Judges Bill Gibron and Dan Mancini tag-team on a review for those die-hard MSTies out there...
"All this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit!"—Voldar
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mystery Science Theater Square Garden, site of tonight's thrilling six-falls-and-no-time-limit steel cage death match. On our program this evening is one of the classic pairings of all time—a complete throw-down battle royale between two certified cinematic badasses. Each man is in the prime of his pants, a sizzling statue to all that is mighty and mystifying about the world of bad cinema.
In the left, or "sinister" corner (remember your Latin, you losers?), weighing 185 pounds—74 percent of it thighs and knees—and hailing from the darkest recesses of the underworld, it's the water-retaining wonder Torgo, also known as "the man of a thousand stammers." Decked out in an incredibly stained canvas suit and wearing his trademark fedora (complete with the imprints from where the family mule kicked him, real hard), our freakish familiar is ready to defend himself, his bad-mustached Master, a bevy of undead babes, and the motion picture slop heap they all represent, 1966's Manos: The Hands of Fate.
And in the opposite, right-makes-might, corner, coming in at a svelte and beefcakey 194 pounds, ready to make each and every one of you his "Saturday night thing," it's Patrick "The Zen Master" Swayze. Hobbled only by a hairdo that crosses a mullet with a shag (a mag? Or perhaps a shullet?) and that stupid ballad from Dirty Dancing ("She's Like the Wind" is indeed a substantial handicap), "the Swayz" will be utilizing a combination of martial arts and incredible matinee-idol good looks to defend a nauseating Noel number called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It should be a tremendous fight. Both brawny bozos look in top—or at least animate—physical form and…
What? How does Patrick Swayze tie in to a bad children's Christmas movie that arrived in theaters when he was only 12? Well, here's the deal. Somehow, to Mystery Science Theater 3000 android Crow T. Robot, Patrick Swayze represents everything tried and true about the Yuletide tradition. He even wrote a jaunty holiday tune about the hunk. Besides, it's fun! And what better way to discuss the recently released Rhino DVD of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials but with a bloody, to-the-demise dukefest between the greatest hysterical henchman the movies have ever manufactured, and a dude who dances like girls. The winner? Why, the home theater audience, of course. They get two of the greatest MST episodes of all time.
Facts of the Case
What we have here, aside from a failure to communicate, are two classic installments of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the greatest television program in the brief history of the boob tube. Tossed onto a two-DVD set by Rhino and ready to create untold comic bliss, this digital dupe pairs the puffy-panted Torgo against the alien idiocy of the dumbest dot from a supposedly advanced civilization, a big green goof named Dropo. Each movie given the MST treatment here is a cobbled-together collection of nonsensical narratives, absent characterization, and a complete misunderstanding of the specific genre it supposedly represents. Let's look at each one separately, shall we, to determine the amount of misery we can expect from these awful offerings.
Who would have known it, but Martian kids are mopes. They do endless complicated calculations and spend the vast majority of their time being depressed. Kimar, one of the leading lights in Red Planet politics, consults the great master Chochem for a solution to the wee ones' ennui. Their brilliant solution? Go to Earth and kidnap Santa Claus (apparently, on their own extraterrestrial playgrounds, Martians have never "overheard" about the jolly old elf's "fictional" status).
With cohorts Voldar (with a big, burly moustache that suggests more than his being "green") and the clumsy-as-a-clod Dropo (whose unoriginal name is par for the slapstick course in this film), the average sized teal men make a saucer stop near a suburban park. There, they grab Billy and Betty, two kids who are apparently completely tuned in to Santa. With the help of our half-pints and a really chintzy robot, Santa decides to return to Mars. There, he starts to make toys for the Martian kids. And guess what? Instead of being studious, attentive, and polite little nippers, they go gaga for gifts.
But just like in every other time of peace on planet and goodwill toward mutants, there is a plot to undermine this merriment. Voldar hates all this holiday horse hockey and tries to overthrow the Yule with—you guessed it—another kidnapping. But since it's Christmas, everything turns out all right in the end. Except for the viewer, that is.
