Remakes tend to come about twenty to thirty years after a popular original work’s release. During that time, there’s usually an improvement in film making technology combined with the original fading into the pop subconscious. However, since the advent of home playback technology such as video tape recorders, DVD, Blu-Ray, and conversion to digital formats, finding the original without waiting for it to show up as late-night or weekend afternoon filler is easy. Even in the 80s, when Beta and VHS were gaining popularity, some works could only be found during late night double-features on local TV stations.
The 1989 movie, Weekend At Bernie’s falls into the desirable range. The title has fallen into the pop subconscious; people who haven’t seen the movie are aware that Bernie is dead and is being dragged around for plot reasons. The film may not cost much to get rights to; it’s nowhere near being a Star Wars or a Back to the Future in terms of namespace. The movie is also easily found on DVD, though.
Weekend At Bernie’s starred Jonathan Silverman as Richard, Andrew McCarthy as Larry, Catherine Mary Stewart as Gwen, Don Calfa as Paulie, and Terry Kiser as Bernie. The movie breaks down into three acts. The first act sets up the relationships between the characters. Richard and Larry are young up and comers at an insurance firm trying to track down a couple of million dollars worth of discrepancies. Finding that one person has received four half-million dollar payouts, they go to their boss, Bernie Lomax, with the proof. Bernie mentions that the deceased would have multiple policies with different payout times, except the policies involved were purchased after the beneficiary died. Bernie praises the hard work and invites Richard and Larry to his home on Hampton Island.
That problem solved, Larry forcefully encourages Richard to ask summer intern student Gwen out on a date. Said date goes well except for Richard exaggerating his living situation. Richard still lives at home with her parents thanks to New York’s high cost of living. Larry did off his apartment, but Richard didn’t think Gwen would appreciate the cockroaches living there. The ruse falls apart and Gwen is not happy to be deceived.
Bernie, in the meantime, Bernie is meeting with Vito (Louis Giambalvo), Vito’s girlfriend Tina (Catherine Parks), Vito’s assistant Marty (Gregory Salata), and Paulie. Vito is a mobster working with Bernie to use the insurance company to launder money, except the laundering has been discovered. Bernie’s solution is to have Paulie kill Richard and Larry; he’ll set things up so he won’t be around for the hit. During the dinner, Tina plays footsie with Bernie. When Bernie leaves, Tina makes an excuse to powder her nose and follows her out, not aware that Vito has sent Marty after her.
The Labour Day weekend arrives. Bernie is the first to the island, getting the murder-suicide set up. Paulie is a little early, at least from Bernie’e viewpoint. Paulie gives Bernie a lethal overdose of drugs and leaves him seated in a chair. Richard and Larry arrive on the island, find their way up to Bernie’s house and let themselves in. They look around for Bernie, expecting that he’s out mingling. Instead, they find his dead body and the drugs planted by Paulie. The first act is spent establishing who everyone is and why it’s safe to laugh at what will be happening to Bernie. Bernie Lomax is not a decent human being. Richard is also due some payback, but not to the same degree as Bernie.
The second act covers the island’s wandering party. No matter where the party starts, it always ends up at Bernie’s. Anyone and everyone on the island shows up. Richard and Larry, who haven’t called the police yet because Larry was concerned that they’d be blamed for Bernie’s death, watch as people talk to Bernie without noticing that Bernie barely reacts. Thanks to a lifeguard giving Bernie a massage, Lomax’s neck is broken, allowing him to turn towards or away from anyone talking to him. Almost everyone at the party is too self-absorbed to notice that Bernie Lomax is dead.
The exception is Gwen, whose family also has a place on the island. Gwen wants to thank Bernie for the summer internship. Richard, who was wanting to call the police again because someone needs to be told that Bernie is dead, hangs up and intercepts Gwen. She gets diverted while Richard and Larry remove Bernie from the party and dump him outside on the beach. With Bernie not around, Gwen decides to listen to Richard who is horrible at apologizing but is starting to come clean. They head up to a lighthouse to look around, when Richard is blinded by the light and falls through the trap door and down the stairs. He and Gwen wind up on the beach, a wonderful night, just Richard, Gwen, and Bernie’s body drifting in with the tide. Richard manages to get Gwen to leave, then grabs Larry to bring Bernie back to the house, where they put him in bed.
The night isn’t over yet. Tina arrives, angry that Bernie stood her up and as drunk or even more so than Bernie’s party guests. She storms up the walk and into the house, demanding to know where Bernie is. Richard and Larry stand aside when she retrieves a large knife from the kitchen, telling her he’s in bed. Tina drunkenly stumbles upstairs, throws open the door, and her mood changes on seeing Bernie. Thirty minutes later, Tina returns downstairs, much happier. When she leaves, Richard and Larry are in shock that even Tina hadn’t noticed. As Larry puts it, “I get yelled at if I just lay there.” Tina leaves, and Richard and Larry call it a day.
The final act opens the next morning when Richard wakes up at 11am. Larry is out on the porch near the pool playing Monopoly with Bernie. Richard wants to call the police, but Gwen arrives to again thank Bernie for the internship that she couldn’t do the previous night. Marty has let Vito know that Paulie is as rusty as the hitman thought, so Paulie has also returned to the island. While Richard tries to delay Gwen so that Larry can dump Bernie somewhere, Paulie sneaks up on the house. The hitman hears Larry running around overhead and is in the perfect spot for Bernie to land on him when dumped. After a brief struggle, Paulie chokes Bernie and finds no pulse.
Richard manages to ward off Gwen again, then goes back to the phone to call the police, this time using the phone with the answering machine. Instead of dialing out. he gets the conversation recorded between Bernie and Paulie with Lomax’s plans to kill the two schmucks with the caveat that Bernie cant be around. Richard and Larry figure the safest place to be is off the island with Bernie. Since no one knows Bernie isn’t dead, they figure making Bernie walk around with them is the best thing to do. They make a dash to the ferry and miss it by seconds. Paulie, though, hadn’t, and is surprised to see Bernie racing towards the ferry.
After some thought, Richard and Larry figure out there is another way off the island – Bernie’s boat. The initial escape has some minor problems, but they do get going, only to run out of gas. Paulie gets to the mainland first and hires a water taxi to get back to the island. Everything starts coming together, with Gwen finally getting to see Bernie only to be told that he’s dead. Richard tries to explain, but given his tall tales earlier, Gwen is skeptical. The skepticism disappears when Paulie returns and empties a revolver into Bernie. The hitman then notices the witnesses and tries to shoot them, except the revolver is empty. He pulls out a second gun and starts chasing Richard, Larry, and Gwen. Bernie is left lying on the floor, a leg blocking a set of stairs.
The chase ends when Larry takes the initiative to draw off Paulie while Richard and Gwen hide in a bedroom. He gets a lucky break when Paulie tries to push Bernie out of the way and gets kicked in the groin for his efforts. The hitman shoots off the rest of the bullets in his revolver at Bernie then starts to reload. Larry sees his best change, grabs the phone with its long cable, and starts wrapping Paulie up in it. He decks the hitman, who falls into a headlock from Bernie.
The police are finally called. Bernie is put on a gurney to be taken to the ambulance. Paulie is arrested and put into a straitjacket. Richard takes his first vacation to spend time with Gwen on the island before she goes back to school. Larry decides to stay a couple of days in Bernie’s home to get in on the wandering party. It’s a happy ending for almost everyone, even Bernie, who finally gets buried.
The movie works thanks to the writing and the cast. It’s a screwball comedy with people to cheer for and against. The film sets up who deserves what happens, for good and for ill. Bernie, being the cheating bastard he is, gets the worst of it. Richard, thanks to his lies to Gwen, has to go through a few trials himself. And despite Bernie being dead, the movie keeps things light as a comedy should be.
Remaking Weekend At Bernie’s needs to pay attention to the details. The first act sets up several non-literal Checkhov’s Guns in the first act that come back in the third to complicate Richard and Larry’s plans. Even when the audience knows who and what these Guns are, characters don’t. In many comedies, a lack of communication that creates problems that can be cleared up if people would just talk causes audiences to raise their disbelief. In Weekend At Bernie’s, while people talking would clear things up, the people who could have done something were too self-involved to notice Bernie was dead, Paulie wasn’t going to tell anyone except Vito and Marty that he killed Bernie with an OD, and Richard and Larry were given a reason to not let anyone know Bernie was dead. Thus, only the audience has all the information.
Casting will be important. Terry Kiser portrayed Bernie before and after the character’s death. The postmortem smirk Bernie kept up added to the comedy. Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy had a chemistry together that comes out on screen; it is easy to believe that they are friends despite the personality differences. The three actors work well together, which helps when Richard and Larry have to carry Bernie around. A remake will need actors who get along. The new Bernie will need to be good at physical comedy without speaking. Robert Downey, Jr, may be an ideal new Bernie; he can do comedy, see Tropic Thunder. The rest, I’m not sure of.
