These are tough times for us Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. It's not a problem of content--in fact, quite the contrary. There's an embarrassment of riches as far as available product; the trouble is, trying to keep up will put you in the poorhouse. Original host Joel Hodgson and four other cast members are releasing a new, direct-to-video "Cinematic Titanic" DVD every couple of months, taking apart obscure bad movies in the best MST3K tradition, while prolific second host Mike Nelson and his castmates Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are pumping out a steady stream on downloadable MST-style audio commentaries on their Rifftrax website. On top of that, Rifftrax put out a series of ten DVDs--eight feature films and two collections of educational shorts--this month (reasonably priced, but still, ten of 'em). And now here's the good folks at Shout Factory with another collection from the show that started it all. This kind of fandom can set you back a few dollars.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV marks Shout's third series set after taking over releasing duties from Rhino Home Video. As with their previous collection, they make the wise decision to please all factions by including two shows from the early, Joel-hosted years, and two of the later episodes, fronted by Mike. However, they also repeat the minor (but notable) error of including a very early episode, before the show had found its groove (and its best personnel). Before Alien Vs. Predator or Freddy Vs. Jason, there was The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy¸ which was only their second episode seen nationwide; the series originated on a Minneapolis UHF station before being picked up as one of the flagship shows of the fledgling Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central). The homemade feel of the show was often part of its considerable charm, but this early episode feels more amateurish than usual; the camerawork and editing is particularly clunky, the performers were still finding their comfort zone, and the sets appear incomplete (the light-up buttons that Joel notes and often slaps are nowhere to be found; he just slaps his counter as if they're there).
More distressingly, the show's chemistry isn't right yet. It's easy to pinpoint Josh Weinstein as part of the problem (unfair though that might be); he provides the voice of Tom Servo and plays mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester's original assistant Dr. Laurence Erhardt, and left at the end of season one. He was replaced by Murphy as Servo and Frank Coniff as TV's Frank--both men made the roles so much their own that it's odd to even watch Weinstein play them. He's clearly a funny guy (as his stellar work on "Cinematic Titanic" has proved), but he wasn't the right fit for the show the way his successors were. Trace Beulieu was also still struggling with the character of Crow; on the 20th Anniversary Edition bonus materials he mentions that he initially tried to imbue Crow with more of a "robot voice," which can be heard plainly in this episode. However, that kind of flat monotone is antithetical to the kind of whiz-bang, smartass snark that MST3K trafficked in; he puts a drag on the movie segments that is further compounded by the slow timing of his fellow riffers.
So, on this second episode, the show isn't the tight, laugh-a-minute riot that it would become. Is it still funny? Sure. It begins with the first episode of the "Rocket Men From The Moon" serial (aka "Commando Cody"), which the crew used installments of throughout the entire first season. There's some funny interaction as Joel tries to explain the serial concept to Servo ("Why would someone go see part of a movie?" Servo wonders); the crew proceeds to have fun with the cheap sets ("fresh ground pepper?"), dopey science ("sure is sunny in space"), clunky fights, and casual sexism. Then it's on to the feature, a 1958 Mexican "horror" movie hampered by a ridiculously convoluted narrative that unwinds over an unending flashback story ("It's like they're covering a plot hole with asphalt here," Servo notes). They get off some awfully good one-liners ("Every good laboratory has a pit full of rattlers!") and indulge in some enjoyable running gags (particularly the jokes about one character's resemblance to Floyd the Barber).
But the ghastly pacing of the film itself does the show some harm; they note and puncture it, to great effect, at first ("No need to hurry," Crow notes, "the plot will support... all this... slowness...") but ultimately, the lumbering chases and endless cemetery scenes leave them doing vague Martin and Lewis imitations and the like. Oh, and the title fight doesn't come until the final scene ("I'm in for 20 on the robot," Servo pipes in) and lasts maybe a minute--surely a crushing disappointment for the poor suckers who paid for this dog. The host segments, meanwhile, have a poorly executed running subplot about an army of "devil dogs" attacking the Satellite of Love; it offers no laughs and showcases the worst puppet the show ever built (you can barely make out its dialogue over the clomping of his mouth pieces). As with Mad Monster on the last set, I understand this episode's inclusion as a historical piece, showing the series' evolution. But with so many great episodes still unreleased, it would have been nice to get a later, more confident kick-off for this set.