• Manos: The Hands of Fate
A drab middleclass family—Michael, Margaret, and their daughter, little Debbie (not to be confused with the snack cake magnate)—loses its way during an interminable automobile journey across a seedy East Texas purgatory where teenaged girls have beehive hairdos and cake on mascara by the gallon, and the local dirt-road make-out lane dead-ends at the mouth of a low-rent Hades.
And what exactly can one expect at the maw of Hell? The river Styx (or bad rock band of same name)? Echidna's vicious offspring Cerberus arfing at you with all three of its heads? Oh, no, it's far worse than that. The gateway to the Underworld is a prefab ranch house, a time-share in the middle of nowhere owned by the gauche, sunken-eyed, Sears poncho-wearing Master, whose design tastes run to flea market Gothic-Southwest. Taking care of the place is Torgo, a sorry satyr whose lumpy thighs, jittery locomotion, and Chester the Molester come-ons to the fairer sex are so repellent as to make one long for the sorry "goat boy" comedy of Jim Breuer.
The Master, it seems, is the high priest of the cult of Manos, an ill-defined demon or deity who, in addition to possibly creating the high five, demands that all moderately attractive women be the Master's concubines, dress in gauzy nightgowns, and engage in hair-pulling cat fights on a regular basis. Soon enough, the Master has his covetous eye on Margaret and Debbie. How can a mild-mannered cardigan-wearing dad prevent his women-folk from being dragged off by a goofball cult of the undead with the most uncharismatic charismatic leader in the history of charismatic leaders? Their fate is in Manos's hands.
Perhaps the best way to approach any critical compare-and-contrast between two of the stalwart episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is to avoid the plaudits and prose (bottom line—the show is amazing, the pinnacle of glass teat entertainment, period) and seek out some common ground. Once we've separated out our seemingly opposite entities, we can pair them off in like-minded match-ups and see just who comes out on top (and, conversely, which cruddy cinematic crudités reigns supreme).
Bout #1: Pasty Car Salesmen vs. Rickety Robots and Tongue-Tied Mad Scientists
Any quality pugilistic contest has an undercard, and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials is no exception. In the black-and-white corner, we've got the pallid, bloated Chevy hucksters of the short film Hired! Part 2, the automaker's dealer training film from 1940. And in the full-color corner, we've got our heroes, Joel Robinson, Mike Nelson, Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and Gypsy from the Satellite of Love, and their evil tag-team partners Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV's Frank from down in Deep 13, in Poopie!, a 30-minute bloopers reel. The Chevy boys employ a deadly hard sell bolstered by wool suits, gallons of Brylcreem, nearly every stereotype of World War II-era repression and conformity played with complete earnestness, soft suburban pink flesh that defies the black-and-white format, and a crazy old coot who tosses out wisdom like Yoda, swats at invisible fairies, and wears an old hanky for a hat. Oh, the humanity! These chumps have no business being in the ring. Our embryonic salesdope, Jimmy, is particularly sad. Fresh out of college and newly married, the lad is the owner of a fine prefab house and is well on his way to achieving premature middle age. If he's lucky and has the focus to live out the wisdom passed down to him by his domineering sales manager, he may be able to tumble into mid-life crisis before he turns 30. Dull, white, and fully assimilated into the consumer culture, young Jimmy should be retired by 45 and dead before 50. Now, that's an efficiently lived life!
It should come as no surprise to the observant viewer that Joel Robinson's wisecracking 'Bots are clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk. Poopie! unveils the sad truth that Crow has about as much eye control as the late Marty Feldman, and Tom Servo can barely manage to keep his gumball machine head on. Add to that Joel's sleepy-eyed, mumbled, and frequently gaffed line reads and our boys in space seem to offer a sorry challenge to the hardworking hucksters of Hired! But not so fast, mamma-jamma. It's down in Deep 13 where Poopie! really shines. Watching the lovable mads erupt into giggles as they croon Vegas lounge music to each other like some demented same-sex version of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, talk biker-tough on their hobby-hogs, or discuss the finer points of Hypno Helio Static Stasis versus good old-fashioned Deep Hurting is as infectiously funny as anything you'll find in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essential's main event. The crew of the Satellite of Love are the rope-a-dope to the full-on comic assault of the mad scientists' oopsie-daisies, and the MST3K gang beats the Chevy chumps in a TKO, whetting our appetites for the main event.