Location was a key element in the film. The setting was an island with limited access, no cars, just ferries and other boats. The limitations are to prevent an easy solution, just jumping into a car to take Bernie to the police station or the hospital. The isolation is needed. Problem is, while cell phones were rare, bulky, and expensive in 1989, in 2020, everyone has a smartphone. There has to be a reason why Richard, Larry, and Gwen can’t use one on the island. Poor cell coverage is a possibility, which allows for people still taking photos and videos of Bernie’s hijinks without them being uploaded right away. The proliferation of smartphones creates problems with remakes, really.
The final portion that needs to be done well in a remake of Weekend At Bernie’s is the writing. Small details at the beginning, such as Bernie negotiating for a Maserati, the fired handyman, and the gardener, all come back at the end. The remake has to show the Chekhov’s guns to the audience; hiding details from the viewers does no one any favours. The first act could be tightened up; it takes up a third of the movie, but the act also front loads the information needed for the rest of the film to work. Common advice from people using word-of-mouth to get friends to watch Weekend At Bernie’s is to wait out the movie until it reaches the island, so there is room to tighten up the first act. It will be a balancing act, get everything needed for the later acts set up in a quick enough time to keep the narrative flowing.
Weekend At Bernie’s looks like it should be an easy remake, but the devil is in the details. Digging into the film, there are many areas where a remake can trip up and fall short of the original.
First, let’s clear up the title. There is no remake emergency. While people are getting tired of remakes and adaptations, they still are going out in droves to see them. No, instead, this is a look at remaking the firefighting procedural TV series, Emergency!.
First airing in 1972 with the TV movie The Wedworth-Townsend Act, named after the act passed by the Californian legislature that authorized paramedics. Prior to the act’s passage, people with injuries or medical conditions were still attended to by first responders, but any medical care beyond basic first aid required a nurse or doctor who arrived with the responders to authorize or perform. Since there is never enough doctors and nurses, not every person arrived alive at the hospital. In particular, if a heart attack victim could make it to the hospital, the prognosis was good, but there was a two-thirds chance that the patient wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital. Even with the special Coronary Ambulances used in Los Angeles, the lack of available nurses and doctors meant that the attendants could do little.
While act passed and the early paramedic programs got set up, Emergency! creators Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, and Robert Cinader met with officers of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) with an idea about a firefighter show focusing on the physical rescues to go along with the police procedural, Adam-12. One of the LACoFD officers, Captain Jim Page, suggested making the show about the new paramedic program, leading to the above pilot movie and subsequent TV series.
Like Dragnet and Adam-12, which used actual police reports, Emergency! would take its stories from LACoFD reports. Each episode split its run time roughly in two, with one part featuring Firefighter-Paramedic Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) and Firefighter-Paramedic Johnny Gage (Randolph Mantooth) of fictional Station 51 as they went out on rescue calls and the other part focusing on the staff of Rampart General – Dr. Kelly Bracket (Robert Fuller), Nurse Dixie McCall (Julie London), Dr. Joe Early (Bobby Troup), and Dr Mike Morton (Ron Pinkard). Unlike the later series Law & Order, where there was a definite split between the police procedural in the first half and the legal procedural in the second, Emergency! followed the patient from rescue to emergency room, with the paramedics handing off to the doctors.
A typical episode of Emergency! features three rescues, a serious one to hook the audience, a lighter one to show the range of calls paramedics were getting, and a big set piece. Some episodes kept with current events, such as earthquakes and brush fires. During the downtime between calls, the cameraderie at both Station 51 and at Rampart, plus some drama for the episode were shown. Emergency! is a work drama, where the work is far more exciting at times than crunching numbers and going to meetings.
The series made an impact in its day. The popularity of the series led to public demand for paramedic and EMT service in cities across North American. The number of deaths in transit came down thanks to these services. A generation of kids who watched the series became firefighters and paramedics. Public access defibrillators can be found in cities, further improving the survival rates of heart attack victims. The number of lives saved by one TV series is immeasurable.
