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When it's good, Mystery Science Theater 3000 can make me feel like Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) in Bedazzled: seeing The Devil pull a terrible prank on an old lady, Stanley laughs out loud, and then comes back with, "Aw, that's terrible!" Stanley feels bad laughing at cruel humor, the same way I sometimes recoil from seeing old movies roasted without mercy. I doubt that most filmmakers would relish seeing their work demolished on the syndicated cable show that ran for eleven years, between 1988 and 1999. 2 Not only that, the jokesters Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson and their robot cohorts were definitely hit and miss. When their mocking sense of humor clicked with a particular film the result was hilarious. When they tried too hard, or when the movie was poorly chosen, the show could play like four hipsters in a tin, foolishly thinking their silly jokes were entertaining.
Talking back to the TV was always fun, especially among young friends, preferably drinking beer. MST did the talking back part for us. The silhouetted audience setup is amusing. What made the difference was that the level of humor could be surprisingly good. It sometimes employed arcane cultural references. When they "got" a movie, the writing could almost be inverted film criticism, riffing off the film's subtext. I would venture to guess that MST taught a lot of teenagers how to look for subtext in a movie. If any remotely sexual theme can be inferred from a film, these writers find it. Then they beat it to death for our amusement.
The series' concept almost justifies the format. Joel 'Robinson' (later, Mike Nelson) has been marooned in orbit by the evil Gizmonics company, which force feeds him "cheesy movies, the worst we can find." The jokester robots Tom Servo, Gypsy and Crow T. Robot help their human friend on the comedy firing line. Of course, few of the movies are really bad, and dedicated film aficionados complained loudly when a movie deserving of serious interest was served up for cheap laughs. The worst example is probably This Island Earth, which was used for the one MST theatrical release. The movie's reputation as a Sci-fi classic has definitely been damaged; fantasy fans didn't need another reason to have their interests marginalized. Every movie probably has fans that would feel the same way, so the more obscure and maladroit the movie, the better. 1
The funniest things on MST were the short subjects and educational films, which dated quickly, often featured clumsy non-actors and wore their cinematic incompetence proudly. One short about a teenage rodeo was originally intended to encourage enthusiasm for healthy family values. Joel and his 'bots pounced on it like jackals on a carcass, and their jokes were so painfully accurate that I thought I'd burst an internal organ. This is much better than the majority of shows that start well and then taper off as the jokes become thinner and less organized. Watching an unfamiliar movie while simultaneously listening to a comic critique is a core multitasking exercise for couch potatoes... when we feel that the robots are waiting to see a dated hairstyle to belittle, the fun wears off. MST is best sampled by like-minded kids with an appetite for caustic humor and occasional bursts of genuine wit.
The gift package Mystery Science Theater 3000 25th Anniversary Edition carries six full show episodes, some of which haven't appeared on earlier disc releases. In honor of the anniversary, some good featurettes are included as well.
Savant reviewed The Brain that Wouldn't Die as a straight DVD release from Synapse in 2002. I'm told that it's the most requested title in the series, and it lives up to its reputation. The picture is packed with awkward and sleazy situations which give the robots a field day: this is the one where a mad surgeon keeps his girlfriend's decapitated head alive while he 'window shops' among strippers and photo models for a new body for her. Virginia Leith is "Jan in the Pan", who keeps saying creepy things and has a telepathic link to the surgeon's previous experiment, a misshapen monster locked in a closet. The uncut ending has arms torn off, blood smeared on walls and a big bite of flesh taken out of a screaming victim, but the MST gang have even more fun with the weird acting, particularly by the sub- Jay Robinson fellow playing the surgeon's crippled assistant. The movie's a gem served straight, and genuinely uplifting under the MST joke assault. We're told that this was Michael J. Nelson's first starring episode after Joel Hodgson left the show in 1993.
The Day the Earth Froze was broadcast in 1993. I'd only heard about it from my son, back in the day. It was originally a Russian-Finnish fairy tale called Sampo, imported and re-dubbed by American-International with a new title to make it sound like a science fiction tale. It probably served theater owners as a second feature to clear out audiences -- the sensibilities of a Russian fantasy don't translate well on the cultural level, especially after the original language has been stripped away. 3 It's a Norse drama about a witch's effort to create a "wishing mill" called a Sampo, a combo horn of plenty and genie's box that produces whatever the wisher desires. A princess is captured, and elemental forces are kept in giant bags in the snow. For some odd reason, the MST riffing fits the show like a glove, as the boys in silhouette mock the stiffly stylized heroics, less-than-impressive action scenes and the strained worrying over the Sampo issue. Just think of 101 funny variations on the hero/dwarf creatures/witch wailing, "Aw I wish I had a Sampo", or "You promised us a Sampo." It comes off as a mirror of consumerism -- a Sampo sounds like a dishwasher advertised on TV.
Gorgo is a superior monster movie that finally came out as a good Blu-ray this year from VCI. That leaves this 1998 episode looking rather lackluster. Besides recognizing William Sylvester from 2001 (but not by name) the jokesters do little but snipe at ordinary oddities anyone might pick out, while failing to make anything of the movie's occasional faults. They interpret the giant monster's toothy motions by pretending that it's laughing, a joke that just seems sad.
