The Long Awaited Return of Der Krapp ~ Installment 16
This episode asks the not entirely musical question of why doesnít Mr. BIG (the irrepressible Bert I. Gordon) rate better treatment than he routinely receives on Mystery Science Theater 3000?
Der Krapp was a column on bad movies I wrote in the early eighties. It originally appeared in an Atlanta fanzine, Atrantes, and the club organ of a science fiction club called Asifc. When it was pointed out that the title ought to be Das Krapp, I replied that correct German grammar was probably out of place. Something worthy of the Katzenjammer Kids would be closer to the mark! I did a lot of these columns, even reviewing the Golden Turkey Awards at one point -- which rated a post card from Michael Medved back when he still seemed to like movies. (The card was signed by both Medved brothers, actually. Since I was a regular guest on an Atlanta radio show courtesy of David Lindsay, I sent the Medveds copies of the column and a tape from the King Of Schlock program. My favorite comment from them was: ďPerhaps youíll do for film what Dr. Demento has done for music.Ē)
No one was more surprised than I when a professional market picked up Der Krapp and the first Honest-to-God paid installment appeared in Video Entertainment Magazine in October 1982. The publication was slick, with a nice color cover from Star Wars (1977), but by the very next issue it had transformed itself into a cheaper newspaper-magazine format and was now Video Swapper. They still paid for a few more columns and then the publication was taken over by Don and Maggie Thompson (I think it was) and it sort of got combined with another publication, and the column simply krapped out.
Somewhere in my files is a statement from the new management of Video Swapper that they were discontinuing my column because their readers love movies, even the cheapie creepies, and the sarcastic tone of a bad movies column was out of place. I think of that letter sometimes when watching the antics on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The old Der Krapp column always tried to find something good to say about even the most humble of films. Just because the script and production values might be awful in a Monogram horror movie of the forties doesnít mean that Lugosi or Zucco didnít turn in a good performance, or that there might not be a moment of imaginative camera work! In contrast, anything and everything is treated with equivalent disdain on good old MST3000.
When I meet people who have worked on low to middle budget films (usually the only type of film to fall into the clutches of MST) I canít resist asking them about this weird cultural phenomenon. Actor Robert Quarry told me he couldnít see the point of a show where someone talks through the whole thing so you canít hear the dialogue! Is this a sign of the End Times, when we are too lazy to make our own snide comments about old movies and need ďprofessionalsĒ to do it for us? When they talk over Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) or Robot Monster (1953), we lose silly dialogue much funnier than their commentary.
Producer-directors Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski had a few choice words. Wynorski actually enjoys the program, dubbing it a ďgood show,Ē and made the point that these MST guys at least know how lousy the music of Albert Glasser usually was. Fred Olen Ray said ďI turn it on when Iím bored. Sometimes it's funny.Ē
Sooner or later, a movie you canít stand on any level will get the MST treatment and the program suddenly seems to justify itself. Then again, they must have figured out that part of their audience will tune in just to see old movies again without having to pay collectorís prices. (It helps to read lips.) The rest of the audience just wants to yuk it up.
One thing you can count on: they are no more likely to go easy on a good performance in, say, a Bert I. Gordon film than they are likely to give the MST treatment to a major star having an off day in a major motion picture. The obvious answer is that they canít afford a big pic. But thereís more to it. They did run a fairly major movie, Marooned (1969), and made fun of stuff like the countdown. (The countdown?) But it will be colder than the day the earth froze before they LAUGH AT -- letís say -- Bette Davis for one of the most abysmal performances by a major star in movie history in Watch on the Rhine (1943), or recognize the restraint and effective acting of Glenn Langan in the Amazing Colossal Man (1957) or John Hoyt in Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Now, if Lillian Hellman had written the Amazing Colossal Puppet Diplomats of the Third Reich for Warner Brothers and Bert I. Gordon had been hired with permission to round up the usual major stars, well, Mr. Big might have the critical respect he deserves. The point is that he receives so much well-earned abuse for his mediocre special effects that other elements of his pictures are often overlooked.
In a discussion with Fred Olen Ray, I suddenly realized we were finding more and more favorable things to say about Gordon. Ray liked the suspenseful opening sequences from ACM, and commended the makeup effects when the colonel is caught in the plutonium blast. I remembered how the same kind of makeup was used to good effect in the Magic Sword (1962) as one of the curses and then, before I knew it, was admitting how most nearly everything in that movie worked.
So as we turn a jaundiced eye on the cinema of the cheaply gargantuan, it is with the understanding that even Mr. BIG has his moments. But this would not be a Der Krapp column without close scrutiny of what is inept and inadvertently hilarious in the work of the auteur who gave us War of the Colossal Beast (1958).
