With contributions from Arthur C. Pierce, William Grefe, Ed Wood, and Ray Dennis Steckler, Judge Bill Gibron can't imagine a worse collection of crappy movie directors—that is, until the next MST3K release.
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 8 (published June 28th, 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.
Game Over, Man! Game Over!
One of the many things that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is known for is its collection of unique catchphrases. All throughout the '80s, we were inundated with cornball conversational clips, usually emanating from the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Whether it was that obnoxious "Yippie ki yaa…MOFO" or the equally overdone "I'll be back," the recognizable riff was something schoolyards and frat houses relied on to entertain and enable. MST3K was different, though. It traded in non-sequiturs and ran with obscure references. Whether it was the use of that universal swear word "dickweed" to the insular expletive "I'm Huge!," there are dozens of delightful lines that fans have memorized and made part of their everyday lexicon. Most of you reading this review have probably referenced the Bactine commercial with its all-purpose pain description, "It's all hot and it hurts," while others have glommed onto that Kurt Thomas action film title "Gymkata!" as an effective epithet. Perhaps the most famous of all MiSTie exclamations finds its roots in the very first season of the series. Uttered as part of a pathetic bonding moment in an equally wretched slice of sci-fi, "Hi-keeba" has become the clarion call for anyone wanting to humiliate themselves in front of a foe. The roots of this classic call out can be found in Volume 9 of Rhino's continuing excavation of the Best Brains vaults. Indeed, the selection here represents the series at its best—and, on occasion, most mystifying.
Facts of the Case
In one of the few fully-anthological looks at the series overall, we are treated to efforts from Season 1, 2, 6, and 8. Within these divergent episodes are glimpses of long-forgotten characters like Dr. Laurence Erhardt and Sci-Fi Channel era entities like Pearl Forrester and the Space Children. In fact, the four installments here give us a great summary of the show, from low-budget cult leanings to its final bigger-budgeted cult confirmation. Let's start with:
Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1965, MST3K Episode 104)
Wild Rebels (1967, MST Episode 207)
The Sinister Urge (1960, MST3K
In addition, we learn that halitosis and persistent underarm perspiration do not make one desirable to the opposite sex—or conservative '50s society, in the seminal short Keeping Neat and Clean.
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up
Zombies (1963, MST3K Episode 812)
Remember Turkey Day? No, not the lame-ass merchandising excuse for family togetherness thought up by some 19th century poet bimbo with little else to occupy her time other than typhus and various forms of Civil War inspired dysentery. No, the real Turkey Day began in the late '80s/early '90s and consisted of 20 to 24 hours of nonstop MST3K goodness. It was the ultimate entertainment marathon, a yearly event that truly tested one's Mystery Science Theatre mettle. Every Thanksgiving, Comedy Central would close down its constant repetition of lame B-movies and stand-up clips to offer endless hours of nonstop transmissions from the Satellite of Love. MiSTies would welcome 10 to 11 of their favorite episodes in a stream of comedic sensationalism, sometimes with newly-crafted bumper material. Almost always ending with a brand-new, world-premiere episode, fans would fire up their VCRs, pop a couple of frozen Swanson entrees into the oven, and kick back, letting unending MST3K bathe them in its sensational, soothing satire. Occasionally the juxtaposition of installments was stunning (a monster movie followed by a juvenile delinquency drama). Other times, it was a veritable comedic catch-as-catch-can.