The comparison between that episode and the next one, The Girl in Lovers Lane, is like night and day; we've jumped from season one to season five, and by this point, they're really cooking. The host segments, though still (in this fan's eyes, anyway) the weakest part of the show, are pretty good this time around--they include a funny prologue in which the robots are "retrofitting each other with belly buttons," the performance of a catchy, Woody Guthrie-style song (inspired by the boxcar travel of our "heroes"), and an amusing bit in which Crow does an impression of the film's co-star, Jack Elam (who, as is noted a couple of times during the film, bears an odd resemblance to a young Garrison Keillor).
The film is a turgid small-town melodrama, in which young "Danny" (Lowell Brown) is pursued by a gang of toughs ("He does look like an easy target for thugs," Crow notes. "Hell, I'd like to beat him up") onto a boxcar, where he meets up with a drifter named Bix Dugan--which the guys mishear as "Big Stupid," so they call him that through the rest of the movie. Bix and Danny ride the rails into a small town, where Bix falls for Carrie, a diner waitress (Joyce Meadows) who is being stalked by the town creep (Elam). The odd relationship between the two men is the focus of the film, with Bix showing Danny the ol' drifting ropes, and Danny's dumb questions, both in the film and as imagined by Joel and the 'bots, are a comic gift that keeps on giving ("Hey, are we 'bound for glory' now, Mr. Stupid?" "Are we gonna hustle these men now, Big?").
Bix and Carrie's odd dates also provide some fodder for jokes ("Oh this is a great date... I always wanted to be nuzzled by a hobo!"), as does the film's awkward staging and inert storytelling (Joel notes, "You know, their drifting career has really stalled"). By the time they get to a scene in the town brothel, every rapid-fire line is getting a laugh ("Once again, Big has saved Danny from a heterosexual experience"), and their little song over the opening credits is one of the set's highlights. The episode stalls a little towards the end (the guys don't seem to know what the hell to do with the out-of-left-field murder scene), but this is a smart, sturdy, funny episode overall.
For my money, the best episode of the bunch comes next. The season six show Zombie Nightmare is killer--the movie is horrible and the riffing is first-rate. This 1986 Canadian film from director Jack Bravman (who had previously helmed a pair of softcore films) is a tale of revenge; it begins, oddly enough, at a softball game (Mike: "Pride of the Zombies"), and shows us a young man witnessing his father's murder at the hand of laughable street toughs. Fast-forward many years later, where that young boy has grown into a beefy man (played by the improbably-named Jon Mikl Thor) who is mowed down and left for dead by a group of obnoxious, joy-riding teens. His mother can't take losing him, so she has a local voodoo priestess raise him from the dead, and he proceeds to pick off those who ran him down (the plot's startling similarity to I Know What You Did Last Summer just occurred to me).
The films of the 1980s have often proved fertile for the MST3K crew (City Limits, Alien from L.A. , Soultaker, etc.) and Zombie Nightmare proves no exception. An early scene at a limp period disco ("Office temps cut loose!") also prompts the first of many uproarious cracks at the picture's country of origin ("Oh, you're right Mike," says Servo, "this is either America ten years ago or Canada today"). The filmmaking is abominable (after a lengthy scene of car POV shots, Crow laughs, "So apparently, the director of photography went for a drive!"), the staging of every scene is awkward, and the characterizations are loathsome--and I'm not just talking about the Italian grocer who actually says "Mama mia!" during a hold-up. A young Tia Carrere appears, as does a mustachioed Adam West (Servo notes, "You know, Adam worked for scale on this film, because he wanted to work with this director"). Poor Frank Dietz, who looks about seventeen ("Doogie Howser, Detective!"), gets saddled with the lion's share of the warmed-over cop-movie dialogue, while the period score is rightfully maligned--Servo asks, "Is she playing tennis with Kraftwerk?", while Crow points out that another character is "being stalked by Depeche Mode."
