Judge Roman Martel believes you can riff on Shakespeare.
Yes, Shakespeare's Hamlet came under the comedy guns of Mike and the bots in the final season of the series. Had the creative team at Best Brains gone mad with power? How could they even hope to mine humor from one of the classic dramas of the Western canon? Some claim that Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett were running out of steam and just wanted to attempt the impossible.
I think there may be something in that theory. The cast and crew probably saw the writing on the wall and knew the show was coming to an end. So why not try something outrageous and impossible? Why not put their funny bones on the line and make fun of Hamlet?
Sure, some humor can be pulled from the story of Hamlet (Maximillian Schell, The Black Hole) moping around the minimalistic set of his castle. His mother Gertrude (Wanda Rotha) married his uncle Claudius (Hans Caninenberg). At first the courtier Polonius (Franz Schafheitlin) believes that Hamlet is melancholy because he loves Ophelia (Dunja Movar), but soon this melancholy turns to madness. Little do they know that Hamlet has seen the ghost of his father. This ghost reveled that Claudius murdered him and now Hamlet is struggling with the idea of avenging his father, believing a ghost and dealing with the fact this his best friend is named Horatio (Karl Michael Vogler).
The team of MST3K stayed true to their roots. This is Hamlet like you've never seen him before. It's German, black and white, dreary, dubbed, and filled with enough pauses and droning to make you want to pour poison in your own ear. If anyone tells you that Shakespeare in any form is automatically good—they obviously have never seen this 1961 production.
The minimalistic sets are blocks of concrete and grey on grey platforms. The costumes are a mix of classic shakespearian combined with bizarre hair and abstract accessories. Take a look at Gertrude and see if you can figure out what director Franz Peter Wirth was going for.
On top of all this is the dubbing. Schell does his own voiceover work, but he sounds about as bored as you will feel watching this. When he does emote it's all sound and fury signifying nothing. Then there is the hilarious dubbing for Claudius provided by Ricardo Montalban. Insert your own Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan joke here. Some lesser scenes are dubbed by folks who obviously have no idea what they are saying or why they are saying it. The sequence during the play is some of the worst voiceover I've heard, with the actress literally saying words in the most flat and dull way she can. Truly amazing.
What it all boils down to is one of the worst production of Hamlet ever produced and preserved on celluloid. How the folks at Best Brains found this stinkburger is beyond me. In its original form this version was 152 minutes long. I can't imagine watching that version multiple times to determine what to edit out and where to put the jokes. For that Herculean task alone, the writing crew of MST3K should be commended.
So what about the riffing. Well Mike and the bots take Hamlet on with obvious gusto. They attack everything from the production elements, to the acting, to the dubbing down to the lines from the play itself. Yes, they get in some good jokes based on the Bard. But what comes through is a solid knowledge of the play. These guys actually enjoy Shakespeare, but they are able to see the humor in Hamlet babbling on and on about something very simple. They get in some great word play with some of the more famous lines (helped a great deal by the hilarious delivery of the dubbing). Mixed into all this are fart jokes, mocking '90s singing sensation Paula Cole and wondering why the ghost of Hamlet's father is dressed like Patty LaBelle.
I find this episode very funny, easily one of my favorites from the final season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's an episode that shows just how good the team at Best Brains was at tackling this form of comedy. Badly performed Shakespeare can be very boring, but when combined with such dreary and depressing elements this is a true juggernaut of dull. It takes a team as seasoned as this to make this even a little funny, much less consistently funny for the full running time. There are few dead spots here and there, but that is typical for any episode.
Now, I know I'm in the minority on this one. Plenty of fans think that Shakespeare is untouchable and that mocking Hamlet is blasphemy. Others think this movie version is too boring and dreary to find anything humorous at all in it. I think that if you can appreciate Hamlet when it's done well, and if you can accept the idea of someone making fun of it, then you'll enjoy this episode a great deal. But this is not an episode to start a new viewer of the show with. Such horrors should be kept for those who have already seen The Beast of Yucca Flats or Monster A Go Go.
Shout! Factory is providing those folks who missed the release of this film on the old Rhino box set a chance to pick it up. It's a bare bones disc containing only the episode. But the transfer is solid and the sound levels are balanced well.
Since this is one of the most debated episodes of the series, I don't feel comfortable recommending it to everyone. Give it a rental first and if you end up enjoying it, then pick it up and find out why Danish clowns are so horrific.
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