Shout! Factory // 1989 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // November 9th, 2010
"To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these
things not in the plan?"
-- Ro-Man, from Robot Monster
Shout! Factory releases its latest Mystery Science Theater 3000 collection just in time for the gift-giving season of your choice, and like the past two fall sets, Volume XIX comes packaged with a collectible bot figurine. This year, fans can look forward to adding Gypsy to their scale model Satellite of Love dioramas, in addition to four new-to-DVD episodes of the show.
Volume XIX follows the Shout! Factory format: two Joel episodes, two Mike episodes, including one from the hit-or-miss first season. This collection ups the ante by adding a weird theme of its own, sticking to episodes that have either "Monster" or "Devil" in the title. Does this latest twist on the formula work, or should they have looked somewhere further north of Hell for inspiration?
Depending on your point of view, Shout! Factory's insistence on including season one episodes in nearly every set is either fun or frustrating. Volume XIX's first season episode, Robot Monster, is a bit of both. The movie itself is a jumbled mess of time travel, post-apocalyptic mayhem, and a gorilla creature named Ro-Man who wears a fishbowl on his head. It's only slightly more confusing than the two Commando Cody shorts that precede it. Joel and the bots (including the original J. Elvis Weinstein version of Tom Servo) do a decent job of riffing their way through it. Like all of these early episodes, the jokes are simpler and more sparse than in later seasons, though this surreal monster movie gives them plenty to work with -- especially the "Automatic Billion Bubble Machine," which gets special mention in the credits. By the way, this episode brings Shout! Factory's Commando Cody count up to five out of the nine shorts than made up the serial. Assuming they got the rights to the full run, we'll probably see the rest of the episodes they appear in ("Slime People," "Project Moonbase," and "Robot Holocaust") on future MST3K releases.
The Robot Monster bonus features kick off with a six-minute introduction by J. Elvis Weinstein, who left the show after the first season (although he has since reunited with his MST co-creators to form Cinematic Titanic). Weinstein provides an honest assessment of those early days, admitting that they probably could have fit in twice as many jokes as they did. He also tells the funny story of an accidental sneeze that made it into the final cut, and what he did to try and cover it up. Next, the 11-minute "Larry Blamire Geeks Out," in which the independent filmmaker explains what makes Robot Monster an awesome movie, and why Ro-Man's costume actually works (it's a bit of a stretch, but he makes an entertaining argument). Batting clean up is the movie's original theatrical trailer.
The second "Monster" movie on this set is from season four, and it's the Ed Wood stinker Bride of the Monster. Starring a fading Bela Lugosi and MST mainstay Tor Johnson, this movie is perhaps best known for its giant monster octopus, though it really should be known for the weird police chief with a parakeet fetish. Speaking of fetishes, Joel and the bots take several shots at Wood's legendary love of cross-dressing (as evidenced by the leading lady of this movie wearing the same Angora hat that Wood wore when he was the leading lady in Glen or Glenda). This kind of movie is the reason Mystery Science Theater 3000 was invented, and they do a solid job riffing both the feature and the "Hired: Part I" short that starts off the episode. It's not the best entry from the Joel years -- certainly not as good as the episode that came after it, Manos: The Hands of Fate -- but it's got plenty of great moments. The reinterpretation of "Hired!" as a musical is surprisingly authentic; the movie's last line, "He tampered in God's domain," became an MST3K standard; and even in the paycheck-cashing twilight of his career, Bela Lugosi is a blast.
The main extra for Bride of the Monster is the 27-minute documentary "Citizen Wood: Making the Bride, Unmaking the 'Legend'" -- an epic look at this B-movie classic, featuring interviews with Joel Hodgson, Larry Blamire, producer Richard Gordon, Richard Sheffield (a friend of Lugosi's), and George "the Animal" Steele, who played Tor Johnson in Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic. Frankly, it's more exhaustive than the movie deserves. Next up, "Inventing the 'Invention Exchange'" with the exchange's inventor, Joel. Given how much of the featurette's six minutes are dedicated to footage from episodes in this set, it probably could have been a little tighter. It does have interesting tidbits, though, like the revelation that Gizmonic Institute's full name was "Gizmonic Institute of Naive Science." Who knew? Once again, the last extra is the movie's theatrical trailer.
