Shout! Factory // 1989 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 16th, 2012
"It's Joey the Lemur, the friend to mankind / a furry sort of monkey friend, he really does shine"
It doesn't make sense to call Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIII a return to form, but consider the following. The release of the Gamera-packed Volume XXI was a watershed moment for MSTies. It marked the first time any of the Sandy Frank episodes were available on home video. Shout! Factory followed the coup with the likewise excellent Volume XXII, featuring two more Japanese imports released from Frank's vault of perpetual pettiness. Although there are more Sandy Frank episodes yet to be released, none of them are in Volume XXIII. We have binged on turtle meat and ape-masked children, and like a fast food junkie in a McDaze, it's time we had a well-balanced meal. Shout! provides just that in its latest set, a nutritious and hilarious mix of episodes from the show's Comedy Central years.
First up, Season Two's King Dinosaur, with the traffic safety short "X Marks the Spot." The educational "X" plays like a schoolmarmy It's a Wonderful life, where instead of showing people how much poorer life would be if they'd never existed, guardian angels lecture bad drivers about the dangers of running stop signs. King Dinosaur, meanwhile, is a slice of sci-fi cheese from B-movie producer Robert Lippert. In it, co-ed astroscientists land on a planet stuck in the prehistoric age, where dinosaurs that look suspiciously like lizards "fight over who tastes most like chicken" in bouts of "Gecko-Roman wrestling." I remember this episode fondly from my teen years, wearing out my VHS copy watching Joel and the 'Bots sing the "Joey the Lemur Song." The episode, like many early episodes, may be a little light on jokes, but King Dinosaur will always hold a special place in my heart.
Season Three's The Castle of Fu Manchu stars Christopher Lee in the title role. This great actor's Guinness record for most film roles goes a long way toward explaining his appearance this stinker, a movie so bad it was considered by the folks who worked on Mystery Science Theater to be one of the worst they ever did. As Dr. Forrester says, it "makes The Unearthly look like Citizen Kane." Its incomprehensible plot revolves around Fu Manchu's plan to destroy the world by turning water to ice, or something. There's also a couple of English spies, a castle, and a cavalcade of forgettable (and expendable) characters. Dr. F and Frank watch with glee as the movie sends Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo into a downward spiral. They barely deflect the pain with jokes about Annie Hall, That Girl, Monty Python, They Might Be Giants, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Blue Velvet, Super Mario Bros., David Byrne, and MacGyver. The episode is a stirring allegory for the triumph of the human spirit over extreme adversity. At least, I think it is. All I know is that Fu Manchu has to be seen to be believed. Or does it? My head hurts.
Volume XXIII's first Mike episode is Code Name: Diamond Head, a failed Quinn Martin TV pilot in movie form. The movie is preceded by the short "A Day at the Fair," a black and white tour of the wild world of cake tasting and calf judging ("First is the evening gown competition." "We have some tape of the calves playing on the beach earlier this week.") Diamond Head stars Ian McShane as an arms dealer who dresses like a priest ("Ah, Mr. Jesus. You have a nasty habit of surviving.") to dodge Hawaii's top secret agent, Diamond Head and his rail-thin female assistant ("If those pants were any tighter, they'd be behind her"). Meanwhile, back on the Satellite of Love, Crow and Tom take Mike for granted, prompting Magic Voice to show them how different life would be if he was a bully, lead singer of the Crash Test Dummies, or the Frugal Gourmet.
Also from Season Six, Last of the Wild Horses was produced, and partly directed, by Robert Lippert. The movie is a mess of genre tropes and "ungodly coincidences of the oooold west." A bandit abandons his bandit-y ways to help stop a range war over the dwindling herd of wild horses ("Is this The Legend of Curly Joe DeRita's Gold?"). Pay attention to his black handkerchief. It comes up a lot. Besides being one of the few MST3K Westerns, the episode is best remembered for its host segments' parody of the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Mirror, Mirror." In the MST-ified version, Dr. F and Frank send up a matter transference device during an ion storm, sending Tom and Gypsy into an alternate dimension where the Mads are on the Satellite of Love, forced to watch bad movies by Mike, who is sporting a gold vest and evil goatee. Frank and Forrester even pop into the theater for a couple of segments and bring back Joey the Lemur (suggesting this set might have a theme after all).
All four episodes are presented in their original full screen format, looking as good as their age allows, with serviceable 2.0 stereo audio. The only issue I noticed is that the movie audio for Last of the Wild Horses is so quiet compared to the riffing that it's hard to understand the dialogue; but that appears to be a problem with the way the episode was made and not the way it was transferred to DVD.
The variety of Volume XXIII's episodes is matched by the variety in its bonus features, spread across all four discs:
* "The Incredible Mr. Lippert" (35:50)
The only extra on disc one besides a King Dinosaur theatrical trailer is this Ballyhoo-produced look at the career of B-movie producer Robert Lippert. It goes from Lippert's early days as an independent theater owner turned filmmaker to producer of some 250 movies ranging from sci-fi to war to period drama, many uncredited as a way to avoid paying union fees. It's a fascinating bit of movie history even non-MSTies will enjoy.
* "Frank Conniff Intro" to Castle of Fu Manchu (3:24)
TV's Frank explains the film's infamous status among the show's writers, while praising Christopher Lee's career and sympathizing with all actors who take parts in bad movies for the work.
* "Darkstar: Robots Don't Need SAG Cards" (17:46) Also on disc two is this odd promotional video for Darkstar, an interactive movie/video game created by J. Allen Williams that stars most of Mystery Science Theater's original cast. Although the copious behind-the-scenes footage of the game's construction, animation, and green screen process will be interesting for Darkstar fans, it doesn't have much to do with MST3K.
* "Code Name: Quinn Martin" (6:37)
Paired with Code Name: Diamond Head, author Jonathan Etter narrates this too-brief look at Martin's career as a producer of such TV series as The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Invaders, and Barnaby Jones.
* "Life After MST3K: Kevin Murphy" (9:22)
This is the first in a series of forward-looking featurettes, giving the show's cast a chance to pimp their post-Mystery Science Theater projects. Murphy talks not only about his recent success with RiffTrax, but also his South Pacific sabbatical, his book A Year at the Movies, the 2001 SciFi Channel web series The Adventures of Edward the Less, and the short-lived The Film Crew. Credit to Shout! for finding new avenues of bonus feature content for these sets. "Life After MST3K" is a great idea. I can't wait to hear Trace Beaulieu talk about writing for America's Funniest Videos, in a future set.
* "Vintage MST3K Promos" (14:17)
A whopping 29 VHS-quality bumper promos for episodes from the show's Comedy Central years, including Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent, The Giant Gila Monster, The Indestructible Man, The Magic Sword, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, The Day the Earth Froze, Eegah, and Mike's first outing as host, The Brain That Wouldn't Die.
I'm sure readers are tired of me proclaiming each new Mystery Science Theater 3000 box set the "best yet." I won't lay that burden on Volume XXIII, but only because the phrase has been rendered meaningless by the stellar job Shout! Factory is doing bringing this cult classic to home video. The episodes in this rag-tag collection probably won't land on most fans' top ten lists, but who cares? Those of us who love this show know how great it is. We just want more of it on DVD.
Now don't write in, for heaven's sake! Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Promos
* Lobby Cards
* IMDb: MST3K
* IMDb: King Dinosaur
* IMDb: The Castle of Fu Manchu
* IMDb: Code Name: Diamond Head
* IMDb: Last of the Wild Horses
* Official Site
* Official Fan Site