Judge Bill Gibron prefers Mr. B Sharp or Mr. B Flat to Mr. B Natural.
Our reviews of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 1 (published December 19th, 2002), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 2 (published June 27th, 2003), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 3 (published July 9th, 2003), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 4 (published December 18th, 2003), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 5 (published April 14th, 2004), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 7 (published May 11th, 2005), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 8 (published June 28th, 2006), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 9 (published June 26th, 2006), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 10 (published October 18th, 2006), and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 12 (published November 21st, 2007) are also available.
Knew your father, I did…
Though it contains enough symbols of sensationalism to put other so-called television shows to shame, there is only one truly iconic image that perfectly sums up everything that is pristine about Mystery Science Theater 3000. No, it is not Joel Hodgson / Robinson. That sleepy-eyed comic genius is enigmatic and entertaining, but his mild-mannered looks just don't give him enough Q value. Same goes for the Midwestern mellowness of Mike Nelson. He looks to be more at home in a cheese factory or bratwurst butchery than representing an entire entertainment achievement.
The silly cyborgs living with these human headcases on the Satellite of Love also appear to be in direct contradiction to the notion of name/face recognition. Surely, Crow T. and Tom Servo are the poster 'bots for the irrepressible, anarchic spirit of the show (Gypsy is far too serious to consider), but without the context of the SOL's theater of hate, they are merely colorful-looking comic book characters, lacking the necessary panache to play placard.
And forget about Deep 13 and its über-evil overlords, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Television's Frank. That dastardly duo of demented demagogues looks more like an example of life partnership gone horribly awry than it does an illustration of empirical excellence.
No, in order to collapse all that is great or grand about Mystery Science Theater 3000 into a single, emblematic image, the portrait has to be glorious. It has to resonate with rare acuity and universal appeal. And when looking over the wealth of wannabes in the MST talent pool, one visage comes up time and time again.
Mr. B Natural, that sexually ambiguous brownie who browbeats a small boy named Buzz into taking up the trumpet, is everything exemplary about this stellar boob tube treasure. He/she is an omnipresent hermaphroditic humoresque. Mr. B is indeed the very reason for the series to exist. Need proof? Look no further than Rhino's latest box set release of MST, Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 6, to learn exactly why this irritating imp is the symbol that shines above all others in the MST universe.
Facts of the Case
Volume Six in Rhino's never-ending quest to endear itself to the fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 sees three Joel episodes matched with one amazing collection of short subjects (originally only available from the MST production company, Best Brains). It represents some of the pinnacles of the series' sass-back format. A certain Mr. Corman figures prominently in two of the features, while the third is so hackneyed and homemade that it looks like Roger Dodger himself should have produced it. Individually, we can see just what our intrepid space critics are up against as they battle the following trio of celluloid atrociousness.
In a steamy Southern quagmire where everyone is perspired, suspicious, and hotter than Alabama tar, there's a big fat blood-draining bayou mystery afoot. Apparently, folks from the local dirt farms are disappearing, and the brackish burg has already seen its quota of alien abductions for the year. The hunky local game warden, Steve Benton, thinks something strange is going on in the bilious bog, and he's not talking about how town hussy Liz is cheating on her porcine husband Dave with town lothario Cal.
As the population keeps vanishing in this petulant Peyton Place, Steve and his girlfriend Nan set out to investigate. All they find are people practically drained of all their life-giving essence—and again, the slutty Liz is not the reason. Eventually, they deduce that giant leeches are giving everyone in town hickeys the size of Winnebagos. Nan gets her graying father involved, and he joins Steve in sweeping the swamp…with dynamite. The resulting kaboom uncovers a bunch of the leech's lovers from an inconspicuous cave, and results in ridding the wicked wetlands of the claret cravers once and for all.
When Rose Hood loses her main man marshal husband in one of those typical quick-draw "accidents" so popular in the Old West, she decides to carry on his law-abiding legacy. Too bad that slutty saloon hag, Erica, wants any enforcer of the rules deader than Alabama tar. If she has her way, Rose will be pushing up the daisies, or in the case of this ghost town's locale, the sagebrush.