To remake the series would mean either turning it into a period piece, reflecting the early days of paramedic service, or bringing it to today. While the former may hold interest, a general audience is more likely to want the modern remake. Things have changed greatly since the last appearance of Gage and DeSoto in 1979. Medical technology has advanced greatly. Training has changed, going from the six week training Johnny and Roy took through Rampart to two year diploma programs, including clinical placement. People. however, are still people. People will still find new ways of getting into trouble, and the classic methods never go out of style. The new approaches to rescues can be showcased. The human element is key; the audience wants to know who the characters are.
Storytelling techniques have changed since the 70s, as the remakes of The Mechanic and Death Wish show. The nature of police procedurals have changed, from Adam-12 to Hill Street Blues in the 80s to Law & Order in the 90s and 00s. Viewers will want more than just rescues and camaraderie. They are used to interpersonal drama. There is still room for Johnny and Roy, and for Kelly, Dixie, and Joe, but the rest of the cast may look different and not just because of diversity in the workplace. The result will look different, as it should. Times have changed; works set in the now, as Emergency! was, need to keep current.
Considering the age and the nature of the series, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a remake. Dragnet has had a comedy remake in 1989, a more serious TV series, The New Dragnet also in 1989, and 2003’s L.A. Dragnet with Ed O’Neill as Friday, produced by Dick Wolf. Adam-12 had a remake series in 1990. Emergency!, however, only had a animated series, Emergency +4 that aired during the show’s original run.
The main issue with a straight remake of Emergency! is that a reality series might work better. Much like Cops fills in the Adam-12 niche, though not well, a reality series that rides along with paramedics or films at a hospital’s ER would cover what the TV series did in the 70s, with the added “real life drama” that a scripted series can’t provide. There was a Canadian reality series that did film at ERs, called Emergency, where Canadian singer Jann Arden narrated the goings on at two Vancouver emergency rooms.
There have been drama series featuring firefighters, including Rescue Me and Chicago Fire. The focus, though, was on the characters, which audiences showed up for. Likewise, the hospital drama is a staple, with at least one or two on during an TV season. There is some room for an Emergency! remake, but it would have to stand out, either in location or in focus.
The choice, then, is to add drama to the remake or to go the reality route with a camera crew riding along with paramedics. It’s a difficult choice; reality is inexpensive, but tends to be on specialty cable channels. Adding drama may mean moving the focus, and some of the audience will be there for the rescues. Either way, someone will get disappointed. The goal is to keep the disappointment down.
Something that came up while researching links for use in this post was the discovery of a new series, Emergency: LA. It isn’t airing just yet and has been in development since 2014. The series looks like it will follow the first responders at LA Fire Department (note, not the LACoFD) Station 77 and the LAPD. According to IMDb, the series is set to air in July 2020. Whether the series is a remake, a spiritual successor, or a show using the word “emergency” because it suits the subject matter remains to be seen.
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.
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.
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.
Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s second season on Netflix was just six episodes, but it took advantage of the nature of binge watching. This season, Jonah was subject to The Gauntlet, six moves back to back to back as Kinga tried to once and for all find the combination of bad movies that would break his mind, with the intent of turning those movies on the inhabitants of Earth. In that light, why not take a look at each movie in The Gauntlet and see if they have the potential to be remade better?
Mac & Me
There is a good movie within Mac & Me trying to get out. It was called E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Mac & Me was an attempt to do to Skittles, Coke, and MacDonalds what ET did for Reese’s Pieces. The difference, though, was blatant levels of product placement. Only Josie and the Pussycats was more obvious with product placement, and that was for satire. The aliens, vacuumed up by a NASA probe and brought back to Earth, are elastic. They stretch the same way Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man, and Stretch Armstrong do. That broke suspension of disbelief early. The tone was inconsistent as a result.
Remaking Mac & Me isn’t worth the effort, not when ET is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming. There are good elements that can be pulled from the movie, though. While having the lead character be wheelchair bound was there to pull more sympathy for him, Eric, the Me in the title, wasn’t passive. Played by Jade Calegory, Eric drove the plot. The wheelchair and Eric’s inability to walk wasn’t a hindrance for the sake of a plot twist. Instead, the wheelchair enabled a car chase, of all things. There can be improvements, but the groundwork for a more inclusive cast, something that is needed today, is already laid down.
The first movie from the Twenty-First Century to be featured on MST3K comes from The Asylum. Again, there’s a good movie . . . no. No there isn’t. Atlantic Rim was made to take advantage of the far better theatrical release, Pacific Rim. The US Army has three new prototype mecha being tested when monster from the deep bubble up from the depths of the sea. The mecha are colour-coded, making it easy to reuse the same cockpit by changing the ambient light. The quality of writing makes Sharknado look like Shakespeare. The characters are anime mecha jocks, the brash pilots who get killed before a big battle so that the emo main character has to step up.