Perhaps the best thing about these annual Thanksgiving funfests was the notion that, for at least one entire day of the year, there was actually something to watch on TV. You didn't have to blast through the coaxial cavalcade, remote growing hot in your hands as you surfed the channels over and over again. That one day made the inflated cable bill and endless television wasteland all worthwhile. As you burned through a blank VHS and tried to tape as many episodes as possible before passing out, Turkey Day delivered a dense, decisive dose of bad-movie mimicking. It was the event that turned many of us into instant MiSTies. Sure, one could OD. Some just couldn't handle the hours of quipping, riffing, mocking, and retorts. For others it wasn't enough. They wanted more, more, MORE! Well, sadly, those days are no longer with us. Thanks to Rhino, viewers can create their own 24-hour cavalcade of cleverness—and we don't need a lame bunch of pilgrims to proffer our celebration. By adding Volume 9 to your growing catalog of episodes, you get installments from the entire history of the show. Viewed individually, their viability for future Turkey Day selection is secured…well, almost. Let's begin with:
Women of the Prehistoric Planet
What do you get when you cross a parable about race with another one of those "It was Earth, all along" speculative space operas. Well, if you soaked the whole enterprise in a noxious combination of Borscht belt humor and Garden of Eden entropy you'd have Women of the Prehistoric Planet. Since the title has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative here, it's safe to say that the studio was resoundingly flummoxed by the inactive non-adventure tossed up on the screen by longtime schlockmeister Arthur C. Pierce. Guilty of giving us The Human Duplicators, The Las Vegas Hillbillys, and The Navy vs. The Night Monsters, Pierce never met an idea he couldn't cinematically stultify into entertainment incompetence. Here, he gets old-school Tinseltown talent like Wendell Corey and John Agar (who proves that Shirley Temple is some sort of life essence-stealing succubus) to play planetary pretend and presents reams of ridiculous dialogue about the entire speed of light and space time continuum concept in the process. Of course this means nothing to the rest of the cast, since they look like they'd have difficulty making change at the automat. Paul Gilbert (Melissa's adoptive dad), on the other hand, treats the entire interplanetary struggle as fodder for his unfunny stand-up routine. He manages to make MST3K history by delivering the classic "HI-KEEBA" during a dismal martial arts riff. In the end, the tolerance message is tossed aside for more space spunk and the final line is just ludicrous. Indeed, that's a perfect word to sum up this sci-fi sludge.
Since it's a Season 1 entry in the MST3K canon, one has to put up with a great deal of unfamiliar context. First off is the face of Josh "J. Elvis" Weinstein. Only 18 when he came to work for former mentor Joel Hodgson, Josh enjoyed the early days of the series. He liked improvisation and hated to heed to a script. It would end up being the reason for his leaving the show after the first series for Comedy Central. Since he is both a member of the mad scientists (as Dr. Laurence Erhardt) and the original voice of Tom Servo, you have to be in tune with Weinstein's deadpan persona to enjoy this episode. Here, he gets to sing a cheery little ditty (a jingle for a fresh-kill fast-food restaurant) and quip along with Joel and Crow as part of the theater crowd. Truthfully, Josh is very funny and it's easy to see how he became an important part of the show. The other unusual element of this installment is the continuing skit storyline. It was something that the show did frequently during its early days (the demon dog episode, for example). Here, the gang is dealing with an Isaac Asimov Doomsday device and, while the first segment is rather stiff, the others all use the premise with assured satirical authority. While the movie itself is a waste of good cellulose, the riffing is routinely witty and hilarious. As a show, Mystery Science Theater was still finding its footing, but this offering from its initial national exposure truly argues for its future fabulousness.
Steve Alaimo, a name that perfectly captures this performer's level of onscreen magnetism. Steve is indeed a "lame-o" all throughout Wild Rebels, turning a typical biker epic into an unbelievably befuddling bit of motorcycle mayhem. First off, it's kind of funny that Alaimo's well-coiffed stock car racer would be so easily accepted by a bunch of hygiene-challenged hog jockeys. After all, this damper dude's idea of outlaw garb is a well-fitting windbreaker and a little dab of Dippity Do. We're dealing with craven criminals with names like Banjo and Fats here, not members of the Macy's Teen Fashion Council. Still, Alaimo falls in and instantly starts screwing up the whole Harley Davidson dynamic. It isn't long before he's narc bait, agreeing to turn stoolie for a bunch of baffled cops. Since the Satan's Angels keep a profile that could best be described as "high" (both figuratively and literally), these policemen must have flunked out of the local law enforcement academy. Seems a group of Webelos could uncover this gang's larcenous intent. Naturally, Alaimo makes unprotected passes at Linda, the riders' lady, and fisticuffs fly frequently over STD naming rights. Eventually the police pull it together, muff the entire sting setup, and face off against leader Jeeter and the rest of his sharpshooting crew at a local lighthouse. Unfortunately, nary a bullet brushes up against Alaimo. Darn that lamentable leading actor luck. Just once, it would be nice to see the untalented hero of a barrel-bottom feature take a few dozen slugs for the sake of a storyline.
In a change of pace from the vast majority of MST3K episodes, Gypsy is the focus of attention. Though they don't give her a continuing storyline this time around, there is a conscious choice to expand her role and make her a true part of the show. Sadly, it will be one of the rare instances when this occurs. Otherwise, Wild Rebels makes for excellent quipping, as Joel and his robot pals pepper the movie with all manner of memorable attacks ("Live fast, die young, and leave a fat, bloated, ugly corpse") and the skits are wonderfully witty. Of special note is the "Wild Rebels" cereal commercial, complete with a jaundiced jingle straight out of the worst Madison Avenue advertising abattoir. Mystery Science Theater was brilliant at capturing these authentic recreations of past poisons and, when mixed with music, the results were always amazing. Mike Nelson never gets enough credit for the remarkable song stylings he offers throughout the series. While he was not solely responsible for the musical material, his ear and artistry always made potentially mediocre musings sing. Along with The Sidehackers and The Hellcats, this excellent installment is proof that MST3K could work outside of the standard horror/fantasy genre. Indeed, these episodes often ended up being some of the best.
Ahhhh…sex. Not the good Christian kind, mind you, but the lurid, seedy, sinful style of carnality that made men mutter and women weep. This is the kind of saucy smut that screenwriter Edward D. Wood (yes, that Ed Wood) knew all too well and it is within this tawdry setting that we get the amazingly amateurish The Sinister Urge. Who else but the Woodman could concoct a narrative about dirty pictures, the dame who deals in them, and the screwed-up psycho who turns homicidal at the site of such skin-exposing images. Republicans and Red Staters don't need complex laws and legal challenges to make pornography illegal. All they need is a couple dozen prints of this potent asexual mess and Larry Flynt will be crying "Uncle" in no time flat. At the center of this sleazy saga is Jean Fontaine, an actress who makes her smut-peddling persona so overheated you expect her to spawn at any moment. Gloria Henderson gives great attitude and her vampy vice vixen is a joy to behold. Equally unnerving is the cracked killer, a slimy sicko named Dirk Williams. As essayed by gonzo greaser Dino Fantini, you can practically feel the insanity streaming off this guy. Together, this pair of perverts would seal the deal for any Conservative push toward banning anything bawdy. Add in Wood's weird way with a story, simultaneously celebrating and just plain berating his squalid subject matter and you've got further proof that this unfairly maligned director was some sort of stunted auteur. While it may not be the perfect MST3K material, the movie itself is one malfeasant masterwork.
In yet another attempted multi-segment spoof, Frank is a low-rent Dennis Hooper, blackmailing the MST3K gang with his Speed-like demands. It's a noble effort, indicating the series' desire to move away from strictly film-based sketch material. Instead of being universally funny, though, Frank is hilarious because…well, because he's Frank. Comedian Frank Conniff has always held a special place in many MiSTies' hearts because he was so childlike and cheery. Even when he is being beheaded by Dr. Forrester or experiencing the endless pain of any number of invention exchanges, Frank does the fool awfully well. Perhaps this is why his turn as a twisted mad bomber doesn't quite connect. Sure, the attempted riffs on Hopper's hamminess and the entire Keanu/Sandra situation are good, but unlike most MST3K material, this feels obvious. As a result, we have to look elsewhere for cleverness. Thankfully, it arrives in spades with the sensational short Keeping Neat and Clean. Whenever human foibles are involved, the Mystery Science Theater team is vicious. With the moldy old advice about towels, toiletries, and fresh undergarments, the gang has a field day. Indeed, along with the movie itself, this dossier on daily grooming is top notch. Too bad that the created comedy material is so underwhelming. It makes a potential classic merely an excellent installment.
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies
Nothing spells horror like a carnival floor show (no, seriously) and it's this kind of sawdust spectacle that noted director Ray Dennis Steckler relied upon to fill out his otherwise ordinary zombie stomp. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is a prime example of the kind of movie that needs a good clipping behind the ears with an oversized ball peen hammer. While the premise has promise—insane gypsy fortuneteller creates a race of manageable mutants via a splash of Old Acid Spice to the face—the follow-through is horribly hackneyed. First, there is Steckler's desire to feature himself in a leading role. While his egg-shaped chrome dome is kind of funny, his Jerry Lewis-on-lithium persona is as pleasing as drinking boiling pickle brine. Equally atrocious is his accent challenged co-star Atlas King. Sporting a coif so high that he makes Hispanic Morrissey fans jealous, this foul foreigner is not so much a sidekick as a sidetrack. Every time he appears onscreen, we are left wondering how this continental klutz got into this country, when his visa expires, and how soon he'll be back on his native soil, cowering from fascists. The carnival setting is swell, but the attempted backlot recreation of the girlie show is pure high school gymnasium art direction. Then there is the overall motive. Seems Estrella is making zombies to get back at her sister Carmelita and her inherent good (?) looks. Granted, our crystal-baller does have a few dozen superfluous warts, but at least she's not the vapid human void that her sibling is. Talk about your roadshow slags! Anyway, the forced finale, with all its oddball makeup effects is kinda fun, in a sizzling-spear-to-the-scrotum kind of way. When it's all over, we are still trying to place Atlas's broken brogue.
