A Lot of Talking, Not Enough Eyes
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 1, Episode 1: "The Crawling Eye"
It's been a while since I last reviewed an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix., but I'd watched a lot of them in quick succession back over a year ago and I burned myself out. Now, though, for those that keep up with this site on the regular, we're going to go through and actually start watching the show from the beginning, tracking the episodes I didn't get to (which are a lot) and see everything the series had to offer. Thankfully, at this point just about everything from the original series (except maybe the fabled "season zero" is available for free on YouTube on the official MST3K channel.
With that, then, we can go back to the very first episode and what where the series (more or less started): season one, episode one, The Crawling Eye (or, if you weren't in the U.S., The Trollenberg Terror). Released back in 1958, this was one of many sci-fi/horror films that came out of the early days of the "Space Race" and also the fears of nuclear power and where that could lead. Also, of note, with films like The Crawling Hand and The Brain That Would Not Die, one of many movies to feature body parts that live on their own.
In the film we join a couple of ladies, Sarah Pilgrim (Jennifer Jayne) and sister Anne (Janet Munro). The two have come to the idyllic ski town of Trollenberg on their way through to Geneva. Anne is a mind-reader and, on their train journey through the Alps, she has a visions and faints. When she awakes she tells her sister that they have to get off the train immediately. Her vision: a group of student climbers scaling the Trollenberg mountain, one of whom gets caught up in the lines and gets beheaded. Ouch.
Having befriended UN troubleshooter Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) on the train, the girls follow him to the resort he's staying at, getting a room there so they can relax for a bit before continuing their journey. This is when they learn about a radioactive cloud that apparently always collects around the base of the mountain, and has done so for three years. A research station has been set up to study the cloud but, as of yet, hasn't discovered much of anything. Anne, the mind-reader of the two ladies, suspects there's more going on, and as people headed up the mountain to investigate, and the cloud begins to move and shift around the mountain, bodies start dropping. Soon they all realize the truth: the cloud is the atmosphere of an alien that landed three years prior, and this alien will soon reveal itself to be: The Crawling Eye!
As we know well, when a film is covered by the MST3K crew it was likely because it was bad. The cast and crew didn't tend to cover a film if it was actually good (fans of, and their opinions about, the Universal Horror "classic" This Island Earth notwithstanding). The whole "story" of the show was that these three guys -- original host Joel alongside his bots Crow and Tom Servo -- were being tortured by bad movies as part of the experiment by Dr. Forester. If they started off watching good films then the series wouldn't really have functioned. Later spin-offs from this series, such as RiffTrax, were more willing to cover good films alongside the bad, but the original incarnation of the concept stuck pretty closely to only viewing the worst of the worst.
While I wouldn't call The Crawling Eye (to stick to the U.S. title that MST3K used) the worst film I've ever seen, it is pretty wretched. Reviewers when it came out called the film "dull" saying it "failed to further the concept of sci-fi horror", which is pretty accurate for this film. It's a low-grade monster feature that pads out its runtime with a lot of talking but very little actual action. This extends right up to the climax of the film, where the Crawling Eye is finally revealed in the last five minutes of the movie.
That's one of the biggest issues for The Crawling Eye: the monster is barely in the monster movie. Films can go a long way keeping the monster hidden from sight, having just little peeks at it, or having the carnage happen from shadows and darkness. But this film literally keeps the monster off screen until, effectively, the last five minutes, which sucks all the energy out of the rest of the piece. If you have a monster film you need to show the monster, otherwise it's just a bunch of people sitting around, pensive and confused (which is exactly what happens in this film).
Because the monster doesn't crop up until the last bit of the last act, the rest of the film is basically spent waiting. Yes, someone dies early on, and then someone else (for some reason) because a alien-controlled zombie and tries to kill someone else, but these are minor incidents and barely act as even a bit of spice to the long, drawn out sequences of people traveling up and down the mountain, very slowly, and then sitting around talking. The Crawling Eye is a chore.
I don't think the name is the issue, mind you. If anything, the title at least promises a monster eyeball will appear eventually (technically not a lie). While The Trollenberg Terror at least accurately tells us there will be a while lot of Trollenberg in this film, it vastly oversells the "terror" one might feel watching this movie (unless it's terror at the fact you paid to see this movie). The name change was a wise ideas as no one was going to see the movie with its original title... not that very many people went to see this film regardless. It's just not very good.
As far as the MST3K guys were concerned, I wouldn't consider this among their best efforts, but then this was the first episode of the show on the Comedy Channel (after leaving their Minneapolis public access home of one season) and there would be some growing pains they'd have to get through. The episode does have a few good jokes in it, times where I laughed out loud at what the crew said, so while the pace might be slower and not up to the standards we expect (especially in the much faster paced Mike era), this was still a pretty good effort.
Oh, and I liked Joel's first invention exchange project: a set of electric bagpipes, made by hooking a vacuum up to the pipes. It's a dumb thing, really, but it's one the few working inventions (as terrible as it is) that I can remember from the show. Well done.