Sunday, June 27, 2010

Moon of the Wolf (1972)


Werewolf movies can be pretty fun. You’ve got your guy running around with fur on his face. You’ve got the terrified populace. You’ve got the full moon and unearthly howls. It’s kind of hard to screw that up. But as the MST3K episode “Werewolf” proved, it is possible. How will this offering from the 100 Sci-fi Classics stack up?


In a small southern town Sheriff Whitaker (David Janssen) has a problem. A body of a young woman is found torn to shreds in the bayou. Soon suspects begin to surface. Was it her love Dr. Druten (John Beradino)? Perhaps her brother Lawrence (Geoffrey Lewis) had something to do with it. Or maybe the ultra rich and ultra snobby Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman) is hiding something. To complicate matters, Louise Rodanthe (Barbara Rush) comes back to town and takes a shine to the Sheriff. But she holds secrets as well, and do they have anything to do with the “Moon of the Wolf”?

Good Points

  • Most of the cast is fairly good in their roles.
  • The werewolf scenes create a creepy mood.
  • Figuring out the identity of the werewolf was fun.

Bad Points

  • The made for TV roots show.
  • Some of the interpersonal drama goes on too long.
  • The werewolf make up is silly looking


You’ve got your basic made for television werewolf movie from the 1972 here. You know what the entails. It goes on a bit long with the talking, and the scares are strictly of the “Night Gallery” variety. That said, it’s an effective film with some creepy undertones. If the mood strikes you, it’s an entertaining little movie.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals – 3

Sound – 3

Acting – 3

Music – 3

Story – 2

Direction – 2

Entertainment - 3

Overall - 3

Film Review

Once you get past the bad day for night filters in the first couple of scenes you’ve got a pretty solid movie here. As I mentioned above, it very much reminded me of “Night Gallery” in tone and style. That can be a good thing, because “Night Gallery” had some solid episodes. Of course it had some bad ones too.

Visually it looks like a made for TV production. It lacks the glossy look of a theatrical film, or the trashy look of a drive in quickie. Instead it’s got that television look, hard to describe but immediately identifiable when you see it. The clothes are oh so 70’s, especially the gowns that Barbara Rush wears. Most of the men sport sideburns of various shapes and sizes. There is nothing too innovative with the camera work, but when the creepy stuff comes down in the last fifteen minutes or so, its framed well. The chase in the mansion is handled with some skill. On the audio side, everything sounds just like you’d expect, from the howling wolf to the night sounds of the bayou. The music isn’t intrusive either, just enough of it to raise tension. Interestingly it avoids some of the more funky stuff you could get in 70’s movies (listen to the music in “Mitchell” for a sample of what I’m talking about).

Acting-wise everyone is effective. No one stands out as either too good or too bad, just the right balance is achieved. David Janssen plays the southern Sheriff as the type of man who knows and likes everyone in town. He’s a protector of sorts and sees the murders as an affront to his skills. He gets a bit of romance with Barbara Rush, and it works well enough. Rush plays her character as a woman who is caught under the oppressive hand of her family. She doesn’t live up to their expectations and so they look down on her. She seems a bit too old for the part, but she is closer to Janssen’s age, so it works out fine.

Things get a bit wobbly in the story and direction department. These are tied together because the story itself is pretty thin. The sheriff discovers the murder, searches for clues, determines that it might be a werewolf and hunts down the suspect. It’s not quite enough to fill in the needed 75 minute running time, so the story is padded out with interpersonal drama. Some of it is between the Rodanthe family, some of it is between Dr. Druten and the Sheriff, some of it deals with the brother of slain woman and her father’s superstitious take on the werewolf. Parts of these story lines could be interesting, but they feel like padding.

Director Daniel Petrie does his best but it’s the padding scenes that do him in. There is only so much you can do to make long talky scenes work. For a while the movie stops being a horror film, or a murder mystery and turns into a small town drama. It breaks the momentum and keeps the movie from really talking off. I think Petrie was working in television constraints and did his best, but the movie could have used a tighter script and a bit more time in development.

That said, when the movie is focusing on the mystery elements and the horror elements Petrie pulls it off. The finale at the mansion is well done, and even if some of the characters make the typical dumb horror movie mistakes, it never becomes a true groaner.

“Moon of the Wolf” was much better than I hoped. 70’s movies can really bog down in the pacing department – and TV movies even more so. But the mystery of the werewolf identity was fun enough to work. And even when things got too talky there are plenty of 70’s cloths, furniture and sideburns to enjoy. Gather a few friends over and the movie is good for your own riffing session. But on it’s own it’s solid entertainment.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It Lives By Night (1974) – MST3K Review

Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) would rather go on a tour of caves then spend some serious bedroom time with his newlywed wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew). Perhaps it’s karma that causes them to fall into a chasm and John to get bit by a bat. At first it all seems fine, but after some bizarre convulsions and nightmares, John takes himself to see Dr. Kipling (Paul Carr). Kipling thinks that some pre-emptive rabies shots are needed. But when a nurse is murdered at the hospital John is staying in, we begin to suspect something else. So does Sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki), especially when he finds evidence of John at this and other crimes. With a death toll mounting Cathy wants to protect her husband, even if he is a man-bat.

Movie Review:
It’s a 70’s monster movie, so that mean’s it’s going to have that vaguely depressing dreary feel to it. While it moves faster than The Touch of Satan it isn’t far from the squishy antics of The Incredible Melting Man. We also get a doctor as the main character in this film, but instead of trying to help the mutating creature – he is the mutating creature. Still, there isn’t much difference between Dr. John Beck and Dr. Ted Nelson. They even seem to have the same wardrobe.

