Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rocket Attack, U.S.A. (Exploit Fllms, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched something far less exalted than Australia: a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a truly weird movie from 1961 called Rocket Attack U.S.A. I had assumed it would be another cheap-jack science-fiction movie with the tacky appeal of some of the others we’ve seen both on MST3K and “straight” — instead it turned out to be succinctly described on the Web site as “a cold-war propaganda film, released not too long after the launch of Sputnik, intended to rally public support for an anti-ballistic missile program.”

What followed was an unwittingly surreal cinematic mess of which the first two-thirds were a somewhat straightforward espionage movie: super-agent John Manston (John McKay) is assigned to infiltrate Russia and get the secret of Russia’s new intercontinental ballistic missile — the idea being that once they launched Sputnik I they would acquire all the data they needed to avoid such problems as cosmic radiation and the gravitational pull of other planets and figure out how to build a missile that would wipe out New York City, and the Soviet military would overthrow the Communist party and take control so they could stage a first strike against the U.S. while our own missile program was still unable to stage a successful launch. He’s supposed to meet up with a Russian contact, Tannah (Monica Davis), whom he had met previously in Turkey where she was living with her Turkish husband before she sneaked back into Russia, where somehow she’s managed to become the mistress of the Soviet Minister of Defense — “and when he drinks, he talks,” she explains to John Manston, who insists on moving in with her even though her Defense Minister lover comes over frequently, which means Manston has to spend hours upon hours in the closet until the poor guy passes out from overindulging in vodka and he can finally come out and kiss her right in front of his unconscious body.

Anyway, she manages to worm out of him the secret that the Russian missile is about to be fired from a base in Leningrad — which is a top-secret installation guarded by about three people with all the security savvy of Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Though a “British” (quotes definitely in order since the actor playing him doesn’t even attempt a British accent!) agent gets caught and killed trying to infiltrate the base, Our Hero plants a bomb on the missile that’s supposed to blow it up before it’s launched — only the bomb fizzles and Manston and Tannah are both caught on the beach and killed. The scene abruptly shifts to New York City, where there’s been a series of air-raid drills that have had pretty much the effect of that boy who cried wolf — nobody’s at all impressed when the stentorian voices on the radio start announcing that this civil defense alert is real — and there’s a nostalgia-inducing bit for anyone who grew up listening to radios during the civil-defense era, when the idea was you were instructed to tune to 640 or 1240 AM if there was an attack because only those stations would remain on the air — and radios made then even came with little civil-defense symbols printed on those parts of the dial so you could easily find them if and when.

A whole new series of extraneous characters, including Art Metrano as a truck driver and Jane Ross as his wife (they, along with John McKay and Monica Davis, are the only actors in this movie identified with their roles on the Web site, which is an indication of how obscure this movie really is), are introduced, and the MST3K crew (who in one of the interstital segments did an hilarious College Bowl spoof based on the history and mythology of civil defense) had particular fun with a scene showing a blind man walking down a New York street tapping with his cane, trying to find a shelter, and saying to no one in particular, “Help me.” Eventually all of downtown New York is incinerated — the estimate is that three million people have been killed — and though the final scenes offer hope (if you can call it that) that the U.S. will soon be able to retaliate, the last shot is of the door of a taxicab with a crack running through it and a title reading “Don’t Let This Be THE END.”

Rocket Attack, U.S.A. has it all: obnoxious politics, ridiculous plotting, a Cuisinart editing style, virtually nonexistent writing and direction (Barry Mahon took credit for the direction and he’s assumed to have written the script as well, but there’s no writer credit at all — not that I’d have wanted people to know it if I’d written something this silly), lousy acting and an overall air of incompetence that makes Plan Nine from Outer Space look like a deathless masterpiece by comparison (as I’ve said before, the more we’ve seen other people’s ultra-cheap sci-fi and horror films from the 1950’s, the better Ed Wood looks as a director!) — and the MST3K crew had a lot of fun with it, savoring its lameness and being particularly ridiculous about the voice-over narration that translated some of the Russian dialogue but not all of it, as well as paralleling the ending with that of a great atomic-annihilation movie, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and evoking another Kubrick classic, 2001, in the scenes around the Russian rocket base — you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the MST3K crew do their impression of Gyorgi Ligeti’s vocal chants around the monolith on the moon!

They also showed the second episode of Bela Lugosi’s 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, which had some potential off-camera (Ford Beebe co-directed with Saul S. Goodkind and the script was based on a story by Son of Frankenstein author Willis Cooper), sadly unrealized in a messy scenario that did an O.K. job of setting up the action and did nothing to stop Lugosi from floridly overacting every scene he’s in; the conceit is that Lugosi’s character has faked his own death and disguised himself by the simple expedient of shaving off his beard, but one would think his long-time associate, good scientist Dr. Fred Mallory (Edwin Stanley), would have easily recognized him the moment he heard That Voice. Not even a reunion between Lugosi and his Dracula cast-mate Edward Van Sloan (playing a character on the same side as Lugosi this time; he’s Jarvis, agent of a carefully unnamed foreign power that wants to buy all of Lugosi’s infernal inventions) can liven up this piece of cheese — though the famous giant-sized robot, which looks like an animate hot-water heater disguised as an Easter Island statue, is cool.