Judge Erich Asperschlager is full of turtle meat, so please don't offer him any more.
Our reviews of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXI: The Turkey Day Collection (published December 3rd, 2014), Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition (published November 26th, 2013), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIV (published February 18th, 2009), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX (published November 9th, 2010), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV (published July 3rd, 2009), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVI (published November 27th, 2009), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII (published February 22nd, 2010), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVIII (published July 1st, 2010), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XX (published March 3rd, 2011), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXII (published November 24th, 2011), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIII (published March 16th, 2012), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIV (published July 17th, 2012), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIX (published March 14th, 2014), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXV (published December 5th, 2012), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVI (published April 1st, 2013), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVII (published July 18th, 2013), Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXX (published July 29th, 2014), and Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXII (published March 24th, 2015) are also available.
"There's a building overturned on Highway 5. You might want to find an alternate route."
During Mystery Science Theater 3000's seven-season run on Comedy Central, fans like me took it for granted that the episodes would always be around. Whether as part of the annual "Turkey Day" marathon, in reruns, or on the rapidly disintegrating VHS tapes we recorded, and even circulated like the show told us to (or did until their lawyers stepped in). We didn't think about things like movie re-negotiations, or home video release rights. Fast forward two decades, and it appears that many of the show's episodes may never get a proper release. Movies that were once cheap as dirt have become too expensive to re-release, in many cases because of the infamy of having been riffed by Joel, Mike, and the bots. In other cases, filmmakers took offense to their MST3K treatment and refused to re-negotiate. Perhaps the most famous holdout was one Sandy Frank—an American producer and film distributor who brought Japanese monster movies to the West. As the story goes, he was so infuriated by the scorn heaped upon his movies and himself that he vowed never to renew the rights for those episodes. Recent information suggests he just wanted more money. Either way, fans have long lived under the belief that a large chunk of Mystery Science Theater's brilliant, Japanese-heavy, third season would be lost forever. But no more! Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Shout! Factory, the series' twenty-first DVD set is dedicated to MST3K's skewering of that most famous of fire-breathing, children-loving, flying giant turtle: Gamera!
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera is a big deal, and Shout! Factory has given it the royal treatment. Five episodes instead of the standard four, all dedicated to one series of movies, and packaged in a handsome embossed collector's tin with mini posters and a sweet slate of extras. The brouhaha is fitting considering how closely the fates of Gamera and Mystery Science Theater 3000 are linked. He made his first monstrous appearance during the show's initial season on the local KTMA station, back when the riffs were all improvised and the budget was nil. That the show decided to revisit all five Gamera movies after making the jump to Comedy Central underlines a fondness not only for this particular turtle, but for the kind of ripping good schlock that inspired Joel Hodgson and his pals to create the series in the first place.
The set begins with 1965's Gamera, the story of a nuclear explosion in the arctic that awakens an ancient monster who levels Tokyo, and wins the heart of a chubby, lonely kid named Kenny. It's the only movie in the series shot in black and white, and the only one to feature the title monster in any serious way. As he appears in this movie, Gamera is a real jerk. He kills thousands and thwarts an international military attempt to stop his rampage. Somehow, though, he emerges as a hero, all thanks to Kenny ("You're a friend of Gamera?" "I'm his key master"), whose insistence that Gamera is good boils down to a general love for turtles and the fact that the monster doesn't kill him when he has the chance. This film establishes the pattern of precocious children being swept into military and scientific inner circles where they are treated as experts. Never mind that Kenny's pro-Gamera policy results in countless deaths. As long as he feels good about himself. Though this first movie is the most serious of the bunch, Joel, Tom, and Crow are in fine jovial form, making fun of the goofy special effects ("Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat"), the distinctively bearded old scientist they dub "Colonel Sanders-san," and of course the unholy alliance between Gamera and Kenny. The episode also includes Tom Servo's touching musical tribute to Kenny's pet turtle Tibby ("Tibby, oh Tibby / he runs like the wind / a couple of inches and then back again") that gets hijacked by Crow ("Tibby, I love you my fine little fella / even though you gave the whole family salmonella").