Let's get it on!
Bout #2: Wrestling Slave Chicks vs. Killer Robot
Frankly, this one is a no-brainer. When it comes to sheer brawn and the ability to control the elements with your own inner will, nothing beats a scantily clad barmaid cavorting with her fellow b-girls on a crappy outdoor temple set. In Manos: The Hands of Fate, our unlucky family of road- (and logic-) weary travelers run into the Master and his minions, most of whom are saggy ex-Avon ladies with semi-erotic evil on their minds. Apparently, service to the dark lord also requires you to get down on all fours and grapple like there's no Armageddon. Just when you think the gals have given up on the entire "let's get physical" angle, they attack that titan of the leg ailment, Torgo. After a few minutes with these females, our padded pelvis perv is three pins to the wind and spent like a torn dollar bill at a redneck strip club. The square-circle sweeties doing all the toga tossing are just one arcane element in what is a completely cracked motion picture. Manos: The Hands of Fate is foulness channeled through farce, the result being the perfect fodder for MST. It seems hard to top these Amazons of aridness, but it wouldn't be a war without an opposing force—no matter how hackneyed it is.
So what can the Martians offer up in response? Is there any way they can successfully retort? How do they actually intend to defend their little green honor? Why, with an antiquated automaton, of course. Our spastic spacemen get themselves in deep, deep elf guano when they send out a refrigerator box with fairy lights to do battle with the North Pole's resident fat man. When looking at this cardboard creature, who appears to be having a hard time standing up, let alone calculating binary bits of information in nanoseconds, you wonder why the aliens even bother. That is, of course, until Santa gives up like a winter wonderland wuss and decides not to fight. Seems that his bowl full of jelly hides a complete lack of spine for this symbol of the spirit of giving. But much of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is made up of moments like this. Everything about this fetid little film, from the primary colors mixed with puke set designs to the special education-style effects, proves this tacky take on tinsel and toys doesn't have enough cinematic firepower to survive a scuffle with some Hades humping handmaidens. In a clear knockout, our half-nelson nannies beat the paper and aluminum android hands down.
Bout #3: Creepy Earth/Martian Kids vs. Debbie
In general, children are Hell-spawn. Let's face it, we wouldn't have debates about pornography, strict zoning laws for strip clubs and a constant battle against carnage in the media if it wasn't for those biological belches that constantly come between civil rights and a good time. Kids just cramp the style of everything around them, from manners to merriment, and they don't give a candy cane who or what they constrict. So it would only be natural that both films would feature juvenile jerks as part of their plotlines. In Manos, our miscreant munchkin is Debbie, a dull-as-a-dingleberry child who still wets the bed, even when she's not sleeping in it. This little loser is so emotionally stunted that she tends to bond with anything within reach—the dog, her dad, the arm of a sofa. As an example of egg and seed stupidity, she's queen of the jaundiced gene pool. She exemplifies the reasons behind orthopedic shoes, sneeze guards on salad bars, and Plexiglas monkey cages. It figures then that the only thing this movie can do with her is place her in peril, kill off her dog, and then make her into the Master's youngest harem honey. Ew! It's too bad that she has such limited powers as a supposed non-test tube tyke. In this contest between the titans of the terrible, there's no way this retarded reject can even muster the motor skills to defend herself, let alone the dreary dignity of Manos.
