all action all the time, slowing the movie to a crawl doesn’t keep the audience’s interest. The car chase should be a chase, not a tail. Action movies have changed in the past fifty years.
Tone of the movie is critical. The original was a Bond knock-off, but the 007 films have had a wide range, from camp to deadly serious. Spy thrillers have changed, too; 007 can get away with action sequences that other spy movies can’t, thanks to the franchise’s history. However, there is room for a film between Bond and George Smiley, one where car chases and shootouts happen without necessarily being over the top. It’s a delicate balance on what the audience will accept. Having the remake be deliberately silly won’t work; the original’s big conceit is the death ray itself. The rest of the film is more workman-like. Pick a tone and keep to it. That said, the security at the second villa is far more believable today, thanks to computers. Remote cameras, remote guns, central control system, all that is in use today.
Danger!! Death Ray is not a good movie, but it has the potential to be remade as one. The effort needed isn’t that great, either. The key will be budget. The film has to look more professionally made, including decent editing and using proper effects instead of toys. It could be done.