Savant reviewed The Leech Woman as a straight Universal DVD release. In 1997, in conjunction with the theatrical movie, Universal apparently licensed a stack of its 1950s Sci-fi pictures for the show. 4 This one is a good choice, for although it's a solid movie on thematic terms, the script and acting can be pretty thin. The jokes about a woman murdering men to obtain a tribal rejuvenating serum acknowledge the story's essential brutal misanthropy -- even the robots seem a little shaken up by Coleen Gray's killer obsession.
Mitchell was the last Joel Hodgson episode, and introduced writer Michael J. Nelson as "Mike Nelson." The movie is a pretty awful, awfully cheap crime-murder picture starring Joe Don Baker and some other washed-up names. It's barely worth watching but the banter is not bad.
The terrible Hammer Sci-fi opus Moon Zero Two was riffed on MST's first Comedy Channel season back in 1990. It must have seemed strange when the show's usual targets -- modest horror and Sci-fi pictures from the 1950s -- played much better than this ill-conceived "mod" space western from 1970. It's also a case of diminished comedy opportunity. Most everything in the film is risible in a dull way that makes the MST attack seem like shooting ducks that are already dead. Not the best choice.
What keeps the shows afloat is the spirited banter and behind-the-scenes hi-jinks on the Satellite of Love. The talented puppeteers and personalities behind the robots are particularly notable. The only downside is that MST may have marked the beginning of the age of Snark, a new era of entertainment that belittles and devalues older entertainments. I saw a couple of these movies new in the theater and was entertained by them. I should think that some younger person exposed to Gorgo or Danger: Diabolik for the first time on this show, would very likely come away thinking that they are worthless trash. Movies shouldn't be disposable items.
Shout! Factory's DVD Collectable Tin of Mystery Science Theater 3000 25th Anniversary Edition contains four discs and a set of Steven Vance artwork poster cards. The three main featurette docus by Daniel Griffith's Ballyhoo! company use interviews and clips to tell the story of the series. Another featurette singles out the final appearance of Joel Hodgson on the show, and the amusing Mary Jo Pehl recounts her experience performing as Pearl Forrester, the show's second evil boss of Gizmonics. Another extra is an appearance by Leonard Maltin. Pearl cannot remember his name and calls him Roger Ebert. But she does allow Maltin to plug a new book.
All the movies come with original trailers, which doesn't always happen on 'straight' disc releases. To accompany Gorgo, Daniel Griffith's making-of docu from the VCI release is present here in a longer version. It seems a mistake to roast, rip and stomp on Gorgo in the show's episode, and then turn around and put up a docu extolling it as the Ninth Wonder of the World.
The laughs, inanities and engaging comic personalities of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are all here, in a welcome gift package. I'm very happy to have a viewable copy of a couple of these shows, which are all-time favorites. I'm sure that MST3K fans will be enthusiastic about all of them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Back around 1981, the negative of a movie I edited was stolen from the lab before it could be released, as was a copy of the flat 1" tape made to sell it. Lo and behold, after being bootlegged in the Far East, it suddenly turned up on Los Angeles' TV show Movie Macabre, hosted by the one and only Elvira (actress Cassandra Peterson). Elvira ripped that picture up one side and down the other, making all-too-true remarks about its various shortcomings -- the directing, the actors, everything. She even had the film's star Fabian on her show, and together they acted out a well-done spoof of an alternate ending, which was actually an improvement. Although I had a good laugh, I must add that none of the jokes were at the expense of my editing, at least not specifically. If they had been I'm sure I'd have been much less amused.
That's why I can't imagine a filmmaker being happy to see his work stomped by these guys. Even bad moviemakers are out there trying, and MST3K's idea of a "cheesy" movie pretty much preyed upon anything in the Public Domain.
2-4. Three notes from Gary Teetzel, November 26, 2013:
2. "I doubt that most filmmakers would relish seeing their work demolished on the syndicated cable show." During one of the later years they licensed some low-budget sci-fi movie that had been made back in the Midwest by virtual amateurs (it might have been Time Chasers). Reportedly, the filmmakers were big MST3K fans, and initially greeted the news with great enthusiasm. When they saw the final episiode, their feelings were hurt!
3. "The sensibilities of a Russian fantasy don't translate well on the cultural level, especially after the original language has been stripped away." One of the MST3K gang said they felt a little bad attacking the Russo-Finnish fantasy films because they saw that they had great visuals, and might have been interesting in their original form, but got pretty well ruined when imported.
4. "In 1997, in conjunction with the theatrical movie, Universal apparently licensed a stack of its 1950s Sci-fi pictures for the show." That was because that's when the show started airing on the SciFi Channel (as it was spelled at the time), which was owned by -- guess who? -- Universal. Also, the Sci-Fi Channel execs insisted that the show focus primarily on sci-fi movies. --Gary
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.