As a group, these films stand as testimony that if you want to make a movie, you should just do it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If you like what the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys do, the show’s volume 35 box set has a lot to offer, including an early performance by a scantily-clad Robert Vaughan, an Egyptology mission with an unexpected result, a multinational space mission shot by the film noir master John Alton, and a fantasy film that seems to have been dreamed up by a bunch of Dungeons and Dragons fans and cast using the members of the local branch of the Society of Anachronism. As a group, these films stand as testimony that if you want to make a movie, you should just do it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And be sure to have the courage of your convictions: if the result is good, so much the better, but if it is truly bad (that’s where the courage comes in), it can still provide an enjoyable evening for those who like their films with a side of wisecracks.
Robert Vaughan reportedly said that Teenage Caveman, directed in 1958 by Roger Corman, was the worst movie he ever made. Perhaps so, but it’s certainly not the worst film in this collection. That’s not to say that it is good, but Corman was the master of making an intelligible film while spending next to nothing, and there’s a bit of philosophy in this tale of a primitive tribe of humans living in and around the much-filmed Bronson Caves near Los Angeles (supplemented with stock footage from, among other films, One Million Years B.C.). The cavemen and cavewomen wear the expected fur garments (because of course all societies, whatever their state of development, adhere to the costuming requirements of the production code) and have names like The Symbol Maker (Leslie Bradley), The Blonde Maiden (Darah Marshall), The Black-Bearded One (Frank DeKova), and, of course The Symbol Maker’s Son (Vaughan, who was six years away from becoming Napoleon Solo), the teenage caveman of the title. Like all teenagers, this Son has to question received beliefs, leading to the film’s big reveal. Teenage Caveman is paired with two shorts, “Aquatic Wizards” (trick water-skiing from Cypress Gardens) and “Catching Trouble” (about an a-hole wildlife trapper and his ethnic sidekick, who capture animals for zoos) and is hosted by Joel. Best wisecrack: “This script reads like a telephone directory!”
The 1982 Being from Another Planet, a.k.a. Time Walker, is the only film directed by Tom Kennedy. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why. The story begins with a professor (Ben Murphy) poking around in King Tut’s tomb, where he discovers a hidden chamber containing what appears to be a mummy. Never one to pass up on a chance to disturb the dead, he brings his find back to California for further study, where a student continues the grave-robbing tradition by stealing some crystals from the body. The body is X-rayed as part of the study process, and that reawakens the apparent mummy, which turns out to be a being from another planet. The being, which had been in a state of suspended animation, is covered with a fungus that also reawakens and burns anyone who touches it, and he also really wants those crystals back. Meanwhile, the professor translates some hieroglyphics that explains a hitherto-unknown connection between the Egyptians and the extra-terrestrial visitor (so in the world of this film, maybe Erich von Däniken got it right after all). Shari Belafonte also makes an appearance. Joel hosts this one, and the best wisecrack is: “So far, this movie looks like a dramatization of a movie!”
In 12 to the Moon, directed in 1960 by Tom Bradley (who would go on to direct They Saved Hitler’s Brain), an international crew of astronauts sets off for their destination in a spaceship with the interior dimensions of a moderate-sized convention room. Francis X. Bushman is in charge (his title is “Secretary General of the International Space Order”) and the crew takes multiculturalism to heights not seen in many research projects or movies today—women as well as men have principal roles, and they come from, among other places, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, and, of course, the U.S. Perhaps this diversity aids in translating communications from the aliens they encounter, who write in a script not unlike that used in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” Part of the fun in this one is counting how many things the filmmakers got wrong, from lunar smoke that curls upwards (that wouldn’t happen in the absence of air) to the clearly visible rod used to propel the spaceship. Despite all that, John Alton (cinematographer on many a classic noir, including He Walked by Night and The Big Combo) comes up with some interesting shots, and there’s something of a proto-Star Trek feel of international cooperation in 12 to the Moon (which, in fact, has a more variety among its ethnicities, and doesn’t require the female characters to wear miniskirts). It’s paired with a truly weird short, “Design for Dreaming,” in which a pixie-like dancer and a mysterious masked man take a tour of the future, a.k.a. the General Motors’ 1956 car show, and is hosted by Mike. Best wisecrack: “Looks like a NORML meeting” (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, for those of you not in the know).
And then we have Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell, which is not only the most recent (1988) film in this set but also the worst—and that’s saying quite a bit. It’s the third of four films starring the Deathstalker character, which is played by John Allen Nelson, a decent-looking guy with exactly one facial expression (a smirk) and lots of puffy hair. The story takes place in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, with other characters including a wizard named Nixias (Aaron Hernan), an evil sorcerer named Troxartes (Thom Christopher), a princess named Carissa and her sister Elizena (both played by Carla Herd), and some magical stones that everyone seems to be after. While in other hands this story might have made a perfectly serviceable genre film, Deathstalker is done in by bad acting and a cheesy look: it was shot on video in Mexico, and also incorporates footage from the other Deathstalker films and from Roger Corman’s The Raven. Somehow, bad movies are just more charming in black and white than in color. Mike hosts, Pearl makes an appearance, and the best wisecrack comes from Mike: “This movie is like playing Doom when there’s no monsters or opponents.”
All episodes included in this set are previously unreleased. As usual, the set comes with a number of special features, including one documentary featurette, three video interviews (all illustrated with film clips and other archival materials), the original version and trailer for Time Walker, and four mini-posters by artist Richard Vance.
The documentary featurette “I Was A Teenage Caveman” (13 min.) covers everything from the place of Teenage Caveman in the careers of Robert Vaughan and Robert Shayne to the difficulties of making a film set in prehistoric times, much of this information provided through interviews with director/producer Roger Corman and others involved in the film. It also gives away a big spoiler, so don’t watch it until you have seen Teenage Caveman. “Medieval Boogaloo: The Legend of Deathstalker III” (12 min.) is a video interview with actor Thom Christopher, who shares many anecdotes about the making of the film (which he seems to have enjoyed immensely). “You Are There: Launching 12 to the Moon” (9 min.) is a video interview with filmmaker/historian Jeff Burr, who discusses, among other things, the film 12 to the Moon, the career of director David Bradley (whose early films include independently-produced versions of Peer Gynt and Julius Caesar, both starring Charlton Heston) and the lighting techniques of John Alton. “Richard Band Remembers” (5 min.) is a video interview with Richard Band, composer for Being From Another Planet, who discusses his career and his experiences working on this film. | Sarah Boslaugh