1/9/07

704 The Incredible Melting Man

(1977, Horror/SciFi, color)

I’m Dr. Ted Nelson!

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

An irradiated astronaut slowly melts while murdering everyone he meets.

Summary:

The bandages are more for our benefit than his.We follow the opening credits through a field of simulated stars while ground control radio banter plays in the background. Ace astronaut Steve and his crew arrive at Saturn in a matter of seconds, and proceed to view solar flares through the ice rings. One of the flares fries him, provoking a nosebleed.

The next scene takes place in a hospital back on earth, so his space capsule must have returned on its own. By this time, Steve’s condition has deteriorated from a simple nosebleed to full-scale melting. This worries the one nurse and two doctors charged with his care. The African-American doctor leaves to consult with the Caucasian doctor. Steve wakes up while they’re gone, sees his own oozy face in the mirror, and goes after the nurse. She freaks out and runs right through a plate-glass door in an unsuccessful attempt to escape a grisly death. Later, the doctors view her mangled corpse and call their immediate superior, a NASA general that looks like a humorless Jonathan Winters. The Winters-esque general orders them to hunt Steve down, but tell no one.

The Caucasian doctor, a.k.a. Dr. Ted Nelson, goes home and argues with his newly pregnant wife about crackers (the kind that crunches, not the kind that drawls) before going out to roam the countryside with a Geiger counter. He finds an easy-to-follow trail, strewn liberally with gooey, radioactive bits of melted Steve. The general joins him, and they happen across a messy crime scene, complete with a suspicious sheriff, a slimy photographer, and a decapitated fisherman covered in blood and goo. Ted tells them it was a bear and leaves.

Steve did it, of course. We got to see the decapitation in an earlier scene, followed by shots of head floating downstream to smash at the bottom of a waterfall. Melting all the while, Steve goes on to threaten (but not kill) a bunch of kids trying their first cigarette, maul a guard dog, and slaughter a pair of amorous, lemon-thieving senior citizens while the ground control radio banter from the opening credits loops through his head. He ends up circling Ted’s house at night.

Despite the general’s insistence on secrecy, Ted has told his wife about the murderous melting one in their midst, so she wanders her empty house, jumping at every little noise. She tremblingly investigates a crash, only to find that the cat has broken a dish. Ted shows up, scaring her even further. They tenderly discuss their relationship—she obsesses about non-arrival of her mother and mother’s boyfriend while he drugs her into a stupor. Ted leaves the general to munch turkey legs and guzzle beer while he goes out to look for his missing mother-in-law.

He finds the sheriff investigating his slaughtered in-laws in the lemon grove. They have words, and Ted spills the beans about Steve. They hurry back to Ted’s house to find the general murdered, but the wife still sojourning peacefully in the drug-induced land of Nod. Ted and the sheriff laugh about the general’s discarded turkey leg and run off to the next emergency call. After Ted’s house, Steve seems to have wandered to the home of a cracker couple (the kind that drawls, not the kind that crunches), murdered the man, and gotten his arm cleavered off by the woman. The hysterical woman takes a break from her nervous breakdown to point Ted and the sheriff in the right direction.

They follow Steve into a power plant and corner him on a catwalk. Ted refuses to fire on the dribbly former astronaut, but the sheriff has no such compunctions. Angered by the shotgun blasts, Steve throws the sheriff into some power lines, where he goes off like a Roman candle. Ted gets brushed over the side; he dangles from the catwalk and begs for help. Steve’s humanity stirs, and he lifts Ted to safety.

The power plant security guards arrive to spoil the tender moment. Ted begs them not to shoot, screaming, “I’m Dr. Ted Nelson!” over and over again. This apparently does not impress them, and they gun him down. The bullets don’t stop Steve, though. He kills both guards and collapses against a wall. He’s melted into a little puddle of filth by morning, when the janitor sweeps him up and puts him in the garbage. The radio broadcasts ground control banter, chronicling the departure of several more astronauts on their way to Saturn and, we assume, eventual murderous liquefaction.

Introduction:

Designer bottled water automatically makes you a pretentious prat.Mike and the ‘Bots play hardball. Despite Servo’s wild pitching, Crow calls a strike every time. Tom beans Mike with his last pitch, provoking him to charge the mound.

Host Segment One:

A major studio has bought the rights to Crow’s script, Earth vs. Soup, and given them thirty million to make it. Dr. Forrester and Pearl put themselves in charge, skim some off the top for administrative expenses, and give Crow the remaining eight hundred to make the movie. Kevin Bacon must star.

Host Segment Two:

Dr. Forrester and Pearl catch a shuttle up the Satellite of Love for a script meeting. Crow goes out to get them drinks. They trade pages with Mike and Tom for a minute and then leave before Crow can return and start the meeting.

