Wednesday 10 April 2013

Monster a-Go Go (1965)

Director: Bill Rebane
Stars: Phil Morton, June Travis and George Perry

Until they discovered Manos: The Hands of Fate, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 folk regarded Monster a-Go Go as the worst movie that they had ever riffed. It's certainly a bad film, with bad acting, bad dialogue and bad music, along with bad sound and bad lighting that makes it tough to keep up with what's actually going on, even with a clear narration laid over the top. What makes it so notably bad is that it's also boring, which is the death knell to a picture like this. While 'bad' can be forgiven or even enjoyed, 'boring' is a much harder obstacle to overcome. The only interesting thing about it is its history, because the man responsible for releasing it, Herschell Gordon Lewis, didn't care about it in the slightest. He merely needed a movie, any movie, to back one of his own at drive in theatres, because theatre owners couldn't withhold payment on the grounds that it was the other picture that made money when you owned both halves of the double bill.

The film he had was 1964's Moonshine Mountain, which cemented Lewis's stature as a pioneer of the hicksploitation genre by following on the heels of Two Thousand Maniacs! but with a focus on country music and comedy rather than gore. What he found to back it up was Terror at Half Day, a science fiction thriller in the Roger Corman vein, which had been in production between 1961 and 1963 but which was left languishing on the shelf of a film processing lab because the budget had evaporated. Lewis knew about Terror at Half Day as he'd been brought in as a cinematographer late on; maybe Bill Rebane, who was directing his first feature, hired him for his experience, the fact that he was cheap and because he'd worked for Lewis in 1959, doing part time sales in his commercial studio. When the lab told Lewis that the footage was available, he knew precisely what he could do with it, so he bought it, reedited it completely, added a narration and gave it a new title, Monster a-Go Go.

He was so proud of the results that he didn't even put his name on them. He's uncredited both as a director and the film's narrator, not to mention for the cinematography that he did even before he bought the footage. For everything else he did, he used pseudonyms: for his dialogue he's Sheldon Seymour, as a producer he added an S as a middle initial and for production design he's Seymour Sheldon. If the awful new title wasn't enough, his disdain for Terror at Half Day is made clear by the fact that he turned the serious, if probably still inept, thriller into a parody of itself, with what may well be the worst ending ever committed to celluloid, only Chained for Life even coming close on that front. Surprisingly, he also ditched a large amount of footage, thus minimising the presence of Henry Hite, the 7'6" vaudevillian who portrays the titular monster. I can understand much of what Lewis did and why, but I can't understand why he'd throw away what are probably the best bits.

While necessity drove Lewis's purchase of the Terror at Half Day footage, to a lesser degree it also drove the making of the original picture. Rebane had done very well for himself as a young man but had fallen on hard times and aimed this feature film to restore some of his success. He'd arrived in the US from Germany in 1952 as Ito von Rebane, a 14 year old Latvian kid fluent in four languages but not English; he learned by watching four movies a day for six months. After working his way up the ranks at WGN-TV in Chicago, he went back to Germany, where he did the same thing at Baltes Film, eventually directing shorts and presumably impressing Adalbert Baltes in the process. Baltes wasn't just a documentarian, producer and founder of the company, he had also designed a 360° projection system called Cinetarium that screened movies in a similar way to a planetarium. With exclusive US distribution rights to this system in his pocket, Rebane was a millionaire at 22.
Unfortunately, it didn't last. The companies he'd formed couldn't take the strain of patent disputes, legal fees and ongoing development. Picking himself up by his bootstraps, he returned to making films, starting out with a couple of successful AIP distributed musical shorts, Twist Craze and Dance Craze, hardly what you might expect given the sci-fi/horror films that he would become known for, but understandable when you realise that his idol was Donald O'Connor and his English immersion was through classic musicals and westerns. The connections he'd built during his Cinetarium days, the success of his shorts and a clear confidence in his own abilities led him to shoot Terror at Half Day, named for a small Illinois town north of Chicago. He failed as, in his words, 'going union killed the movie', but in hindsight, it was also a first step towards building a legitimate film industry in the midwest, something he's pushed consistently and successfully ever since. That's his real legacy.

What going union meant to this film was that the entire budget, all $50,000 of it, was used up by the end of the first week and by that point Rebane hadn't even shot a single scene with Henry Hite, the terror in Terror at Half Day. Interviews highlight that the union crew was very professional, and certainly the best footage is from that week's shoot, but also that they had no problem spending all the money without any concern as to whether the movie would get finished. Rebane's inexperience meant that he was out of budget and in a major hole with perhaps a quarter of the film shot. When he raised a little more financing, he'd learned his lesson so hired Lewis to finish the picture without a union bleeding him dry. These scenes are all notably inferior, especially with regards to lighting, but eventually the money ran out for good, leaving the movie unfinished until Lewis bought the footage and reworked it into his own picture for his own purposes.

What we see today in Monster a-Go Go is almost entirely footage from Terror at Half Day but it's clearly not the same film in any other way. The commonality ties to the core idea of an astronaut being launched into space but coming back fundamentally altered. Rebane's version is serious, the physical and mental change in astronaut Frank Douglas caused by radioactivity outside the Earth's atmosphere, meaning that the six foot tall man who went up returned as a ten foot tall radioactive monster, killing those he meets through proximity alone. The time was absolutely right. Rebane sought funding in 1960 and began production in the winter of 1961; in between those dates, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach orbit in April 1961, with Alan Shepard coming close a month later and John Glenn orbiting the Earth three times in February 1962. Studios naturally saw great subject matter, with films like 1959's First Man into Space even beating reality to the punch.