But let’s leave the melting man behind and focus on our winged mammals here.
This movie (also known as The Bat People) has a serious made for TV vibe to it, from the way shots are composed, to the style of acting. The whole thing feels like what you’d see late Saturday night, after you tucked the kids away. You might be hoping for some spooky fun, a few jump scares, and of course a mutating monster terrorizing a small town. Well you don’t quite get that. For a while it almost seems like Dr. Beck is a bit unstable to begin with, and his encounter with the bats has left him rabid and deranged. It almost could be interesting, but the movie tips its furry wing too early with Beck’s hand transforming into a furry long fingered freak limb. So we know he’s a monster, even if the movie proceeds to never show Mr. Man-bat until the end. Most of the time we get to see close ups of John’s eye, or reaction shots of his victims. Once you do see Beck fully transformed, running around in his oh so 70’s turtleneck and furry face, you understand why they kept him hidden.

The actors aren’t too bad, just kinda bland actually. Moss plays Dr. Beck as a kind of weasely guy, whose lack of interest with his randy wife and fascination with caves makes you want to slap him. When our hero is infected, Moss sweats a lot, flails and looks to be in a state of constant annoyance. I think he was supposed to be afraid, but it never really looks that way. As for his convulsions in bed – well you have to see them to really appreciate the full impact. McAndrew makes Cathy caring but ultimately a little too devoted. It’s pretty obvious that John is mutating and killing and Cathy just goes along with it. McAndrew never really allows us to see why she accepts serial murder. She just does, after sleeping with John and being infected too. Carr as groovy Dr. Kipling has the 70’s porn actor mustache and the demeanor to go with it. If I walked into any scene with him and a nurse or Cathy, I’d think we were watching a very different kind of movie. On the other hand you’ve got Pataki as the crusty and folksy Sergeant. He plays it well enough, but he’s so craggy and abrasive, you don’t end up rooting for him to catch John.

That’s really the whole trouble with this It Lives by Night (and Incredible Melting Man and Dr. Z for that matter), who are we rooting for? John’s a spastic jerk. Cathy’s a wet blanket who accepts her murdering husband. Dr. Kipling is sleazy. And the Sergeant seems more interested in tormenting John, and not really solving the crime. Without a likable or relatable character in the bunch, it’s hard to be pulled into the story and thus – be afraid. Modern horror movie’s take the same tactic, but usually provide unlikable characters because they are all going to get killed off.

The audience gets its sadistic thrill from watching jerks die. But in this film (and many of the 70’s monster films) that isn’t the case. There is just a dreary overtone that seems to say “Hey everyone in the world is an abrasive jerk. We’re showing you real life here man… well real life if Man-bats existed”.

There are other problems here. When we first meet John he is already in tune with the bats. He seems to hear them calling to him and is fascinated by caves. After we see that, he and Cathy fall into the little pit and he gets bitten by the bat. So are we assuming that John was already a little nutty? Like I said earlier, this actually could be turned into an interesting psychological script: John is obsessed with bats, and the bite makes him think he’s a Man-bat, when in fact he’s just nutty. But that angle is never taken. In fact his fascination with bats before the incident is never addressed. Am I over-thinking this? Sure. But I only do so because after Cathy is infected, she hears the same sound that John does at the beginning. She becomes obsessed with caves and wanders into one, then the credits roll. We assume she will become a Woman-bat. So that begs the question – was John already infected when It Lives by Night starts – or is he just eccentric?

I’ll end with a discussion of the dreams. Once he’s tainted, John has dreams of bats. Most of these poor little guys are being held by the wings and are looking for escape. I think the director hopes they look scary, but they look annoyed or afraid most of the time. There are countless shots of flying bat puppets, and stock footage of bats on cave ceilings. Mixed with super 70’s spooky music and you’ve got one hell of a hallucinogenic fugue going on. These scenes pad the film out, but they are so random and silly that you have to laugh. Coupled with the furry make-up for man bat and the finale involving dive bombing bats, and you’ve got a movie perfect for Mike and the bots.

Episode Review:
After the experiment that was Hamlet, the crew gets back to a classic genre – the monster movie. But instead of a 50’s one, like we got so frequently in Season Eight, we get a 70’s one. Season 10 has quite a few 70’s monster movies in it, with this movie, Track of the Moon Beast, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z and Squirm. I’m not complaining, it’s just an observation. It was probably a calculated move, especially since Hamlet was so black and white, they probably wanted something with at least some color in it -even if that prevailing color was brown.

Luckily It Lives by Night is pretty lively for a 70’s flick. It moves along fairly well, even with the padding of the dream sequences. It’s got characters that behave so strangely that Mike and bots have plenty to work with, even if we don’t get to see the monster till the very end. John is such an odd knucklehead that he’s perfect for riffing. He delay of sweet honeymoon action for a guided tour of a cave starts off the jokes at his expense. Really, what young newlywed male is going to act this way? During the credits we get a song (supposedly sung by Cathy) that is a slow folk tune. This gives our riffers the chance to add new lyrics and comment on the style. When we get to the cave tour and our heroes plummet into the chasm, well all bets are off. These people are too dumb to be nice too.

The riffing is pretty steady and most of it is amusing. Comments range from simple exclamations of “Squeak!” whenever John looks annoyed/afraid, to references to 70’s television shows that look like they used the same sets. The “Squeak” running joke had me cracking up, because the timing was golden and the expression on John’s face was just made for it. The dream sequences provide lots of laughs as Mike and bots provide some silly comment from all the bats being shown. They even use their rough and tumble animal voice (if you’ve seen The Giant Gila Monster episode, you know what I’m talking about) for most of them, and it works perfectly. I also enjoyed the climax when the Sergeant and Cathy are racing to a cave to find John. Suddenly a swarm of bats bombards the police car. At least it’s supposed to be a swarm of bats – it looks more like tomatoes. The Sergeant starts panicking. Infected Cathy looks vaguely evil. The result is riffing gold.

Still, you get a few quiet spots, or sequences that are too dreary to work with. As usually happens they show up in the middle section of the film. Also, there are quite a few 70’s pop culture references going on, and quite a few went over my head. So I think your mileage may vary with It Lives by Night.