The pop culture references come fast and furious during Zombie Nightmare--I caught mentions of James Earl Ray, Harry Nillson, the McKenzie brothers, Anne Meara, and Ace Frehley, among many, many others (Mike calls out the lumbering zombie during a chase, cracking that "John Goodman on Hume Cronyn's back could run faster than this guy"). But the boys weren't aware of one force of evil lurking in the film--the most punchable of the punk kids, the short-tempered would-be rapist Jim, is played by one Shawn Levy. He's better known these days the director of such cinematic gems as Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and both Night at the Museum movies. Just when you thought you couldn't hate him any more.
Mike and the 'bots keep the momentum going all the way through to the laughable conclusion, and the rapid pace is perhaps assisted by the strangely short host segments (I think we may get more movie than usual this time). Some of the edits necessary to fit the movie into the show's timeframe are a little odd (one of the kills is completely left out), but that complaint aside, Zombie Nightmare is a fine example of the MST3K crew doing what they do best.
The set's fourth and final film also comes from the fruitful sixth season. As far as I'm concerned, season six was one of the show's best; I'd put it up against season four as the finest of the run. Both were heavy with the films that, it seems to me, made for the best episodes: micro-budgeted domestic garbage. Don't get me wrong, I like a good Gamera movie or a Hercules picture. But when they get their hands on a cheapo American exploitation movie, it's full speed ahead, and season six is loaded with them: The Creeping Terror, The Sinister Urge, Invasion USA, The Violent Years, and, God help us, the entire Coleman Francis trifecta (Francis makes Ed Wood look like Howard Hawks). And in the entire season, only the Francis pictures manage to top Racket Girls for sheer, soul-crushing badness.
First, however, we have an educational short: a longish slab of hooey called "Are You Ready For Marriage?" These "social engineering" shorts, with their stern instructions of proper 1950s dating and values, are a comedy gold mine; the guys fill every pregnant pause with rapid-fire riffs and huge laughs. Then comes the "film," but I'm using the word loosely; it's basically an endless serious of dull, poorly shot female wrestling bouts ("Ah, Elvis throws another party"), punctuated by uncomfortable, obvious ogling (as protagonist "Peaches" starts removing her clothes, Servo proclaims, "I believe this is not gratuitous!") and a stiff, recycled gangster subplot (Mike: "I wasn't prepared for so much wrestling. I thought there'd be more racketeering").
It's a tough call to make, but Racket Girls is one of the worst films they ever took on; the acting is jaw-droppingly wooden, the script incompetent, the filmmaking nonexistent. One sequence randomly cuts away to a man we've never seen before making dice, and then does a long fade-out; Servo announces, "Well, that scene cleared up a lot of questions." Another scene showcases the talents of one Rita Martinez, and if you can find me a worst performance in a film, I've got a shiny nickel for you. And a big showdown occurs when the main gangster testifies before, we're told, an important government committee; it's a howler of a scene, staged with a chair and a desk situated in front of a wall-sized American flag ("The director's out-Wooded Ed Wood!").
And then there's the wrestling. Oh, the wrestling. The wrestling scenes go on, and on, and on, and on (Crow explains, "Apparently, they have forty-minute rounds"), and since the scenes are wordless (save for infinitely looped, disproportionate crowd reactions) all rules are off; they usually refrain from talking over dialogue, but since there isn't any, they're off to the races. The, shall we say, poor aesthetic qualities of the lady wrestlers are duly noted ("Those of you who never associated sexuality with your great-aunt... here it is"), but the never-ending length of the bouts is their primary target. Mike reflects, "You have to wonder what the rejected footage looked like," to which Crow immediately replies, "What rejected footage?" By the time it arrives at its clumsy "action" ending ("They shouldn't have hired Eric Rohmer to direct their high-speed chase"), any semblance of narrative cohesion has long been destroyed by Mike and the 'bots.
