Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Monkey Watches: Melty!

The Incredible Melting Man
Dir. William Sachs
Poorly executed B-movies don’t always deserve the drubbings they get from critics. And by critics, we mean everybody on the internets, ever.

It’s too easy to rip apart something that gives the distinct impression that it’s held together by masking tape and misguided dreams. Yet The Incredible Melting Man, another entry in American International Picture’s (AIP) long list of low-budget genre films, is kind of asking for it.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 probably did the best job of beating up this movie. We’ve never seen that episode of the show, but Incredible leaves itself wide open for the kind of snark and barbs the MST3K team did so well.

You can probably wring nearly as much joy from the user-submitted review of the film on IMDB. However, we suggest you watch the film yourself, aided and abetted by friends, family and, if you bend that way, whatever mood enhancers you prefer.

In the interest of clarity and er, journalism, we watched it stone sober and violently alone. Yet still we lobbed our share of critical Molotovs at the screen, wondering how such a wickedly pulpy idea could be so boring.

The answer, we believe, is a two-parter.

1.  Allegedly, The Incredible Melting Man was conceived as a comedy – designed to be a parody of 1950s era “atomic monster” shockers. Some of the film was already in the can when AIP decided to switch to straight horror. Unsurprisingly, the movie shifts in tone throughout.

2.  Every single character in the film behaves in ways that no human being ever would, except for the title character, who we have lovingly dubbed Melty.

The plot concerns a manned mission to Saturn, but something involving solar flares kills off two of the astronauts, leaving Steve West (Alex Rebar) the only survivor, who tumbles back to Earth, waking up in a top-secret military/NASA/whatever hospital room, swathed in bandages and … different.

To paraphrase Elaine Benes, yadda yadda  yadda, he murders a nurse and escapes into the hills above Burbank.

Whatever turned astronaut Steve West into Melty has also driven him mad. And who wouldn’t be? He’s literally decomposing in the most gruesome, moist way a fellow can, and because this is a horror movie, Melty’s madness includes uncontrollable urges to kill.

Burr DeBenning plays Dr. Ted Nelson, the man trying to determine how Melty got that way, and, once Melty escapes, charged with finding him before he kills again.

Now you’d think a man who is slowly liquefying shouldn’t be that hard to track down in the scrubby fields surrounding a secret space-accident research facility. You scramble a couple helicopters, call the Eagle Scouts and start looking for the trail of gross that leads from the door of the building into the wilderness.

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Dr. Ted Nelson decides that he should first head home and eat some soup because chasing Melty is going to be tough and you don’t want to do that on an empty stomach. Then he gets a Geiger counter to track Melty, even though the man is surely leaving his disgusting mark wherever he goes.

What’s that? You want to know how a man with a Ph.D. decided a hot bowl of Campbell’s was the priority when a horrific abomination is loose near the borders of a housing development? You stop that right now. That’s not how we catch monsters in this universe.

There’s a decapitation, a weird excuse to show boobs, children are endangered and Gen. Michael Perry (Myron Healey) shows up to help convince local law enforcement that all these dead bodies are surely not the work of a space mission gone terribly wrong.

Gen. Perry has a Jeep too, which is a good idea since Melty’s gotten pretty far while Dr. Ted Nelson fiddly-farts around not pursuing him.

Despite the Jeep and, we assume, the U.S. Military’s knowledge of Melty, Dr. Ted Nelson and the General stop by the Nelson home again to have a couple drinks and accidentally break the news to Mrs. Nelson that there’s a murderously inclined creep running around out there, and well, he’s melting too.

Poor Melty. He gets very little screen time despite being the title character.

Some of the “comedy” footage is preserved in a puzzling and unfunny aside involving an old couple who stop to pick some lemons on the side of a dark highway. There’s finally a showdown and Dr. Ted Nelson tries to save or catch or do something about Melty, but it’s too late. [Watch the gruesome finale here, but be warned, it spoils the ending.]

Various sources say make-up artist Rick Baker had four distinct “phases” to the Melting Man costume, to show how Melty’s problem was worsening. But budgets got in the way and instead Melty looks like cheese pizza throughout. The make-up is still the best part of the film and Baker deserves his status as one of Hollywood’s great monster men.

We don’t expect much from our b- and z-grade horror and science fiction movies. But when you have the basic idea of The Incredible Melting Man right there, standing on the backs of various Twilight Zone and Outer Limits plots, and leaning heavily on The Quartermass Xperiment, it shouldn’t be hard to make that movie fun.

Reference material:  Oh, so you’ve seen The Hideous Sun Demon? Then you’re perfectly primed for this. Also, you only have to endure the first ten minutes before you get to the only gag in the film that works: Two short scenes involving a ridiculously long hallway.