Monday, March 25, 2013

The Crawling Eye Plus - A Super-teen Extraordinaire

Ok, so, cards on the table. The Crawling Eye did not make me think of anything philosophical, after goal, or otherwise intellectually stimulating. My primary thought while watching the movie was, "this reminds me of an episode of Freakazoid!" A little research showed me I was right to think that. The second season episode of Freakazoid! entitled "The Cloud" was a whole plot reference to this movie, with Freakazoid! in the Forrest Tucker role. All proud of myself for having spotted this connection, I want to write about Freakazoid! now!

 For you impoverished masses not in the know, Freakazoid! was the fourth collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Warner Animation. It was envisioned as a comedic superhero show originally, possibly based loosely on the DC Comics character the Creeper, who made a couple of appearances on Batman: the Animated Series. It was even headed up by Bruce Timm, of BTAS fame. However, the tone became increasingly zany, for lack of a better word, and Timm backed out. In his place were John McCann and Paul Rugg as show runner and head writer, respectively. You may not recognize these names, but Paul Rugg, if you watched Animaniacs, was the voice of the Jerry Lewis-style characters. Essentially what was originally supposed to be a blend between the DC Animated Universe and the Tiny Toons/Animaniacs school of animation turned out to be its own creature, a postmodern exercise in frivolity and navel gazing.

The very first episode presents us with a standard superhero scenario, only to resolve it with barely a fight scene in which Freakazoid spouts rabbinical-sounding gibberish, talks to the girls who turned down his alter ego for a date, and otherwise entertains himself while the confused villain practically defeats himself. The second has him practically write the TVTropes page on what TVTropes eventually called a Gilligan Cut, only using F-Troop (which starred Forrest Tucker!) instead of Gilligan's Island in the middle of another supervillain encounter, which our hero only wins in the prologue. In fact, the only non-ironic superhero battle in the show's entire run may have been the finale, in which Freakazoid! battles of a number of his nemeses alongside surprise badass Norm Abrams. Yes, Bob Vila's partner from This Old House.

In short, the show was something unlike anything I'd ever seen on television before, and I would argue that it is a spiritual successor to the lineup of Adult Swim, both because of its content (perfectly suited to the 18-35 demographic, despite being marketed towards children), and because it spent quite a long time in Cartoon Network's overnight slot. Thus, like our beloved puppet show, it couldn't last, and ended after its second season.

Recently, Bob Chipman did a very thought provoking video on the subject, which I recommend you watch. I discovered Freakazoid! before I discovered MST3k, and it holds a similar place in my heart. Anything I can do to introduce more people to it is, in my estimation, a good thing. Remind me to tell you about another one of my canceled-too-soon favorites, Greg the Bunny, another time. Maybe that'll come up before this project is done. I mean, MST3k IS a puppet show, after all.

The Crawling Eye

When I re-watched the very first episode of MST3k, I had a similar sensation to when I watched the first ever episode of Dr. Who after having seen all the new series to date: I was impressed by just how much of the product as it exists today was already in place from the very beginning. The bot and set designs are pretty much as they would remain for the rest of the series, the bookend premise didn't change until it had to, and it was pretty clear Joel had some things in mind that hadn't been quite ready in time for shooting the first episode -- I couldn't help but notice Joel slapping the desk where the lighted indicators would eventually be at movie sign. Obviously not everything remained this way; Dr. Ehrhardt is an artifact, as J. Elvis Weinstein was replaced by Frank Conniff before the overwhelming majority of MSTies (including yours truly) would even discover the show, and the relationship between Forrester and Ehrhardt is vastly different from that between Forrester and TV's Frank. The RAM chips were eventually faded out, and the character of Gypsy was clearly still a work in progress.

The movie segments are similar; it's like a George Clooney fan accidentally watching some old Facts of Life episodes. You can see everything you love about the thing you know today; his charming smile, those dreamy eyes, but it just doesn't feel the same. Um, I imagine. First, The Crawling Eye isn't really a bad movie; it's just low-budget. It's a British suspense film with an alien payoff, and up until the monster shows up to underwhelm modern audiences spoiled by Stan Winston and photorealistic CGI, there's an actual mystery that's a little bit tense, not that that prohibits it being good riffing fodder.

Which brings me to the riffing. This was the first national foray into broadcast movie riffing; before that, if you've never watched a KTMA episode, trust me when I say it feels like a cable access show -- in large part because the movie segments were unscripted. If KTMA was cave paintings, then The Crawling Eye is the beginning of the Industrial Age. This was the first time they'd actually written riffs, and you can tell, because when Forrest Tucker's name comes up in the credits, Joel says "Forrest Tucker; he was on F-Troop." That's not even a "state park*" joke. There are some good, very funny riffs in there ("Dibs! Everything in my lap, I get to keep!"), but for some reason "Forrest Tucker" makes me think "he's the guy who goes around making sure trees' shirts aren't sticking out of their pants." Anyone got a source for that, or did I just make it up?

Essentially, The Crawling Eye would have been brilliant if you'd seen it before any other MST3k (and were predisposed to enjoy it), but as it's the first of ten years worth of series and it predates what calls "growing the beard" by about two years, it now probably has less entertainment value than it does historical. This is essentially a perfectly preserved archaeological sample. Every so often you might enjoy it the way it was intended, but it's probably more important to have than to watch. For entertainment value, though, I'd recommend watching the first episode of MST3k before suggesting you go see Rocky Horror Picture Show -- the primordial form of movie riffing, and these days it's really just a shell of what it once was. Seriously; RHPSies (that's what they call themsleves, right?) can't do half the naughty stuff they could in the '70s.

* I forget where I read it -- the ACEG, I think -- but a state park joke is a term coined by BBI, and it refers to a riffer just saying what something looks like. "It looks like a state park!" for example. Funny, because you're not supposed to be drawing that link, but it's the easiest link to draw and is nothing more than a simple observation of a similarity.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

MST3k - A series in review, plus.

After a short post on Reddit in which I gave brief synopses of MST3k episodes led to the suggestion that I write more reviews, I was inspired to revisit my idea for a blog.  I have, in my past, written two or three essays on subjects tangentially related to episodes of MST3k I have watched.  The Painted Hills, starring Lassie, led me to write about ten inches on dog breeding.  Angels Revenge led me to write on feminism, the Bechdel test (which AR passes, ironically), and the realization that philosophical positions are not well-served by mere algorithmic expressions.

That's the premise of the blog: I will review an episode of MST3k -- in episode order because, why not -- and follow it up with a piece of writing I feel is relevant to the episode, if for no other reason than that the episode made me think of it.

Stay tuned for The Crawling Eye, plus whatever The Crawling Eye makes me think of!