The Rhino sets collected their four titles (one per disc) in a cardboard, fold-out case. When Shout! took over distribution with the 20th Anniversary Edition, they shifted the packaging, and have retained that change for this set. Each episode is on its own disc, and each disc is packaged in a clear ThinPak with cute cover illustrations of the 'bots in a scene appropriate to the episode. Those four cases are housed in a simple cardboard slipcase, along with an extra copy of the cute cartoon "posters" designed as the cover of each disc case. Each disc has an animated menu, and while there are no chapter menus, each film does include chapter stops at commercial and host breaks.
The 4:3 image lives up to the standard set by the previous discs--unexceptional, but acceptable. The three older films are in the roughest shape, full of scratches and dirt and occasional missing frames (noted by the riffers with comments like "The movie's got the hiccups" and "They're time travelling!"). Zombie Nightmare is in better condition, though it still sports a washed-out, low-budget look. Host segments are fairly colorful and reasonably well-preserved (though they sport the expected degree of video ugliness). The signature silhouette is more pixilated and smeary on the season one episode, but is nice and crisp on the remaining discs.
The 2.0 tracks are satisfactory, with riffing clear and movie audio presumably as good as can be expected. The muffled dialogue recording of Racket Girls is occasionally incomprehensible, but I can't imagine we're missing much. The only truly problematic disc is The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy, which has some occasional but distracting distortion in the in-theater audio tracks (particularly Servo's).
Shout has made a clear effort to put together more extensive bonus material than Rhino ever did (the most their discs included were trailers or the original versions of the film--which the Shout discs have strangely gone without). Volume XIV was a bit of a letdown after the fully-loaded 20th Anniversary Edition, though the new set has a bit more than its predecessor.
The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy comes with a Promos section (2:30 total), which includes a commercial for the show's original airing on the Comedy Channel (a kitschy, fun addition) and a vintage trailer for the feature film (as paired on a double-bill with something called The Vampire's Coffin). But the interesting inclusion here is "Glimpses of KTMA: MST3K Scrapbook Scraps I" (15:36), a compilation of host segments from several of the show's original airings on KTMA. These were first seen on The MST3K Scrapbook, a VHS collection sold on the show's website, and include clips from the short pilot episode (featuring a shaggy-haired Joel, the original Crow, and the proto-Servo, "Beeper") and other segments from the original run, including the playing of phone messages left on the station's answering machine about the show. It's fascinating, if a bit of a chore to actually sit through; the historical value clearly trumps the entertainment value.
More of that tape makes its way onto The Girl in Lovers Lane disc, as "Behind the Scenes: MST3K Scrapbook Scraps II" (8:07). This section includes outtakes from their "This is MST3K" special on Comedy Central, and there is some great stuff from the making of one of their best episodes, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. We see the crew in the writers' room, toolmaster Jeff Maynard in the shop, the shooting of the host segments (including Joel and the 'bots doing the immortal "Patrick Swayze Christmas" song), and at the blue-screen in the "theater".
"Zombie Nightmare = MST3K Dream" (11:51) is a fun featurette that combines clips from the film with new interviews with co-stars Jon Mikl Thor and Frank Dietz. Dietz seems fairly down-to-earth and good-humored about the show's roasting of their opus, while Thor comes off like a delusional blowhard (he starts rambling about all of the obscure music projects he's involved in before stopping himself--"I only have so much time").
The Racket Girls disc includes a Promo (2:03) for the feature--it's an oddly static trailer that pushes the exploitation movie under one of its many titles (Blond Pick-up). It also includes "Sneak Peek: Hamlet A.D.D. " (5:11), an excerpt from an independent film that features (apparently brief) voice performances by Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy. The former 'bots lend their voices to the robots in this reworked Hamlet's version of the play-within-the-play "The Mousetrap"; the clip we see is odd, slow, and unfunny.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, and its various spinoffs and offshoots, continues to entertain; some of the jokes from these episodes (ranging from 1989 to 1994) have dated, but for the most part, they are as fresh, fast-paced, and hilariously funny as they were in their original airings. Shout's continued insistence on dipping into the weaker season one shows prevents Volume XV from being as consistently, can't-miss funny as some of the other sets, but the strength of the other three shows helps balance out that one, weaker installment.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.