Thursday 24 January 2019

Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966)

Director: Coleman Francis
Writer: Coleman Francis
Stars: Coleman Francis, Tony Cardoza, Harold Saunders and John Carradine

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that cinema is all about the celebrities, because they’re who get the press, but they’re just the surface and there are a thousand others below for each one above. Case in point: Coleman Francis, who would have been a hundred years old today. He never made it to celebrity status, though though he did find cult fame posthumously courtesy of the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which lampooned each of the three films he wrote and directed, as well as a couple of others in which he merely appeared. Take a good look at his filmography, though, and you’ll see that he connected all over the cult movie map. He acted for W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy, in Killers from Space; Ray Dennis Steckler, in Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (playing two separate roles); and Russ Meyer, in both Motorpsycho and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He narrated Steckler’s The Thrill Killers, had a bit part in This Island Earth and appeared in two episodes of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. I’d like those credits!

Of course, most of those roles were so tiny as to be often uncredited. When he finally got a credit, for Stakeout on Dope Street, it was spelled wrong, and when he achieved a major role, it was in an exploitation film as inconsequential as 1959’s T-Bird Gang. What he will always be remembered for are the three features that he wrote and directed himself, features so bad that they underline once and for all how Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker of all time. The first of these was The Beast of Yucca Flats, my go to choice for the worst film ever made. Certainly it has the weirdest stream of consciousness narration that I’ve ever heard, while Tor Johnson stumbles around the desert suffering from radiation burns and searching for a plot. That was 1961. Two years later, Francis made The Skydivers aka Fiend from Half Moon Bay, with a larger role for his producer, Tony Cardoza. Finally came Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba, shot in 1961 but not released until 1966 and the only one not to include his wife and kids in the cast.

As awful as it is, The Beast of Yucca Flats is explainable. Francis hadn’t directed before, so was learning the ropes as he went. He was unable to shoot with sound, so chose not to point his camera at people’s faces while they spoke. Tor Johnson was 58 years old and 390 bloated pounds; he couldn’t stand up without something to lean on, so his attempts to terrorise everyone around weren’t too believable. Night Train to Mundo Fine isn’t remotely as easy to explain away. Francis really should have learned something of the art of filmmaking by this point, but it seems to be confined to an attempt to actually overdub dialogue in post production so that we’re able to watch the mouths of people talking instead of their chests. He clearly thought he was ready to attempt an actual plot, but he wasn’t and so we stumble around for an hour and a half trying to figure out where we are, when we are and why we’re there in the first place. Occasionally, it starts to make sense but by that point, Francis just moves everyone on again to keep us in confusion.

What I should explain off the bat is that Night Train to Mundo Fine has nothing to do with a night train and we don’t ever take one to Mundo Fine. That is promising for a couple of minutes, because the movie begins at a railroad depot, with Jim Benton of the Gazette interviewing Mr. Wilson about the desperadoes who came through back in ’61. He’s John Carradine and he was the engineer on the train when they grabbed it, he says. Now, “grabbed it” turns out, over an hour later, to mean that they snuck on board and then off again a scene later. Nothing happens on the train and he didn’t even meet them, but it did provide an opportunity for Carradine to speak a couple of lines and, unbelievably, even sing the theme tune in which I learned that Mundo Fine has four syllables, because it ought to be Mundo Finé, namely Spanish for “the end of the world”. It’s a philosophical title, explaining the descent into oblivion of the lead character, Griffin, who’s already on the run with $5,000 on his head when the story begins.
The reissue title, Red Zone Cuba, makes a lot more sense, given that we do spend some time in Cuba. Unlike Our Man in Havana, we’re not actually there because Fidel Castro gave permission, we’re in the same parts of Santa Clarita in which Francis shot all his films, but we’re supposed to pretend that they’re Cuba, just like we’re supposed to pretend that later scenes take place in Arizona because the backwoods café sells frog legs. Yeah, I got confused by that too and I live here. Anyway, Griffin, who’s played by Francis himself for no apparent reason, hooks up with the couple of ex-cons in whose pickup he spent the previous night. They’re Cook and Landis, played by Harold Saunders and the film’s producer, Tony Mendoza, and a charitable assessment of all three performances would be to say that I’ve seen worse. Then again, I’ve seen challenge films made by public libraries starring six year olds who can’t read their lines. We know these performances are bad, because John Carradine did a much better job for the minute or so that he’s in the film.

Francis’s understanding of plot is to keep these three moving, but in tone and genre as much as location. They start out in a sort of John Steinbeck-esque depression era story, even though it’s 1961, because our heroes (well, we assume they’re our heroes) have no homes or jobs and have to eat at the side of the road and be interrupted by policemen on a daily basis. Eventually, they realise that someone’s hiring fighters to go invade Cuba, so they swap their car for a plane ride from Cherokee Jack to the training ground and suddenly our depression picture turns into a war movie. We’re not let in on any details here, which seems odd, such as where this base is, whether it’s populated by the army or just some sort of militia, and who these folk are who hire three probable ex-cons on the fly. All we know is that one training scene later, they’re in a boat heading for what we’re only later told is the Bay of Pigs, as an advance force tasked with taking out telephone wires and other means of communication.
Well, we do know other things, but they don’t help. We know that this film has absolutely no sense of time or place. We can grasp that we’re on Cuba because hey, that’s Tony Cardoza wearing a beard and pretending to be Fidel Castro, but we don’t actually see a city or even a town. We just see supposed Cubans chasing supposed Americans around a succession of scenery. There’s a cliff and a field and a road, but how they all connect, we really have no idea. Eventually there’s a hut and our heroes are all captured and left in some sort of shack to be executed by firing squad one at a time. I think we’re supposed to ignore the fact that five minutes there allows them to figure out the guards’ daily routine and is easily enough time for a compatriot by the name of Bailey Chastain to get really sick with gangrene. What we need to focus on is that he has a mine on a mountain in Arizona and it’s full of pitchblende and tungsten and uranium, maybe even diamonds. I wonder where we’re going to go when this turns into a treasure hunt.