Perhaps one of the most notorious bad movies ever made, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies was long rumored to be an urban legend, a film that no one could honestly say actually existed. When the Medveds mentioned the picture in their Golden Turkey Awards book, they too suggested that, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and real democracy, such a lamely-titled entity just couldn't exist. Well, it does, and we have Ray Dennis Steckler to thank for this fecal frightmare. Steckler's offal oeuvre puts Ed Wood's to shame. Just check out Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, Sinthia: The Devil's Doll, or The Horny Vampire. That the MST3K gang could rise up and find anything remotely resembling humor within this heinous hogwash is a testament to their talent. Indeed, you can hear the sounds of struggling throughout the in-theater material, as Mike and the 'Bots wallow through countless minutes of mindless meandering. The arrival of soon-to-be continuing character Ortega is fun, since the cast cuts to the chase and ridicules his ever-present body odors. Elsewhere, the continuing "space children" storyline gets a clever wrap-up, though for anyone unfamiliar with the whole extraterrestrial Bad Seed setup, it will play as completely foreign, and the lack of Brain Guy and Bobo makes for a feeling of incompleteness.
Indeed, that's what a less-than-stellar episode of MST3K offers—incompleteness. It's the notion that, try as they might, the gang just couldn't get a handle on the horribleness laid before them. It happens rarely and occurs only once in this entire set. Yet it highlights how hard it must have been for the writers to sit through a certified turd like The Starfighters and come up with something cleverer than "the poopie suit." Since it tried not to trade in the juvenile and the guttural, taking on tripe like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies was tantamount to climbing an ingenuity Mt. Everest. The obvious jokes are there from the minute Estrella shows up with her face full of meat moles. She is so skin-tagged that overweight recluses are jealous, but instead of focusing solely on her occlusions, the series strikes at other, less apparent targets. The result? A feeling of incompleteness. We expect a series of pug-fugly jokes. We want to hear how this character fell out of the unattractiveness tree and hit every branch on the way down. We want to know that if you took her mangled mug and put it in some dough, that you would end up with gorilla cookies. Unfortunately, we don't get the satisfaction of such slams. Before we know it, they've moved onto other, equally difficult dimensions. Their efforts aren't bad, they're just not basic. Though atypical, the high road often flusters MST3K.
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 The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 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? The two extras offered here are fairly decent. Both Women of the Prehistoric Planet and The Sinister Urge have three-minute introductions by members of their respective casts. Long time Ed Wood company player Conrad Brooks introduces the porn parade, while that sexy Centaurian Linda, Irene Tsu, steps up to talk about all that interstellar silliness. Both individuals are genial and happy to reminisce, and they occasionally offer some real insights along the way.
So, what catchphrase has lingered longest in your mind? Are you partial to "Do you want to go faster?" or are you more of a "Does this bug you? I'm not touching you" kind of person? Whatever the phrase, be it a direct lift from a film's dialogue ("He tampered in God's domain") or a ridiculous leftover from a Renaissance Fair (the infamous "Huzzah!"), Mystery Science Theater 3000 proves timeless because it creates such concrete attachments in our minds. Even several years after its departure from the shortsighted Sci-Fi Channel airwaves, the series still delivers elements that remain rigidly embedded in our brain. It's impossible to look at a gumball machine without thinking of Tom Servo and plastic bowling pins are more automaton than toy after viewing a certain Crow T. Robot. Indeed there are so many elements from this incredibly cowtown puppet show that become part of everyday life that it's almost impossible to keep track of them all. But, no doubt, the most obvious ones are the anarchic axioms you utilize everyday. Similar to the closing credits mandate to "keep circulating the tapes," we MST3K fanatics will keep passing on the specialized slogans as part of our ongoing glorification of the God-like series. And if we ever need a refresher as to where these delightful denouncements came from we have these wonderful DVDs as our frame of riffing reference. Hi-KEEBA!
See previous dicta, you dickweeds!
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction to The Sinister Urge by Actor Conrad Brooks
• IMDb: Mystery Science Theater 3000
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