There’s no reason to remake Atlantic Rim as a serious film; it’s primary purpose was to cash in on the popularity of Pacific Rim. Instead, turn it into a parody of the genre of giant mecha and daikaiju. Don’t limit the parody to just Pacific Rim; anime provides many examples of both and Godzilla is a household name. Throw in Power Rangers; the mecha are already colour-coordinated. Even toss in a transformable mecha with a wink to Transformers, live action or animated. Broaden the genre here. Turn Atlantic Rim into the Airplane of giant mecha works.
Lords of the Deep
The last of the “leans heavily on another movie” entries of The Gauntlet, Lords of the Deep is several movies away from The Abyss. An unknown species makes contact with an underwater base, while the corporate owners of the base do everything possible to suppress that knowledge, including killing personnel. The details of why the mother corporation wants to keep the knowledge suppressed isn’t gone into great detail, but the creatures, some of the cutest aliens to invade, exude a slime that provides oxygen, allowing for greater lengths of time exploring undersea.
Unlike Mac & Me and Atlantic Rim, there is a core to the movie that could be remade. First contact from the perspective from the contacted makes for a twist on the usual approach. The ocean floor, while still terrestrial, is an alien location as far as humanity is concerned. Having aliens make contact there isn’t a bad idea, though this adds an added degree of complexity for the first contact. How does an aquatic lifeform even communicate to a surface air-breathing species? This is something that can be explored. How does humanity figure out communication with an alien species? Close Encounters of the Third Kind was all about trying to learn to communicate, eventually through music. Underwater, things change, so present the different ways an alien can try to communicate to humans who don’t know that they’re being talked to.
The Day Time Stopped
A family gets caught up in an alien war, the youngest disappears into a glowing pyramid, then the family travels to a new world to escape the destruction. Maybe. The plot soon took a backseat to the special effects in the movie. Two monsters appear and fight each other, ignoring the family. A tiny alien dances around the youngest daughter, maybe leading to the girl disappearing in the glowing pyramid.
The biggest problem is that the family, the protagonists of the movie, has very little agency. The one attempt to defend themselves from an alien miniature attack ship has the bullet fired being disintegrated and the family running and barricading themselves. The youngest daughter disappears, but there isn’t a way for the family to look for her. Things happen, but the point of view is from the spectators. Lords of the Deep at least has the cast given something to focus on while the cute aliens abduct them. For a The Day Time Stopped remake, get the family investigating, even if they don’t figure things out. Otherwise, they characters aren’t even audience surrogates. They’re just there to provide the book ends of the movie. Correcting that issue should help the film.
Lee Majors, Karen Black, and James Franciscus are thieves who managed to steal a medium-sized fortune in gemstones. Joining the cast are Margaux Hemingway, Gary Collins, and Roy Brocksmith, not necessarily big name draws but solid actors nonetheless. There is no honour among thieves as each plot against the others. Franciscus’ character, Paul, plays the ultimate long game with backstab by filling a lake behind a dam with piranha, Killer Fish is one of the follow-the-leader movies about killer sea life that came out after Jaws, without necessarily focusing on just the fish. The movie was a direct-to-video release in the US.
The movie is a good demonstration of how monster movies work, even if the piranha are mostly plot device than actual looming monster. Two mooks are used as redshirts to show how the piranha work to the audience. Innocents are killed to move the sympathy from the piranha to the protagonists. Annoying characters are killed to let the audience root for the title characters, the killer fish. Ultimately, the villain is done in by the piranha while the protagonists escape. The only major changes would be to establish the leads more before and during the heist, setting up the betrayals and twists. A little more budget could help, but 1979’s special effects are practical. Not showing the piranha and just showing reactions can add to the tension until the reveal.
Ator the Fighting Eagle
Left with a young family as a baby, Ator grows up, marries his foster sister who is then promptly kidnapped by henchmen of the priest of the spider god. To get her back, Ator learns how to fight from Griba. Once trained, he sets off on his quest, joined by the Amazon, Roon. The main problem with Ator is the pacing. There is a lot going on, but the movie slows down in places. The worldbuilding is weak. Amazons appear more to serve the plot than because of any other reason.