Indeed, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians wins this one hands—and half-pints—down. The combination of kids, both human and mutant, in this crappy Christmas film is enough to put gangsta rappers off their gat game permanently. Billy and Betty are like refugees from the village of the damned; their blank, dead eyes expressing more iniquity than innocence. They can't wait to corrupt the straitlaced Martian rug rats with their scandalous ideas of slacking off, sassing back, and total stubborn self-centeredness. One would expect an ultra-high-tech race capable of bouncing off the satellites to avoid such aimless arrogance. But no, Betty and Billy are in luck. The little green groin grabbers are up for the antagonistic attitude adjustment and get all giggly at the concept of a completely commercialized holiday. When this foursome brings their butter-cookie-cracked brains together to thwart Voldar's plans to flummox the festive season, they kick butt and chew sugarplums—and those sweat meats are in real short supply on the angry red planet. In this battle of the prepubescent piglets, a skirmish to determine a victim and the victimizer, Debbie shambles to a disco dirge for death, as the youngsters causing combat for St. Nick and his interstellar indentured servants win the day. And let's face it, when we're talking about a bunch of big-eyed bratlings with the stench of a thousand Fruit Roll-ups fouling their breath, nobody really is victorious—especially not the audience.
Bout #4: Dropo vs. The Poodle
It's a counterintuitive truism that even the worst of movies can contain a performance of startling dignity and power. Some actors, even knowing their agent has steered them into a grade-A stinkburger, have the presence of mind, devotion to craft, and unflinching character to forge ahead and make the best of the hand (or mano) dealt them. In the case of Manos: The Hands of Fate, it is Pepe T. Poodle who lends the proceedings a modicum of dignity. In terms of the expression of sheer dogness, Pepe's performance is entirely convincing. The pooch's demeanor throughout the dismal proceedings vacillates from detached to downright bored. This behavior, the natural affect of any dog on a road trip with a bunch of lame-o's, is ironically similar to a viewer's natural reaction to the turgid cinematic turd in which the dog appears. He is our proxy, reflecting and validating our own disinterest in the battle between the drab Middle American family and the ersatz cult of dullards. Pepe soothes us by reassuring our subconsciouses, "No, you're not mistaken. Your tastes aren't flawed. This movie sucks." Our sympathies are especially with the little guy when he finally squirms from little Debbie's grasp and makes a break for it, as if to escape the film itself. Yes, Pepe, yes. We feel your pain. We salute your naturalism, your refusal to offer lame comic relief or doggie cutesiness, and we take comfort in the knowledge that your death at the slavering mouth of a Doberman hell-beast must undoubtedly have been a sweet release. Such comfort doesn't lessen our loneliness for the diminutive canine once he's departed the scene, though. In the pathetic world of Manos: The Hands of Fate, the poodle is about the only thing that doesn't bite.
On the opposite end of the dignity continuum, we have Dropo, the rubber-faced, moronic Martian from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The capering green elf's ceaseless mugging is enough to make even ardent fans of Jar Jar Binks wince in embarrassment (do ardent fans of Jar Jar exist, or are they as phantom a menace as the red-suited fat man purported to have conquered Dropo's race?). Never act with children or animals, the old maxim goes, but it should have included high-energy/low-I.Q. aliens like Dropo for good measure. Not because audiences find hammy Martians as adorable as tots and pups, but because the comic facial acrobatics never stop, even when a fellow actor is trying his best to wrestle with the script's lame-brain dialogue. Dropo, in other words, ladies and germs, is something like a dignity black hole: The startling density of his own absence of dignity creates a gravitational pull from which no dignity in the immediate vicinity can escape. Any actor sharing the screen with the mincing, spastic Dropo can't help but look like a boob. Okay, sure, they're all wearing green tights and ridiculous helmets, but it's the painfully unfunny comedy of the Red Planet's answer to Barney Fife that truly makes that planet's denizens look like a pack of dolts. Mark my words, after being subjected to 60 seconds of the gangly goof you'll be wishing The Master's hell-beast could escape Manos: The Hands of Fate, find his way to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and do to Dropo what he did to poor little Pepe. The winner of this round? The poodle, of course. God rest his soul.
