Judge Bill Gibron one visited a phantom planet where the dead talked back and hobgoblins danced go-go with mushy-faced monsters. Then he stopped snorting Lemon Pledge.
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 6 (published January 12th, 2005), Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 7 (published May 11th, 2005), 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.
Because everyone needs a little road rash now and then!
What kind of MST3K fan are you? Are you merely a casual MiSTie, recognizing the show's overall quality while owning few actual episodes or do you go so far as to scour Web sites for heretofore unknown Convention Con videos featuring long lost segments of Joel, Mike, and Company? Are you content to know the names of the three main "characters" in the show or do you move beyond the basics to memorize the various one-off and ancillary individuals who've skirted the fringes of the series' skits? Are you content to have experienced many of the worst movies ever made, filmic phlegm like Manos: The Hands of Fate and Bride of the Monster or have you become so jaded by these obvious examples of cinematic stench that you prefer to champion chum like Secret Agent, Super Dragon and Radar Secret Service? Well, no matter your level of obsession, whether you're a Mystery Science tenderfoot or a true diehard denizen of Ward E, the greatest TV show in the history of the medium continues its cult-like conquest of the planet. Rhino keeps releasing the stellar volumes of old episodes and, as the DVD-buying public catches wind of the series' sensational satire, an entirely new generation of MST3K mavens is manufactured. This eighth installment offers a high percentage of later shows, yet from its Comedy Central classicism to its Sci-Fi Channel silliness, this is a series that continues to inspire affection—thus, the questioning of fandom status.
Facts of the Case
It's Mike, Mike, and even more Mike (Oh, yeah, and a single example of Joel) as Rhino unleashes its eighth volume (that's 32 offerings of MST3K goodness for those of you without calculators) of the series. This time we're dealing with salacious stuffed toys, two competing astro-nuts, and a foppish film noir that fails to live up to either cinematic term. With two installments from Season 9, another from Season 6, and one reaching all the way back to Season 4, we have a cross section of post-premium MST3K. Individually, we are dealing with the following failed storylines:
Disc One: Hobgoblins (1987, MST3K Episode 907)
Disc Two: The Phantom Planet (1961, MST3K Episode 902)
Disc Three: Monster a Go-Go (1965, MST3K Episode 421)
In addition, we learn the answer to the famous question, what's worse than the circus? Why the Circus on Ice, that's what. This squalid little short combines the most horrifying elements of the big top with a decided hatred of all things decent to deliver a frightening frozen-water workout.
Disc Four: The Dead Talk Back (1993, MST3K Episode 603)
In addition, we learn that our love of ice cream has very little to do with 31 flavors, deliciously decadent hot fudge, or that stomach soothing sweetness of our favorite cold comfort food. Nope, apparently we are drawn in by The Selling Wizard, Anheuser Busch's nickname for its catalog of grocery store freezer units.
People often ponder what the seminal spoof-athon known as Mystery Science Theater 3000 would make of modern mediocre movies. Would its take on, say, Poseidon be any different than the time the guys ripped on Catalina Caper? Could this series take on such blockbuster tripe as Wild Wild West, RV, or White Chicks and still maintain the high quality of comic criticism it's known for? The answer, surprisingly, is probably no. MST3K was always set up to take on films of noble if noxious intentions. Whether the motives were to make money or explore the entertainment elements of the medium, the creative forces of the past never promised us a motion picture masterwork. Such arrogance never comes across in offerings like The Giant Gila Monster, Earth vs. the Spider, or The Screaming Skull. Indeed, there is a high level of hope in each one of these less-than-stellar stink bombs. However, today's movies believe themselves to be cinematic gods that can't envision failure and balk at any suggestion of their less-than-satisfying aspects. It's a self-delusional righteousness that ruins the chance for true lampooning. After all, how do you attack something that's already countered your criticism with conceit? It's like making fun of a supermodel, except without the fallback position of anorexia. No, modern missteps like the recent Omen remake would die on the MST3K operating table, unable to garner a single substantive laugh—and it's haughtiness that harms the humor.
