Shout! Factory // 1989 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // April 1st, 2013
"'Dragon trainer?' They're kidding us, right?"
Will Shout! Factory run out of Roman numerals before they run out of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes? The answer, clearly, is no -- but that doesn't make the release of Volume XXVI any less impressive. With the show's 25th anniversary coming up later this year, the first set of 2013 continues a stellar run of MST3K collections. Half of XXVI draws inspiration from the Mads' underground lair, digging deep with stories of wacky subterranean civilizations, while the other two episodes traffic in powerful weapons and low-budget effects.
The Magic Sword hails from Season Four. The set's lone Joel episode is a good one on both sides of the silhouettes. The movie is an action-packed fantasy tale, about a young prince who defies his adopted sorceress mother (played by Estelle Winwood) to save his stalker crush princess from an evil wizard (played by Basil Rathbone, who should know better) who wants to feed her to a two-headed dragon. The fun in the film comes from the journey's "seven curses" and the goofy special effects that conjure ghosts, an ogre, melting flesh, and a magic glowing sword -- although the real story of the episode is Crow's creepy (and understandable) crush on the matronly Estelle. Don't judge me.
The episode comes with two bonus features: the "wrap" segments from its appearance on The Mystery Science Theater Hour (5:10); and an interview with the great "Bert I. Gordon: The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker" (7:49). After working as an ad man in St. Paul, Gordon moved west to Hollywood where he got noticed, not for his skills but for the 16mm camera he brought with him. The camera got him a gig directing MST3K-favorite King Dinosaur, a movie that did well enough for its producer to run off with all the money, and for Gordon to get more work making B-movies like The Cyclops and Earth vs. Spider. Gordon's talent may be suspect, but his passion for film is evident, from stories about spending afternoons as a kid at the local theater, to writing and directing films over the objections of his friends and family.
The set's second episode is Alien from L.A. from Season Five, a weirdly watchable slice of '80s sci-fi starring supermodel Kathy Ireland as a squeaky-voiced outcast who goes in search of her missing explorer father and finds the lost underground city of Atlantis. The movie feels like Mad Max and Blade Runner had a baby and then someone expected that baby to make a movie. Have you ever seen a baby try to lift a camera? Me neither, but I bet it's super cute. The SoL crew pays tribute to Ms. Ireland with an Irish ditty that is occasionally respectful, and the movie ends with an epic game of "chick flick" dozens between Mike and Crow.
The episode's main bonus feature is an 8-minute interview with Alien from L.A. director Albert Pyun, who was inspired by Pat Boone's Journey to the Center of the Earth from 1959. Pyun talks about casting Kathy Ireland, and expresses his disappointment more people haven't seen the film in its original Super 35mm widescreen format. Like many directors before him, Pyun is happy for the exposure that Mystery Science Theater 3000 gave his film, even though he has no plans to ever watch the episode.
From the deepest depths to the heights of insanity, Season Six's Danger!! Death Ray is a '60s Italian spy movie featuring a super sexy super spy named "Bart Fargo." It also has some of the most unconvincing toy boat and car special effects ever committed to film. The best moment is when Bart throws a wristwatch off a hotel balcony, then the camera cuts to a crewmember's hand dropping the watch the last few feet into a swimming pool. It's delightfully lazy. Outside the theater, it's all about endorsements as Crow develops his own line of feminine Italian sunglasses for men and TV's Frank becomes a big Hollywood agent.
Sadly, the disc doesn't include a Danger!! Death Ray making-of documentary sponsored by Mattel. Instead, we get the latest "Life After MST3K" segment, focusing on the series' second host, Mike Nelson (11:57). There's some overlap with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett's "Life After" entries, but it's still impressive to hear Nelson rattle off his long list of post-MST projects.
Good as the rest of the episodes are, the best of the set is The Mole People, from the show's first season on Sci-Fi. This 1956 Universal science fiction "classic" stars contract players Hugh Beaumont and John Agar as archeologists who discover a lost subterranean civilization at the top of a mountain. Despite the promise of the bug-eyed monsters on the poster, the featured mole people are really a race of pale-skinned humans who dress like elves, eat mushrooms, and burn to a crisp in direct sunlight. Even more disappointing, a good chunk of the running time is spent one-upping Lost Continent's endless mountain climbing sequence with an endless spelunking sequence ("Filmed in WedgieVision!"). Even so, it's a hilarious episode that marks the second set in a row to include a Universal movie -- a very good omen indeed for future collections.
The episode comes with the set's longest bonus feature, another winner from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. "Of Mushrooms and Madmen: Making the Mole People" (17:19) is a fascinating look not only at the movie, but the changing culture at Universal in the mid-'50s that valued cutting costs more than creativity. The architect of this era of cheap filmmaking was producer William Allend (reportedly the subject of his own Ballyhoo doc in the next MST3K set). Armed with a stack of mountain climbing stock footage, Allend gave Mole People to longtime editor Virgil Vogel. He wanted to try something big for his directorial debut, but it was a tough shoot, with reluctant actors, a shoestring budget, and a last-minute change to the ending to satisfy the objections of racist censors.
In addition to the interviews and featurettes, Volume XXVI comes with four Steve Vance cover art mini-posters, and theatrical trailers for all four movies. You might be tempted to skip these trailers, having been trained by years of DVD promos masquerading as bonus features. Don't. Each is a fascinating time capsule into the dustiest corners of movie history.
Shout! Factory gets a lot of credit for the frequency of these Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets, as well as their tireless work securing the rights to episodes long considered too expensive or too difficult for DVD release. I appreciate both of those things, but what I really love about these collections is the effort put into contextualizing the movies themselves. Fans of Shout! know that the company takes their B-movies very seriously, from Blu-ray releases of out-of-print genre pictures to their hugely popular line of "Scream Factory" horror films. These folks have a passion for movies. For all the show's jokes and good-natured ribbing, Shout! understands that the people who made Mystery Science Theater love watching movies as much as they do, and it's a match made in home video heaven.
The audio-visual presentation is in line with past releases. Each episode comes in its original full frame in as high quality as the original elements allow. Audio is a solid 2.0 Stereo with only one hiccup: in Alien from L.A. there is a sudden drop in volume at 14 minutes in and again at 26 minutes. There have been more egregious technical flaws in earlier MST3K sets, but those who keep track should be prepared.
It's pointless to declare Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVI better or worse than previous sets. It all comes down to personal preference, and personally I can't imagine any MSTie complaining about this collection. Volume XXVI is a solid mix of seasons and genres, without a stinker in the bunch; and while there aren't as many bonus features as in some past sets, the included featurettes are informative and entertaining.
Danger! Not guilty!
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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
* Lobby Cards
* IMDb: MST3K
* IMDb: The Magic Sword
* IMDb: Alien from L.A.
* IMDb: Danger!! Death Ray
* IMDb: The Mole People
* Official Site
* Official Fan Site