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.
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.
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.
Lost in Translation has looked at some of the easier movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to remake and to watch. Time to amp up the difficulty and see if Manos: The Hands of Fate can be remade.
Manos is infamous on MST3K. The Mads took pity on Joel during the experiment, the movie was so dire. Netflix included the Manos episode in it’s lineup of classic MST3K. Thanks to that episode, the movie far better known today. The movie began its existence after producer and director Harold P. Warren bet Stirling Silliphant, script writer for Route 66 at the time that not only can anyone make a horror movie, he could make one on his own. Unfortunately, Warren won that bet. With a budget of just US$19,000, Warren wrote the script for, directed, and produced Manos.
The film follows a family of three, Michael (Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman), as their vacation takes a horrific turn when they stumble upon the home of the Master (Tom Neyman) and meet his servant, Torgo (John Reynolds). The Master runs a cult where he rules over his wives. Torgo “take[s] care of the place while the Master is gone.” As the young family is drawn deeper into the Master’s web, Torgo rebels. Ultimately, Debbie and Margaret become wives of the Master and Michael takes over Torgo’s role.
The budget doesn’t begin to describe how low end the production was. Warren rushed filming to make sure he could return the rented equipment on time. His camera could only record thirty-two seconds of film at a time. Lighting was limited, and many scenes were filmed at night because the actors had day jobs. The opening seven minute car drive, which may have been meant to be used for opening credits, was just scenery. So, while Warren may have won the bet he had with Silliphant, he wasn’t successful at creating a horror film.
Yet, the core idea, the Master’s cult and how the family falls victim to it, is viable. It was the execution that turned Manos into what it is. The equipment problems that Warren had aren’t a factor for even student filmmakers. Digital video recorders with far longer record times than thirty-two seconds are available off the shelf as a consumer product. Editing software is available through open source projects. Special effects can be done with CGI if needed.
To remake Manos, start with the script. Clean it up with a few more drafts so that the dialogue doesn’t seem stilted. Keep the idea of Torgo as a satyr and imply that the Master has a link to the Winter Court of the fey, a touch of the supernatural for today’s audiences. Ramp up the tension and eerieness. The Master’s dog should look like it came from the depths of Hell, with blazing red eyes; use the myth of the Barghest to tie the dog in with the fey. Keep the cult, but make sure that the Master seems more than human. The hardest part is deciding what to do with Debbie. The original Manos has the little girl becoming one of the Master’s wives, which may not sit well with modern audiences. Does Debbie escape, leaving room for a sequel hook years later? Or is she indoctrinated into the cult? Or, given the fey background being woven in, is she exchanged for a changeling and sent out elsewhere?
As with the other movies examined this month, budget was an issue with Manos. However, giving the remake a huge budget would do it a disservice. Manos could easily be done by students with commercial equipment today. The remake needs a modest budget, but most of the details come from the world around us now. It’d be fitting to remake Manos with a smaller budget than most releases, but the studio shouldn’t turn cheap. Provide what is needed; don’t force the filmmakers to cut corners.
A remake of Manos isn’t impossible. Last year, Debbie’s actress, now known as Jackie Neyman Jones and her father, Tom, who played the Master, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to film a sequel, MANOS Returns. There is an interest.
Ultimately, a remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate is possible. The effort to remaking the film isn’t so much trying to preserve the original as it is pulling out the good in what was an awful movie. Today’s filmmakers have access to so much more than what was available in 1966 that even a student film could do the work justice.
Why the remakes this month? November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and I’m participating. As an attempt to save some time, I want to cut the number of movies watched down to get to the analysis faster and still be able to get to NaNoWriMo’s goal of 50 000 words in 30 days. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the MST3K remake posts are running longer than expected. As a result, the choice of movie to be remade is based on familiarity with the episode.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is known for riffing. That’s the core of the series and its follow ups, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. For the early years, the crew went for the cheesy movies that were packaged with films that TV stations would want, partially because of the cost. No one wanted the movies, really, so they could be had for cheap. Some of the films were re-packaged episodes of old TV series, edited into one movie. Such is 1954’s Manhunt in Space, which began life as Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Rocky Jones lasted all of two seasons as a syndicated TV series in the early days of television. Manhunt consists of three episodes of the series, the three chapters of “The Pirates of Prah” that were easy to edit together.