Host Segment Three:

Mike stars as Kevin Bacon in Earth vs. Soup. Crow dons a beret and scarf to direct. He has to shout, “Judy, what am I doing?” every step of the way. He wraps principal photography just seconds after beginning, declaring the rest of it “second unit stuff.”

Host Segment Four:

Dr. Forrester leads a focus group to discuss the film. Everyone in attendance raises their hand at every question. They respond in the affirmative to all Dr. Forrester’s queries, even the self-contradictory ones.

Host Segment Five:

Crow waits anxiously to hear if his movie will be green-lighted for release. Dr. Forrester and Pearl announce that it will be—as a trailer. Oh, and they’re going to remove his name from the project; the money for the buy-out was included in the eight hundred they already gave him. Pearl snarls an offscreen personal assistant named Becca to push the button, while Dr. Forrester tries to push his head into a three-gallon bottle of designer water.

Stinger:

The mother-in-law, just before her grisly death. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” she cries.

Thoughts:

Why did he have to remove the bandages.  Why?Once is a novelty, twice invites comparison, but a third occurrence requires an addition to the lexicon. Today’s addition to the MST3K lexicon is something I’m going to call the “Kenny Syndrome.” This describes a plot device in which an allegedly likeable character attempts to generate audience sympathy for a wholly unlikable character. It refers, of course, to the diminutive loathsome one of Episode 302, that same ubiquitous Japanese stowaway who continues to proclaim, “Gamera is good!” even as the monstrous turtle slaughters his countrymen by the tens of thousands. The second example of this brand of blatantly misplaced compassion comes from the willowy Student Lover Susie, who barely survives an encounter with the roving alien mummy in Episode 405. Enumerating the extraterrestrial interloper’s body count already requires the use of more than one hand, yet she stubbornly insists from her hospital bed that he “didn’t want to hurt me.”

And now we come to our third film, The Incredible Melting Man, in which our whiny, ineffectual hero, Dr. Ted Nelson, refuses to shoot his murderously deformed friend to save others. Why, Ted? Gamera’s kind of cute, despite the tusks. The alien mummy is just trying to collect his crystals and go home. Steve is…well…melting. That’s it. There’s a bit of pseudo-medical hogwash about how his “decomposed brain” is reverting to its “primal instincts.” Do the most primal of human urges require the decapitation of anyone in hip waders? Are we supposed to identify with his need to slaughter horny seniors? Should we construe his attempt to mutilate innocent children as a cry for help? Go on, Ted. I defy you to give us all one good reason why you refused to put Steve out of everyone’s misery. No? Congratulations, Dr. Ted Nelson. You’ve accomplished something I did not think possible until I saw this film. You’ve managed to out-Kenny Kenny.

Though they contain most of the broad, humorous elements of their counterparts in other episodes, the host segments for The Incredible Melting Man have a raw, angry quality I don’t normally associate with MST3K. That’s not to say they’re bad. They’re not as funny as the usual fare, but they’re tightly made and much more biting. The segment with Crow as the director is closest to their normal goofy modus operandi—“Judy, what am I doing?” makes me laugh—but the unnamed studio’s treatment of Crow’s screenplay makes me squirm. The rigged and ignorant focus group still disgusts me. Numerous former cast members have gone on record to rant about their harrowing experiences with the Hollywood film machine. I hope, through the creation this episode, they’ve managed some small measure of recovery.

The film segments are disgusting, though I can’t see what the SOL crew could have done about it beyond choosing a different film. Joel held up an umbrella to cover the more risqué bits of City Limits. To shield us from the awful gooey meltingness, Mike would have had to carry an umbrella the size of the entire theater, and kept it up for two thirds of the film. While he was at it, he could have saved us from the amorous oldsters too. Again, that’s not to say they did badly. The film is full of quotable quips, from Mike’s, “This is basically the same story as Frosty the Snowman,” to Crow’s comment that the soundtrack “sounds like a Jew’s Harp with a whammy bar,” and Tom’s description of Steve’s flight through the submarine-like power station basement as “Das Blech.” Ted has some of the best lines himself. His angry exclamation (Hojka!) might have replaced Hi-Keeba as the MST3K expletive of choice had it occurred earlier in the run of the show, and his impassioned delivery of the line, “I’m Dr. Ted Nelson!” is loads of fun. The Satellite crew finishes off the movie by recounting all the things it taught them (life lessons such as, “Never name a child Burr,” and “It was impossible to look good in the seventies”) while the lengthy end credits roll. The well-made host segments and top-notch commentary make me glad I watched this episode. The sheer dribbly, runny grossness of it all means I won’t be going out of my way to watch it again.