It's been said that it's impossible to make something intentionally bad for comedic effect - in doing so, conventional wisdom suggests, you'll just wind up making something bad but not at all funny. But what if you were to not focus on the badness of it, but the sheer silliness of it instead? That's what worked for Larry Blamire in his exceptionally giddy "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra," the parody of 1950s low-budget sci-fi that has nabbed a loyal cult following, yours truly among them.
Around the same time Blamire was working on "Cadavra," brothers Richard and Tor Lowry and their pal Chris Patton were creating "Destination: Mars!," a comedy that took the same approach in aping B movies of the past; this parody, involving a Martian attack on planet Earth, put its focus on smart dialogue disguised as stupid dialogue, and on a knowing, winking lampoon of the idiocies of Ed Wood-era sci-fi. It's a comedy that's not trying to be funny just by being bad. It's a comedy that's legitimately funny, both to fans of the genre (watch for the "Plan 9"-inspired running gag that has everyone nonchalantly pointing guns at each other) and non-fans (one needs no B-movie knowledge to snicker at most of the jokes, which rely mainly on basic absurdity). It's a comedy that's not overtly played for laughs, which helps sell the gimmick.
"Mars" was filmed in the same manner as "Cadavra" and a handful of other like projects. The idea was to make a movie that looked exactly like a "lost" film from the 50s, with the image run through various visual effects programs to properly "age" the movie. It's not entirely successful, of course - while the $6,000 budget (!) kept things looking appropriately hokey, an inescapable reliance on CG effects work and many shots that reveal its shot-on-digital-video source leave the film with a few too many seams showing. But then, the Lowrys (Richard directed, Tor wrote) and Patton (who produced) get so much of the spirit of the genre right that the seams don't matter. By the time our square-jawed hero (Blane Wheatley) and his best girl (Jessica Schroeder) start lip syncing a mushy ballad, we're too busy giggling to care about anything else.
To help hide the fact that this is actually a modern production, the filmmakers went so far as to provide fake credits - no, Lowry couldn't have directed it, Joseph P. McDonald did! For kicks, "Mars" opens with a brief mockumentary on McDonald and his involvement in HUAC, adding that the reason you've never seen "Mars" before is because it's the only film seized by the U.S. government for its possible Communist themes. It's unnecessary, but it's also a whole lot of fun.
When Dark Horse Comics got a hold of the film, Patton and the Lowrys were invited to produce a sequel, this time with the financial backing of Image Entertainment and their Dark Horse Indie production line. The filmmakers instead suggested a different route, a six-chapter Saturday morning serial about WWII-era superhero the Yellow Jacket. Image agreed, a budget of $75,000 was set, and "Monarch of the Moon" was born.
Where "Mars" was a direct parody of "Plan 9" and its ilk, "Monarch" is a mixture completely its own. The film (directed by Richard Lowry and written by Richard Lowry and Chris Patton, with Tor Lowry instead handling all the effects work) sits somewhere in between "Mars," "Cadavra," "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," and the cult hit "The Call of Cthulu," without ever feeling like a pale imitation of any of those titles.
Once again, the idea is to make a movie that looks as if produced long ago, this time in the mid-1940s. And again, it lacks the complete authenticity it wishes to obtain. The problem here is in the color; while Image wanted a black-and-white feature, the filmmakers, having just spent years struggling to find distribution for their black-and-white picture, had grown tired of that look and wanted to try color. In a compromise, two version of the movie have been made, one color, one B&W, both properly filtered for that phony aged look. At first, my preference was for the B&W version - it looked more convincing, whereas the color print was so overly saturated that it didn't look like anything we'd seen before.
But, you see, that's when the color version grew on me, because, well, it didn't look like anything we'd seen before. Remove from your mind any notions of comparing it to the genre that inspired it, and you discover that the film's peculiar use of color and its downright bizarre imagery creates something entirely new, an action-comedy-fantasy with hypnotic visuals and a knack for the weird. Start watching it, and the color scheme overwhelms you. You can't look away.
Wheatley returns, this time as Cal Crawford, a "U.S. Super Agent" whose gas-powered jetpack and ability to communicate with bees makes him the Yellow Jacket, America's mightiest defender. The usual assortment of serial characters are here: the useless secretary, the scrappy pilot, the spunky kid sidekick, the pipe-smoking scientist, the gruff Army general. And this being the war, our villains our notoriously stereotyped: archvillain Dragonfly (Kimberly Page) is a sinister assassin whose "Japbots" are indestructible weapons of doom. (Such tongue-in-cheek bigotry is dangerous, as it poses a danger of viewers not getting the joke, but it's all done so broadly that the filmmakers' intentions are obvious.)
Lowry and Patton play fast and loose with the rules and clichés of cliffhanger plotting, with the biggest comedy of the movie coming from watching how the good guys escape death. Fans of serials will appreciate the running gag that results from taking these genre clichés to such insane extremes.
Yet "Monarch" isn't as much of a comedy as you'd expect - the script plays the heroes for laughs but the villain as a serious, dramatic threat. It's an unexpected choice, but it helps with the film's charms. What we have in "Monarch" is a film so unique that it snags your attention even when it doesn't quite work.
Dark Horse/Image collects both films for a two-disc set. "Monarch of the Moon" gets all the hype, however: "Destination: Mars!" is listed on the cover as a bonus feature, even though it gets an entire disc and group of special features all to itself.
Video & Audio
Naturally, both films look lousy, as intended. But it's a good lousy. Every scratch, slip-up, and fake piece of grain comes in perfectly. More importantly, the saturated colors look fantastic on the "Monarch" color edition. On the B&W films, there's a bit of a pink/purple tone that seems to seep through from time to time, which may be a result of the digital effects work done to change the movie to scratchy black & white and not a quirk of the transfer itself. Both movies are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Both films also get a Dolby stereo treatment, making them sound as good as they should. No subtitles are provided.
Richard Lowry and Chris Patton deliver a chatty, information-packed commentary on the color version of "Monarch." Everything you need to know about the movie gets covered here in lively fashion. Unfortunately, the disc is coded in such a way that you cannot switch between audio tracks - to hear the commentary, you must go to the menu screen, which will start the movie all over again. It's a bit of a pain.
Also included on the "Monarch" disc is the movie's trailer, offered up in both color and B&W editions.
"Mars" also gets a commentary, this one from Lowry, Patton, and Tor Lowry. Again, it's talky and useful in all the right ways. Better still: you can toggle between movie audio and commentary audio throughout the feature.
When you select "play" from the main menu, you begin with the mockumentary on McDonald. Curiously, selecting chapter one from the chapter menu skips this entirely and takes you to the beginning of the movie proper.
The film's trailer is hidden under the "behind-the-scenes" selection on the special features menu. Following the trailer, we get two minutes of on-set home movies. I suppose that qualifies as behind-the-scenes.
Finally, this being a Dark Horse release, the set is packaged with a fun, if too short, Yellow Jacket mini-comic.
Recommended to anyone who enjoys this sort of homage/parody combo. "Monarch" especially is a title that deserves to gain a steady cult following.