The movie may have been better served as a TV series. This would let the world develop. The different elements thrown at the audience in the movie would be developed and introduced as needed. The cult of the spider god could be built up as the big bad of the series. Ator and his foster sister/bride could have some time to develop their relationship. The rush will be gone. The risk, though, is that the series may not survive the ratings push. In 1982, though, networks were more willing to give a series time to find an audience.
One thing that The Gauntlet did was front-load the worst of the six. Mac & Me and Atlantic Rim are dire and if anyone is going to break while watching, it’d be during these two. The rest, while not Oscar worthy, aren’t Manos: The Hands of Fate level, either. Get through the first two, and the rest of The Gauntlet is easy.
Why remake any of these movies? Kinga said it herself, after watching those movies, we’ll never be able to see another film without noticing the flaws. We can learn from mistakes, though, both ours and others. It’s a rare bad movie that has no redeeming features. Even Mac & Me has some good ideas in it, despite the poor execution.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for ten years, taking some of the worst B-movies made and having a laugh with them. The series showcased a number of films, like Alien From LA, that missed the mark of being good by a wide margin. Yet, some of the featured movies had a nugget of a good idea. It was the execution of the idea that had problems. Space Mutiny is one of those movies.
Released in 1988, Space Mutiny starred Reb Brown as David Ryder, Cisse Cameron as Dr. Lea Jensen, and John Philip Law as Elijah Kalgan, and featured special effects by John Dykstra. Said special effects came from the original Battlestar Galactica, but let’s not quibble. South Africa wasn’t known for being a source of masterful special effects. The plot of the movie, well, that’s where the problems start. The movie is disjointed, with multiple elements seeminly tacked on. There is a spaceship, the Southern Sun, played by the Battlestar Galactica, whose mission was to find a new home for the generations of colonists on board. Several generations have lived their lives on board the Southern Sun without ever having set foot on a planet. A new planet, though, is near. So are space pirates, in league with Kalgon, who wants the colonists to settle on the planet.
Kalgon has the Enforcers, the ship’s security/police detail, under his control. He doesn’t have the ship’s flight crew, including Ryder, under his influence. However, a pirate attack featuring Cylon Raiders reduces the number of Starvipers, played by Colonial Vipers, and forces Ryder to make a hasty landing on the Southern Sun‘s landing bay. Sabotage causes the Starviper to crash. Ryder escapes the exploding ship through a short-range transporter, though his passenger, an important professor who never gets mentioned afterwards, perishes.
Ryder teams up with Dr. Jensen and discover the mutiny. Ryder rallies the rest of the ship’s crew to take the fight to the mutineers, leading to the engineering section being the main battlefield. The mutiny is put down, the space pirates’ main ships, played by Cylon Basestars, are destroyed, and the colonists are free to land on the planet. Or not. This doesn’t include the subplot with the Bellerians, a sect of women-only monks who arrived by Galactica shuttle prior to the first pirate attack. The Bellerians added a mystic element, though only to convince Commander Alex Jansen, played by Cameron Mitchell, to let people on the discovered planet, maybe?
The disjointed nature of the plot wasn’t the only problem. Continuity errors popped up. Pity poor Lieutenant Lemont, played by Billy Secord, who can’t even call in dead for her shift. Lemont was shot dead in one scene, but is shown later arriving on the bridge to start her shift. That would be a great reason to mutiny on its own. The Southern Sun‘s engineering section is an industrial power plant, with brick walls. Proper set dressing might have hid the inconsistencies, but someone should have at least noticed the windows and blocked the shot to avoid having them in frame.
The low budget comes up in other places. A computer used to verify Ryder’s identity card is clearly an 386 clone complete with a 5-1/4″ floppy drive. To the crew’s credit, that floppy drive worked as the card scanner, but only for audiences not familiar with the device. The carts used by the Enforcers were modified golf carts; the added mass to make the vehicles look futuristic affected performance, so the “high speed” chases weren’t impressive. The reuse of Battlestar Galactica shots leads to questions like, “Why are both landing bays out if the explosion happened in just one?” It’s not like the other landing bay is being used as a museum.
With the problems out in the open, what can be done to remake Space Mutiny so that it isn’t a mess? As seems to be the case with anything featured on MST3K, the core issue is budget. The crew did what they could with what they had, from using an industrial plant for the engineering section to using a corporate office for the bridge. The use of the industrial plant meant that the Southern Sun was one of the few movie starships that was OHSA compliant, with railings to prevent people from falling to their deaths. Sure, that instead led to people dying and falling over the rails, or “railing kills” as Mike and the Bots put it, but that added some visual drama, if overdone at times.