Along with the original Japanese trailer that accompanies each movie in the set, Gamera has with the first of the set's meaty bonus features. "So Happy Together: A Look Back at MST3K and Gamera" is a 23-minute mini-documentary that draws on cast reflections about the movies and their importance to the success of the show. Going back to the KTMA days, Joel Hodgson, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Jim Mallon wax nostalgic about this "balancing point" between cheesy monster movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Just don't expect too much about the Sandy Frank controversy. They touch on it briefly, saying diplomatic things like "I think we may have overreacted to Sandy Frank." Classy. The disc also includes the wrap segments from Gamera's inclusion in the Mystery Science Theater Hour. The MST Hour was an attempt by Comedy Central to make the episodes easier to air by splitting them in half. The move may have marked the beginning of the end for the series on the network, but the hour-long episodes are notable for the host segments featuring Mike Nelson goofing around in full Jack Perkins make-up.
One weird side note about Gamera as it appears here. Although the film was shot in black and white, it has been altered to look more blue than black. The color change helps to separate the silhouettes from the movie—as was standard practice in the show's early days. However, the episode footage shown in the MST Hour wraps are in standard black and white, as are some clips I found online. I couldn't find any information about the disconnect, so I can only assume this "blue" version is the one that aired in 1991.
Gamera returned in 1966, in color, with Gamera vs. Barugon, the movie in the series with the least amount of Gamera in it. Barugon is the story of a group of jewel thieves who travel to a remote island to steal what they think is a huge opal but is actually a monster egg. After trying to kill his companions, one thief accidentally exposes the egg to radiation that not only causes the monster to hatch, but to grow to massive size. Despite his unassuming, dog/dinosaur-like appearance ("He's dreaming of big, mutated, armored-covered rabbits"), Barugon has both a projectile tongue that shoots ice and a deadly "rainbow ray" that shoots from his back. Since Gamera is basically absent until the end of the movie, the SOL crew takes aim mostly at Barugon and the humans who say dumb things like "Barugon will be made to die by his own rainbow." The host segments focus on monster movies in general, from the 5,000 piece "Fighting Men and Monster" playset, to a skit about monster restaurant TGI Tokyo, where patrons can choose from such delectable desserts as the Vanilla Cross Country Killing Spree and Apple Double Murder-Suicide Torte.
Gamera vs. Barugon's single bonus feature is "Gamera vs. The Mighty Chiodo Brothers," a look at rubber-suit monster movies with the special effects team behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. It's a fun mini-documentary, although it gets a little list-y at times. It also suffers from the fact that, although they talk a lot about Godzilla, the filmmakers don't have the rights to actually show Godzilla, so most of the accompanying footage is Gamera-related.
1967's Gamera vs Gaos introduces a new short-panted child protagonist, the Kenny-esque Eiichi ("Do all Japanese children have to dress like Fisher Price people?"), whose grandfather leads a group of farmers to stop construction of a new highway. The construction hits a bigger snag when a bat monster named Gaos emerges from a mountain above the village. Gamera shows up to protect his teeny new pal, only to have his shell handed to him by Gaos and his laser-spewing mouth. The movie is all over the place, and our riffers cast a suitably wide net, packing in jokes about West Side Story, Batman, Buckminster Fuller—even overblown Germanic opera in the form of the tragically interrupted "Gameradamerung." The episode also includes Joel and Tom performing a Gaos-inspired plate spinning act with Crow as Ed Sullivan, and a "self-image printer" that shows what the Mads really think of themselves.
Gamera vs. Gaos comes with the most informative extra, a half-hour history of Japanese monster movies called "Gamera Obscura"—with August Ragone, who wrote Eiji Tsubaraya: Master of Monsters. Ragone talks not only about Gamera's place in the pantheon of monster movies, but also his return to the big screen in the 1990s.