Bout #5: Voldar vs. The Master
Contemplate the mustache. With the possible exception of lush and resplendent chest foliage, is there any surer outward sign of alpha masculinity than the upper-lip caterpillar? Forget the various myths about the size of hands, feet, or noses. Nothing alerts the ladies to a surplus of testosterone (and other goodies) like facial hair as thick as fine pile carpeting. And no green man from the Red Planet is as beefy, manly, and hirsute as Voldar, a heavy who considers Kimar's quest for Santa and desire to make Martian kiddies everywhere happy about as fey as you can get. Children? As far as Voldar's concerned, they're just a sad side effect of getting your groove on with the green gals of the fourth planet from the Sun (speaking of whom, what Santa Claus Conquers the Martians really lacks is Yvonne Craig in full-on Star Trek slave girl body paint and skimpy outfit—va va voom!). Martian children, says Voldar, can be seen if they must, but they darn well better never be heard. Earth children—and the fat elf they worship—are best terminated immediately and with extreme prejudice. Voldar is the only one of the Martians in the movie worthy of a planet named for the Roman god of war. His green blood is thick with testosterone; the dude has a five o'clock shadow by noon. Unfortunately, he also sports a helmet that looks like a hot-air popcorn popper with some vacuum cleaner attachments glued onto it, and green girly tights with a cotton panel. A Martian warrior can talk tough all he wants, but it's hard to take him seriously when he's wearing schoolgirl leggings and his hat picks up Direct TV.
Now, Manos's Master may look like a weenie with his slim build, pasty complexion, and prominent cheek bones, but the mustache is our first clue that he's a lady killer (literally). Add to that the fact the wild-eyed necromancer lounges about in a robe 24/7 like some occultic Hugh Hefner. Nothing identifies the gentleman lothario better than round-the-clock sleepwear, and the Master's handy jammies are a bold fashion statement, cool assurance for us all that he does indeed wear the (figurative) pants in his very large family. He's so pimpin', I wouldn't be surprised to see him on a future episode of MTV's Cribs, showing off his Xbox, copious bling, multiple copies of De Palma's Scarface, gold-trimmed Escalade, and many, many honeys. Consider, too, the delight he takes in denying the randy Torgo even the slightest sexual release despite the fact his own carnal cup floweth over: Like any true alpha male, the Master has the plus-size cojones needed to horde all the ladies for himself and prevent any and all rivals from sowing their seed. Let's all thank whatever higher powers to whom we answer that Manos isn't presented in Smell-O-Vision; if it were, our home theaters would likely stink of sleazy oils, lotions, and novelty sex lubricants. And does the green and leotarded Voldar think the Master's intimidated by his Martian rival's evil-male willingness to kill children? Puh-leeze. The Master kills them, then marries them. He's a homicidal sadist and a pedophiliac horndog. This match-up's easy to call: The Master wins by knockout.
Bout #6: Satan vs. Santa
In the age-old ethos, the large canvas altercation that makes up the moral fabric of the universe, is there a bigger mêlée than the one constantly occurring between good and evil? Sure, you could point to the Lohan vs. Duff, Moore vs. Drudge, and Butter vs. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter square-offs, but if we're talking about the karmic conundrum that causes humanity the most crap, it's that omnipresent quarrel between right and wrong, decent vs. devilish, that tosses our social salad. Certainly, it is the core clash in Mystery Science Theater 3000:The Essentials. On the side of scourge is none other than the man-goat himself, Satan. Working through the Master, and mostly indirectly via Torgo, Beelzebub is betting that the holy hand worship of the Manos cult will somehow overthrow the general human tendency to be good. Now, no one ever said that our fallen angel was a great judge of character, but he may be onto something here. Throughout the entire, tortured running time of Manos: The Hands of Fate, we are faced with more hideous sights and cinematic atrocities than even fans of the India Allen oeuvre have to endure. Indeed, if Hades is hankering to corner the market in dangling plot point participles, opaque characterization, and an overall tone reminiscent of seeing your maiden aunt naked in some old smoker stag reel, there is no better example than Manos. Bad films come and bad films go, but in the cosmic collision between peace and the repugnant, the underlings making miscreant somewhere in the California desert in the name of all that is manual, seem to give Satan the edge.
