Moon Zero Two (1969)

There are dozens of episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that I have not yet seen, but the only one that I have deliberately avoided – thus far – is their take on 1969’s Moon Zero Two. That’s because I’ll be damned if my first experience of a sixties Hammer directed by Roy Ward Baker with a cast this solid would be those wonderful chuckleheads riffing it. Now that I’ve seen it, and mostly enjoyed it, mock away. I’ll probably track it down soon and enjoy the jokes, assuming Joel and his robot friends don’t fall asleep during the interminable ride in the moon buggy to the missing man’s claim, because I almost did.

To be sure, it’s dated and slow and I just wish that more women dressed like this in the far-flung future of, er, 2021, but I thought that, scientific quibbles aside, this was a very good script, I loved the design and the really great music, and I enjoyed almost all of the performances. Unfortunately, American actor James Olson was cast as the lead, and he’s the weak link. We’ve seen Olson a few times before, and he was absolutely a reliable character actor in guest roles, but he does not seem or feel enthusiastic about this part. Unsmiling, monotone, and frankly radiating boredom, he’s certainly among the weakest performances by an American in any Hammer film that I’ve seen. Bizarrely, I didn’t know that Olson was in this, and was just thinking about him yesterday because I was watching a 1972 episode of Banacek set in Las Vegas, with the standard seventies Howard Hughes analogue, and remembered Olson from “Fembots in Las Vegas”, a Bionic Woman installment where he played the Hughes stand-in.

But joining Olson in this are Adrienne Corri and Catherine Schell, who are wonderful. Warren Mitchell leads a team of villains including Bernard Bresslaw, Joby Blanshard, and Dudley Foster, and, and as you might expect from a sixties Hammer, Roy Evans and Michael Ripper show up briefly. You put this many good actors in a movie, and I’m not going to complain much, especially if it looks this good. I’d love a cleaned-up Blu-ray. The only in-print option in the US is the DVD-R from the Warner Archive. I scored a cheap copy of the out-of-print properly-pressed version which pairs it with the uncut When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Apparently nobody realized how much nudity there is in the full Dinosaurs and it was quickly removed from shelves, because they told retailers it was the Rated G version.

The kid, on the other hand, was mostly unimpressed. I did caution him up front that this was made during a period where some science fiction was being made for adult audiences, and was made without stuff like aliens and death rays, but instead just setting tales of human greed and failure in the near future. I think there was a little eye candy for him, and some nice visuals, and a skeleton in a spacesuit moment that Steven Moffat probably remembered from his childhood and incorporated into Doctor Who‘s “Silence in the Library”. But overall, he was a little restless and we agreed afterward that this was too slow a movie for a kid who likes spaceships that jump to lightspeed.

The best little moment came when I pointed out Bernard Bresslaw and said that he’d seen him before. I let him chew on that a moment and then let him know that he had been Varga, the very first Ice Warrior in Who. The kid tolerates my astonishment that he has trouble with faces, because he knows it doesn’t actually bother me, but this was too far. “Was I seriously supposed to recognize him?” he protested. “Good grief, no,” I said, “just wanted to point out that when you cast an Ice Warrior, you cast a big guy.”

“That dude is a big guy,” he agreed.

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

The Avengers 5.4 – The See-Through Man

This morning’s episode of The Avengers was brilliantly timed. Last night, after watching the second half of the super-frightening Doctor Who story “Pyramids of Mars,” our son grumbled to his mother as he was getting ready for bed “I hope Doctor Who gets less scary and more funny again.” So he definitely needed another dose of light, and happily Warren Mitchell is back as the hapless and barely competent Ambassador Brodny in Philip Levene’s “The See-Through Man.”

I reminded our son that Brodny had originally appeared in season four’s “Two’s a Crowd,” a story that he didn’t enjoy very much because he couldn’t understand a lot of it. But “The See-Through Man” is a much simpler story to follow. It’s about agents from “the other side” buying an invisibility formula from a screwball British scientist played by Roy Kinnear. It would have been an amusing enough episode without Warren Mitchell. With him, it’s hilariously entertaining. I believe that Mitchell had recently finished making the first series of the BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part before this was filmed. It’s a shame the character didn’t make a third appearance. I bet he would have been terrific fun opposite Linda Thorson.

