What is it about Mystery Science Theater 3000 that we fans respond to? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the key may lie in that old warhorse, "Everybody's a critic." The series taps into a common experience--not the actual plot, since so few of us have had the experience of being trapped on a space satellite with two robots. But everyone has been subjected to terrible movies, forced by circumstance or peer pressure or just plain old rotten luck to sit through some would-be John Ford's limp, badly paced, amateurishly acted cinematic vision. When a movie is bad enough, it doesn't just inconvenience us--it makes us actively angry. That's what we're tapping into when MST3K is at its best; they take a bad picture apart with such skill and precision, it's like they're vicariously critiquing for us. (Presumably, that has a lot to do with why the show is beloved by so many critics--it's a show that makes witty, snappy heroes out of our profession.)
When Joel Hodgson and his Minnesota comrades first pieced the show together out of duct tape and leftover props at a UHF station in the late 80s, they certainly couldn't have guessed that they were tapping into a hidden piece of the zeitgeist--the part of us that (sometimes secretly) revels in having the incompetent and untalented pointed and laughed at. (It's the same part of us that is fed by Simon Cowell on American Idol, or Joel McHale on The Soup.) All they were trying to do was fill a couple hours of airtime on the cheap, and work up a showcase for their indie-comic sensibilities. Twenty-plus years later, there are two separate prolific continuation/spin-offs (Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic), and there are these four-episode compilation sets, preserving the classic show in all of its snarky, charming glory.
MST3K XVIII continues, as the last several sets have, the wise "Two Joels, Two Mikes" episode selection (creator and original host Joel Hodgson left halfway through the run, leaving head writer Mike Nelson to take over hosting duties; the Internet battle over which was the better frontman rages to this very day). Happily, it dispenses with the insistence, over the last four Shout Factory sets, of including an episode from the inferior first season, before Frank Coniff and Kevin Murphy took over their respective roles of TV's Frank and Tom Servo and (more importantly) before the show had really found its rhythm and voice. The release of those early episodes certainly pleased completionists--and don't get me wrong, it's nice to have high-quality editions of the first few episodes. But as there will probably never be official releases of all the episodes (at least not as long as Sandy Frank has anything to say about it), starting at the beginning and trying to fill in all the holes is rather a fool's mission.
Instead, our first episode is the season two gem Lost Continent, a Robert Lippert special and something of a protypical MST3K episode--a sludge of stock footage, lousy effects, boilerplate dialogue, and C-list actors. Chief target among its cast is Hugh Beaumont, aka Leave it to Beaver's dad (When he first appears at a rocket launch, Servo muses, "So that's what Ward does at the office"); Caesar Romero (the Joker to Adam West's Batman) and Danny Thomas Show regular Sid Melton also appear. The direction is by renowned schlockmeister Sam Newfield, an auteur familiar to the MST3K crew--his previous films included Radar Secret Service, Mad Monster, and I Accuse My Parents. The plot (such as it is) concerns a rescue mission that crash-lands on a mysterious island populated by bad stop-action lizards and dinosaurs, where they do a lot--A LOT--of rock climbing.
The plane crash provides some good opportunities for one-liners ("Let's form a soccer team and eat each other." "Maybe they landed on a witch and the rest of the movie will be in color!"), but the endless rock climbing sequences are where the episode truly makes its mark. "No one will be admitted during the breathtaking climbing sequence!" Servo announces early on, but as the sequence drags and is padded by endless, dull shots of the crew on the climb, Joel and the bots' snark turns to anger. "I never knew mountain time was so slow!" Joel despairs. "Will someone please tell the director about compressing time through editing?" demands Crow, who turns particularly nasty (and funny) in this episode. While sharper and funnier than the season one shows, Lost Continent does show the crew still finding their specific style--some of the jokes are obvious, some of the call-backs rather worn out. But there's an awful lot to like in this one.
We then jump ahead two seasons, for Crash of the Moons, a sequel to Manhunt in Space, which was riffed earlier in season four. Both "movies" are actually strung-together episodes of the goofy TV space opera Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and the gang is all back for this one: obnoxious Bobby, loathsome Winky, dull Rocky, vapid Vena, and dotty old Professor Newton. Happily, as with Manhunt, the episode begins with a shortened 1960s episode of General Hospital, of which Servo exclaims, "Quiet you guys, this is my soap! I scheduled all my classes around it!" As with their previous shots at the venerable melodrama, the show's hilariously glum solemnity allows for some crackerjack riffing. Then it's on to the "feature," which includes the expected cheapo sets and effects (the rockets look like cut-out paper dolls; a shot of one lurching across the screen is greeted by the guys announcing "Pigs... in... space!") and sci-fi/fantasy gibberish dialogue--nicely ridiculed in one of the host segments, where Crow writes a script in the style of the film, including lines like "Man the kalangadang on the poofadorf!"
Though the first two films share many of the same shortcomings, we see a different style of riffing here--the former more general commentary on the shoddy product, the latter more in the style of direct dialogue rejoinder. When one character proclaims "It will be my honor to fire missiles into Poseda, which will save Oficious," Joel replies, "Love it when you talk that way." When a character asks Professor Newton where the "little prince is," Crow shoots back, "That's a little personal, isn't it?" And when a particularly terrible fight scene is underway, Servo asks, "So you think Jerome Robbins choreographed this whole thing?" Though a few of the more obscure references are a touch dated (not sure how many people remember Bill Cosby's You Bet Your Life remake), this is still a first-class episode.
But it's an also-ran compared to the next show, which may very well be this reviewer's all-time favorite MST3K, as well as the absolute worst film they ever touched (though I have a feeling that those two designations go hand in hand for most viewers). It is The Beast of Yucca Flats, the first and worst film by Coleman Francis, whose two follow-ups (Red Zone Cuba and The Skydivers) were also season six highlights. But Yucca Flats is Francis at his flat-footed worst, a slab of utter confusion most memorable for its eschewing of synchronized sound. That's right, Francis shot the whole thing silent, putting together the soundtrack--narration, music, sound-effects, and off-camera dialogue--in post. It takes some doing to keep all of your dialogue off-camera, of course; we watch in confusion as scenes are shot from oblique angles, from great distances, or (most laughably) entirely on close-ups of the other person in the scene, listening. It's all bound together by the nonsensical narrator, who ponderously chimes in, over and over again, about characters being "caught in the wheels of progress" or posing pseudo-intellectual questions like "Flag on the moon--how did it get there?" