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.
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.