We go from atomic supermen to creepy wooden puppets for the first of the set's Mike episodes. Season eight's Devil Doll is a disturbing film about a shady ventriloquist named Vorelli and his living dummy, Hugo. The plot is full of people making bad decisions, from the reporter who uses his girlfriend as bait to catch Vorelli, to the ventriloquist's sleazy nocturnal activities, to his scantily clad assistant who sticks with him until she meets a grisly fate. By the end, the movie's only sympathetic character is Hugo, and he still creeps me out. Mike and the bots turn in a hilarious performance, giving this slime-soaked British movie what for -- dubbing the goofy Hugo "Alfalfa E. Newman," and wondering whether the male lead had a mini-donut implanted in his chin. The episode also features an appearance by Paul Chaplin, playing "Pitch" from the Santa Claus episode, this time as a satellite-to-satellite doll salesman.
Devil Doll is the lightest on extras. The main featurette is a nine-minute look back at the movie with its producer, Richard Gordon. He talks about its literary roots, what it took to get the movie made, and how good he thinks it turned out. As a counterargument, check out the original theatrical trailer, also on the disc.
For the final episode, Shout! turns its satanic attention under the sea with season nine's Devil Fish. This Florida-by-way-of-Italy Jaws rip-off is the story of marine biologists who partner with an electrician of sorts to track a shark/octopus thing that's been eating people. There are thugs, sexy scientists, and a sinister oceanic institute, but the movie belongs to the Devil Fish. Or, at least, the extreme close-ups, muddy underwater shots, and floppy rubber tentacles that are supposed to make us believe this prehistoric predator actually exists. This might be the best episode in this set. The editing is so awful, the riffers decide the director's vision must be "lots of shots of things," and the over-the-top title sends Mike into evil waiter mode: "Our special tonight is devil fish, with satanic string beans and deep-Lucifered potatoes!" One of the funniest exchanges happens late in the movie, when the appearance of a Coast Guard helicopter makes Mike wonder just how easy it is to get the Coast Guard to appear in your movie ("If they appeared in this, I bet the Coast Guard would appear in my brother's wedding video.").
Since no one seems interested in making a documentary for poor Devil Fish, the allotted bonus feature space on the last disc goes to "MST3K: Origins and Beyond Panel at CONvergence 2009," which took place in Bloomington, Minnesota. As cheaply shot as it looks, this nearly hour-long panel with Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Frank Conniff is filled with fun stories and recollections about the show's early days. You'd think that the Comic Con panel and three-part retrospective included in the 20th Anniversary Edition set would make this redundant, but Hodgson, Pehl, Conniff, and moderator Bill Stiteler keep things lively and fresh for the superfans in the audience, and at home. It's my favorite bonus feature. Just in case you wanted more Devil Fish, though, the theatrical trailer is included. You're welcome.
The audio and video quality of this set is on par with past Shout! releases. The movie prints range from bad to awful, and the episodes look their relative ages. Robot Monster, which aired way back in 1990, is in the worst shape (though it's a matter of how it was filmed and not the DVD transfer), while the late-'90s Sci-Fi Channel episodes look the best.
Once again, Shout! Factory delivers a solid collection of bonus features across all four discs, split fairly evenly between behind-the-scenes MST3K info and mini-documentaries about the movies themselves, I assume as a kind of apology to the filmmakers. As mentioned above, this set also comes with a six-inch-tall plastic Gypsy figurine that sits on a base of the coiled black tube coming down from her head -- which I assume connects her to the higher functions of the Satellite of Love (at least, it does in my fan fiction). The set also includes another set of mini-poster versions of the DVD covers, as designed by Steve Vance.
Comedy is subjective, and so is the relative quality of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. One fan's Manos is another fan's Red Zone Cuba, so I won't presume to speak for everyone's tastes, but this set feels like a step backwards from the past few -- especially Volume XIII, which I still consider to be Shout! Factory's strongest set. Going back to the Season One well, even for an episode as iconic as Robot Monster, doesn't help, and while Bride of the Monster benefits from the Ed Wood mystique, it's a middle-of-the-road Joel episode at best. The two Mike entries raise the quality level, but two good episodes out of a four-disc collection just isn't good enough.
Even so, middling Mystery Science Theater is better than pretty much everything else, and we're now four episodes closer to the MSTie holy grail of having the complete series available on DVD. Fans will want to buy Volume XIX -- and they should -- but if money is tight this year and you don't have space on your shelf for a Gypsy figurine, you might want to wait for Volume XX.
Shout! Factory may have tampered in God's domain, but hey, who hasn't? Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2010 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers
* Lobby Cards
* IMDb: Robot Monster
* IMDb: Bride of the Monster
* IMDb: Devil Doll
* IMDb: Devil Fish
* IMDb: MST3K
* Official Site