Next up, 1969's Gamera vs. Guiron, my personal favorite, and perhaps the goofiest movie in the franchise. It amps up the Gamera-loves-children theme ("Because he doesn't know any monsters his own age") by having him chase a pair of dumb kids clear across outer space. When flying saucer fever hits Japan, two young stargazers find a deserted spaceship in the forest and do the only sensible thing: they climb on board. The ship takes off, whisking them to a planet populated by aliens who look like nice Japanese women but are actually brain-eating cannibals. It's also home to the implausibly designed Guiron, who uses his giant knife head ("I know, I know. They made me in a hurry") to dismember Gaos, then slice the heck out of Gamera when he shows up to rescue the boys. Meanwhile, back on earth, one boy's little sister tries desperately to convince their mother that they were kidnapped by aliens ("I'll show her. I'm going to grow up and break up The Beatles!").
There are plenty of highlights in this stand-out episode: the fact that one of the boys looks like Richard Burton ("Don't start with me, Martha"), Frank's discovery that his mother is a Rorschach centerfold, the goofy cop they name "Officer Cornjob," and the other boy's obsession with traffic accidents. But the best thing about Gamera vs. Guiron is that it introduced the infamous "Gamera Song"—a catchy ditty sung by a Japanese children's chorus in the movie, and redubbed by Joel and the bots with the lyrics "Gamera is really neat / Gamera is filled with meat / We're all eating Gamera!"
Movie trailer aside, this disc's only bonus feature are the some more MST Hour wrap segments.
The final episode, 1971's Gamera vs. Zigra, brings the series back to earth. Literally, if not figuratively. This environmentally sensitive movie buries a plea to keep the oceans clean in a story about a talking fish monster from another planet who turns into a spaceship and hypnotizes people. Once again, the lead alien is a pretty Japanese woman ("You forget, space is curved" "And so am I"), the protagonists are a pair of plucky kids who advise generals on how to deal with an interplanetary threat, and Gamera shows up in time to save the day, leaving most of the work to the humans…Lazy friggin' turtle.
Gamera vs. Zigra means party time on the Satellite of Love, as Joel, Tom, and Crow celebrate the end of the series. Perhaps because they know this is their last hurrah, they level some of their harshest criticisms at Sandy Frank. Host segments include art therapy to deal with turtle trauma, and a look inside Gamera's shell with a model showing a cast-iron spiral staircase, game room, Kenny's room for sleepovers, and Apartment 4B where the lonely cat man lives.
What—you wanted more bonus features? Keep on moving. There's nothing to see here except for the movie's trailer.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera marks Shout! Factory's second all-Joel set in a row. Mike superfans can take solace, though, in the fact that he shows up a lot in the host segments—in turns as Gamera, Kenny, and lounge singer Michael Feinstein, who plays a stirring Deep 13 piano rendition of "The Gamera Song" before getting clubbed over the head.
The audio-visual quality of these episodes stands up with the others Shout! has released. There's a split-second tracking issue near the end of Gamera vs. Gaos, but otherwise they look as good as can be expected for a twenty-plus year old cable series shot on tape. I'm saying you don't need to worry about a Blu-ray double dip; the closest MST3K will ever get to hi-def is the occasional Helen Keller joke.
Provided you don't mind a good bit of ribbing at the expense of our Japanese brethren—especially the ones in short pants and rubber monster suits—MST3K vs. Gamera is tons of fun. Shout! Factory has outdone themselves with this collection, and fans shouldn't hesitate to reward them (and themselves) by picking it up on day one. Although none of the episodes reach the dizzying comedic heights of Season Three classics like Pod People and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, this is a rock solid set from beginning to end. The waiting is over, MST3K fans! Hell has frozen over, and it tastes like chicken.
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Studio: Shout! Factory
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