Thursday, November 25, 2010

Culture Shock 11.25.10: Celebrate Thanksgiving with some cinematic turkey

Thanksgiving brings with it lots of traditions, mostly involving food, football and long-standing family grievances.

My favorite Thanksgiving tradition, however, began in the early 1990s, when Comedy Central aired its annual "Turkey Day" marathons of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Nothing went better with Turkey Day stuffing than generous helpings of cinematic turkeys, all lovingly riffed by Joel, Mike and their robot pals aboard the Satellite of Love.

It has been more than a decade since "Mystery Science Theater" left the airwaves, but with all the episodes available on DVD and streaming on Netflix, you can still program your own private MST3K Turkey Day marathon. And that sure beats taking a long trip over the river and through the woods just to put up with Uncle Buck having a drunken meltdown, while Aunt Sue and Aunt Evelyn argue about which of them most deserves to inherit Grandma's good silverware.

As it has for the past several years, Shout! Factory greets the holiday season with a new, four-disc MST3K DVD box set. And this year's set includes two bad-movie classics, as well as a gullet full of bonus features.

As with past releases from Shout! Factory, "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" features two episodes each from original host Joel Hodgson and his successor, Michael J. Nelson. Joel's episodes are "Robot Monster" from season 1 and director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson.

"Robot Monster" and "Bride of the Monster" have both, at various times, been saddled with the designation of "worst movie ever," making them prime candidates for the MST3K treatment.

While not as deliriously loopy as "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Bride of the Monster" is probably Ed Wood's best-made film, although that's not saying much. It's definitely entertaining, even without Joel, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo providing a running commentary on its shortcomings, from the inane dialog and the rubber octopus to the poorly integrated stock footage and Lugosi's unconvincing stand-in.

The "Bride of the Monster" disc also includes the set's best bonus feature, "Citizen Wood," an informative documentary featurette by Chattanooga-based filmmaker Daniel Griffith, which chronicles the making of Wood's second-most-infamous film. "Citizen Wood" is a must for anyone who knows Wood primarily from Tim Burton's Oscar-winning 1994 biopic.

"Robot Monster" is the timeless story of an alien robot named Ro-Man, who looks suspiciously like a guy wearing a gorilla suit and a cheap 1950s sci-fi space helmet. Ro-Man is all-powerful, and he succeeds in wiping out the entire human race except for six people living in the middle of nowhere.

It turns out killing a few billion people is easy, but killing six is really hard, especially if they include two annoying children you'd really like to see dead.

Rounding out the set are two Mike Nelson episodes, "Devil Doll," a 1964 horror movie about a sinister ventriloquist and a dummy with a will of its own; and "Devil Fish," a 1984 Italian-made shlocker — to coin a term — in which a shark/octopus hybrid terrorizes Italians pretending to be Americans off the Florida coast.

The only recognizable actor in either film is William Sylvester in "Devil Doll." He delivers exactly the same smug performance he does as Dr. Heywood Floyd in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"Devil Doll" is a bit bland, even with the riffing, but "Devil Fish" is one of MST3K's better Sci-Fi Channel-era episodes.

Other extras include a panel discussion with cast members Hodgson, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, and, for a limited time, a collectible Gypsy figurine to go along with the previously released Crow and Tom Servo.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" retails for $69.97. It's worth every penny, but you're a sucker if you pay full retail.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Culture Shock 11.18.10: 'Pretty Maids All in a Row' does exploitation with some class

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" may be a major-studio film with a high-class pedigree, but it has a lot in common with the low-budget, independently produced exploitation movies that populated drive-ins in the 1970s.

Released by MGM in 1971, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is helmed by French director Roger Vadim, who blessed the world with Brigitte Bardot in his 1956 film, "... And God Created Woman" and hit the heights of pop art in 1968 with "Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda.

The screenplay for "Pretty Maids" comes courtesy of Gene Roddenberry — yes, "Star Trek's" Gene Roddenberry — who is also the film's producer. And the music is by "Mission Impossible" composer Lalo Schifrin.

And I haven't even gotten to the cast yet. It's an all-star affair headlined by Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas.

But for all of its star power, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is an exploitation movie — a glossy, strange and darkly comic exploitation movie, but an exploitation movie nonetheless, which is a major part of its charm.

Despite having fallen into near obscurity in the decades since its release, "Pretty Maids" is back and available on DVD from Warner Archive at

High school guidance counselor/football coach "Tiger" McDrew has it all: a perfect family, a winning football team and the affections of every female in the student body. Student bodies, indeed.