His first film was his worst and, according to Bill Warren in the indispensable Keep Watching the Skies, ďAt least even he now scorns King DinosaurĒ (1955). Trying to figure out the most miserable movie ever to lift stock footage from One Million Years B.C. (1966) is a daunting task, but Gordon wins the prize on his first outing. The only pleasure to be derived is imagining the ďwritingĒ of a script that had to combine the aforementioned footage with other stock footage of an A-bomb blast. It might not seem very scientific for scientists to atomize an island of dinosaurs on a planet they are visiting for the first time but, hey, the footage had to be used. And we can be thankful that Gordon didnít include shots of a wagon train.
By the time he got around to the Cyclops (1957), all the effects were his and he made his first important contribution to the cinema of science fiction: As Objects Grow In Size They Become More Transparent. This is known as the Conservation of Opaqueness Law. Cynics might argue that by being cheap and careless with superimposed mattes Gordon just didnít care if the backgrounds showed through his various giants. But a man brave enough to show us the first titanic gopher in cinema history deserves more respect than that. At least the actors are an asset in this picture. Lon Chaney, Jr., overacts on purpose and greatly increases the entertainment value. Gloria Talbott is good as always.
The Cyclops was a practice run for what most critics consider to be Gordonís best film, the Amazing Colossal Man. (Itís certainly his most tolerable science fiction.) As in the previous film, we have a tall bald giant in a diaper. Only this time he has a well delineated character and some decent dialogue. I donít agree with the critics who think it becomes tiresome that the giant whines and complains so much. Hey, heís entitled, you know? The effects are better than previously, which is to say that they still suck. But would a more competent production by George Pal or Ray Harryhausen or Jack Arnold have thought to include a giant syringe to inject the giant with a serum (to stop his growth) that just happens to be made for a giant hand? This makes it easier for Glenn to extract the thing and throw it, spearing one of the military guys in a scene honored by Cheech and Chong in the documentary, It Came from Hollywood (1982).
The follow-up was not as good, but War of the Colossal Beast at least allowed Gordon to perfect the makeup from the Cyclops picture: one functional eye, half a face still human, the other a horrible mass of scar tissue. (Mr. Big always did better on makeup than on optical work.) When this one shows up on MST 3000, the warehouse scene is ruined where the giant is chained down in the background as soldiers mill about like ants in the foreground. The foreground canít be seen, of course, because of the stupid silhouettes that the Comedy channel finds so comic. Even so, this is a pretty bad movie. The virtues of ACM are nowhere present, except for a humorous bit about which governmental department will take responsibility for the beast and suspenseful opening where a Mexican youth flees from the ogre. And itsí better than the Cyclops.
For some reason, Gordon manages decent openings on the sorriest of projects. A good case in point is Beginning of the End (1957), with an archetypical 50ís setup. Two teenagers are necking in a parked car when something Horrible comes out of the darkness and gets them. Is it the cops? Is it parents? Is it the PTA? (Today we could add the Health Nazis, the AIDS Gestapo, and the Feminist Date Rape Commandos.) Inspired by the success of Them (1954), a brilliant movie about giant ants (with a reasonable budget) Gordon gives us grasshoppers as large as his budget is puny. A plague of atom age locusts is not only a problem for loverís lane, but takes on Chicago before scientist Peter Graves performs the impossible mission of drowning all the buggers in Lake Michigan. Before the film runs its course there are a few seconds that capture the flavor of the army-vs.-giant-bugs illustrations in the beloved Mars Attacks bubblegum cards. The trouble is that these visual compositions are most convincing as still pictures and we are talking about a MOVIE.
For purposes of Der Krapp, there is one shot that captures the main problem with the unspecial effects in these pictures. The giant locusts are supposed to be climbing a skyscraper, irresistibly drawn by the mating call the Graves has duplicated in his lab. When he has them in one location he can signal a ship out on the lake to take over the signal and attract all the giant insects to their doom, thus sparing Chicago from General Morris Ankrumís plan to drop an atomic bomb on it. Perhaps utilizing a leftover warhead from King Dinosaur.
Anyway, this scene should be the most suspenseful moment. Leave it to Gordon to dump some grasshoppers on a photograph of building and let their walking over it pass for a climbing sequence. We might be willing to accept the scene except that Gordon doesnít bother to cut away before his insects walk onto the sky! When being interviewed for Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (1992), a documentary about Ed Wood for Atomic Pictures, I said that Wood had invented symbolic effects to take the place of special effects -- namely, heíd put a symbol on the screen of the effect he would like to use if he could afford it. But at least Wood had the excuse of no money for Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959). Gordon is Cecil B. De Mille by comparison, and there is no excuse for his bugs walking on air other than contempt for the audience.