Figuring that murder is the best way to rid oneself of any sheriff-like barrier, Erica hires black-hatted bad guy, Cane Myro, to give the femme fuzz a permanent dirt nap. Cane worms his way into Rose's good graces, and slowly, the couple falls in love. Realizing that Erica is responsible for the increase in the town's debauchery (you don't think that she's just selling sarsaparilla in that bar of hers, do ya?), Rose lays a call girl killing curfew on the mad madam. Next thing you know, Erica is violating the embargo, and she and Rose are fighting like overheated pussy…cats.
Soon, there's an all-points contract out on Rose's life, and Cane must decide which side he is on. Naturally, it's six-guns, not sex, that decide the fate of the characters.
• "Mr. B Natural" (from Episode 319: War of the Colossal Beast)
• "'X' Marks the Spot" (from Episode 210: King
• "Hired—Part 1" (from Episode 423: Bride of the Monster)
• "Design for Dreaming" (from Episode 524: 12 to the
• "Johnny at the Fair" (from Episode 419: The Rebel
• "Are You Ready for Marriage?" (from Episode 616:
When extraterrestrials from a far-off planet need a place to hoard their pet crustaceans, they send out a search party to see if Earth would be a good place for seafood storage. Our survey squad—comprised of the dreary teen dream Derrick, his unbelievably irritable shipmate Thor, and a Captain who is obsessed with torture—land on the planet and place their Gargon (as the lame lobster beast is known) out in the smog-rich California air. Derrick decides to turn reverse-PETA on this landing party, and escapes the clutches of his shellfish-salvaging shipmates. He wants to protect Earth, not serve it up to a gaggle of oversized shrimp.
Since it turns out that Derrick is the son of the alien planet's king, he must be recaptured. So Thor goes out into the big city, disintegrator gun in hand, to find the fool. Derrick ends up hanging out with the pageboyed Betty and her portly old grandfather, who instantly take a shine to his youthful interstellar exuberance. But before they know it, Thor is hot—like Alabama tar—on their trail, turning anyone who interacts with Betty and Derrick into instant skeletons. And the Gargon is growing larger…
When it comes to commenting on MST3K, as a show and as a phenomenon, few people, if any, focus their preference toward the shorts. They sing the praises of such filmic fudge as Manos: The Hands of Fate or Pop People, croon for such crud as Robot Holocaust or War of the Colossal Beast, and opine with pleasure over such offal as The Giant Spider Invasion and Hobgoblins. But aside from a couple of clear examples, it is a rarity when you hear a certifiable Mistie saying, "I prefer the 'Radar Men from the Moon' series to any of the Gamera films." In general, the mini-movies used by Joel/Mike and the gang have always been seen as warm-ups to the motion picture proper, a chance for the comic crew to work out a few funnies before diving directly into the meandering motion pictures themselves.
It's sad, really, since—all Saturday matinee serialized snigglets aside—the vast majority of the shorts used by the MST gang are quite exceptional. Drawing from a well as diverse as educational and cautionary scare films, misguided informational featurettes, and cheap corporate salesmanship, the amount of amusement found in these tiny tidbits of tale telling is monumental. We've witnessed the anarchic animal abuse of Ross Allen, sampled the chicken of tomorrow, and experienced more misguided, musical visions of the future than is fair or healthy. From some sidesplitting "Animal Antics" to the demonic imagery of a "Circus on Ice," many of the best moments in the history of MST can be found in their dissection of these decidedly diminutive dioramas.
One of the reasons why many dismiss the shorts is a lack of familiarity. When the series switched to the Sci-Fi Channel (for Seasons Eight through Ten), the creators were hampered by mandates from the cable brass (continuing storylines, exclusive sci-fi / horror focus), and it took a lot for the show to get back into the swing of once-known normalcy. During Seasons One through Seven, Mystery Science Theater 3000 handled 56 pre-movie features. In its last three seasons, the show covered a similar number of small segments (that is…three). So anyone familiar with the latter version of the series would be hard pressed to understand the subtle joys of "Why Study Industrial Arts?" the shocking personal revelations regarding hygiene and hotness in "Body Care and Grooming," or the disturbingly suburban ideal of "A Date with Your Family." They won't respond in rib-tickled glee over such stellar quotes as "Why don't they look?" or "Gentle pressure" or "Say, you enjoy lots of things, don't you?"