Manhunt in Space stars Richard Crane as Rocky Jone, Scotty Beckett as Rocky’s co-pilot Winky, Sally Mansfield as Rocky’s navigator Vena, Robert Lyden as Bobby, Patsy Parsons as Queen Cleolanta of Ophecius, Ray Montgomery as Space Ranger Reggie, Henry Brandon as space pirate Rinkman, James Griffith as Space Traffic Controller Ken
The movie opens with Vena and Reggie on board a cargo rocket heading to Casa 7 when they get hit by a mysterious ray, neutralizing the ship’s systems. Pirates led by Rinkman board the cargo rocket to rob it of its valuables, then leave, letting the ship drift without power. Meanwhile, at the Office of Space Affairs. Rocky and Winky are told that their leave has been cancelled. Instead, they’ve been assigned to investigate the disappearance of a number of ships near Casa 7. They rush there in their rocket, where they find Vena and Reggie adrift. Rocky brings them about his rocket, then tries to work out where the pirates could be based – Prah. On Ophecius, Queen Cleolantra receives work from Rinkman about the success of the raids. Cleolantra, though, compares Rinkman to Rocky, not inspiring confidence in the pirate leader.
Since Prah has a defensive field around it that no ship has been able to penetrate, Rocky gets a new device installed on his ship. Cold light*, when activated, will cloak Rocky’s ship by causing light to slow down; the device runs close to absolute zero, rendering the light slower and thus not showing anything, the opposite of a mirage. The cold light lets Rocky penetrate Prah’s defensive field and land.
On Prah, Rocky uses a tried and true method to discover information – he gets caught. Rocky learns that Rinkman is taking orders from someone else, but not who. Rocky escapes and flies back to Casa 7. The pirates, though, have a man on the inside. Space Controller Ken reports Rocky’s return to the pirates, who then come to Casa 7. The pirates capture Rocky to prevent him from reporting in. Rocky manages to escape and fools the pirates into thinking he’s left. The pirates figured out that an invisible rocket is hard to find, so they marked the landing pad where they captured Rocky. Rocky moved that mark to an empty pad. He lets the pirates gather, then strikes. The climactic battle sees Rocky and Winky taking on the pirates and winning. Rocky then takes his crew to his ship and leaves Casa 7, letting the local authorities round up the pirates.
Why remake Manhunt? It doesn’t have name recognition beyond being featured on MST3K. It is old enough to be picked up on the cheap. The plot works with a retro-pulp feel, much like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Space pirates, a femme fatale queen, and a plucky hero, everything that should make for a decent pulp movie is there. Manhunt‘s biggest problem was being a syndicated TV series; again, low budget, though the crew did try to get fancy with the cold light cloak. Our knowledge of space has grown since Rocky Jones first aired.
To remake Manhunt, let’s start with the Space Rangers. That organization is going to be the core concept of the remake. They’re the reason why the main characters are interacting with the plot. In Manhunt, Space Rangers patrol space to keep it safe from the predations of space pirates and evil queens, almost a prototype of Star Trek‘s Starfleet. Unlike Starfleet, the Space Rangers weren’t primarily for exploration, and the rocket ships only had a crew of three – pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. In the remake, the Space Rangers get a definite mandate – defend the Solar System.
Much like what happened in the Fifties, when old black and white silent films were remade with full colour and sound, a remake of Manhunt can take advantage of not just colour but also digital effects. Set design is easily augmented by CGI these days, and environments impossible to film in due to toxic atmospheres can be easily simulated. Black and white isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but a Manhunt remake may work better with colour.
Technology has changed since 1954. Manhunt‘s sets, which were done on the cheap for 1954 look woeful in 2017. Fortunately, not only can we make Rocky’s ship look modern to today’s eyes, we can do it for possibly less than in 1954. CGI takes care of the exteriors, though a detailed model may be nice and will help with merchandising. The interiors need to be updated so that they at least match the photos NASA has released of both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Thanks to modern technology, the average person has a better idea of what the inside of a real space-going vehicle looks like. Thanks to modern science fiction television, the average person has a higher expectation of what the future will hold.
What the above means is that a decision needs to be made about what the space ships look like. Does the remake stay with the sleek rocket ships or will the Space Rangers use a vessel that looks like it evolved from the Space Shuttle. Rocky’s ship was capable of landing on its end, something that is still in experimentation today. A key moment in the movie is that Rocky can land his ship while cloaked in cold light. Audiences might find it easier to believe a space ship that looks like it came from the Shuttle can do just that. Changing up the ship design also means letting each major element – Rocky, the space pirates, and Queen Cleolantra – to have an easily identifiable vessel each.