The show starts with Mike and the bots painting the Satellite. Mike tests the theory that paint color affects mood. Pearl declares that she is not spraying poisons on the satellite. Of course she is and even Observers’ legal disclaimers can’t prove otherwise. At the first break Crow is determined to prove that he is more like Mary Tyler Moore than Cathy in our film. This sketch is worth seeing, especially when Mike does his killer Ted Baxter imitation. At the next break, Mike is rabid and the bots must administer a series of painful shots. I think they enjoy it too much. At the next break, everyone is inspired by groovy Dr. Kipling and grows a 70’s porn star mustache. Pearl is the test subject this time! After the movie ends, Tom has joined the Buddy Ebsen Hat Distressing Corporation. Turns out he might have been scammed. The show ends with Pearl giving a slide show about all her husbands - who died and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

When I’ve watched It Lives by Night with my wife we both have different reactions. I enjoy it quite a bit, and she finds it funny but not distinctive enough to remember it. Her tolerance for the dreary 70’s movies is lower than mine, and I think you need to take that into consideration. So I’ll average the grade to reflect this. 

I give this episode three annoyed bats out of five.

This episode is available on DAP.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nostalgia Nugget - Bond is Cool Again

James Bond stopped being cool around the 80’s. As much as I love the 80’s Bond films (for the most part, there are a couple stinkers), I admit that they are a little too edgy to be the high tech cool machines that earlier Bond films were. Those wildly over the top adventures in the 1960’s cemented James Bond’s place as cultural icon. Movies like Goldfinger and Thunderball in the 60’s and The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in the 70’s were fantastical adventures of the comic book variety.

They pulled in the younger crowd and that crowd decides what is cool. The 80’s never really had a chance for that, mostly because Bond was avoiding fantasy for the most part and settling on more realism and edge. When things went over the top, they did it in a cheesy way (see Octopussy or A View to a Kill). Dalton had a moment of coolness, with his kick ass ice chase scene - but his Bond was never about cool, it was about danger.

Now Brosnan comes along and he’s got cool covered, and so Bond is cool. I’ll admit it has a lot to do with the actor playing the part. Brosnan fit his time, bringing what audiences craved to the role, the sly humor and killer edge. All he needed was something to make the younger generation buy into him. Surprisingly it wasn’t the movie Goldeneye that did it. I remember the immediate reaction to the film was, “It’s pretty good. Brosnan’s not bad. I enjoyed it. I wonder what the next one will be like.” People liked the film, but didn’t seem to love it. But then two things happened that make Goldeneye “the Bond movie” of the 90’s.

The first was the Nintendo 64 videogame. Goldeneye revolutionized video games with its innovative take on the first person shooter (you control a character armed with guns, giving you the point of view of the character). It put player into the action, into the movie and into the world of James Bond. It was as if you were fighting 006, or Xenia. Or even better invite a few friends over and play head to head to head to head. Suddenly the four of you are racing around, searching for the best guns, picking your favorite Bond character from the film or from past movies (including Scaramanga, May Day, Jaws, Odd Job, and many more). The game was a huge success, one of the most successful videogames of all time, and it’s popularity carried over to the movie and the world of James Bond as well.

In addition the new home video technology of DVD was evolving at the time. One of the best movies of that burgeoning technology was Goldeneye. It was used to demo the system, it was jam packed full of extras and it was great to showcase sound and picture quality. Suddenly Goldeneye was on screens all over the world showing off the wonders of DVD.

Those two elements combined with the host of spy movies that came out in the 90’s made 007 and espionage cool again. The 1990’s a real rebirth of James Bond and Goldeneye was the start of it.

Check out the review of Goldeneye.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hamlet (1961) - MST3K Review

Alas poor Hamlet (Maximilian Schell)! His mother Gertrude (Wanda Rotha) has married his uncle Claudius (Hans Caninenberg) after the untimely death of King Hamlet Sr. One night the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet and declares that Claudius not only stole the queen, but also murdered the king. Now Hamlet must determine if the ghost is telling the truth all the while dealing with his grief. This causes him to act very strangely – disturbing his fragile girlfriend Ophelia (Dunja Movar). Several monologues later, Hamlet decides to spring a clever trap to reveal is Claudius is the killer. If the guilt falls on Claudius, Hamlet will exact his revenge. But if Claudius is blameless, then the ghost is obviously a demon. Who will be left standing after revenge is complete for Hamlet – The Prince of Denmark?

Movie Review

Shakespeare is universal. His stories and the way he tells them have inspired productions across the globe. Sure we are familiar with some of the more famous film attempts – Olivier, Branagh or Zefferelli. But even legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, found the story of Hamlet inspiring enough to adapt it into a twisted tale of Japanese politics and business for his film The Bad Sleep Well. So it really should come as no surprise that there is a German version of the play, with Maximilian Schell in the role. On the surface it sounds like a good thing – an interesting take inspired by Germany post World War II.

I’ve seen poor productions of Shakespeare (and have performed in a couple too). One of the worst I’ve seen was a version of Macbeth that was inappropriate on every level – from the acting down to what I will loosely call costumes. I’ve never wanted to riff a production as badly as I wanted to that night. But I held my tongue, in case family members wouldn’t have appreciated my comments.

This version of Hamlet is slightly worse than that version of Macbeth I experienced. Mostly because this version of Hamlet goes out of its way to make slow moving play crawl even slower. You want an example of dreary lifeless Shakespeare than this is the version for you.

Filmed entirely in black and white for German television, everything about the film is depressing. The set is abstract, with ramps rising here and there. Blocks of what look like concrete and rebar approximate thrones (that description sounds much more interesting than what you see). A dais here, a cross over there, and mostly shadows and black curtains. I can see what they were trying to do, allow the acting and faces of the characters to stand out more against the darkness and sparse set. That works fine if your actors can keep things compelling.

That just isn’t happening here. The first huge problem is that the entire film is dubbed. I’m still not sure if the film was recorded with the actors speaking in German and then dubbed into English, or if they were speaking the lines in English and then dubbed again in English. Either way they’ve almost all been dubbed by another actor. Maximilian Schell’s familiar voice is the exception to this; he appears to have dubbed his own lines. But take Claudius, for example. If that isn’t Ricardo Montalban doing is voice – well then I’ll throw back my head and yell “Khaaaaaaaaaaannnn!” This dubbing is half hearted at best and just droning at the worst. One of the funniest parts of this film (not on purpose) is to hear the voices of the play within the play. These people don’t care, don’t’ know what they are saying and just spout out the Bard’s lines like they are reading ingredients off the back of a candy bar wrapper. Hamlet and Claudius are the best of the lot, but even their work is very poor.