Indeed, many a late-blooming Mistie has missed out on some of the show's classic conceits due to a lack of mini-movie availability. Thankfully, Volume Six in Rhino's resurrection of the series for the DVD format finds us dealing with an entire disc of shorts, some of which represent the series at its most sublime. While the "boing"-based complications of mid-'50s matrimony shared in "Are You Ready for Marriage" or the orphan-in-training traumas of a little boy lost in "Johnny at the Fair" may seem like resplendent viewing, they pale in comparison to "Mr. B Natural" and his/her ungodly bout of amoral bad tune touching. Even the adventures of Crash Corrigan (featured as part of the "Undersea Kingdom" serial accompanying The Attack of the Giant Leeches) and his spastic little pal Billy teach us the true meaning of merriment. As with any multi-feature package, it is important to look at each facet individually, to get a better overall idea of the value and variety involved. Let's start with:
• Attack of the Giant Leeches
Our vast vein drainers here are nothing more than stunt men encased in polypropylene sacks, with Styrofoam mouths affixed to their faux faces. They move with all the grace of geriatric bivalves and are only threatening to anyone with a fear of Hefty brand trashcan liners. And thanks to a deep dark grotto at the bottom of the lake, they are virtually undetectable, not the best sort of beast to employ in your exclusively visual filmic medium.
Most of the narrative aspects of Giant Leeches are as languid as the lazy victims of the bloodsuckers. Once drained of their internal daiquiris, these lumbering losers lie around and feign feebleness, the lack of life-giving fluid sapping them—and the film—of all their energy. Director Bernard L. Kowalski can't help but make his action awkward, hemmed in by his producer's—one Roger Corman—"play it cheap" underproduction. Submerged sequences are cloudy and cluttered, and the aboveground grousing is equally insipid. About the only decent aspect of this arcane idiocy is the whole horny-ass housewife angle. The voluptuous Yvette Vickers runs around in one of those blouses that just hangs off her shoulders, as big bloated Bruno VeSota gives her some invidious spousal shivers. Smoldering with unrequited lust, everyone in town is a potential paramour for this flirt skirt, and the hard-up men all know it. Every time she walks into a room, there is a greater threat of a strangled sexual assault than another mediocre monster attack. It is only through the saving grace of explosions—of the gunpowder type, you pervs—that anything remotely invigorating happens in this silly shot of southern discomfort.
As for the episode itself, Giant Leeches features two of the most classic moments ever in the history of MST. During the Invention Exchange (a weird gadget ritual that was part of the show's first few seasons), the robots show Joel their Insty-Adolescence Kit, a strange collection of sebaceous oils, hormone sprays, and mood-enhancing drugs. It allows individuals to skip childhood and move directly into that most miserable of times, pre-puberty. While he's never given enough credit as an actor, Joel's performance as the mutating man-child is magnificent, as is the automaton's sales pitch. But by far the best moment in the entire episode is the song entitled "We're a Danger to Ourselves and Others," a sonorous sonnet to those sons of the soil who believe TNT is all the tackle a fisherman ever needs. Absolutely hilarious, with some of the wittiest lyrics ever written by the cast, this amazing musical number caps off the strange sentiments expressed by the plot perfectly. Attack of the Giant Leeches may be a misguided movie (all brilliant in-theater riffing by the gang aside), but the skits envisioned to accompany this crap are classic.
About the only other actual fun one can have with Gunslinger is to play a few rounds of "Name that Familiar Day Player," a game always suggested by a Corman production. If you look carefully, you'll see Jonathan "Seymour Krelborn" Haze, Dick "Walter Paisley" Miller, and good old reliable Bruno "Dave Walker" VeSota. But aside from a few static saloon numbers, and the aforementioned gal-on-gal grappling, there isn't much to recommend this movie. There's too much unresolved intrigue, too many easy answers to rotten questions, to make heads or tails of what is supposed to matter. Is Rose cleaning up the town, following in her husband's footsteps, showing him up, or preserving his legacy? Perhaps she is just rabid, like a raccoon with power? Why is Erica so POed? Is running the prairie version of an escort service really that tough? Or similar to a life in organized crime? Shouldn't her share of the ladies' "gratuities" be enough to keep her solvent? And should she really be spending her equity on ineffectual hit men? These queries and dozens more come bubbling to the surface during the dragged-out running time of this sloppy soap oater. At least with John Wayne you got some shoot-'em-up and anti-Injun ethnic slurs. With Corman's rotten rodeo, there's far too much steer punching, and not enough ropin' and ridin'.