Look at the movies featured in Volume Eight of Rhino's wonderful DVD series. Each one is trying to be clever (The Dead Talk Back), cutting (The Phantom Planet), creative (Hobgoblins), or just competent (Monster a Go-Go). They aren't artificially attempting to be more than they're not and the aroma of auteurism is nowhere to be found. Each one represents someone's vision and an honest effort to entertain. Sure, some shoot for loftier goals than the others (Planet prides itself on its space junkiness, while Monster can't make a molehill out of its sci-fi scrapple) and skill can filter out the stumbles (The Dead Talk Back) from the sacrilegious (Hobgoblins). Yet the one overriding factor here is Mystery Science Theater 3000's ability to find the inner funny. It all has to do with reticence. X-Men 3 is a big, bloated preposterously pompous piece of mass-marketed manure that can't see the fanbase forest for the tax-break trees. It's bad in ways that are almost impossible to parody. The same with the drawn out and dreadful Da Vinci Code. One could try and imagine what Mike, Joel, Crow, and Tom could do with these 2006 examples of half-baked hokum, but the results would probably be unpleasant rather than unhinged. MST3K works best in an atmosphere of the unassuming. By looking at the four films featured, we can see how the unpretentious thrills while outright ego kills. Let's start with:
The '80s was an awful era for film. The vast majority of movies made fit into specific noxious niches (teen sex comedy, lame slasher slice and dice) and, with the burgeoning video market, there appeared to be an endless revenue resource. As a result, anyone with an ounce of idea tried to make their vision viable. Some of this may explain Rick Sloane's Critters copycat, Hobgoblins. Or maybe Sloan is just an imbecile. Whatever the case, this abortive attempt at entertainment boasts more groan-inducing scenes than the entire Vivid adult film catalog—and these are not the good kind of moan and growls. From the nyphomaniacal Daphne, who celebrates her sluttiness with something called the "pelvic percolator" (it has to be seen to be believed) to Kyle who creates an orientation quandary with his lust of hetero-porn while being dressed like an extra from Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go!," we have a pair of characters who chaff at our sense of cinematic decency. Still, it only gets worse. Once Amy escapes to Club Scum, we get the fabulously awful Fontanelles doing their seminal sonic miss "Kiss Kicker, '99." While lead singer Spit Spignola (frankly, it's the perfect stage handle for this moron) works his wounded wail, we are forced to watch a cast of several fake enjoyment. It's the same level of strained interest one must assemble to sit through this flaccid furball farce. Sloan obviously wanted to make his version of a "gremlins on the loose" monster movie. Unfortunately he created human characters more horrifying than his beasties.
For many, this installment of MST3K represents the series' Sci-Fi Channel highlight. By this point in Season Nine, the show had found a good relationship rhythm between new villain Pearl and her harried helpers, Professor Bobo and The Brain Guy. Equally effective was the robot-dominant dynamic between Mike, Tom, and Crow. During the sketch segments, we get a hilarious look at Crow's documentary on women (he believes them to be myths, like Bigfoot) and a delightful bit involving a phone bank for those traumatized by the film. There is also an excellent pseudo-song (sung by cardboard cut-outs of Mike and the 'Bots) and a wonderful Terminator spoof in which Servo goes back in time to stop Rick Sloan from making this movie. Unfortunately, the well-timed kick to the shins delivered by the bright red fireplug turns out to be the event that inspired Sloan to make this mess in the first place—at least, in MST3K lore. With theater riffs that go from good (the entire sequence with Kyle and an imaginary lover) to great (the title to the Fontanelle's song gets misinterpreted in several silly ways) and a wonderful balance between characters and crappy film, this is one of the many pinnacles in the series' celebrated run.
The Phantom Planet
There is nothing worse than sloppy sci-fi, the kind of techno-speak sputum that offers awkward aliens, faux future shock, and nothing of real speculative fiction value. Then there's The Phantom Planet. This lame lost-in-Lilliput space opera represents the illogical low end of Hollywood B-picture paltriness. The sets look like leftovers from the Rocky Jones serials and the costuming recalls a cut-rate religious spectacle. While the acting is all chest-beating and breast-heaving, the narrative never gets a legitimate logical footing. Instead, we are forced to sit through scenes of semi-erotic male bonding (the entire "fight to the death" dumbness) and the stumbling attacks of an oversized schnauzer. Film fans may be interested to know that Richard "Egaah!" Kiel plays the lumbering Labrador and it's safe to say that his turn as the shuffling Solarite matches his other unexceptional efforts in The Human Duplicator and The Magic Sword (where he played a pinhead—talk about range!). When your interplanetary space saga has more melodramatic romance than laser-blasting spaceships, there's not much hope of being swept away on an adrenalin rush of pure action. In the end, we don't even care if our hero returns to his normal size. The miniaturization angle is so stupid that we've completely forgotten he has to be enlarged to return to Earth.
When given the opportunity, the MST3K gang will take a resplendent running gag over a collection of cutting quips, and when Phantom Planet's cur like creatures show up, it's delirious dog time for Mike and the 'Bots. All throughout the movie's middle and third act, it's a canine comedy fest as all manner of puppy pandemonium occurs. Outside the theater, the skits also provide some potent laughs. Mike's mastery of the water-glass organ is stupendous, as are the various contemplations over what makes up the movie's missive regarding "the good and the beautiful." Mary Jo Pehl was always an underappreciated member of the cast, considering that she had to replace the masterful Trace Beaulieu as head baddie. Pearl as an entity of evil was always kind of second-rate, but that was part of her charm. Thankfully, by this phase in the Sci-Fi channel run, the network's mandate of continuing storylines for the wrap-around material was more or less kaput, so we don't feel like we've walked into the middle of a complicated story arc. The Castle Forrester elements work well and the overall effect is one of coasting on considerable comedic goodwill. And it works.