The Avengers 4.12 – Two’s a Crowd

“Two’s a Crowd” opens with a delightful scene that subverts our expectations. There’s aerial footage of London, and an obviously model airplane about to drop an obviously miniature bomb on the head of a man on a balcony. It’s shot as though this is a real plane, however, and the viewer expects that this is a real plane and a real bomb, but, television being television, the program makers just didn’t have the budget to cover it. But the joke is on us: the plane is a remote-controlled toy, and the bomb is about the size of your thumb. It splashes into a punch bowl in front of actor Warren Mitchell, and that’s about the only joke in the episode that our son understood.

I’m afraid that this whole story by Philip Levene was a bomb for him; I thought it was extremely witty and fun, but it didn’t do to simply pause the episode to explain the subtle jokes about the Soviet ambassador preferring English gin to Russian vodka, or explain what embassies are. The lovely core of “Two’s a Crowd” is that Warren Mitchell’s character, one of the very, very few in the series who will make a second appearance, just wants to put his feet up, do as little work as possible, keep his head down, and enjoy as much of British society and its pleasures as he possibly can on the Russian taxpayers’ ruble. When the mysterious masterspy Colonel Psev arrives with his four associates, our poor ambassador sees his little world crumble, and he doesn’t want to do any dangerous “cloak and dagger” work. He’s just a simple diplomat, and besides, his good friend Steed has a nice liquor cabinet!

Anyway, in the photo above, that’s Warren Mitchell as Brodny. Mitchell would later find mammoth fame as Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its sequels; Mitchell played the character for twenty-seven years, but I liked him best as that Italian cab driver in a few early episodes of The Saint. Julian Glover, of course, was in everything: Star Wars, Hammer, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, ITC stuff… the dude’s known to all fandoms!

I’m reminded that “Two’s a Crowd” was, for quite some time, one of the handful of black-and-white episodes of The Avengers that my circle of friends and traders had to share, thirty years ago. Before A&E began airing the series, and certainly before they released those nicely-designed official VHS and DVD editions, there were two sets of bootleg VHSes, usually crammed into bins at Camelot Music or Record Bar at $9.97 an episode. Sometimes you’d find them for five bucks. It was usually the color episodes, and they were sourced from ghastly 16mm prints that looked like they’d been dragged through gravel.

It is kind of funny in retrospect how, in our youth and naivete, we called bootlegs bad, but spent money on those dumb things and thought they were legit. It was the eighties, lots of properties showed up on crappy tapes, and we all assumed that somebody, somewhere must have approved them. The world of Japanese cartoons dubbed into English and dumped on thirty-minute tapes for some insane reason is incredibly weird. Thirty whole minutes a tape! Surely nobody was getting rich with those “Robo-Formers” tapes that recycled old Jim Terry dubs of Getta Robo G, were they?

We found “Two’s a Crowd,” “The Girl From Auntie,” and two other season four stories in generic yellow boxes on the shelf of a Blockbuster Video on Powers Ferry Road in Marietta. One of our friends, who lived in Chamblee, got a membership, checked out the four tapes for a week, made a half-dozen copies of them for our TV club, drove ’em back to Marietta and cancelled her membership after confirming there was nothing else there anybody needed.

That’s what we “had” to do in the eighties: visit every single video store you drove past, especially the old-looking ones, because they just might have had those scarce Embassy releases of Krofft shows, or that weird two-tape omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, or “three completely uncut TV episodes of Captain Harlock,” never mind all the weird video nasties and Eurosleaze and giallos and Jess Franco movies that people were scouring shelves for. It was a weird time. Earlier this year, I bought a DVD of The Devil’s Wedding Night for four bucks that looked like it was mastered using a thirty year-old VHS copy of a fifteen year-old 16mm print. I squinted, smiled, and remembered more complicated times.

Photo credit: The Avengers Declassified