Gunslinger was Joel Hodgson's penultimate show of the series (the magnificent Mitchell, Episode 513, would be his last), and you can sense a seriousness in the air that seems missing from other installments. While not actually present, you can feel everyone looking beyond this episode toward that history-making presentation. There is also a weird whiff of nostalgia, as some old childhood items are again offered up—like the old balloon-based board game Ka-Boom idea that was utilized during the first couple of seasons—as part of the SOL comedy skits. Overall, Gunslinger can best be described as MST on autopilot. It is the cast doing what they do best, trying to make their way through a very uninspiring film. Instead of creating some satire from the tired wild Western motifs Corman is employing (aside from the Pony Express portion of the show), the Brains appear flummoxed by the tedious tumbleweeds casually cascading across the screen. While no episode of this series can ever be considered "bad," Gunslinger won't be making anyone's Top Ten (or even Top 40) list anytime soon. Leave it to Corman to nearly scuttle the greatest TV series ever.
• Teenagers from Outer Space
Teenagers from Outer Space is tedium wrapped in the doldrums, all drowning in a sea of ennui and soaked to the skin with stasis. You could consider it camp, except it's too blatantly girlie to function as faux fabulous. Indeed, any film starring someone named David Love as an undernourished astronaut with a cutesy coiffure from a planet with a proclivity toward torture is just a blue hanky in the left pocket away from outright gayness. Honestly, how anyone could confuse the blank-faced Betty with anything other than a drag-hag hanger-on is amazing. She has all the sensual sizzle of a corroded spark plug. Wearing a hairdo that only a lonely billionaire heiress could pull off without garnering massive guffaws, and speak-squeaking in a voice that sounds like a mouse whose pellets haven't quite dropped, she and Derrick make the perfect front couple, like Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton, or Tom and Roseanne Arnold. When a gouty old man with a wicked waist waddle is the most macho dude in your speculative fiction, it's a date at the sex reassignment clinic for everyone. Yet among all the laser-blast battles and skin-shedding skeletons, there is a dumb little diversion here, a movie with the melons to put a crayfish in front of a blue screen and supersize it out of all rational proportion. However, by the time we get to the giant étouffée and the self-sacrifice ending, we're not weepy but sleepy.
Matching the uneven quality of the film, the skits in this episode are also a decidedly mixed bag. The introductory moments mocking The NBC Mystery Movie will be lost on anyone not cognizant before 1970, and the recreation of a theater promo about littering will also be confusing for those not facing a midlife crisis. However, the rest of the routines are priceless, as we return back to school (the scratch and sniff report card), deal with using duct tape as a fashion statement, and experience the marvel that is ventriloquism (at the hands of Dr. Forrester and his dummy, the CPR doll Resusci-Annie). Even the visit by a tricked-out hot rod has a pretty decent payoff, though what it has to do with teenagers, outer space, or the movie in general is questionable. Thanks to the less-than-stellar effects in the film, and Derrick's resemblance to a capsized dreamboat, Joel and the 'Bots get their goofing groove on faultlessly, leading to undeniably great in-theater quipping. Combined with the entertaining extra bits, we get a benchmark episode of MST, one of the reasons why fans fell in love with the series in the first place.
