12/26/06

517 Beginning of the End

(1957, Horror-Giant Critter, b&w)

In a way, I feel responsible.

Rating: **


In a nutshell:

An agricultural scientist creates giant locusts that demolish most of Illinois.

Summary:

The romantic lead finally appears a third of the way through the movie.Page after page of opening credits wash past one another to jarring theme music. When they’re done we watch a deserted country road for a long, long time. We wander into the woods to watch a young couple making out in their car. They scream at something off-screen, and then we watch the empty road again for a long, long time.

Cops finally drive down the road. They find the mangled car, the boy’s wallet, and the girl’s sweater. One cop drives to the nearest town for help while the other remains to inspect the wreckage. He waits and watches the empty road for a long, long time.

The other cop calls for help in a panic. The nearest town is gone! It’s been completely demolished! The Illinois National Guard comes in to investigate. They guard the empty road for a long, long time. We are now roughly a quarter of the way through the film.

A nosy but beautiful lady reporter drives up with a camera. They turn her away, so she drives to their headquarters instead and begs the major and colonel in charge for a scoop. They let her sit in on uninformative interviews and take her on a tour of some stock footage. Having accomplished nothing (and bored us to tears) the lady reporter rejects the major’s clumsy advances and goes looking for answers to the destruction on her own. Her snooping leads her to the local agricultural researcher (Peter Graves), who’s also the star and love interest of this movie. We are now more than a third of the way through the film.

The scientist shows her some enormous but inedible vegetables and the footlocker full of experimental radioactive goo that he uses to make them get so big. After some further investigation, the reporter drags the scientist and his deaf-mute assistant to a demolished warehouse. They talk dreamily about expository pseudoscience (which, in this movie, is supposed to pass for romantic banter), until a giant locust shows up and eats the deaf-mute assistant. We are now nearly halfway through the film.

They leave the assistant to his fate and drive off to warn the colonel. The colonel laughs them off at first, but takes a few men out into the woods anyway. They crack giant insect jokes until the locusts show up and eat half of them. The colonel calls up the entire Illinois National Guard to go in after the encroaching hoppers, despite the scientist’s warning that they don’t have enough firepower. While they’re getting slaughtered, the scientist and the reporter fly out to Washington to warn the army.

By the time they get back with reinforcements, the locusts have devoured all of central Illinois and are advancing on Chicago. Close-ups of locusts are superimposed over military stock footage in a long sequence that ends up with army getting decimated. The locusts move into the suburbs and become dormant for the night.

The military evacuates the city in preparation for a nuclear strike. Suddenly, the scientist gets a crazy idea. If he can imitate a locust mating call, he can lure them all into Lake Michigan and drown them. He works through the night, trying different frequencies on a captured locust until he finds the right one just before dawn. Locusts charge across postcards of Chicago and into the water, presumably choking the Great Lakes with giant bloated locust carcasses for many years to come.

Introduction:

It's Guys' Night In down in Deep 13.Mike and the ‘Bots practice singing The Yellow Rose of Texas. They don’t seem to know very many of the words. A woman calls up on the Hexfield Viewscreen to ask for Arnie. Apparently he needs to get down there and sign some papers. She assumes that Mike is someone named “Chopper,” and starts to tell him her sordid life story.

Host Segment One:

The woman is still talking when her kids finally get loud enough to interrupt. Mike quickly hangs up on her. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester has invented the Recomfy-Bike, which is a fully loaded bed with pedals and wheels. He tucks Frank in, but it’s too heavy to move. Up in the Satellite of Love, Mike and the ‘Bots have invented new playing cards. Mike has made the Eight of Chris Lemmon. Tom has created Todd, a queen-ish card that says numerical values are relative, and doesn’t like competition. Crow has made the Crow of Diamonds.

Host Segment Two:

Mike decides to call the Mads without warning them first. Dr. Forrester wears sweats and works out while Frank wanders around in a bathrobe and mud mask. They laugh together and share ice cream while watching Vicki. They notice they’re being watched and quickly move apart on the couch, switching the TV to a football game.

Host Segment Three:

Crow has written a screenplay titled, Peter Graves Goes to the University of Minnesota. Every line begins and/or ends with, “I’m Peter Graves.” There are fifteen acts, and the last one recaps the previous fourteen.

Host Segment Four:

Tom is a stand-up comic, regaling his audience (Mike and Crow) with obscure entomological facts about the differences between locusts and grasshoppers. They conclude that he’s not ready to go on The Tonight Show or on David Letterman. Perhaps Chevy Chase could find a spot for him.

Host Segment Five:

Mike and the ‘Bots read postcards, and then attack those postcards with rubber bugs. Locust-savaged locales include a beach, the Village of Spires, and The Beatles. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank have a boxing match while discussing their masculinity. Dr. Forrester calls time out to push the button, but Frank knocks him down and kicks him as soon as his back is turned. He ends the episode by punching out the camera.

Stinger:

The National Guard colonel orders his men into the woods.

Thoughts:

And the monster deigns to grace us with his presence somewhere around the halfway mark.My favorite moment in this film comes when the scientist is explaining how the locusts must have gotten into his special radioactive growth goo, and how this may be the end of humanity as we know it. He ends his little speech by saying, “In a way, I feel responsible.” To quote Mike, “In a way?”

At the end of the first host segment, Dr. Forrester introduces the movie by saying, “It really gets going about two minutes before the closing credits.” This is something of an exaggeration, but not much of one. The hero doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the film. We don’t see the giant locusts until almost the halfway mark. I’ll grant you, some filmmakers can get away with this, but that’s because they’re using other elements to establish mood and increase tension. In this case, I suspect that this film’s auteur (MST3K regular Bert I. Gordon) is just filling time with shots of an empty road because his star (Peter Graves) and special effects (stock footage and postcards) are too expensive to overuse.

I really liked the two little running subplots in the host segments. The lady who keeps calling for Arnie (Is that you, Chopper? I know it’s you) is played perfectly by Mary Jo Pehl as a woman who’s obviously never lived anywhere but a leaky trailer parked in the heart of tornado country. The Mads’ disturbingly effeminate camaraderie and their subsequent pugilistic overcompensation are funny as well. I also really liked Tom’s description of the playing card, Todd. The host segments directly relating to the film don’t fare quite as well. The Peter Graves screenplay is reasonably funny, but drags on. Tom’s locust jokes are deliberately lame, but the lack of any real jokes about their lameness doesn’t help the sketch.

The first half of the film presents some difficulty to Mike and the ‘Bots comment-wise. Staring at the empty road all that time just leads to jokes about the movie waiting for its ride and a vocal rendition of the violent theme music every time someone gets into a car. But when the locusts finally show up, the jokes really start flying. Crow yells for someone to, “get a really big applesauce jar with holes poked in the top.” Mike cries out, “This is a bug hunt, man.” Tom sings, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” in a sinister locust voice. It’s a very funny episode, if you wait long enough.