His No. 1 student, the unfortunately named Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), however, is another case. It seems Ponce gets just a little bit too excited — if you know what I mean — whenever he is around any of the campus' attractive co-eds, which, by the way, is all of them. And he gets way too excited around the sexy new substitute teacher, Betty Smith (Dickinson).

So, like any concerned guidance counselor, Tiger decides to help Ponce with his problem. Tiger's solution: have Betty give Ponce a little after-school "tutoring" — if you know what I mean.

Yes, there's enough inappropriate student/teacher sex going on at this high school to keep Maury Povich busy for an entire season.

And as if that weren't scandalous enough, there's also the little matter of the female students who keep turning up dead, much to the chagrin of the principal (Roddy McDowall).

As the murders mount, state police Capt. Sam Surcher (Savalas in a pre-"Kojak" cop role) narrows down his list of suspects, and Tiger is at the top of it.

Is Tiger really guilty, or does he just seem really guilty? Of murder, I mean. Obviously, he's guilty of other stuff — if you know what I mean.

Also, keep a lookout for a few unexpected faces, including James Doohan (Scotty from "Star Trek") and JoAnna Cameron, future star of the Saturday-morning adventure series "Isis," as one of Tiger's pretty maids.

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" is a funny, clever black comedy with some truly great dialog, like when one student reminds the other football players that they never have practice after a murder.

It is also a rare example in the 1970s of a studio film beating the low-budget filmmakers to the punch. It predates other films about illicit student/teacher relationships like 1974's "The Teacher," with former "Dennis the Menace" child star Jay North as the lucky student, and 1978's "Coach," a Quentin Tarantino favorite starring Cathy Lee Crosby ("That's Incredible") and Michael Biehn ("Terminator").

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" has been lost in Hollywood's film vault for too long, and it's great to have it back.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Culture Shock 11.11.10: Alabamians react to bad laws in their own way

Say what you will about Alabama, but the state does take a pragmatic approach to enforcing stupid laws. In general, it doesn't.

So, in that regard, you could say Alabama is more progressive — in the true sense of the term — than San Francisco, which currently is in the process of enacting a really, really silly law that officials there will definitely enforce.

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors formally adopted what has become known as the "Happy Meal ban." The ban forbids restaurants from giving out toys with children's meals that contain "too much" fat, sugar or sodium.

Like a lot of dubious laws, the ban is intended to protect children, or so its supporters claim.

"It's time for fast-food companies to stop exploiting children in order to sell more junk food, and this measure would at least set basic nutrition standards for meals sold with toys," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a misnamed group of Washington, D.C., busybodies bent on regulating just about all human behavior.

I guess it's just too much to expect parents to ever tell their children "no." So, San Francisco will just have to save them from themselves.

If the ban survives likely legal challenges — I don't expect Ronald McDonald to take this outrage lying down — and becomes law next year as planned, you can bet San Francisco's food police will enforce it with the ruthless inefficiency one expects of California government. But it will be enforced.

California, you used to be cool. But you've changed, man. You've changed.

In Alabama, we take a different approach.

Contrary to popular opinion, and despite all appearances, the people of Alabama are pretty sensible, at least some of the time. We just do a good job of pretending otherwise. So, when state and local lawmakers pass obviously bad laws, we do what all sensible people do. We just ignore them. That's why every dry county — an endangered species now that the city of Cullman has approved legal liquor sales and sent temperatures in hell plunging — has bootleggers.

For example, in 1998, the Alabama Legislature made the state a national laughingstock by passing a ban on sex toys. Legal challenges to the law failed, and the effort to overturn the statute finally ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So, to this day, the law is still on the books, and no one in the Legislature seems eager to repeal it.

And why bother? Sure, the ban is an embarrassment, but this is Alabama. We've long since become immune to the "black eyes" we continually inflict upon ourselves.

More importantly, there's no pressing need to repeal the sex-toy ban because, at present, it's not being enforced.

Sherri Williams, the business owner who took her fight against the ban all the way to Washington, is still in business. Her Pleasures stores in Decatur and Huntsville are still open and still selling sex toys. Williams is taking advantage of a loophole that allows the sale of sex toys for medical purposes. So, all of her customers fill out the equivalent of a doctor's excuse.

Thus far, local prosecutors and law enforcement officials have shown no desire to press the issue, and Williams is moving her Huntsville store to a more prominent location, complete with drive-thru service.

Some historians think there is something distinctive about the South's attitude toward authority. The theory holds that the South was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants who had rebellion in their blood, and that anti-authoritarian instinct is still part of Southern culture today.

Maybe so. But there is little doubt that we tell authority to take a hike as often as not. And in many cases, that's a good thing.

It's a trait they could use in San Francisco.