It's time for more Mystery Science Theater 3000 goodness as Judge Bill Gibron gives you the grand tour of Volume 10's collection of crackerjack comedy.
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 9 (published June 26th, 2006), and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 12 (published November 21st, 2007) are also available.
When it was announced that regular host and series founder Joel Hodgson would be leaving Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the midpoint of Season 5, fans feared for the fate of their favorite cowtown puppet show. With Hodgson front and center, MST3K had concocted a dense, satiric style with wit that incorporated everything from obscure references and Shakespeare quotes to flatulent funny business and standard insult comedy. The skit material tended to be based on post-modern takes of decidedly retro subjects, while the always interesting "Invention Exchange" saw material from Hodgson's stand-up routine lifted and retrofitted into the show's format. New star Mike Nelson had no such track record. As head writer, he was responsible for putting the final funny point on top of the overall script, but his few onscreen appearances had not been that amazing or memorable. He made an excellent Torgo (from Manos: The Hands of Fate) and his Morrissey wasn't too bad, either. In fact, some worried that having to perform as well as write and edit would take its toll on areas where Nelson excelled, including the amazing music he created for the always-entertaining songs featured in the show. Truth is, there was really no need to worry. The transition was more of an issue for the fan base than the cast. The proof is evident in the latest volume of MST3K majesty provided by those guardians of good, Rhino. From our first digital taste of reptilian delight to a bunch of bugs (VW and natural) going gonzo, Mystery Science Theater survived the switch to become a bigger, and some say better, source of cinematic spoofing.
Facts of the Case
In another fully anthological look at the series overall, this latest collection carries us from Season 2 through Season 8. Within these divergent episodes are glimpses of long-forgotten films like the numerous Godzilla and Gamera titles (the lizard is making his first DVD appearance as part of MST3K) and a classic Sci-Fi Channel-era entity. 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:
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973, MST3K Episode 212)
Swamp Diamonds (1956, MST3K Episode 503)
Plus a Special Bonus Feature! Archival Short Subject What to Do On a Date: A wannabe Casanova learns how leisure activities like scavenger sales, bike rides, and the dreaded weenie roast all lead to sweet, sweet lovin'—from the opposite sex.
Teen-Age Strangler (1964, MST3K Episode 514)
Plus a Special Bonus Feature! Archival Short Subject Is This Love?—With the possibility of a professional football contract in the offing (in 1950's dollars!), a college couple decides to get married. Their long-engaged pals don't like it.
The Giant Spider Invasion (1975, MST3K Episode 810)
Thank God for Japan. Many may not know it, but the easily rerun product from Toho, Daiei, and Sandy Frank, regularly featured as part of mindless weekend matinees, aimed at those kids unlucky enough to be stuck in the house on a Saturday, were the life blood of early MST3K. In fact, when the show first started on a local Minnesota UHF channel, the vast majority of the movies riffed on were arcane Asian offerings like Fugitive Alien, Mighty Jack, Legend of the Dinosaur, and Time of the Apes. But it was Gamera (and his various foes, including Barugon, Gaos, Zigra and Guiron) that really helped pull the show out of the creative bind it was in. Without a movie to mock, the show was stuck without basic funny fodder. Thanks to the titanic turtle who's the friend to all children, MST3K made its mark, got the attention of the fledgling Comedy Channel, and suddenly found cinematic vaults open and available. Of course, they really weren't, but after sitting through several Tokyo torments featuring a little twerp braying on about his close personal alliance with a seven-story amphibian, a little independent B-movie sustenance seemed like manna from motion-picture heaven.