Then there are the odd camera choices. I’ve mentioned the lighting before, but there are other odd things. During the whole encounter with the ghost, the camera stays on Hamlet – the whole time. The ghost talks on and on and on, in a dubbed voice sounding like doped out Yogi Bear. We see Hamlet, um reacting I suppose. But it looks more like Schell thought the camera was going to be on the ghost, so he’s just kind staring for a while and then looking mildly anguished – or maybe it was indigestion. Why the ghost isn’t shown during this scene is beyond me. You do get to see the ghost earlier and even if he is dressed like a drag queen, it would make things more visually interesting than staring at a close up of Hamlet’s un-emotive mug. The play within the play pulls the same thing. We see Claudius and Gertrude watching the play and Hamlet leering like an imbecile behind them. The droning actors go on and on and Claudius looks more and more constipated – but other than that it’s as dull as dull can be.

Are there any good points? Schell has moments where he isn’t over acting or under acting. They are few, but they are mildly effective. He is a huge fan… of… the… dramatic… pause. As we know Hamlet gets a ton of long speeches – well Schell manages to make them even longer. I wanted to keep this positive, so I’ll say that when he’s on, he’s not bad. Also not bad is Movar as Ophelia. She’s cute and does a good job in the role, both in the early scenes when she’s obviously pining for Hamlet and later when she’s gone off the deep end. Her dubbing is passable, but runs into the issue of sounding bored or just reciting words at times. I feel bad judging her too much since she died a couple years after this was made, and rumor has it that she killed herself. Franz Schafhetlin as Polonius has some funny looking hair. Dieter Kirchlechner as Laertes looks like Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon. And then there’s Gertrude with her clown hair and bugged out eyes has to be seen to be believed. Was this supposed to be a surreal horror film?

Shakespeare can be tough to perform and Hamlet is often considered one of the tougher plays to do well. You need all your aspects to work together and to keep in mind that you want to entertain the audience as well as deliver that cathartic pop that all good tragedies can deliver. This film has none of those elements. It’s supremely dull. It’s dreary. It’s full of itself. It’s really the opposite of entertainment. It’s a challenge that Mike and the bots couldn’t resist.

Episode Review

This has to be the most controversial episode of the entire run of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This episode divides people as no other does. When the worst episodes of the show are discussed, this one is always added to the list, if not at the front of it. Those who dislike it site the dullness of the movie, the fact that it’s Shakespeare and that makes it too interesting to riff, or that it goes against the very concept of the series.

For the most part, those that enjoy the episode tend to really enjoy it. Maybe not putting it in the top 10, but certainly in a place as one of the most unusual and entertaining episodes of the season and the whole run on the Sci-fi Channel. I fall into that camp. For me, Hamlet is a favorite episode.

This episode has simple gags like the moment where Laertes and Hamlet give each other the evil eye and the bots grumble “Loosertes”, “Craplet”. And it has ones that play on the words of the Bard themselves. Such as inserting extra phases into the famous “To Be or not To Be” speech. As Schell pauses dramatically after saying “To sleep, perhaps to dream!” adding extra emphasis on DREAM! Mike adds “The impossible DREAM!” It’s got comedy for the fans of the English major in the room as well as the neophyte.

To be honest sometimes the film defeats them. There are a few long stretches without riffing (sometimes because the speechifying is going on and on and on). Also, this movie is so dreary and dull that it does threaten to overwhelm any joy you may have in your life. A few other movies fall into this category (Red Zone Cuba, Monster A Go-go), and it takes some serious riffing energy to pull it off. In this case there are some really bright moments, but also quite a few quiet ones.

What this episode really boils down to is a challenge for the crew at MST3K. I think that the idea of tackling one of the greatest dramas in the English language appealed to them. They knew It was the end of the run for them. Why not do something different and unexpected? Why not tackle a really horrible version of Hamlet and see what happened? At heart most of the crew at Best Brains are well read and well versed in movies. I can see the appeal of tackling this type of thing.

But it really turned against them. So many people find this episode to be unfunny and completely boring. I’ve heard some people call it pretentious and self-indulgent. In a way I can see it. This episode wasn’t done with the fans in mind – I think it was done for the cast and crew.

When it came to the host segments things are really mixed. The episode starts off with the bots trying new names like Htom Sirveaux and Crue. Then Pearl reveals her plot to infect the world with a deadly virus. Mike distracts her with a game a three card Monty. At stake, if Mike wins he gets to pick the movie. If he loses, him and the bots will be infected. Pearl is easily bamboozled and Mike picks Hamlet. Little did he know what he was in for. This whole sequence is very amusing with Mary Jo really working the comedy as Pearl, and Kevin playing Bobo perfectly.

At the first break the bots try to scare Mike by being the ghost of his father – it doesn’t work too well. The next break has Tom and Crow performing various avant-garde versions of Hamlet – the all furniture version sounds interesting. At the next break it’s time for the new game show, “Alas Poor Who?” The bots must guess the identity of a celebrity from one of their bones. Don’t forget to put your answer into “Alas Poor” form. The game show sequence is so silly and dumb, you can’t help but laugh. After the movie ends, the bots show off their Hamlet action figure. At Castle Forrester, Prince Fortenbras shows up and demands to say his lines. Pearl sets him straight.

What it all boils down to is this. You are either going to find Hamlet to be amusing and worth checking out. Or you’re going to find it a real slog and maybe an episode that puts you to sleep. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. I think it helps if you enjoy Shakespeare (and Hamlet in general). I also think it helps to have a sense of humor about the Bard and his work, as well as those who attempt to put it on and don't quite manage. 

I’ve run into a few people who still dislike it for all that, but I think it helps you appreciate what the show was trying to do.