With a proper budget, the next step is to get proper special effects instead of putting the Galactica in reverse. Give the Southern Sun its own look. Make it a proper generation ship, not a repurposed warship. Sure, have a starfighter squadron there, but the goal is that the ship isn’t military. The remake should have its own look, if for nothing else the ability to license the designs to model kit companies.
While getting the special effects worked out, next to be tackled is the plot. The big problem with the mutiny is that the mutineers have a point. There’s a planet. The mutineers and their ancestors have been on board the /Southern Sun/ for lifetimes without ever having set foot on a planet. What is the harm of letting off colonists who want to settle on this planet instead of the Southern Sun‘s intended destination. After several generations, there should be more than enough colonists to settle both worlds. It’s not like space travel doesn’t exist, even if it takes time. The mutiny could have been ended before it began if both sides sat down to negotiate. There’s no indication in the movie that anyone even tried that. If the mutineers are meant to be the villains, then they need to be shown as villainous beyond breaking “the law of universe”.
If the space pirates are to be kept and the mutineers are to be in league with them, then a different motive needs to be found. Instead of wanting to settle on the planet, have the mutineers sell the colonists to the pirates. A ship full of humans willing to toil on a new planet must be worth something to some alien trader who doesn’t care if humanity is sapient. The colony ship – it doesn’t have to be a generation ship now, just far from home – is ripe for the taking. The colonists want to settle on the planet below.
Turning the generation ship into a colony ship fixes a few other problems, such as if this is as far as humanity has gotten, where did the pirates and the Bellerians come from? Now, instead of being lifetimes away from the start point, it’s just a matter of months or years. Have a crewmember or two mention previous colonies that have disappeared without a trace over the past few years to add some foreshadowing. This also ensures that the audience’s sympathies are with the colonists, not the mutineers.
After the plot is cleaned up, figure out what to do with the Bellerians. They were a last minute addition to pad /Space Mutiny/ out long enough to be released in theatres. Do they add to the story? Can they? Assuming that they can be worked into the narrative, it’s easier to have them already on board, separate from both crew and colonists, heading to start a new monastery on the planet being colonized. Define what they can and can’t do early, and decide if the mysticism is needed. The Bellerians should add to the narrative, not be a sidebar.
Costuming needs to be updated. Some of the costumes, mostly worn by women, date the movie to the mid- to late-80s. Blue bodysuits, while having the advantage of being visually attractive for the make gaze, don’t portray a sense of military discipline. Of course, if the ship is being used for colonial operations, it may not even be military. Given Public-Private Partnerships even today, a government colonization effort with private contractors isn’t that farfetched, and may give a little extra motive to the mutineers. This may mean that the uniform worn by crewmembers are stylish while still being functional for being onboard a spaceship, with the wearer being able to get into a spacesuit during an emergency. The colonists can then be easily distinguished by not wearing a uniform.
Sets are the last hurdle to get over. Space Mutiny tried to use an existing industrial plant to get past some of the need in building the engineering section. This got the movie the machinery needed plus interesting ground to stage a laser battle and chases, but also brought in brick walls and windows. CGI could be used to replace some of the problems, but creating a background that looked like a spaceship’s engineering section, completely with drives, but practical effects allow for the actors to interact with the set more believably. Unlike, say, the Death Star in Star Wars, the Southern Sun had protective railings to keep engineering crew from plummeting to their deaths by accident. It’s a touch that needs to be kept, even if to have a few railing kills. A few, not everyone shot in engineering.
Finally, continuity. Unless the Bellerians have the ability to bring the dead back to life, let Lt. Lemont stay dead. Let her have her time off. Make sure that the remake flows to the end, without sudden trips that pull the audience out of the story. The scale of the story needs to make sense. The original implied that there was a galactic and even universal tribunal creating laws, except the Southern Sun was far from its home. Set expectations early.
Space Mutiny, like many films featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, had problems with execution. The movie, though, has the germ of a good movie, just waiting to be coaxed out.
Remakes aren’t going away. Audiences will flock to an adaptation of a known work. Television is becoming more and more a source for the remake mill. If a TV series won its time slot in the ratings, it goes on lists of possible adaptations. Likewise, if a series influences how later, similar shows are made, it, too, becomes fodder for a remake.