Still, many fans loved the jolly Japanese monster movies in all their man-in-suit silliness. Thanks to MST3K, many installments in the long-running series were finally given some showcase exposure, including intriguing entries like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Many had hoped that when Rhino got around to releasing episodes on DVD, they would favor us with some of these creature-feature classics. Sadly, rights issues hound even the most obscure Toho title. Instead, newer entries from filmmakers not so careful about where their product makes an appearance have become the typical series' installments. You know the kind—the mind-bogglingly bad Hobgoblins, the perplexing E.T. ripoff Pod People, the PBS-produced Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (Ma…my nuts …),and Charles B. Pierce's skunk-ape stupidity known as Boggy Creek II. So it's nice to know that here, on Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, we will finally witness some of that patented Rising Sun ridiculousness. While it doesn't contain the comic creativity of a security guard named Cornjob and doesn't have psychotic space babes wanting to kill a kid who looks like Richard Burton, it does deliver a definite burst of large lizard levity. Viewed individually, the fun starts with:
Godzilla vs. Megalon
Perhaps a better title for this movie would be Megalon Against Jet Jaguar with Third-Act Cameos by Godzilla and Gigan, Featuring the World's Goofiest Aquatic Toy. The sad truth is that our atomic creation has about ten minutes of total screen time in this otherwise surreal sci-fi flick. Even the strange Seatopians who dress like greeters for Caesar's Palace and perform ritualistic interpretative dances as a declaration of war end up with more narrative moments than our reptile rapscallion. It's no surprise, really. Gojira, as he's know in his native tongue, was in decade two of his seemingly infinite run, so putting in an appearance was par for the creature-feature course for the international superstar. Still, it would have been nice to have the big bad beastie around from the beginning. Then we wouldn't have to sit through all the idiotic espionage, the whiny weirdness of another short-panted kid hanging out with a couple of adult males, and a fiend who fires turds from his extremely obtuse maw. Indeed, one of the weaknesses in this otherwise spirited Toho trauma is that it's hard to understand just what our monsters can and cannot do. One moment, Gigan is more or less invincible, the next Jet Jaguar is pounding the pollen out of him. Godzilla arrives and mops the mountainside with the fiends. Two scenes later, he's practically panting in quasi-defeat. Granted, it's all part of the seesaw battling that goes on in a typical Godzilla film, but since we've waded through 75 minutes of exposition, we deserve more than a few martial arts moves and some paltry pyrotechnics.
With two stellar skits that stand along with the best MST ever created, Godzilla vs. Megalon has a wealth of wit both in and out of the theater. When they're taking on the movie, Joel and the robots are relentless. They make fun of almost everything available, from the poor miniature landscape at the center of the movie's opening effects set-piece to the wacky kidnapping that has our scientist and Speedo-shorted sidekick rolling around inside a large metal freight container. Between giving action-hero dialogue to the four fighters duking it out to inventing lyrics for the film's far-too-peppy theme song, the riffing is resplendent. When matched with the amazing scripted segments, we end up with a near-classic episode. Using the slightly Inuit-looking lead in the movie, the gang creates the opening credits for a Quinn Martin-style one-hour drama—Lex Dart, Eskimo Spy. Then, that popcorn-shilling square Orville Redenbacher (played brilliantly by Crow/Trace Beaulieu) argues with his ungrateful grandson (Tom Servo/Kevin Murphy) in a manner only MST3K could create. Between the dead-on spoof of the pair's infamous TV commercials to the insanely inventive put-downs, we have five minutes of non-stop satire that never once misses its mark. Toss in the Jet Jaguar theme interpretation and the odd little sequence where Crow and Tom hide some "pictures" from Joel, and you have the perfect example of early season MST3K. It was a show that could be both wildly insular and completely universal—sometimes in the same moment.
Nothing says boredom better than a B-movie swipe from the exploitation handbook that decides to leave out the sex, skin, and sin. Granted, this is the MST3K version of the infamous Corman ipecac, but one still senses a lack of all things gratuitous in this waterlogged debutante Defiant Ones. The closest we get to hot honey action are the numerous catfights, as well as a sequence in which, on a drunken whim, the gals give their jeans a short-shorts makeover. Talk about your erotic fantasy fodder. As usual, there has to be a big, brawny bit of beefcake for these girls to go goofy over and, somehow, Mike Connors got the call. Yes, our man Mannix, (going by the obnoxious fame name of "Touch") hair-styled like the top of an Elvis impersonators life-like wedding cake and body draped in far-too-clingy adventure garb, sits with his arms behind his back and pumps his unimpressive pecs for the little larcenous ladies. Naturally, they melt like freshly-churned whale butter. Most of this movie revolves around the group looking for places to camp, Beverly Garland getting all hot and homicidal, the rest of the collective calming her down, and the occasional lapse into introspective pining. As a thriller, the threat is mild at best. As an action adventure, neither is really present. In essence, unless you like tight blouses housing well-brassiered bosoms, there is very little to give you a lift from this bayou bungle.