That is, until you see the starch-bloated bastardry of a certain Santa Claus in You Know Who Conquers the Martians. Now, everybody gets all gooey when they think of the holidays—all the wonderful smells, the sight of fresh snow painting the planet in a placating blanket of white, the unfettered giving and getting. But when it comes right down to it, Xmas is as malevolent as those horrible eggnog shakes from Mickey D's and thrice as indigestible. It's a disgusting display of mixed messages: On one hand, you have the "glad tidings, goodwill toward man" angle that tries to guilt you into being nice, while on the other hand every ad agency in the free world is ridiculing you for not having the latest, greatest Yuletide chattel. And who sits atop all this slick toy trickery and must-have marketing? Why, it's Kris Kringle, public spending Enemy Number One himself.
Thanks to Coca-Cola and a decidedly Victorian view of that European door-to-door stocking stuffer, we've got our own obese offshoot to indiscriminate expenditures to mess up the mistletoe. Santa does bear a great deal of the responsibility for why suicide rates quadruple during the advent of Advent. He's the entity who keeps parents up at night wondering how to answer little Johnny or Janey's long list of temporary school cool-producing toys. His bulbous visage beckons from every store display, egging you on to place your personal prosperity even further into the proverbial shitter by carding up your credit. And as envisioned by the movie mentioned in this Mystery Science Theater showcase, our demonic dwarf with a decided pituitary problem is a crabby, cranky old cuss with a hefty crawl of cowardice running along his corpulent backside. When faced with a problem, Santa just pisses in the wind, hoping that some combination of his personal girth and under-brewed wassail will win the day. He renders everything in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians stagnant and stilted. In the battle of imaginary bad men, the hostilities between Satan and Santa are more or less an anagrammatical draw. If these two terrors were any closer in temperament and tendencies, they'd be twins—or politicians.
As the referee collects the judge's scorecards and tallies up the decision, let's pause for a moment, shall we, and listen to a few kind words from one of our sponsors:
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And don't forget, with every package of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials you buy, you get the bonus feature of added Poopie!. Yes, for a limited time only, you can witness the various flubs, flaws and foul-ups of the MST3K gang as they try to work their way through a typical two-hour episode. This 30-minute fillip, usually only available by special request, is yours free with every purchase of The Essentials. While others may complain about a lack of additional added features on their television collections, Rhino knows how to satisfy its fans. So why not pick up a Rhino DVD release of Mystery Science Theater 3000 today? And remember our motto: if it doesn't say "Rhino," it probably belongs to someone else.
Now, back to the battle.
Well, there you have it folks, six battles, six decisions. The judges seem fairly certain of the results, according to referee Mr. James Bryan Natural—or as he's lovingly referred to by the members of his androgynous man-woman union, the flamboyant Mr. B. After a careful review of the scoring sheets, and some additional interpretation by handwriting experts from the FBI, we are about to announce the winner. On the three cards presented, Judge Bookwalter "Skip" Trumpy scores the bout three rounds for Manos, one round for Santa, and one tie. Judge Nancy "Nuveena" Cadillac scores the fight three rounds for Manos, one for Santa and a one tie. And naturally, Judge Ross Allen, former adventurer and violator of animals worldwide, scores it three rounds for Manos, one round for Santa and a tie. So the winner, by unanimous decision, is Manos: The Hands of Fate, palms down the worst film MST3K ever tackled.
It looks like Patrick Swayze's allegiance to the Christmas crew failed to pay off this time around—carol or no carol. We are trying to get a comment from either corner, but it seems both camps are rebuffing us. Swayze's gone off to get his hair done. The Master and Torgo are powwowing with Pepe, and Santa is slapping Dropo around like a pathetic pack mule. Obviously, there is no love lost between these two, and we here at Mystery Science Theater Square Garden wouldn't be surprised if a rematch is in the works. Well, that's all for this battle. Tune in next time when Coleman Francis takes on Tor Johnson in the highly anticipated "Spat Between the Fat." Until we meet again, this is your faithful announcer saying goodnight from the arena, and remember…just repeat to yourself: It's just a show. You should really just relax.
The fans by a knockout. There is no better television program in the history of the medium than Mystery Science Theater 3000. All others should just throw in the towel. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• MST3K "Poopie" Reel
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