Shout! Factory // 1989 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // July 18th, 2013
Big fog, big bombs, big bugs, and big teenagers await in Shout! Factory's latest Mystery Science Theater 3000 foursome. Volume XXVII is another eclectic set, following in the licensing deals of the past couple collections to deliver more Universal monster (The Deadly Mantis) and Bert I. Gordon (Village of the Giants) badness, along with a first season stand-out (The Slime People), and a depressing slice of Cold War atomic paranoia (Rocket Attack U.S.A.).
First season episode The Slime People might not be the lowest-budget film in MST history, but it feels that way. In this near-future creature feature, nuclear explosions around L.A. have driven to the surface a race of subterranean monsters with crude spears and lumpy exteriors ("Nice rock garden! Ooh, it's his back."). The title beasties' big topside move is to somehow create a fog that hardens into a dome that encloses all of Los Angeles, trapping a pilot, a scientist dad and his two attractive daughters, and a marine. The group bands together to fight the monsters, destroy the dome, and reclaim Los Angeles for the overprivileged and morally corrupt. At least, I think that's what happens. The fog obscures the majority of the movie, and seems to be thickest during the action scenes. It's a clever way to hide the bad effects and worse acting. Prior to the fog lifting at the end I was sort of impressed by the Slime People suits. In the cold light of day, however, as Tom Servo puts it they're "about as scary as Teddy Ruxpin."
The Slime People is preceded by part six of the Commando Cody serial. I wish I could remember what happens in it. I think some people drive cars. Elsewhere in this episode, Tom hates that Crow is a "morning 'bot"; the Mads invent cotton candy that screams when you eat it; and the robots come up with an idea for a movie about a guy trapped on a desert island who's forced to watch bad TV shows, but Joel doesn't think it will work.
The Slime People is a fine entry from the first season -- shorthand for saying it's lighter on jokes than other seasons. Of all the things Shout! Factor has done with these Mystery Science Theater sets, one of the best is their insistence on including Season One episodes. These entries may not be as polished as later seasons, but they can't be beat as pure expressions of the show's DIY charm.
The disc's main bonus feature is a seven-minute interview with Slime People actress Judith (Morton) Fraser. She describes her experience in landing this first film role, and how her excitement at being cast alongside her friend Susan Hart turned into embarrassed laughter at the premiere. Fraser is engaging and self-aware, dishing about Robert Hutton's non-existent direction and the whoppers co-star Wiliam Boyce told to impress the younger actresses. Also included, the theatrical trailer, which oversells the film as "a wild bloodbath" of "lust." It's neither.
Season Two's Rocket Attack U.S.A. is an unconventional spy film, in that the spies who appear to be the heroes -- two Americans undercover in Russia with orders to sabotage nuclear missiles -- fail miserably in their mission, dying shortly before a Soviet A-bomb blows the living hell out of New York City. The film ends on a burning city with the note "We cannot let this be -- THE END" ("Oh yes we can!"). The movie is preceded by Part 2 of The Phantom Creeps, starring Bela Lugosi, exploding spiders, and a giant robot. Don't get too excited. Lugosi is invisible for most of the short ("Now that I'm invisible I'll secretly switch their coffee with Folgers crystals") and the robot doesn't do anything cool.
If you're looking for cool robots, check out Tom Servo, who sports a new head-do courtesy of Joel and a sander, making him look "like the guy from House Party" (kids, ask your parents what that means). The episode also features Dr. F and Frank's water polo foosball table; a hilarious history lesson about the Cold War and the "Charlie McCarthy hearings"; the Civil Defense Quiz Bowl; and a flyby visit from Russian cosmonaut Sari Andropoli, played by Michael Nelson, and his junk-grade robot companions Lucia and Vitalic. (A bit of MST3K trivia: according to Paul Chapin in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, Rocket Attack U.S.A. marked the first appearance of the show's signature post-credits "stinger.")
Rocket Attack U.S.A. suffers under the weight of a painful movie and dull short, but Joel and the bots riff away as best they can. There are some great one-liners ("It must be a stealth missile. There's no shadow."), but the best things in the episode happen outside the theater. The Charlie McCarthy hearings sketch packs a lot into a few hilarious minutes, taking a simple Cold War pun and spinning it into a sprawling blacklist parody featuring every famous puppet from the '50s and '60s.
The disc's lone bonus feature is "Life After MST3K: Trace Beaulieu." Although it clocks in at only seven minutes, Beaulieu's interview fits nicely with the J. Elvis Weinstein entry a few sets back. Trace reconnected with Weinstein post-MST3K because he needed help recording a voiceover audition for a movie role that may surprise you. The pair worked together on a series of high-profile TV shows, including Freaks and Geeks and America's Funniest Videos (the funny episodes, I'd imagine). I could listen to Beaulieu talk for a lot longer than we get here, but his hilarious exit almost justifies the shorter segment.