Alas, I can not give it five stars. Instead I give this episode four Yorik skulls out of five. I knew it Horatio.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Vol 4.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Murder at Midnight (1931)


It’s time for another dip into the well of the 100 Mystery Classics. This one looks promising, a murder during a party that leads to more murders. Kinda like “Clue” made in 1931. It’s even got a meddling butler. But is this an early prototype for the murder farce or is it more of a slow train to oblivion?


A party was going swimmingly until one of the attendees is killed by a gun that was supposed to be filled with blanks. Soon Inspector Taylor (Robert Elliot) is brought in on the case, assisted by the helpful criminologist Phillip Montrose (Hale Hamilton). Everyone is a suspect from the flighty Mrs. Kennedy (Aileen Pringle) to the butler Lawrence (Brandon Hurst). Soon the murders start to stack up, and the Inspector is racing around to catch the criminal who seems to want a murdered man’s will and a letter implicating murderer in the crime. It all starts with "Murder at Midnight".

Good Points:

  • Clara Blandick provides a good performance as the grumpy Aunt Julia.
  • The killer came up with a great use for phones.
  • I didn’t know they had criminologists in the 1930’s, so I learned something.

Bad Points:

  • The pacing is glacial.
  • Most of the acting comes via the school of pausing... a lot.
  • Mystery fans will call the ending about 5 minutes into the 70 minute movie.


Slow moving mysteries aren’t always bad. Sometimes it gives you a chance to find the clues for yourself. But the ending to this one is so telegraphed that you just wait for the other characters to catch up to your deduction. When the acting is filled with long pauses and there is no forward momentum, then the whole thing ends up dragging on – even if it is barely 70 minutes long. “Murder at Midnight” is a dud that could have used a tighter script and a better director to keep things fun and thrilling.

Score (out of 5):

Visual Aspects: 2

Sound Aspects: 3

Music: N/A

Script: 2

Acting: 2

Direction: 1

Entertainment: 1

Final Score: 1

Film Review

Was this based on a play? That might explain some of the staginess of the whole production. On the other hand, if the play was this dull and obvious, why would it be made into a movie? I’m at a loss here. It looks to me that this little film had a low budget and a director that didn’t know how to film a mystery the result was just a long slog.

Visually there wasn’t much new or interesting going on here. You’ve got a standard big house set, with most of the party goers dressed in their best 30’s finery. The print I saw was pretty beat up, so much so that when there were scenes in darkness (happens a few times) the screen actually got lighter, as if someone was trying to compensate for the darkness. It made things really hard to see. But aside from that, the movie wasn’t shot with much imagination. Shadows were used in a basic way for a few murder scenes, but beyond that, there wasn’t much style or panache to the movie. If the script and acting aren’t going to carry the movie, you gotta hope that a little style could be injected into the film.

The sound work was typical of an early 30’s low budget film. Nothing astoundingly bad or good, just functional and a little hollow sounding. Made me wonder where the mics were hidden. There is no musical score for the film, just a little fanfare for the opening and ending titles. This is also typical of the time and the budget.

Your acting ranges from entertaining, like Blandick’s take on Aunt Julia or Leslie Fenton as the nervous and jumpy Walter Grayson. To jaw droppingly bad in the form of William Humphrey’s meandering take on the lawyer Colton. Most fell in the middle, where they performed the parts with little interest or zest, but seemed to be there for the paycheck. The biggest hurdle was the long… pauses… between… lines… or… words… depending on the… situation. But I’m fully prepared to blame the director on that one.

The script suffers two crimes that mystery films should always avoid. First, the obvious killer. My wife called it in 5 minutes, but she’s a fan of mystery novels and films. I’m not quite as well versed, but when she voiced her deduction, I agreed. I was momentarily thrown off about half way through. Colton’s bad acting seemed to be bad on purpose. So I figured it was an act – no, it was just a bad actor. The movie goes out of it’s way to point you in every direction but the killers – so naturally that character is the killer.

The other problem is that the script meanders, instead of going from clue to clue. It might be attempts at red herrings. It might be attempts to flesh out the characters. It doesn’t matter. The movie lacks a sharp focus on the mystery at hand, and the result is boredom.

The script attempts humor, but most of it will be dated for modern eyes, and was probably weak for viewers in the 1930s. It was mostly character based humor instead of witty lines. If a bit of smart and funny dialogue had been added (the butler character was practically built for this!) the movie would have been more entertaining. But the plot based dialogue was dull and the humor was unfunny.

The direction is really to blame. In almost every area, I see someone who either didn’t care or didn’t have enough knowledge behind the camera. Editing is jumpy and actually kills the few moody scenes in the movie. No tension is built or delivered. A potentially tense showdown is hum drum because of the abrupt way it’s handled. Even the initial murder, which has a nice bit of dark humor built in – just lays there limp and dull. Add that to the fact that the director should be on the actors, having them delivering the lines with more urgency or spice. Instead we get deliberate with a side of pausing. It just makes me wonder if the guy even cared or if he was only used to shooting dramas.

It all adds up to boredom – no tension or mystery to be had in this little film. And it’s a shame too, because you really had a chance. At first the movie seemed to be going toward farce, but it didn’t. Then it seemed to be serious, but it was too dull to make an effect. Sadly the movie was not engaging in the slightest even for fans of bad movies. There’s not enough to work with here.

James Lileks didn't think much of it either. Check out his review here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Final Justice (1985) - MST3K Review

Texas lawman Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III (Joe Don Baker) simply has to escort Italian hit man Joseph Palermo (Venantino Venantini) back to Rome. But bad blood exists between the two. Palermo killed Geronimo’s best friend and partner in cold blood. In turn Geronimo killed Palermo’s brother while attempting to apprehend them. Palermo’s friends aren’t about to let the Texan get away with this, so they force the plane to land on the small island of Malta. There, Palermo escapes and Geronimo must hunt him down. But Texan swagger and stubbornness aren’t going to capture the killer, even if perky policewoman Maria (Helena Abella) is assigned to help Geronimo. He’s gonna have to take matters into his own hands to execute his brand of Final Justice.