Plot-wise, the main points from Manhunt can be reused. Space pirates are causing ships to go missing near Casa 7 and Rocky and his crew are sent to investigate. The investigation leads Rocky to discover the pirates’ base on Prah and that Cleolantra is behind the plot. The question of whether Rocky faces Cleolantra in the climax does depend on what format the remake takes. As a movie, to have a satisfying ending, Rocky must meet Cleolantra. Sequel hooks are possible; Rocky could escape Cleolantra’s clutches and foil her plans without defeating her outright. If Manhunt turns into a remake of Rocky Jones, though, Cleolantra could be left in the background, a hint to the audience of what’s to come later in the season.
There are details to clean up. The nature of the size of the United Planets, whether they represent just the Solar System or a larger community, needs to be worked out. The writers need to know the difference between a planet, a moon, and an asteroid. The dialogue will need to be worked on and some of the then-innocent lines may have to be excised. The writers should take the advice of Joel and the Bots and not overuse the word “space” as a modifier; the audience will get that the adventure is in space without the extra help. Winky might want to refer to the wild nightlife, not the gay nightlife, and “riding the rocket”, which may have come from “riding the rails”, now has a different meaning today. Of course, the writers could take Winky in a new direction and have him have a guy in every port. Even the title can use some sprucing up; Manhunt in Space is more serviceable than Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, but could use some oomph If you have a suggestion, add it to the comments below.
Manhunt in Space is a good example of television trying to jump on the space opera bandwagon. It was done on a low budget, typical of the era, and it shows. With work, it could be brought back. The core of the movie, space rangers on patrol battling space pirates, has potential, as long as there’s effort made to update the material.
* Cold light is technobabble, but the idea behind is solid if one doesn’t examine it too hard. As things cool, they lose energy. At Absolute Zero, there is no energy left in an object. Since light is both a wave and a particle, removing energy should slow it down. However, so far, the only way experimentation has been able to slow light was to send it through a dense substance, there may not be a basis for the technobabble. Such is the way of technobabble.
Continuing with the month of remaking films featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Lost in Translation will take a look at the first movie in colour to be riffed on the series, 1986’s Robot Holocaust, with Norris Cuff as Neo, Nadine Hart as Deeja, Joel von Ornsteiner as Klyton, Jennifer Delora as Nyla, Andrew Horwath as Kai, and Angelika Jager as Valaria.
The Great Robot Rebellion of ’33 resulted in the destruction of New Terra and the coming of the Robot Holocaust. Humanity in a nameless destroyed city that looks suspiciously like New York City has been subjugated by robot overlords, resulting in needless gladiatorial duels to the death. During one, Klyton, a free robot, picks the pouches of spectators, but is caught by Neo, an outsider. Neo interrogates Klyton using his robot telepathy, discovering that the Dark One, also known as “the Darkwan”, forces the strongest humans to fight, taking the victor away for an unknown fate.
At the Power Station, Valeria, chief servitor of the Dark One, has a feeling that something is off back in the destroyed city. Deeja, in the city, challenges the authority of the robot overseer. As a result, the Dark One authorizes cutting off of fresh air in the city. Most of the humans fall, but Deeja, her father, and Neo are unaffected. Deeja and Neo are told to fall as if they can’t breathe, and Deeja’s father negotiates with Valeria to get the air restored. The Dark One orders his minions to bring Deeja’s father to the Power Station.
With the quest set – rescue Deeja’s father, who developed a way to offset the poisonous air – Deeja, Neo, and Klyton take a small group of rebels through what were once subway tunnels, starting in mutant-filled Central Park. Along the way, the group runs into a band of Amazons led by Nyla and their prisoner, Kai. Neo challenges Nyla to a duel. Nyla is defeated and the price of defeat is to lead the group to the Power Station.
Quests wouldn’t be quests without a trip through a sewer. The sewer Nyla leads them to is the home of sewer worms, dangerous creatures that feed on the flesh. While the first idea was to send Klyton as bait to lure the sewer worms out where they could be seen, Neo chooses option B – chopping their way through. The brief violence does provide action, and the group gets by the death trap.
