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.
Very few TV series manage to reach seven seasons. The history of television is littered with series that couldn’t finish even one full season, shows that could get three before being cast adrift, and even a show that didn’t finish it’s own first episode. Series that reach seven seasons have a strong following. The even rarer series that can go for ten seasons tend to be staples of second-run syndication, even when the series is still running. However, there is one series that made it through ten seasons but never became a network darling.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was created by Joel Hodgson and first aired on KTMA in November of 1988. The premise was simple, as the opening theme says. A poor schmuck gets sent to a satellite in Earth’s orbit and is subjected to bad movies by his employers/kidnappers to find out just how much pain the human brain can take. However, the poor schmuck knows how to build robots, who help him get through the cheesy movies by riffing with him.
The Comedy Channel, one of the companies that became Comedy Central, picked up the show the following year. With the bigger budget compared to the KTMA days, the show became how it’s best known, with Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) not only riffing with the bots Tom Servo (first played by Josh Weinstein*, later by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (first played by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett), but also participating in invention exchanges with the Mads, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and Dr. Lawrence Erhardt (Weinstein), and doing skits as a break from the movie.
The riffing was the show’s main draw. The production crew looked for cheesy movies, ones that were bad not not necessarily boring, from the films available through syndication. While science fiction and fantasy films make up the bulk of the series, the show wasn’t restricted to just those genres until it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. Thus, movies like The Girl in Lover’s Lane and Mitchell appeared along with The Magic Sword and Space Mutiny. If a movie wouldn’t fill the show’s running time, film shorts were added, from old serials to educational films. As long as the writers could find the funny for riffing, the films were added to the line up.
The cast changed during the run of the series. When Weinstein moved on, Dr. Erhardt was replaced by TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). Joel was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) in season 5 during Mitchell, resulting in a new opening theme. When the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank were replaced by Forrester’s more evil and more capable mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl), who then brought on the Observer, aka “Brain Guy” (Corbett) and had Professor Bobo (Murphy) stowaway on her rocket ship after the apes accidentally destroy the Earth in the future.
While continuity was flexible, there were call backs to previous episodes, including Nelson playing Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate in several episodes. However, when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series, execs insisted on an on-going plot arc, despite the draw being the riffing. The crew did what they could, creating a chase where Pearl tried to catch up to the Satellite of Love. The final episode aired in August 1999 after increasing conflict between Best Brains, owner of MST3K, and the Sci-Fi Channel led to the show being cancelled after ten season, eleven if the KTMA year is included.
The show became a cult classic through word of mouth and the budding public-use Internet. The show had a wide reference base, everything from Gilligan’s Island and SCTV to Shakespeare and Proust. Tapes of the show were circulated, letting fans bring in more people into the joy of MST3K, even if the show wasn’t otherwise available in an area, like Canada**. Thanks to the magic of Internet streaming, Shout! has made the library available online through subscription, in addition to releasing the series slowly on DVD.
The cast members of MST3K continued with riffing with their own projects. Hodgson created Cinematic Titanic, working with Beaulieu, Weinstein, Conniff, and Pehl. Rifftrax was started by Nelson and included Corbett and Murphy. The demand for quality riffing was there. Several people answered the call, but, ultimately, the fans wanted one thing – more MST3K.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was a Kickstarter project started by Hodgson and Shout!, looking for $2 million to produce three episodes. The Kickstarter ending with over $5.75 million, enough for fourteen episodes and surpassing the Veronica Mars movie efforts. Backers received several benefits, including early access and their names listed in the credtis. With the eighteen years since the end of the series and almost thirty since the beginning, Hodgson, now the executive producer of the series, went with a new cast. Taking the place of Joel and Mike is Jonah Heston, (Jonah Ray). Like Joel and Mike before him, Jonah is also subjected to cheesy movies as Clayton’s daugher and Pearl’s granddaughter, Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) not only try to find the breaking point of a human but also try to commercialize the experiments to pay for the new base, Moon 13.
For this analysis, I’m only taking into consideration the first three episodes. Once more are reviewed, there may be an update. Fourteen 90+ minute episodes take time to watch and digest properly. However, all the episodes are available on Netflix. The decision to work with Netflix instead of a more traditional broadcaster or cable station gave the production crew more control over how the series was made. No fights with a station executive who never watched MST3K on what the show should do.
The first episode of a rebooted/remade series is critical in getting viewers to keep watching. Miss the tone, flub the casting, make one big misstep, and the audience leaves. It’s possible to take a show in a new direction; the rebooted Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how it can be done. But MST3K, at its heart, is a comedy. Fortunately, Hodgson is well aware of that, being the creator. The first episode of a show also has to set up the series for new viewers. It’s possible that someone watching The Return has only heard the word of mouth about the original and has never been able to watch an episode.
Thus, we get a longer than usual introductory segment in the first episode of The Return, including a pre-credits scene featuring cameos by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray talking up the new host, Jonah, before Kinga lures him to the dark side of the moon. The opening credits again tells the full story.
Keeping to Kinga’s desire to make the experiments commercially successful, the show not only keeps to the established format of the original but also brings in elements of late night talk shows, including a band, the Skeleton Crew, and ad bumpers, which also serve as a break point for the audience. The first episode features the Danish monster movie, Reptilicus, which doesn’t have the production values that early Japanese kaiju films had. The riffing comes fast and furious and pulls from a wide reference base but doesn’t overwhelm the action on screen. The host segments include the invention exchange at the beginning and features a rap about the monster legends throughout the world. But the first episode is meant to wow viewers both old and new. The following episodes would be the real tell for the series. Fortunately, the cast and crew are up to the task. The level and quality of riffs remain strong, and the host segments are entertaining.
Naturally, some changes were made from the original, including those noted above. There are new voices for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughan), Crow (Hampton Yount), and Gypsy (previously played by Jim Mallon and untility infielder Patrick Brantseg, now played by Rebecca Hanson). Gypsy also received a modifiction that lets her travel on the ceilings of the Satellite of Love, allowing her to drop in on host segments and in the theatre. Jonah’s host segments include laser-cut wood carvings to illustrate scenes, giving him his own twist. The main puppets now have a team of puppeteers instead of just the one actor doing both voice and manipulation. Thanks to the expanded budget from the Kickstarter, the door sequence is more involved, yet still retains its charm.
Overall, The Return is a return home to the Satellite of Love. Even with the changes in cast, the new series is still MST3K. Joel Hodgson took efforts to find out what fans enjoyed, choosing movies that reflect the fan-favourite episodes. The result is a series that welcomes back the fans of the original series while bringing in new viewers.
* Better known today as J. Elvis Weinstein.
** Rights issues were the main problem. MST3K had limited rights licensed to them for the movies, and thus couldn’t pass that along to foreign broadcasters. The only way for anyone outside the US to see the show was through the passing of the tapes, which was encouraged in the end credits of each episode. The other option was to see the movie without the riffing, a dire state of affairs for some features.
Correction: I originally had Michael J. Nelson credited as Professor Bobo, when I should have have Kevin Murphy. Apologies to all involved.