So much of this is inexplicable. Why would the United States invade Cuba with an army of a dozen ex-cons, especially after only a single day’s training? Why is their base so full of birdsong that we can’t hear the dialogue over it? Why is a Texan cowgirl guarding the Cuban prison hut? Why do we care? At least some questions can be squared away with the same answer, namely that Francis is clearly incompetent and everyone in his cast and crew followed suit. That’s why the lighting is wildly inconsistent. That’s why the dialogue is sparse, unrealistic and delivered really really slowly. That’s why the music is hilariously overblown. And that’s why the opportunity to make a sociopolitical comment about the CIA’s attempt to invade Cuba and depose its Communist leader is ignored completely. Red Zone Cuba may make more sense as a title than Night Train to Mundo Fine, but it doesn’t take too long for our heroes to fly right back out of Cuba and end up at Cliff Weismeyer’s backwoods frog legs café somewhere in Arizona.
Thus far, at least we’ve moved from one genre of movie to another. Here, we take a short detour into what can only be described as a visual blues song. It’s fair to say that the only positivity in the movie comes from Cook and Landis, who aren’t cheerful so much as they’re fatalistic, only bemoaning their lot when the cops pressure them on the subject. Griffin is a portrait of misery throughout, a companion nobody in their right mind would want. He’s so miserable that, when one of his compatriots reminisces aloud about an old girlfriend, he jumps up and strangles the man half to death, for no reason whatsoever except that he could be allergic to anyone having a happy moment. However, Cliff Weismeyer takes the cake. Everything he says sounds like lyrics from a blues song. He lost all his money trying in vain to restore his daughter’s sight. He has no business because the freeway came through and stole it away. Lord have mercy! You’d think he’d be happier when Griffin carries him outside and throws him down the well.

Why we’re even at Cliff Weismeyer’s, I have no idea. We know Griffin’s a bad guy already. We really don’t need the implication that he murders the proprietor just so that he can rape his blind daughter. There seems like no point for him to even be here, wherever here might happen to be. They fly there, they drive somewhere else and they eventually end up where we started, jumping on that night train that doesn’t go to Mundo Finé, only to jump off again at some junkyard and eventually, perhaps after making it over the Misty Mountains, through the Gap of Rohan and past Helm’s Deep to... wait, I’m in the wrong road movie. Eventually, they arrive at Ruby Chastain’s place, where we find that she’s just as terminally depressed as everyone else in this film, even though she strangely doesn’t ask the soldiers who were with her husband in Cuba where the heck her husband is now and how he’s doing. She just joins them on the next stage of their journey, up the mountain to see the mine. After all, she has three shovels and a geiger counter.
I learned a lot of things watching this film. I learned that groceries are expensive and cars are cheap. Cherokee Jack offers them $35 for their car, but ends up swapping it for a one way Cessna ride to the training ground. In the junkyard, when they need another, it only costs them one ring. Meanwhile, the small amount of groceries they need for their mine trip cost them a full five bucks. I also learned that Griffin manages to smoke a heck of a lot of cigarettes for having no money, presumably because it was compulsory in 1961 for angsty thugs. I learned that when the bad guys shoot one of the good guys and someone needs to lay the injured body into the back of a pick up truck, there’s a convenient clean pillow right there for the sake of comfort. And I learned that Francis, as little as he put into his films, did have themes that continued throughout each of them. They all feature light aircraft, the ability to calm people down with coffee and the need to shoot them dead without trial. Oh, and Santa Clarita works for anywhere in the world.

It’s easy to laugh at this film, and the others that Coleman Francis made, because it and they are mindbogglingly awful. Right now, none of them feature on the IMDb Bottom 100, but that’s only because there’s been a change in the number of votes needed to get there. The Skydivers, with an average rating of 2.8 after 4,556 votes, is currently the highest rated of the three, but that’s still lower than the 2.9 that Baby Geniuses currently rates as the 23rd worst feature of all time. Night Train to Mundo Fine’s 2.6 puts it alongside Battlefield Earth and Gigli in the high teens and The Beast of Yucca Flats, with a mere 2.4, would rank around the 10th place mark with Son of the Mask and From Justin to Kelly. But, in the early sixties, long before cheap and portable video cameras, Coleman Francis, an extra for a decade whose brightest moment was as a detective in Irvin Kershner’s debut feature (22 years before The Empire Strikes Back), still managed to shoot, edit and distribute three features. For that, and the MST3K joy that followed, we salute you!

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