The next stage is an abandoned oasis. From there, the band of rebels head back to the city, where they are attacked by mutants. One of the band is killed, but they rest survive, thanks to Klyton’s force field. The rebels do find the Power Station. Posted on the approach are the remains of the winners of previous gladiatorial duels, dead, their bodies left as a warning. Neo finds a ring and takes it. The group looks for an alternate entrance and finds an old subway emergency exit.
The Dark One isn’t unprepared. Even the emergency exit is trapped. Pit traps, angry robots, giant spiders, and the unending anticipation of being attacked dog the group. The rebels penetrate deep into the Power Station and confront the Dark One. However, it is Valeria, forsaken by the Dark One, who is the instrument of the villain’s destruction.
As with Danger!! Death Ray, one main issue is budget. Budget isn’t a cure-all; a large budget is by no means a measure of success. Just look at Battleship, a $US200 million misfire. But too small a budget creates limitations that hamper the production. With Danger!! Death Ray, budget limitations meant using toys and models. With Robot Holocaust, the victims of the budget restriction are sets and costuming. The movie looks cheap, which doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
However, the biggest asset Robot Holocaust had going for it was being made in the Eighties. Going back to the History of Adaptations, the Eighties were the first decade to have more popular original movies that adaptations. Anything went; follow the leader wasn’t working as expected. The Terminator, while not in the popular list, caught people’s attention as a science-fiction/horror film, leading to 1991’s Terminator 2, which did get on the popular list in the Nineties. Movie goers are willing to cut films slack in areas provided that they make up for in others. /Robot Holocaust/, though, didn’t do that.
The script as filmed feels very much like someone’s Gamma World. The elements are there for the game – post-apocalyptic world with robots controlling humans in one settlement, another settlement run by Amazons, a third that are no better than barbarians, and a stranger with mental powers that affect even robots. The characters wind up going through several underground structures that would be called dungeons if the scriptwriters had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons instead. There’s even a mutant plant creature. The problem with adapting a tabletop roleplaying game, among many, is that many games, particularly those published before 1986, don’t have a definite setting, and Gamma World is one of those. There are certain assumptions, such as an apocalypse occurred outside the memory of the elders and that mutants are running around, but Gamemasters were encouraged to destroy their hometown and remake it within the game’s paradigm.
Even if the film wasn’t based on a Gamma World campaign, its setting has a lot of backstory, leading to the use of a narrator. Film has a limited amount of time; few people are going to sit in a theatre for six hours to watch one movie. Even today’s television binge watchers take breaks every couple of hours for food and hygiene. Film is not a good medium when a setting needs explanation. Star Wars managed to use an opening crawl to good effect, but George Lucas was deliberately invoking the serial movies of old. Robot Holocaust doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, even with the opening narration, Neo’s robot telepathy is still out of the blue and doesn’t get much screen time after the first use. The movie’s setting may have been better served in a longer format, one that allows for a proper exploration of what is possible, such as television or a book. As it is, the audience is being expected to accept a lot with no real support from the movie.
Can Robot Holocaust be remade? The elements for a decent movie are lurking within the MST3K fodder of the original film. The format, though, will need to be changed. Robot Holocaust puts a lot on the audience in a short time, barely acceptable when the film was made. A low budget movie to begin with, Robot Holocaust, as presented on MST3K comes across as a student film, along the lines of Dead Gentlemen Productions’ Gamers and Demon Hunters, both of which were done while the group was in university. Today, though, the power of what major studios had in the Eighties can be had by amateur filmmakers off the shelf at little cost, thanks to open source software and improvements on technology. The Four Players is another good example that shows the ability of amateur film making today. It should be possible to remake Robot Holocaust.
The big question on remaking Robot Holocaust is the format. The big problem the movie had is focus. There is a lot happening in the background that gets the short shrift because of the lack of time available in a film. The movie moves slowly, but it may be better served as a TV series. The characters would get more screen time, allowing the audience to get to know them better and building on the relationships between them in a more believable manner. The opening credits of the potential series could show the apocalypse, leaving more time for plot and character development in the episodes. The events of the movie can be covered in the first season, but the focus becomes the quest and the building of trust between the rebels.
Like Danger!! Death Ray, budget did play a role in the quality of Robot Holocaust, but the budget wasn’t the cause of the movie’s problems. Remaking /Robot Holocaust/ needs to take into account the needs of a post-apocalyptic plot, and that does require time that most films don’t have the luxury of investing in background. If Robot Holocaust is made, it will need a new format.
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.