Monster a Go-Go:
Since it contains the classic MST3K short Circus on Ice (featuring the most disturbing entertainment sequence in the history of skating—an artistic atrocity centering on the death of a fawn), this episode gets immediate and unmitigated kudos. The entire frozen-water farce, with its nod to pre-enlightened ideals of amusement and fun, represents the kind of material Mystery Science Theater does best. These miserable examples of misguided aesthetic always deliver non-stop spoof fodder and the genial Joel Hodgson never fails to find a target. Indeed, this old-school episode argues for Seasons 4 through 6 as the preeminent days of the series' success. After the awkward start of Season 1, the character revamp of 2, and the onslaught of Tokyo treats for 3, Season 4 starts a kind of unabashed brilliance. Everything here works—the short, the sketch material (including a game of keepaway and an explanation of "The Pina Colada Song"), even the opening invention exchange which finds Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV's Frank creating the ultimate action figure, Johnny Longtorso (all parts sold separately). It is often said that the worst films bring out the best in Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Monster a Go-Go is a hideously half-assed effort. Indeed, the episode here is fantastic.
The Dead Talk Back:
As a Season 6 show, The Dead Talk Back represents one of the sole stumbling blocks in the series' streak of successes. It's not that the episode is bad—the movie itself is so humorless that it easily poisons the puppet show surrounding it—and it's just not as sharp as other installments. The material with The Selling Wizard is wonderful, since it offers a glimpse at the hopeless hyperbole used by corporations to push their pathetic product. For the insights into suggestive selling alone, this short is priceless. Still, the Jerry Garcia guitar solo stuff grows stale rather quickly and the film manages to flummox the usually fine in-theater quipping. Perhaps the sole significant sequence remains the micro-marketing strategy or Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank to get Mike to start smoking. The creation of Nelson Cigarettes is wonderful and the slogans are a satiric treat. Besides, lesser MST is still light years beyond other TV comedy. Not every installment can be an apple of gold. Indeed when it fumbles, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is still the funniest show ever created.
In fact, the same can be said for every episode offered in Volume 8. Yes, even Hobgoblins. Though it shines the brightest of the quartet, it's more reminiscent of the series' heyday than part of it. What Hobgoblins has going for it that Phantom Planet, The Dead Talk Back, andMonster a Go-Go do not, is a recognizable cinematic strategy. Both space stories suffer from weak otherworldly ideas and our Dead-headed whodunit is riddled with the antithesis of deductive reasoning. As a result, we never feel comfortable as viewers, as the movies remind us over and over again of their inconsequential elements. Even as the dog-faced Solarites attack and Aldo Farnese tries to convince us that he can call up a corpse, the level of ludicrousness is just not high enough. No, only Hobgoblins goes the extra excruciating mile to deliver timeless sequences of sickening sleaze, matched with music that makes hair metal sound like early '70s Sabbath. That is why this episode rocks while the rest merely roll along. There is really no such thing as bad MST3K, just gradable levels of levity. Hobgoblins earns an above average. The rest reside right in the middle.
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 Monster a Go-Go, where no-budget production values mean editing defects and defects 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? Once again, there are no extras offered here. There really is no point in complaining, though. Rhino isn't really listening, anyway.
There will be some dissenters out there that cluck over the comment that MST3K could not create classic comedy out of the brazen balderdash that breeches all over our modern multiplex. They will point to obvious examples like Battlefield Earth and Van Helsing and howl at the thought that their favorite cinematic satire couldn't handle these heinous entertainment Hellspawn. They may just have a point. Travolta's lamentable love letter to his spiritual sci-fi writer guide does have the necessary elements for a good comic cleaving and that Hugh Jackman joke violates so many aspects of the horror movie genre that it deserves to be hoisted on its own CGI petard. Still, this doesn't mean they'd be easy to eviscerate. No, it takes a certain kind of celluloid sluice to make for perfect MST3K material and, while three of the films here inspire less than flawless funny business, they all project the proper quality of determined directness that makes them impeccable irony silage. In 2006, we have truly lost our sense of cinematic paradox. Everything is either a blockbuster or unfairly misunderstood. Mystery Science Theater 3000 cannot function in such an ambiguous entertainment bubble. Like the four films offered on Volume 8, there has to be some diffidence. Without it, all that's left is narrative narcissism—never a recipe for wondrous wit.
Not guilty. Never guilty. Can't ever be guilty. Case closed!
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