Published Friday, January 23, 2004

Bargain Bin: 'Lobster Man from Mars'

'Lobster Man' is a tasty mix of B-movie references

There are three things that I always look forward to in the month of January. One: Breaking all those stupid New Year's resolutions (what was I thinking?). Two: Celebrating Elvis's birthday (but we did that last week). And Three: B-Fest. That's right, I'm heading back to Chicago next weekend for 24 hours of butt-numbing " mild melting" cinematic cheese -- a glorious acid test of survival and sanity against movies from the bottom of the bell curve. Stay tuned!

Speaking of B-movie cheese, do you all think the preview for Larry Blamine's "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" looks hysterical? I sure do. If you haven't seen it, it's a homage to all those old hair-brained, budget-strapped, alien-invading monster movies from the 1950s. I know this movie won't be for everyone, but it looks like a lot of fun for those of us who truly enjoy the genre (and, hopefully, there's enough here to make some new fans.)

The film's biggest hurdle, though, living in the post "Scream" world, is that all the pop-culture referencing and character self-awareness of movie clichés, no matter if it's a serious treatment or tongue in cheek, has now become a cliché all by itself. Are people getting tired of this? I am, because it's basically ruined the whole genre. The built-in audience for these things can be hard to please but most of us are pretty easy -- if the film's heart is in the right place.

Anyways, we have to wait 'til next month to see "The Lost Skeleton" but, after seeing the trailer for this, it triggered a memory of another, similar, film I'd seen a long time ago, that I had almost forgotten about. It, too, was a loving parody and homage to those old hair-brained, budget-strapped, aliens-invading monster movies from the '50s called "Lobster Man From Mars."

The film's framing sequence involves movie mogul Tony Curtis desperately needing a box-office bomb as a tax write-off to get the IRS off his back (how about "Gigli II"?). Enter young filmmaker Dean Jacobsen and his homemade sci-fi opus "Lobster Man from Mars." The ludicrous title alone spells box-office disaster to Curtis. He hauls Jacobsen into the screening room and we watch the film with them.

It seems there is life on Mars but not for long. Their air is running out so the Martian King sends the dreaded Lobster Man and Mombo to Earth to steal our air. (Who's Mombo? He’s a nod to the hair-brainiest monster movie from the '50s "Robot Monster." Yup, he's a gorilla with a robot head.) The Lobster Man refuses to go until the King says he can eat as many humans as he wants while he's there.

So, before you can say, "humans is finger-licking-good," Lobster Man hops aboard his flying saucer. The sparkler is lit and the wobbly craft sputters across the galaxy towards Earth where it eventually crashes. A young, wholesome couple -- Anthony Hickox and Deborah Foreman -- spy the craft, investigate and run afoul of the monsters within.

With the help of the obligatory crack-pot scientist (Patrick MacNee), and gung-ho General Ankrum (armed with plenty of military stock-footage), the Martian invasion is thwarted by "applying super-heated deoxygenated hydroxide externally to the exoskeleton." In English, "They threw boiling water on him." (Because he's a "Lobster" Man. Get it?)

"Lobster Man From Mars" was a film that took two weeks to write but 10 years to film. The tandem of Stanley Sheff and Bob Greenberg originally had the idea back in 1979 when Sheff worked on "The Orson Welles Show." It was Welles himself who inspired the title; a reference to his old "War of the Worlds" broadcast that he always called The Lobster Man from Mars Show.

They tried to get the script produced but the financing always fell through. In the meanwhile, Greenberg helped with the production of another sci-fi parody, Bruce Kimmel's "The Creature Wasn't Nice" aka "Naked Space." (The title change was either to cash in on star Leslie Nielson's "Naked Gun" films or Kimmel's earlier "The First Nudie Musical.") Ten years later a solid investor put up some money and filming commenced. The budget increased when a deal was cut for the film's video rights, based solely on the nearly completed footage, so the film had already made a profit before it was even finished!

What makes this movie so much fun is that it's spot on with the gonzo characters, clichés and bad special effects. You can see the wires used to animate the Lobster Man's bat creatures, and that really is a sparker jammed in the UFOs tail pipe. The only thing that was missing was a visible zipper on the Lobster Man's suit. The film succeeds because it isn't a scathing indictment on the absurd nature of the genre but a loving tribute.

All the B-flick references in this movie would take a while to list but here are the most obvious. Colonel Ankrum is in reference to actor Morris Ankrum, who always played the General in things like "Beginning of the End" and "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers." There are big nods to "Robot Monster" (Mombo and the cave location is the same one Ro-Man used), "It Came From Outer Space" (glittering foot-prints) and "Invasion of the Saucer Men" (young couple find a UFO but no one will be believe them.)

There's also a séance right out of Ed Wood's "Night of the Ghouls." The Martian ruler, a brain in a jar, is a nod to "Invaders From Mars," whose helium-flavored B-Flick jive, punctuated with lots of klaatus, baradas and niktos, is derived from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The Martian bat creatures were inspired by "It Conquered the World" and their autopsy is straight out of "The Thing From Another World."

The monster's gruesome demise is a combination of "Fiend Without a Face" and "Day of the Triffids" but the film owes the biggest debt to "Teenagers From Outer Space" for the monster's ray-gun that vaporizes its target leaving only the skeletal remains of the victim that crumple dramatically. (Maybe the Lobster Man is a distant cousin of the Gargan? They're both crustaceans after all.)

Put all those elements in a blender and punch puree and you'll probably wind up with either a real big mess or, if you're lucky, you'll wind up with something as entertaining as "Lobster Man From Mars."

Chad Plambeck writes about movies for Options.