What makes Gordonís movies from the fifties generally more interesting than his criminal attacks on H.G. Wells (Village of the Giants in 1965, Food of the Gods in 1976, and Empire of the Ants in 1977) is an unpretentious quality of simply ripping off excellent exploitation movies and making his own passably mediocre copies. So it is that Jack Arnoldís Tarantula (1955) inspires Gordonís Earth vs. the Spider (1958). One scene of the hundred-ton Tarantula attacking horses at night is more frightening than all of Gordonís film, but Mr. Big provides a few tense moments in a cave, and not all of his spider shots are laughable. And when Arnoldís the Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) begets Gordonís Attack of the Puppet People (ACM probably wouldnít have been made without the success of Shrinking Man), the convincing effects of the former are not eclipsed by the paper-doll spectacle of the latter. Photographs of star John Agar in plastic tubes donít even pass for the dolls they are supposed to represent. But once again there are decent performances in Gordon picture. John Hoyt is excellent in a role worthy of an E.C. science fiction comic as a lonely and sympathetic mad scientist.
If we only judge Mr. Big by his science fiction movies, he has actually declined since the fifties. Maybe he ran out of better B pictures to copy. Maybe there was a repertoire company of sci-fi cinema that ceased to be available. Maybe the problem was that he stopped showing teenagers reading Forry Ackermanís Famous Monsters magazine, a highlight of Earth vs. the Spider. Whatever the reason, after years of saying he was going to do right by H.G. Wells (who has been served well many times in movies from the thirties to the present day) Gordon butchered Food of the Gods twice; and then made a giant ant movie so bad that even Joan Collins couldnít save it. Maybe it was a scheme to improve our opinion of Beginning of the End.
When I first read in FM that Mr. Big was going to tackle one of Wellsí most philosophical novels, I may have been young but I wasnít stupid! I didnít expect Things to Come (1936). I didnít even expect the theme about the people who eat the ďBoomfoodĒ and become not only physically larger but also wiser than the human race. G.K. Chesterton said that Wells had retold the tale of Jack the Giant Killer from the standpoint of the giant. The idea that Gordon would wrestle with these issues never crossed my mind. It didnít seem unrealistic, however, that he would do as well on the rear-screen stuff and set pieces as he had achieved with the trilogy of films about tall bald guys. No such luck.
Food turned into a travesty on teenagers that was equally insulting to ducks and midgets. The second time out, he kept the title and gave us Marjoe Gortner. Lots of nastiness with giant rats did nothing to disguise the lack of improved special effects. A little Wellsian philosophy did slip into Empire of the Ants (1977), but amazingly, the effects seemed a kind of nostalgia for the good old days of King Dinosaur and the Cyclops.
But there are more things in heaven and earth than science fiction movies with giant monsters in them. There are also fantasy movies with giant monsters... and in 1962 Bert I. Gordon made his best film, a movie so good that I could never make it the center of Der Krapp! In keeping with the kinder, gentler nature of this column, I feel it appropriate that the Magic Sword should provide an epilogue. There is nothing wrong with the script. Weíre talking a simple fairy tale, but that hasnít saved other movies. Grafted onto the fairy tale structure is enough sinister material to give it the flavor of a horror film.
This provides Gordon with an opportunity to use every makeup and optical effect he ever tried out in his black and white sci-fi epics from the fifties. TMS is in color. Everything looks better here than it has before, or will look afterward with the unholy trinity of anti-Wells films already mentioned. The ogre in the forest is never transparent. The two-headed dragon is around the quality level of Gorgo, which is not bad at all. The vampire-witch makeup is almost scary. The burning and dissolving flesh scenes are genuinely creepy. The pinhead makeups are convincing.
And there has never been better acting in a Gordon movie. Basil Rathbone enjoys one of his last great villain parts and the dialogue is worthy of him, especially when he is worrying about the maiden-devouring dragon, his most cherished ďpet.Ē Estelle Winwood is just as good as a benevolent witch and she has the funniest dialogue. She is stepmother to the hero, played with far more intelligence than is usual for this period thanks to Gary Lockwood. And unless I was put under as spell, I could swear that heroine Ann Helm is not only very sexy but did some acting, too.
I admit the possibility that Iíve lost my mind. Too many Gordon films taken all at once may cause unnatural growth of the brain cells that like bad movies. But whateverís left of my critical faculties informs me that the Magic Sword is a truly entertaining movie; and the credits inform the world that Bert I. Gordon is responsible. Then he went on from this to make the most abominable movies of his career. I donít pretend to understand. Maybe practice doesnít make perfect.
Hereís a secret for readers of Der Krapp -- shhhh, donít tell anyone, but the most insufferable movies ever made by Mr. Big donít have any giants in them at all. Thatís a story for another time.
© Copyright 1994 by Brad Linaweaver
Long-time science-fiction writer Brad Linaweaver has done articles on film for Famous Monsters of Filmland, Monsterama, Midnight Marquee, Wonder, Paragon, Femme Fatales and Cult Movies.