Rebane also had connections within Chicago, including Mayor Daley, who was interested in seeing film production return to the city for the first time since Essenay shot Chaplin one reelers there in 1915. Edison's strongarm tactics in patent enforcement had pushed the studios as far west as they could go, Hollywood emerging as somewhere they could make a stand and literally throw Edison's thugs out on their ear. We're used to seeing Chicago on film today, many of its landmarks obvious in movies like The Blues Brothers, Risky Business or The Untouchables, but it wasn't until 1959 and another Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, The Prime Time, that anyone returned to shoot there. That's why Daley and the City of Chicago happily closed down the busy intersection of Michigan Ave and Oak St for two hours around rush hour for a tense scene right under Wacker Dr that has the military catch the monster. This is groundbreaking stuff, but very little of it made it into Monster a-Go Go.

Nothing that Rebane aimed to follow that scene made it into the released version either. He wanted a different sort of ending to the usual. After the monster is caught, he wouldn't be destroyed in the way we've come to expect. Instead, he's taken alive and eventually cured through injections of an antidote serum. 'I wanted a happy ending,' said Rebane. 'I'm a happy ending guy.' Needless to say, that's not what he got. It's not known why Lewis changed everything in the way he did, but perhaps he saw the existing footage as a joke. There are certainly obvious flaws that put it on shaky ground immediately. Douglas's seven foot capsule clearly couldn't contain a ten foot monster. We're used to seeing such capsules land in the ocean to minimise impact but this one apparently touches down gently in an Illinois field without even generating a crater. Having the monster walk away from this crash is a precursor to the beginning of Crank: High Voltage and it's just as outrageous here.
Whatever the reasons Lewis had for changing the tone of the picture, he did it with a vengeance and he shattered any continuity the original film had in the process. He didn't actually add much new footage, just a few linking shots to support the rewritten story and an attack scene with the monster, as Henry Hite was still available. Continuity ought to have been easy to preserve, as he worked with the original cameraman, Bill Johnson, too but it apparently wasn't deemed important, as Lewis's new ending underlines. I should emphasise that not everything Lewis did was detrimental. Most viewers remember the shot of the spaceman striding across the cosmos over the opening credits, and that was a Lewis contribution. The catchy theme tune by The Other Three that accompanies it was his too. Mostly though, he mangled, and most of his mangling was through ditching existing footage rather than adding new, although the new attack scene is bizarrely incompetent.

To be fair, I should also add that the bad continuity began in Terror at Half Day. Rebane only had his lead actor, Peter Thompson, for that first week that ate up his budget. So, once he raised more money, he simply replaced Thompson's character, Dr Manning, with Dr Brent, with no explanation beyond a line of dialogue to suggest he handed over the reins. Presumably this is also why George Perry's character, Dr Logan, is killed off early in the film, but the actor promptly returns to play his brother. Perry was a beautician who dearly wanted to be an actor; he ponied up financing in return for a major part and ended up with two. At least shooting sequentially, something else Rebane did through inexperience, helped these transitions. It may be inept storytelling but it doesn't break the story. Lewis's most unforgivable contribution to the film does, in such a blatant and unapologetic way that it perhaps singlehandedly caused the elevation of the picture to cult status.

After the Wacker Dr scene, the biggest looking scene in the picture which Lewis cut significantly, the authorities chase the monster into the sewers. We're shown Henry Hite walking underground and, in a more traditional ending to the one Rebane wanted, Lewis planned to have him encased in concrete by pouring it into the tunnels from above. What he actually did beggars belief and I should quote verbatim: 'As if a switch had been turned, as if an eye had been blinked, as if some phantom force in the universe had made a move eons beyond our comprehension, suddenly, there was no trail! There was no giant, no monster, no thing called Douglas to be followed. There was nothing in the tunnel but the puzzled men of courage, who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness!' Yeah, the ending is that the monster never existed. Everything thus far has revolved around a non-existent monster that held the entire city of Chicago in a panic for absolutely no reason.

But wait, there's more, as they say. Dr Logan passes Col Steve Connors a telegram and Lewis dives even further into the abyss of idiocy. 'With the telegram, one cloud lifts, and another descends,' he tells us. 'Astronaut Frank Douglas, rescued, alive, well and of normal size, some eight thousand miles away in a lifeboat, with no memory of where he has been, or how he was separated from his capsule! Then who, or what, has landed here? Is it here yet? Or has the cosmic switch been pulled? Case in point: the line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin! You have witnessed the line being shaved even thinner! But is the menace with us? Or is the monster gone?' It's hard to imagine a more incoherent or belittling end. At least Robot Monster was honest! This is just Lewis raising his middle finger to drive in audiences, highlighting that he has their money and there's nothing they can do about it. It gave him his double bill and his percentage. Screw the rest.


Anonymous said...

I think this is quite a remarkable film in a perverse way. I remember an Allmovie review calling it a "surrealist anti-masterpiece", while at the same time it was either at or near the top of the IMDB bottom 100. Both struck me as entirely appropriate.

Have you seen the other film on the SWV disc, "Psyched By The 4D Witch"? That makes Lewis look caring, slick and professional.

Anonymous said...

Raising their middle finger to audiences is what ALL film-makers do ! ! !. Hollywood is THE biggest lie and deception in the history of the universe.