Movie Review

It’s not a bad idea for a movie, not terribly original, but you know, it can work. Take one very Texan deputy Sheriff and stick him on the picturesque island of Malta to chase a bad guy. Have him run into a few fish out of water scenarios. Give him a cute Maltese sidekick and throw in some strippers and boat chases and it should work out right? In theory, but in execution it comes back to the script, which was really flimsy. What you’ve got here is enough to make a 40 minute episode of a cop show, but trying to turn it into a 90 minute movie just kills it.

I’m not a big fan of Joe Don Baker. He’s good in specific parts and that is usually a kind of blue-collar blowhard. He works as comic relief or as a foil, but as your main character – well Baker comes across too abrasive. He can deliver a pushy, stubborn and decidedly non-diplomatic Texan. But do you want that as your main character – for 90 minutes? In many ways it’s not too far from Baker’s role in Mitchell but not as dumb. Geronimo seems like a decent enough guy, he just believes that he has to do whatever it takes to get his man. A real old fashioned cowboy, but instead of rooting for him, you end up feeling bad for the Maltese people who get caught in the crossfire between him and Palermo. All in all, I don’t blame Baker, he does what he can with a cliché character. But I think some more effort should have been made to make him a little more likable.

On the other side of the coin is Venantini as Palermo. He seems to be having a blast playing the oily and twisted villain. He chews scenery, says all kinds of mustache twirling evil lines and is equal parts annoying and dangerous. He’s a great foil for the stubborn Texan. His disregard for others and brutal outlook make you really hate him. At least in this case, he’s a clear villain as opposed to the reasonable and urbane villains in Mitchell who ended up making the hero look like an uncouth slovenly idiot. Part of the reason this movie works is because Venantini is so good at being bad. We may think Geronimo is too pushy and a little too quick to beat people up – but to catch this sleaze, it might be worth it.

The rest of the cast is OK, reminding me more of television actors in style. I’m sure I’ve seen Bill McKiney in other action flicks and televisions shows. Here he plays the harassed official Chief Wilson who has to deal with Maltese authorities whenever Geronimo screws up. Helena Abella as Maria the policewoman is perky and cute. Her part is severely underwritten, more like they wanted another girl in the movie so they came up with this half-baked character. She doesn’t have much enthusiasm. Patrizia Pellegrino plays the hooker with the heart of gold. Again, the part is flimsy and not too interesting, but she does what she can with it. Rossano Brazzi as Don Lamanna plays the cool and collected mafia boss who is protecting Palermo. He puts a little more effort into the role, but it is a small one that hints at a more interesting back-story.

What really shines in the film is the Maltese location filming. With its sapphire blue Mediterranean waters and impressive walls built by Crusaders, the island is really something to see. Unfortunately director Greydon Clark doesn’t quite manage to show the island off as well as I had hoped. During the boat chase scene we get some great views of the impressive fortifications, but I was disappointed you didn’t get to see more. We do get to see plenty of floats and costumes during the carnival sequence, as well as some of the narrow medieval streets. Still Malta doesn’t come off too badly and it makes for some interesting locations shooting during the action scenes.

About those action scenes. Clark really tries to drum up some excitement here. But it never really clicks. Even big moments like the bar fight or the boat chase just don’t do much more than make you wonder how much longer the sequence will continue. The best sequence is the standoff between Geronimo and some thugs. It’s a typical cowboy face off, even aping Leone style close-ups and tension. The inclusion of innocent Maltese onlookers makes this scene work, but it also make Geronimo look like a real jerk for putting those people in danger instead of attempting to work out another solution.

The worst of the bunch is a very very very long foot chase that turns into a boat chase, that ends with tough Geronimo getting knocked out with one hit, and Palermo not killing him right there. What? The footchase scene is very dull, with an attempt of suspense with Palermo disguising himself as a monk, but instead of blending into a crowd, he runs onto a lonely dock!? They run around some dock equipment and boats, but it’s less than thrilling. Finally they hop into boats and you get your hopes up for a bit – but it never gets going. It just seems like two guys are motoring around a bay in Malta instead of chasing each other down. Bad filming and editing are the real culprits here. Well-executed action scenes require planning and skill in pulling off. I get the feeling that the action scenes in Final Justice were improvised very close to shooting and the result is something that never gels.

That’s the problem with the movie in general, it never comes together to make an entertaining whole. Individual elements seem to work in isolation. Others, like the music, don’t work at all. But still the final product should have been more interesting than this. I mean you got to film on Malta and island with a lot of history and visual interest. But the bland half-baked script scuttled this flick before it had a chance. Combined with poorly executed action and thrill scenes – in your action movie – well that makes Final Justice a dud in any book.

Episode Review
Back in Season Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 did a landmark episode. It was called Mitchell and it will live in infamy. Mostly because it was the last episode that show creator and original host Joel Hodgson appeared in. But for my money it was also a top-notch episode, one of the best of the series. The movie Mitchell was a mean-spirited piece of 70’s anti-hero worship. Joe Don Baker played an unappealing hero who was dumber than the villains and you were supposed to root for him. Joel and the bots went to town on the character – and on Baker himself (unfairly attributing many of the characteristics of Mitchell to the actor). The movie was mean, the riffing was meaner – but it was hilarious. It’s an episode that many fans enjoy, and that rumor has it Baker hates with a passion.

I’ll stop before this turns into a Mitchell review. But my point is that Mitchell looms large over MST3K, and I can see the appeal of the crew tackling another Joe Don Baker as cop movie again. Final Justice seems to have all the elements, as well as new ones to mock. The only problem is that fans of the show are going to compare it to the Season Five classic – and it will be tough to top.

I think the difference is the target. Mitchell was a nasty character, not the least bit likable. Geronimo is stubborn and obviously unwilling to adapt to his situation, but he’s facing a man who is a real monster. In Geronimo’s mind, he has to do whatever it takes to capture Palermo – or else the bastard is going to do worse things to more people. We might not agree with Geronimo’s tactics, but we understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Mitchell never comes across that way. He just seems like an idiot from the first moment we meet him and gradually reveals that he’s also got a twisted sense of ethics.