As for the MST3K material, all of it is based on the hilarious hokey short What to Do On a Date. Following the format from that mini-movie, Tom decides to ask Gypsy on a date. Joel and Crow promise to throw a scavenger sale, complete with sandwiches and Coke. Naturally, nothing goes right. Gypsy is bored with Tom's constant chatter, then gets hit on by Crow—and likes it. She finally dumps Tom before he even gets a chance to stroke his own ego. While it really can't match the abject ridiculousness of the short—nothing like the sexless '50s to fuel an abundance of comic criticisms—when combined with the in-theater quipping that manages to find more than a modicum of humor in this horrifyingly inert crime spree, the linked sketch material illustrates Mystery Science's desire to deviate from the norm and try new and inventive things. Just the notion of Tom and Gypsy on a date would drive even the most devoted fan to freak out in mythology-defying possibilities. That it doesn't turn into the SOL orgy that one might imagine is the reason why the Brains, and not the ones enamored with their efforts, are in control of the creativity. Indeed, the stars of MST3K were always a family, and any suggestion of romance would ruin the routine. While not quite incestual, it does challenge the core concept of the entire series, more or less.
Into the wide, wide world of weepy, wussy, weak-bladdered characters comes Mikey, little brother of Fastback hanger-on Jimmy, and instantly the most lovable-hateable character in the history of Mystery Science. Played by silver-screen newcomer (no kidding) John Humphries, Mikey is like a human helping of pink eye mixed with pre-pubescent hormones gone gangrenous. Unable to deliver a single line without slipping into a cracked Confederate twang and gifted with the ability to render any conversation uncomfortable, Mikey makes Teen-Age Strangler. Between his frequent, pants-soiling hissy fits (complete with tentative tears and lots of lower lip biting) and the memorable musical number "Yikes! Stripes!" (for lovers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Beatles, mind you), the actual plot is kind of worthless. As whodunits go, we could really care less about who's offing all the gangly adolescents, and director Ben Parker (with rumored input from behind-the-scenes guide Herschell Gordon Lewis) never once tries to compel us to be bothered. In fact, he's too busy filming overly dark night scenes and logistically confusing car races to really focus on his mystery. That's why the resolution seems so completely tacked on. The reveal makes no manner of sense and the motive is certainly shaky. About the only way Parker could salvage this slop is by having Mikey be the murderer. Sadly, he's too spineless to do any slaying except to the concept of human decency.
With a fiasco this full of possibilities, it's odd that the gang at MST3K decided to continue on with the Mike-hazing aspect of their Season 5 storyline. With Joel's department, our new SOL crewmember is forced to be a foil to Crow and Servo's self-righteous silliness. When he tries to intervene in their fake fight, they make it very clear that he just doesn't get their good-natured rambunctiousness, while a pair of prepared glasses makes Mike turn all "Mikey." Frankly, the moments when Nelson puts on the glasses and goes all gooey are priceless, and much better than when the 'bots get their much-needed comeuppance. With a closing song that seals the comedy deal ("I'm a Janitor" is another in a long line of MST3K musical marvels), and an opening invention exchange that features that fan favorite—Crow and Tom imitating old Midwestern ladies arguing over a lunch bill—Teen-Age Strangler is a wonderful reminder that, no matter who is in charge or carted before the camera, it was the overall creativity of the individuals involved that made the show a significant candidate for best TV series ever. Though the devoted definitely fretted when it was announced that Hodgson was leaving, Mike Nelson's smooth assimilation into the MST3K mannerisms boded well for the rest of the run—no matter how long or short that would end up being.
The Giant Spider Invasion
Bill Rebane has a creative resume that would make most filmmakers choke on their own embarrassed bile. Beginning with his half-hearted sci-fi slop Monster a Go-Go (that actually had to be completed by none other than Herschell Gordon Lewis) to such celebrated stink bombs as Invasion from Inner Earth, Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake, and The Capture of Bigfoot, his is a canon completely devoid of discernible talent. Even his last legitimate movie, the Tiny Tim starring vehicle Blood Harvest couldn't make the novelty of a clown make-up wearing acid casualty from the Laugh-In side of the '60s work. So it's no surprise then that this typical giant insect pic is so pathetic. Instead of focusing on the monsters for this movie, Rebane is too intrigued by the bevy of bilious characters he's created. Between the soiled back-brace hickness of Robert Easton's Dan Kester to the non-stop alcoholism of Leslie Parrish's Ev, the extra gravy heft of Alan Hale's portly policeman to Steve Brodie's human heart attack Dr. Vance, the individuals instilled with selling this insane insect shtick are downright depressing. As a matter of fact, they're more concerning than any behemoth bug with a bad attitude. Since most of the invading is left up to regular-sized tarantulas, a couple of hand puppets, and an eight-legged homecoming float from a local high school, we really never get to see a true arachnid apocalypse. Instead we are simply stuck with the inherit horror of Barbara Hale's Paul Mall distorted screeching.