• Mr. B's Lost Shorts
Dressed in one of Peter Pan's hand-me-downs, and speaking in a high-pitched shrill that barely covers a telltale lisp, Mr. B is supposed to symbolize all that is good about music and taking up an instrument. However, unless said tuneful item is the skin flute, there's not much Mr. B can teach the focus of her/his flimflam—the nauseated, nattering Buzz. Horribly unpopular with the kids at school, and dying to be part of the popular set (thank God video games and Marilyn Manson hadn't been invented yet), our crewcut clod needs something to invigorate his floundering self-image. Guess the best the filmmakers could figure for old Buzz's inner dignity is a visit from an androgynous pixie hopped up on the sexiness of an augmented fifth. Cobbled together with a corporate come-on from Conn (the only musical instrument company to use sweatshops loaded with the aged and infirm), this tainted tale of a boy and his imaginary man friend sure was one hell of an odd way to sell adolescents on the possibilities of being in a school band. If only they showed Mr. B getting his ass kicked by the football team and having his head dunked in the toilets by the varsity wrestlers, then the portrait would have been complete.
Every joke here by the MST crew is razor sharp, every quip a quick-witted wonder. There are more laughs per minute in this tiny treasure than spread throughout a season of snot like Seinfeld or Friends. It contains the perfect material for the Brains to bandy about, and the quasi-creepiness of the proto-pedophilic undertones (why does Mister B look like a lady, and what is he doing visiting impressionable males at all hours of the day and night?) helps enliven the hilarity. While Teenagers from Outer Space and Attack of the Giant Leeches provide their own examples of exhilaration, and Gunslinger struggles mightily like a boring boat against the current, it is Mr. B and his pro-piccolo, favorable first chair facets that win the day. If anyone ever wanted to know why many people—this critic especially—believe that MST3K is the best series ever to appear on the glass teat, sitting them down for 18 minutes of Mr. B's bizarreness is enough to convert them to true believer status. That is why Mr. B Natural is the endemic face of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This short represents the show at the pinnacle of its particularly pleasing powers.
Visually, the show transfers look especially good. The mastering from video to digital is sharp and extremely colorful. Occasionally, the movie will let the image down (especially in Leeches and Gunslinger, where no-budget production values mean grain and murkiness aplenty), but as for the series itself, MST3K always makes a fine appearance on DVD. Regarding the audio, MST3K is not an aural exercise in speaker specialization, so all you'll get is a front channel heavy, crystal clear presentation. Do you need something more than that for your Dolby Digital Stereo dollar?
Again, Rhino comes up dry in the added content department. To continue to harass them about the lack of such a stalwart of DVD production would be pointless—kind of like telling Britney Spears she's a skank, or finding Brigitte Nielsen with her clothes off. It's too obvious and easy, requiring little effort and reaping only middling rewards. Rhino was actually headed in the right direction. Volume Five contained a brief introduction to each film by head writer and performer Mike Nelson, as well as an interview featurette. One was hoping Rhino would continue on in this bonus-oriented tradition, but sadly, they've taken a page out of Paramount's old playbook and have decided to bare-bones it. Here's hoping that they learn a lesson and leave this newfound frugality in the digital dumper where it belongs. MST3K begs for as much windfall substance as possible. Just get with it Rhino, and make with the extras, okay?
There is a point during Mr. B's diatribe in defense of D flat major when the manic fairy steps back and describes the sounds made by the various elements of an orchestra. Indeed, for Mr. B, every noise represents something either good or just plain goofy. So, when trying to describe Mr. B to the uninitiated, what would be the best way of illustrating his/her iconography? Would it be fair to consider him to be a naughty gnome? A troubling troll? The voice in the back of your adolescent head that tells you to take the candy bar when the dime store clerk is not looking, or that double dares you to jump into that woodpile near the construction site?
Maybe Mr. B is something more ephemeral and esoteric, like that uncomfortable itch you get when it's impossible—or impolite—to scratch, or the dull ache behind the eyes after a night of mixing raw cookie dough with tequila and spray cheese? However one accounts for it, Mr. B Natural is everything stellar about Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanks to Rhino, we now have this lewd leprechaun preserved for all posterity on the digital medium. Oddly enough, that's probably the most unsettling thought ever produced by MST ever. And it's all thanks to its peculiar poster boy-toy, the glam-glorious Mr. B!
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 6 is not guilty, just like all previous Mystery Science Theater offerings. It never has been guilty and it never will be guilty. Case dismissed with EXTREME PREJUDICE!
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