What does this all mean? Mitchell deserves to be the target of countless slob, eating, farting, low IQ and fat jokes. Geronimo – not so much. In Mitchell we accept the attack on Baker and Mitchell because we dislike the character so much. But in Final Justice the attack on Geronimo and Baker seem off base and too mean spirited. I think that in the effort to recapture the glory of the previous episode the crew made the mistake of riffing the persona of Joe Don Baker instead of the movie Final Justice. Now these final three seasons of MST3K are all a bit meaner and more sarcastic with the riffing. I accept that. But a few times they boys go overboard and I think this is a perfect example of it.

When they do end up actually riffing the movie and some of it’s obvious flaws there is some funny stuff, but it seems to be lacking in energy. Most of that energy is saved for mocking Joe Don Baker and his eating habits. My favorite scene of the episode is the scene involving the carnival. Lots of good riffing for the floats and the costumes and that provides some solid laughs. I also enjoy the riffing of the guard and his little tollbooth. And those of you looking for some funny Catholic riffing will enjoy the entire foot chase with Palermo disguised as monk.

The host segments are hit and miss. The show starts with Tom wondering about “The Owner of the Lonely Heart” compared to owners of other things – like toaster ovens. Pearl shows up with a corporate inspired “having fun at the workplace” moment. She’s about as successful as most corporate suits are at making work “fun”. After the break, the bots try to prove a point to Pearl about continuity. Mike shows off his physical comedy skills. The next break features the Maltese favorite – Goosio, who appeared in Final Justice as a float. Goosio seems nice enough – which means that the bots must make him suffer. At the next break, Crow unleashes his inner anger toward all things Maltese. Mike tries to correct this obnoxious flaw. The movie ends and Mike assumes that he can escape from the Satellite of Love – just like Joel did in Season Five. The sad truth is revealed to him – Joe Don Baker does not equal the end of your duty as human guinea pig.

This episode is lacking in a lot of ways, but it’s got some funny moments. But it’s one of those times where the whole episode never comes together for me. It’s not deadly dull like The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, but the laughs aren’t as frequent as I would have hoped. Now I do know a few people who actually enjoy this episode more than Mitchell. So maybe you’ll find something to like, but for me, when I want to see a full-blown roast of Joe Don Baker, I’ll reach for Mitchell and leave Final Justice on Malta.

I give it two Goosios out of Five. You disagree- well you go ahead on.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater Collection Volume XIV.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Star Trek (2009)


With the implosion of the television series "Enterprise", the Star Trek franchise seemed dead. The last movie featuring the cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" had been beaten up in 2002 by a combination of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond. But fans and studio execs couldn't let it remain that way. Besides Batman and James Bond had both received makeovers to huge acclaim? The same could be done for "Star Trek"... right?


James Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself in Star Fleet Academy facing a little matter of cheating during a test, when all hell breaks loose. The planet Vulcan is under attack, by a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who has some anger management issues. With some help from Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk finds himself aboard the starship Enterprise. Things go from bad to worse, when Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is captured and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is left in charge. Spock's logical nature is at odds with Kirk's impulsive personality. But the two will have to work together to stop Nero and save the galaxy. Look for turns by all your favorite characters in this revamp of "Star Trek".

Good Points:

  • Brings the fun back to the franchise
  • The story goes in a new direction but remains a part of the established series
  • Will appeal to fans of brisk entertainment and action

Bad Points:

  • The story uses time travel... again.
  • Some of the camera work and editing is too much
  • Missing the way the series tackles ideas as well as adventure


"Star Trek" needed a jump-start and this movie does just that. It introduces our heroic team, provides them with a thrilling adventure and injects life into the series. The name of the game is entertainment. And while it does that in spades, it is missing the thoughtful element that makes "Star Trek' what it is. As much as I enjoyed this film, I hope that the next one will have a little more brain behind the thrills.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 4

Sound: 5

Music: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

In Depth Review

I'm a fan of "Star Trek". My knowledge of the series isn't as well versed as that of "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings", but growing up in the 80's you couldn't really escape Trek. My grandmother loved the series and we'd watch it in the afternoons. I saw all the movies with the original cast in the theater. One of my first soundtracks was for "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home". I got caught up in the excitement for the new series back in 1987, but never really followed it after a few episodes. With all that said, I can say that I was a little sad when most people were counting the franchise as dead.

When I heard about the concept of going back to the original characters and setting, but taking it in a new direction I was intrigued but skeptical. I knew that many considered J.J. Abrams to have the magic touch, but I decided to wait and see what they came up with. The trailers looked promising and soon the reviews convinced me to check it out. You can see by my scores that I enjoyed the film.

That seems to be the real goal for this film - to create a solid piece of space adventure entertainment. It uses the familiar characters and tropes from the original series, but by using time travel creates an alternate reality where these characters can live and breathe. This will allow the more devoted fans to still have Shatner be their Captain Kirk, while a new generation of fans will see Pine as the man. It's a pretty clever work around and one that is executed with skill by the cast and crew.

The script does end up suffering a bit from having to use time travel as a plot device, only because it is so familiar with Star Trek. In the movies alone it's been done twice ("The Voyage Home" and "First Contact"), and the television series has done it countless times in all their incarnations. You could say it borders on lazy writing, but I think that it was utilized well here to create that alternate time line, something that is going to help long time fans work with this new version. But it does create some problems with the script. It gets a bit convoluted in places and has holes that if you look too closely, your Vulcan self will find illogical. This is compensated with by providing some great lines for nearly all the characters. Many of them remaining true to the characters as we know them, and yet spinning them all slightly. The most care was given to Kirk, McCoy and Spock, but nearly every character gets a chance to shine.

The actors take these parts and do a great job with them. Pine does a great balancing act of creating Kirk as a familiar character, but not going into parody mode. He inhabits the character well, and makes for a great hero. He adds a little bit of Shatner inflections or mannerisms, but they are subtle and will only stand out of fans of the series who are very familiar with Shatner. Quinto does a similar job with Spock, keeping him familiar but adding a bit more angst they we are used to seeing. The story provides a nice arc for the character and Quinto delivers. It is Urban as McCoy that impresses me. He actually attempts to mimic voice patterns and acting style of DeForest Kelley. He does it in a way that’s natural. We accept him as McCoy and not only that, but he seems like a perfect fit for the familiar role.

