Friday, January 06, 2017

134. The Revenge of Doctor X

134. The Revenge of Doctor X aka Body of the Prey aka Venus Flytrap(1970)
Director: Norman Thomson
Writers: James Craig, Tota Kondo, and Lawrence O’Neill. Or Ed Wood. Or Norman Thomson. It's unclear.
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org, Rifftrax

A scientist builds a monster out of various species of venus flytrap to try to prove the evolutionary connection between plants and humans.

Dr. Bragan, a NASA scientist who’s having fainting spells due to stress over the latest mission. He decided to go on vacation in Japan, but has car trouble on the way to the airport. When he pulls into a gas station, he finds a venus flytrap which reignites his interest in botany and exploring the evolutionary link between man and plant (no, really). He goes into the surrounding countryside, digs up his own flytrap, takes it with him on the plane, and, in the most sci-fi part of the movie, has no trouble taking it through customs. In Japan, he meets up with Dr. Hanamura who agrees to be Bragan’s assistant and help him do experiments on the flytrap and a species of tubeworm off the Japanese coast.

Very little happens. What I just described is maybe the first hour of the movie. I feel I’m being a bit unfair with that estimate, but there’s a whole lot of nothing before Bragan cobbles together his monster. Much of the downtime is Hanamura trying to earn Bragan’s trust so that he’ll actually tell her what he’s working on and just show her the normal flytrap.

Together they build a man out of plant material, do a whole Frankenstein bit on it with lightning, and then. . . not a whole lot. The monster looks like someone wearing a green superhero costume with foam muscles sewn in, except he has flytrap mouths for hands and feet—basically a botanical version of Y'golonac. Finally (finally), the monster walks, escapes into town, Bragan convinces Hanamura that he’s going to go kill it, but he’s actually looking to save his creation. When he finds it, though, it ends up knocking them both into the mouth of a volcano. *womp-womp*

There’s not a whole lot here on any level. It’s not good, not at all, but it’s not campy either. The monster takes too long to show up and then isn’t much of anything. Even the exploitation elements—the kills and nudity—are lacking. The monster never kills anyone on-screen and, while there is nudity, it’s strange in its. . . ambivalence?

The nudity comes when Bragan is looking for the tubeworm to cross with his flytrap. Hanamura enlists a group of local women who are excellent deep-sea divers, and they’re all sitting on the beach topless. The movie doesn’t make anything of it, though. Suddenly there’s just a quartet of topless women agreeing to go swimming. The camera isn’t leering, there’s no sense of impropriety or transgression, it’s just ambient nudity. It’s not anything I object to, but it did add to the sense of, What is this movie? Also, because it comes so late in the film and is so subdued, it was surprising to realize I’d have to mention that the movie has NSFW content.

Supposedly Ed Wood wrote this, although the uploader of a different version of this film from archive.org disputes that, and I’m sympathetic to their reading. I’ll be hard pressed to say anything stranger this year, but while this feels like it could have been written by Ed Wood, it’s actually not good enough to have been. Wood’s work has a logic and self-importance that’s completely absent here. His pieces always feel like they have a touch of preachiness, even if it’s not clear what he’s preaching about.

This film was riffed by Rifftrax, but I can’t really recommend even that version. There’s so little to the film itself, and their riffs don’t do much to elevate the experience. A good portion of the beginning is spent pointing out the incongruities of the set-up, then making fun of the bad background music, and then Bragan’s hair-trigger. In fact, to the movie’s credit, despite being an American film made in Japan, it doesn’t resort to any overt exoticization. While it’s a weakness of the film that it doesn’t engage in its setting at all (at least have latent radiation in the soil be a reason the plants start growing) nothing about the movie seemed racist, which surprised me. Unfortunately, the Rifftrax version makes a lot of jokes about Hanamura being Japanese, about “r” and “l” words, and just entering a really tired space. If they were riffing on something the movie itself was doing, that’d be one thing, but this felt like, “It’s in Japan, let’s make Japanese jokes.”

The movie is in the public domain because who could care about it even when it was made, and I’ve uploaded an MPEG to archive.org. Obviously, I’m not recommending it, mostly because it’s boring. It’s completely inoffensive, though, even with the nudity, and certainly could be useful for an editing project or just to include footage of the monster in something else. Maybe a supercut of movie monsters to play in the background of a Halloween party. It's also interesting to consider this movie in the context of Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” because it's at once exactly the kind of movie she's talking about, and completely fails to be the kind of movie she's talking about. I wouldn't be above making them a paired reading/screening for a course lecture.

Also, the movie features neither a Doctor X nor any revenge. So, there's that.

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