We shift to the Mike Nelson and Season Five with Village of the Giants, Bert I. Gordon's follow-up to The Magic Sword. Giants is a hokey bit of teen exploitation that tries to class things up by claiming to be "based on an H.G. Wells novel," but it's just an excuse to show scantily clad youngsters shaking their bits to '60s hits. The movie's notable cast includes Tommy Kirk, Beau Bridges, and Ron Howard as "Genius" -- a whiz kid whose chemical tinkering produces a pink substance that causes anything or anyone who eats it to grow. After Kirk and his girlfriend fail to capitalize on a plan to sell the goo to, I dunno, someone ("Tommy Kirk talking about goo makes me very uncomfortable"), Bridges and his gang of transient teen hoodlums steal it, eat it, get huge ("D'oh! I didn't grow proportionately!"), and take over the town. Their short-lived reign is punctuated by a lengthy sequence in which the giant teenagers, dressed in not very much, dance in slow motion with Gordon's camera capturing every jiggly moment. This is a movie in which a character ends up with a face full of abnormally large cleavage...twice. This episode's non-movie excitement is Dr. Forrester firing Frank and replacing him with Torgo. It's all temporary and Frank never even moves out of Deep 13, but it allows for some memorable host segments, culminating in the excellent original song "Let Me Be Frank About Frank."
Village of the Giants comes with the theatrical trailer and an interview with Joy Harmon, who played Beau Bridges' girlfriend in the movie. It's almost tragic to hear her talk with such joy about how long she wanted to be an actress before Groucho Marx hired her to be on You Bet Your Life, and how much fun she had making Village of the Giants except for the scene where the teens grow out of their clothes and her shirt pops open -- a scene she "[doesn't] know if anyone remembers," as if it wasn't the scene that everyone remembers. Harmon seems too sweet for the role she was asked to play in Gordon's tribute to voyeurism. Nice to hear she later turned a love of baking into a successful craft services business. In a Hollywood world of show-offs and phonies, Harmon seems like the real deal. Thanks to Shout! for sharing her story.
Volume XXVII's final episode is The Deadly Mantis from the show's first season on the Sci-Fi Channel. One of a gajillion giant monster movies, Mantis follows in the stock footage footsteps of flicks like The Mole People -- also produced by William Alland, who had at this point in his career fully embraced filmmaking on the cheap. It explains why so much of the movie is devoted to footage of radar towers, air bases, and illustrated maps explaining the U.S. early warning defense system -- leaving precious little time for the giant prehistoric bug ("People think I'm fat but I'm really just big exoskeletoned") to wreak havoc on stock footage of an Inuit tribe. Standing in the creature's ravenous way are the military ("Prepare to deploy giant facial tissue to destroy the enemy"), an insect scientist, a plucky female journalist, and the dashing air force colonel she falls in love with immediately and for no apparent reason. This episode marks the end of the show's Sci-Fi story arc on ape earth, as Bobo and Peanut fix their neighbor's "Holy and Everlasting Bomb" and accidentally blow up the planet. The blast kicks off a space chase between Pearl's rocket RV and the Satellite of Love, inspiring a series of road trip gags.
Deadly Mantis is the best episode in the set. It also has the most bonus features, beginning with an introduction by Mary Jo Pehl. She has a lot of insights about the movie, and its place in cinematic history. The Deadly Mantis gives her a platform to talk about the things she loves about black and white movies of the era, and to compare the relative scariness of early monster effects to those in later movies like Alien. This disc also includes the theatrical trailer, and Volume XXVII's only Ballyhoo documentary. The 12-minute "Chasing Rosebud: The William Alland Story" is a companion piece to the extras created for Revenge of the Creature and The Mole People. Although there's some overlap with those previous featurettes, there's enough new material to justify a third doc. As a major player in B-movie history, Alland deserves a closer examination, as a creative force and a cautionary tale. Before Alland was padding pictures with cheap stock footage he was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and even had a small role in Citizen Kane. It's a fascinating story. My compliments, again, to Shout! Factory and Ballyhoo for producing these movie history featurettes. They have become highlights of these Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets. The lone piece they included here is great, and I hope the next collection has even more.
Previous Mystery Science Theater box sets may have spoiled me when it comes to the quantity of bonus features, but there's no denying the quality of Volume XXVII. The episodes are all terrific for different reasons; the full frame, stereo presentation is consistently solid; and the extras are informative, with a respect not only for the TV series but the people who made the original movies. I love this show and I salute Shout! Factory for continuing to curate the definitive MST3K home video collection.
"I've got a mantis in my pantis." 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 Slime People
* IMDb: Rocket Attack U.S.A.
* IMDb: Village of the Giants
* IMDb: The Deadly Mantis
* Official Site
* Official Fan Site