Working in the villains role is Eric Bana as Nero. The role has a lot of potential, and seeing some of the deleted scenes it looks like there was a bit more meat to it originally. But as it stands now, Nero is driven and dangerous, but for some reason never completely resonates. His interaction with Spock and Captain Pike is well executed, but he lacks that special something to make him a memorable villain. Of course compared to Khan, it’s going to be tough challenge for any actor.

The supporting cast is uniformly good. All the favorite characters are represented and given a key role in the story. The actors really do a good job with these familiar parts, even for characters that we'd seen only a couple times before like Captain Pike or Sarek (Ben Cross). I have mixed feeling on two parts. The first is Winona Ryder as Amanda Grayson. I'm not sure what it is, but she does not work for me in the part. I've seen the movie three times now and each time I keep hoping she won't grate on me as much as she does. And each time I always wonder - what is she doing that makes her stand out so much. Then there's Simon Peg as Scotty. Peg is a very funny man, and "Hot Fuzz" is one of my favorite comedies. But Scotty never struck me as comic relief. Peg is amusing in the role, but it just doesn't ring as true as the other characters in the film did.

Of course the other major players are the visuals and sound effects. Well this movie delivers in the visual effects department giving us everything from beauty passes over The Enterprise to full blown space battles with multiple starships. As opposed to the more recent Star Wars movies, this film went for location shooting whenever possible and this adds some weight and realism for many of the scenes. The costumes retain the basic look and color scheme of the original series, but modernize them a bit. Even the ship design is familiar and yet new. And the design schemes shifted depending on the cultures featured. The sound design follows the same scheme, fusing old sound effects with new, and in some cases re-creating the effects from scratch where the originals may have been lost. Sound effects guru, Ben Burtt who worked on "Star Wars" did an excellent job here.

The final bit to the puzzle is the music. In the past some illustrious names in film music have worked on Star Trek films including Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. This time around Abrams went for his go-to composer, Michael Giacchino. In my mind it was an excellent choice. Giacchino has done amazing work with Pixar (The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up), and has a knack for working with established music (check out his interesting and entertaining work on Speed Racer). He steps right up and give us a solid fanfare for Kirk and the Enterprise, and balances it against an aggressive and powerful theme for Nero. Spock and the Vulcans get a bittersweet theme with unique instrumentation. Much like David Arnold's approach to "Casino Royale", Giacchino does use the Alexander Courage theme from the television series, but sparingly, hinting at it throughout the film. Then right before diving into the end credits he gives us a full-blown statement of the theme before blasting into his Enterprise them, and then proceeds to weave the two together. Great stuff! If there is one complaint it is that the new theme for Kirk is very simplistic and is stated boldly and repeatedly throughout the film. On my first viewing it didn't bother me, but I did notice it in subsequent viewings. Giacchino has commented on this saying that he intends on developing the theme in subsequent films. I hope he gets the chance, because his music in this film is a great start.

Abrams has commented that he grew up loving the original "Star Wars" trilogy and that "Star Trek" was always too stodgy for him. Fair enough. His love for Star Wars comes through in spades here, with lots of quick editing, flashy battle sequences, and scenes of massive destruction. These types of things do appeal to a modern audience and hell, they appeal to me. He does a great job of keeping the story moving forward and keeping all the plot points moving. This keeps viewers from really examining the story too closely and noticing some of the odd plotting moments. In addition he manages to keep his actors on track with tone of the film. This is truly an adventure film at heart and Abrams understands that. Even his editing which harmed the character of Nero ended up serving the film better.

As entertaining as the film is, there are a few choices made that Abrams that I question. The first is the camera that must be in constant motion. This is something that I've noticed in many modern films, and if it's done well, you don't actually notice it. But "Star Trek" has quite a few sequences where the camera motion and quick edits draw attention to themselves. For me the worst scene is the "hand held" camera look during the dialogue between Pike and Kirk in the bar. This is a key sequence where Kirk makes his decision to join Star Fleet. However I'm distracted from the discussion by the apparent seizures the cameraman is having. If camera motion is necessary (and I'm not convinced it is), simple cuts between the speakers or a slow zoom would have worked better. Instead we have a scene that looks like its film during a series of small earthquakes.

The other issue is the lens flares. I'll be honest and say I didn't notice them in my first viewing, but after they were pointed out to me, they were all over the place. Lens flares occur when a light source is used directly on the camera itself, creating a moment where brilliant white flares move appear on the image. These suckers appear all over, and with the camera constantly moving, the light sources constantly flare. One affect is to create an image that is very... well sparkly. Any scene on the bridge is filled with these and as I mentioned, they get a little annoying if someone points them out to you. So, well, you can thank me later.

This movie is fun, no two ways about it. Like I've mentioned, I've seen it three times since it's release at the time of this writing (once in theaters and twice on DVD) and I've enjoyed it each time. It may be the most action packed and up tempo Star Trek film of them all. The familiar characters in a new situation worked wonders and I eagerly look forward to another adventure with this crew. Only the curmudgeonly side of me grumbles a little. You see I still enjoy the television series and the first six movies. Each of them, even "The Final Frontier" had some kind of idea or theme at their core, something that you could talk about after the film was done. Even the most action packed of the original films; "The Wrath of Khan" was more than a revenge tale. There was themes about aging, your past coming back to haunt you, terra-forming and the whole "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" line. This movie, well it has lots of pretty explosions and cool battle scenes. But in the end there isn't a solid idea to really talk about after the movie ends. I'm hoping that this is due to the fact that this is a reboot film and that the script needed time to set everything up. But I hope that the next movie finds a way to balance fun with ideas. I can be done and Star Trek is a perfect vehicle for it. I'd hate to see the franchise lose that aspect that is now unique in big screen sci-fi.