No one dies like Judge Erich Asperschlager.
Our reviews of 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 XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera (published July 25th, 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 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), and Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXX (published July 29th, 2014) are also available.
If Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIV had a tagline, it would be something like, "Frankly my Frank, I don't Frank a Frank." A bit awkward, perhaps, but it fits this latest collection, which features Franks of the "Sandy" and "TV's" variety, with a Finnish fantasy film thrown in for alliterative good measure.
Since the Gamera-centric Volume XXI, Shout! Factory has put as much focus on the fan-favorite Sandy Frank episodes as they did on Season One entries in early box sets. Volume XXIV has two more of Frank's Japanese imports: Fugitive Alien and its sequel Star Force: Fugitive Alien II, both from the show's excellent third season. Like Mighty Jack and Time of the Apes, the Fugitive Alien "movies" are actually 20-some episodes of a Japanese television series, Star Wolf, cut up and stitched together to feature length. Imagine the best season of the best TV show edited down to an hour and a half. These Fugitive Alien movies are much worse.
The heavily edited tale begins in Fugitive Alien, the story of a "Wolf Raider" space warrior named Ken. During a routine invasion of earth, Ken stops a fellow Wolf Raider from killing a human boy named Ken and his mother. During the struggle Wolf Raider Ken kills his friend and becomes (you guessed it) a fugitive alien. He ends up on an Earth ship called the Bacchus 3, where his identity is a secret to everyone except for chipmunk-cheeked boozehound Captain Joe. A lot of stuff happens, including this one guy named Rocky ("A-gain?") trying to kill Ken with a forklift, and Ken accidentally killing the woman he loves after she almost kills him ("I can't kill the man I love!" "Then kill the one you're with.").
This is a painful experiment for Joel and the bots, but they take it all in stride. The ridiculous forklift murder scene gives rise to the episode's most enduring bit, the "He Tried to Kill Me With a Forklift!" song. Other memorable moments include Mike Nelson's first appearance as Jack Perkins (whom he later played as host of The Mystery Science Theater Hour), Joel's breakdown of the movie in terms of Syd Field's screenplay model, and the identity of the "cool thing" from the Lost Continent episode.
Star Force: Fugitive Alien II is even less coherent than its predecessor, consisting of a series of mini-adventures consistent with the fact that this used to be a TV show. After narrowly escaping space sickness within orbit of an exploding star ("Pink Floyd on the headphones. Set the course for the heart of the sun."), the crew of the Bacchus 3 tracks down a weapon of mass destruction on a planet of bluish-skinned aliens before wrapping things up with an escort mission at what appears to be an intergalactic university campus.
Building on the forklift song from the first movie, this episode features Joel, Tom, Crow, and Gypsy in formal wear singing a medley of Fugitive Alien songs, with yet another musical jab at Sandy Frank: "We wanna…sit on his chest, and gob on his face, and make him cry." Other segments include big noses and a big head, a Captain Joe action figure commercial, and Tom Servo's head exploding ("We gotta get our buddy out of the boneyard!").
Leaving outer space, we travel to Eastern Europe with the folk tale The Sword and the Dragon. This film is the last in the so-called "Russo-Finnish Troika," along with the as-yet-unavailable The Day the Earth Froze, and The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, available on Volume XX. All three movies were directed by Aleksandr Ptushko, which makes them Russian, not Finnish as Mike and the bots suggest in the episode (and I repeated above). Regardless of origin, The Sword and the Dragon is an impressive bit of '50s fantasy, dubbed into English, and edited down from the original by none other than Roger Corman. It's the story of Ilya, a beefy villager who uses the magic sword of Invincor ("This is Arthurian the way Arthur with Dudley Moore is Arthurian") to save the kingdom from the Tugars, a Mongol-like invading force. Along the way, Ilya captures a wind demon who "looks like Clint Howard," and fights off a three-headed dragon ("Great, dragon sandwiches for the next month.").
In Deep 13, Frank and Dr. Forrester entertain their new female neighbors, played by Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson, while up on the Satellite of Love, the gang stages the set's second musical number, a political send-up called "Supercalifragilisticexpiali-wacky." My personal favorite bit is "A Joke by Ingmar Bergman"—a four-and-a-half minute, black and white set up to an extremely dumb punch line. It's hilarious.
Volume XXIV's final episode also marks the end for one of the show's best characters: TV's Frank. As played by Frank Conniff, TV's Frank wormed his way into fans' hearts one curly haired button push at a time. His departure in Samson vs. The Vampire Women at the end of Season Six is as touching now as it was back in '95. It begins with a Chinese food delivery, and a mysterious fortune, whose meaning is later revealed to Frank by none other than Torgo, dressed in shimmering white and eager to take Frank to another world, where flunkies and lackeys are free. Dr. Forrester mourns his departed pal with the moving ballad "Who Will I Kill?" and if you'll excuse me I think I have something in my eye. sniff.