However, television has a wrinkle that film doesn’t – syndicated reruns. With theatrical releases, there seems to be a twenty-five to thirty year gap between original and remake, depending on how well the original was received. That gap is the equivalent of a generation, enough time for a new generation to be born and grow up. During this time, film technology can improve and expand, providing a new way to tell the story. Films made in the Twenties remade in the Fifties could take advantage of colour, sound, and widescreen.
Syndicated reruns means a TV series is on the air for longer than the original run, keep a show alive in its original medium for far longer than a movie can ever hope for. If a series runs long enough, the syndicated reruns can air the same day as a new episode. The length of time between original and remake gets longer. But remakes and reboots do happen. Some are long awaited; others appear to come from out of the blue.
Another wrinkle television has, especially with long-running series, is a role gets associated with the actor playing it. This happens when the series is focused on that character. Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files is tied to James Garner. Likewise, Columbo is very much Peter Falk and Quincy is Jack Klugman. It’ll take time for these connections to fade.
When choosing a work to remake, it may be better to look at older series. Not from the Seventies, series from that decade are easily available and still have a large number of fans who are satisfied with DVD box sets of the show. Why not go back to the black & white days of TV. Not every series then is good for fodder. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger isn’t well known under that name, though Manhunt is Space is, especially the MST3K episode riffing it, is. There is a series that turned out to be as influential on how mysteries were made as Miami Vice was to dramas, police and otherwise – Peter Gunn
Created by Blake Edwards, Peter Gunn ran for three seasons from 1958 to 1961. The first two seasons ran on NBC, the third on ABC. The series starred Craig Stevens as the well-dressed private investigator, Peter Gunn, Lola Albright as his girlfriend, Edie Hart, Herschel Bernardi as police detective Lt. Jacoby, and Hope Emerson as Mother, the owner of Mother’s, a jazz club. When Emerson passed away during the second season, Minerva Urecal continued the role. The theme, written by Henry Mancini, was a hit. Mancini would win the first Album of the Year Grammy for The Music from Peter Gunn, compiling the music used in the first season. One of the musicians performing in the jazz combo for the series was a young John Williams.
Each episode of Peter Gunn ran about 25 minutes, allowing for a five minute ad break, and would start with a quick scene of the crime to be solved, often murder. Once Peter is hired, he’d dig into the case, question suspects, and get into fisticuffs, often on the wrong end. The series didn’t shy from having the lead get beaten up by mobsters and other assorted thugs. The first episode, “The Kill”, saw Mother’s bombed in retaliation to Peter’s investigating. Edwards brought film noir to television, fitting it to a half-hour slot.
There’s two ways to remake the series. The obvious way, which is what Edwards did for a 1989 remake, with Peter Strauss as Gunn and Peter Jurasik as Jacoby, is to bring the show to today. When Peter Gunn came out, a jazz soundtrack was novel, a new way to present a detective story. Today, thanks to shows like Miami Vice, using popular music is a given for dramas. Jazz, while still unusual, wouldn’t be as much a stand out today as it was in 1958. The idea, though, is still valid. Keep the jazz score, or change it up with something that fits today’s television without necessarily using Top 40 songs. The original had a signature style of music; a remake needs to have one, too.
The other approach would be to keep Peter Gunn in the late 50s. The series would have a distinctive look just from using the fashions of the era plus the chrome of the older cars. The jazz score would help accentuate the era, with the occasional period rock song. With the advantage of hindsight and time, the show can delve into social issues of the decade, not necessarily as a morale of the week, but to highlight how different life was then for different people.
Either way, a few details are hard-coded into the series. First, Peter and Edie are a couple. There’s no “will they or won’t they” going on. It was obvious in the original that Peter and Edie are a loving couple, with only the morality of the time preventing the answer of “they have.” The only television couple that is more up front about how much they love each other is Gomez and Morticia Addams. Second, Peter is well dressed, well coifed, wearing expensive clothes. At a time when the technology was rare and expensive, Peter had a car phone. Peter Gunn is not workaday like, say, Jim Rockford. Instead, he’s suave, even when he takes a beating.
Adaptations will happen. It’s the nature of the entertainment business. Studios want a return on investment, and audiences will turn up for a remake. Today, though, there is a lot of works available that still resonate with the general populace. There’s no reason to remake the same TV series over and over. Delve into TV’s history and there’s a wealth to be mined. Peter Gunn has been considered for a remake series. Steven Spielberg was working on a pilot of a new Peter Gunn series for the 2013-2014 TV season for TNT, but the show wasn’t picked up.
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.