Oddly enough, all the skits here revolve around a weird Body Snatchers like set-up in which Sci-Fi Channel primary villains Pearl Forrester and Brain Guy fall under the spell of some sizeable zucchini throw pillows and begin plotting the end of the galaxy. Naturally, Mike tries to get the bumbling Bobo to stop the invasion, but he's a monkey with a red butt and it's hard to get him motivated towards any type of heroism. It's a strange set of sketches, especially since the comedic tone taken is not one of over-the-top ridiculousness, but rather slow, even subtle deadpan. The recently-turned Pod Pearl uses the word "quality" as her running gag, while Pod Gypsy is given over to overt death threats. In the end, the Pod cast members resort to a series of high-pitched shrieks to sell the snickers. Bobo eventually saves the day and his cheerleader-inspired victory dance is one of MST3K's most memorable great ape moments. As a potential target for their wit, the series' writers definitely have their work cut out for them with this one. Since The Giant Spider Invasion is already like a lampoon minus the actual laughs, finding humor in redneck squalor, over-the-hill actors, and Special-Ed effects should be like shooting fish in a barrel. Instead, it's a true challenge to come up with material that is more hilarious than the craptacular film on display. That they do manage it is one of Mystery Science Theater 3000's greatest creative assets.
The basis for all four films here is a brazen bait-and-switch motion-picture mentality that argues for one suggested cinematic approach, while the filmmakers obviously wanted to follow another. Take the Godzilla movie, for example. Instead of giving us the big galoot for 90 nonstop minutes, we are teased and tormented for most of the story until the lackadaisical lug shows up to cap a little fire breath in someone's behind. Similarly, the only grindhouse goodness in the otherwise asexual swamp saga is the onscreen shooting of a rattlesnake (PETA must be pissed). While it does offer a few adolescent deaths, Teen-Age Strangler is more an exercise in how to sob like a little schoolgirl vs. a tense, taut crime thriller, and the less said about the substantial non-gigantic spiders, the better. Perhaps a scientific study will prove it one day, but it seems that when the film featured does this kind of formulaic flim-flam, when it promises terrors and only delivers errors, Mystery Science Theater 3000 really shines. It's as if the inherent flaws in the narrative provide the necessary room for the ribbing to take place. Thanks to such Cineplex synchronicity, we end up with some flawless, funny stuff. It's the reason the show endures to this day.
Visually, Rhino's regularly fine 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 Swamp Diamonds, where the print used looks like a set of ancient animated postcards, complete with bleached-out colors), 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?
As for added content, Rhino finally steps up and pads out this production with a few fabulous added features. Aside from a photo gallery (on the Godzilla disc), which is really not all that necessary, we are treated to something called the "MST3K Video Jukebox" (on the Giant Spider disc) and a series of Outtakes (part of Poopie II, found on the Teen-Age Strangler disc). The songs included here run the gamut from Season 2 through 10, and provide a wonderfully witty sampler of the show's sonic satire. Included here are:
• "Tibby, Oh Tibby"—from Gamera
For this feature alone, this latest DVD collection from Rhino gets really high marks.
More transitions were coming in MST3K's future. By Season 7, it was clear that the show would be cancelled, with Comedy Central no longer looking for "long-form" comedy. Instead, a 2001- inspired finale fulfilled most fans' dreams of a stellar last episode and it looked like the adventures of the Satellite of Love were finally over. Then Sci-Fi stepped in and picked up the series. Gone was Dr. Forrester, TV's Frank, Crow's old voice, and the whole Umbilicus/Deep 13 setting. In its place were network-mandated serialized storylines, a new writer and performer named Bill Corbett, and a host of brand-new villains. Along with Dr. Forrester's slightly rewritten mother Pearl, we got Planet of the Apes reject Professor Bobo and an unknown alien life form known as Brain Guy. Along the way, there'd be trips to Ancient Rome and a group of mischievous space children, with a final stop at the ancestral home of the Forrester clan. Naturally, it all ended with another interstellar freak-out and a trio of lifelong friends sharing an apartment somewhere in Wisconsin. For a massively Midwestern show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, a finale not too far away from the nation's dairy belt seemed like a sensational way to say goodbye—not that it's ever really left those who love it.
The Court refuses to even consider the case of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is not guilty, and never could be.
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• MST3K Video Jukebox
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