Frank's finale is wrapped around a movie Conniff himself fought for. Samson vs. The Vampire Women stars real-life Mexican wrestling sensation El Santo, who was renamed "Samson" so as not to confuse American audiences. This tale of supernatural nonsense is a mix of bad voice acting, hot vampiresses ("She has combination skin. One part is fetid, the other is rotten"), and random wrestling scenes ("The International Fight-Like-A-Girl Championships!"). It's not as bad as Season One's The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, but it's close. The riffers do it justice, though, turning blood into blood-onade. This is possibly the funniest episode in the set. If it had been the series' last—as the cast and crew thought, while they waited for Comedy Central to announce plans for Season Seven—it would have been a great way to go. It's certainly a great way to end this latest Shout! Factory collection.
In line with the previous Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD sets, Volume XXIV is presented in full frame, with 2.0 stereo audio. The episodes look clean for their age, with no video or audio issues. The set comes with a strong and varied collection of bonus features, including a very special, and surprising, interview:
• The first Fugitive Alien-related extra is "An Introduction by August Ragone" (6:19): Anyone who bought the Gamera set will remember Japanese TV and movie expert Ragone. He provides fascinating background information here about the Star Wolf television show. One of Shout!'s best additions to these MST3K sets are bonus features that put the riffed movies in context. It's easy to forget that these films weren't made terrible on purpose. They were mostly made by people who had more passion than talent. Star Wolf suffers the added indignity of having been chopped up for American audiences. It wasn't a classic TV show, but it deserves a better legacy than the one left by Sandy Frank.
• "The Mystery Science Theater Hour Wraps: Fugitive Alien" (5:04): Host segments from the primetime series, featuring a more refined and husky-voiced version of Nelson's Jack Perkins character talking up the movie while stroking a replica of Ken's red wig.
• Star Force: Fugitive Alien II's big bonus feature is "You Asked For It: Sandy Frank Speaks!" (25:09), an improbable interview with the legendary producer. Frank is affable and engaging, far different than the ghoulish mogul of "The Sandy Frank Song." He spends nearly half an hour sharing stories from his long career. From lowly film cataloguer to his brush with Broadway fame—if not for a botched phone call with musical heavyweight Moss Hart, he might have ended up on the Great White Way—Frank made his fortune in television, where he found success distributing shows like You Asked For It and Name That Tune. His relationship with Japanese TV and movies started with Gatchaman, which Frank re-edited, redubbed, and released in America as Battle of the Planets. It's a great interview, with one caveat: Frank says almost nothing about Mystery Science Theater 3000. His thoughts about the show are limited to a quick aside about it being "cute" and "a lark." Hardly the fireworks fans might want, although given the current MST-Frank détente, it's probably for the best.
• The Sword and the Dragon doesn't have any episode-specific extras. It does, however, have two very funny shorts, "Snow Thrills" (9:26)—as far as I can tell, making its home video debut—and "A Date With Your Family" (9:53), previously released on Rhino's Shorts, Vol. 1. "Snow Thrills" is filled with cold weather sports like skating, skiing (pronounced "she-ing"), bobsledding, and something called "ski joring." As with most shorts, the jokes fly fast, with references to Love Story and the MST gang's home state ("Fourth of July in Minnesota!"). "A Date With Your Family" ("The Woody Allen story!") is a disturbing slice of domestic propaganda, filled with do's and don'ts for family dinnertime ("Hey! I like my family as a friend"). The bonus shorts are appreciated, but I can't help wondering whether their inclusion means we shouldn't expect DVD releases for their respective episodes, It Conquered the World and Invasion USA. I hope not.
• Samson vs. the Vampire Women comes with the set's second Ballyhoo production, "Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo" (11:20). This mini-documentary is a fun peek into the origins of Mexican wrestling and filmmaking, focusing on the forgotten superstardom of El Santo.
• "Life After MST3K: Frank Conniff" (11:27): This second installment in the "life after" series fills viewers in on Conniff's post-Deep 13 career, which has included numerous TV and radio shows, and Cinematic Titanic.
• Samson vs. the Vampire Women TV Spot (00:52): A vintage commercial from the movie's tenure on American television.
It's getting harder to review these Shout! Factory box sets. I can tell you Volume XXIV is one of their best, but that's because it includes episodes I really love. If you aren't a fan of the Fugitive Alien movies, then you may not appreciate them taking up half the set. For those of us who love Mystery Science Theater 3000, arguing over whether a particular collection is better or worse than the last is like arguing puppies versus rainbows. It's all great.
There's no argument, though, about Shout!'s dedication to release a killer product. In addition to clearing many of the series' most-requested episodes, they continue to produce thoughtful bonus features that celebrate not only the TV show, but the movies themselves. They got Sandy Frank to talk to them, so they must be doing something right.
Ha ha ha ha ha—You're stuck here! With a not guilty verdict!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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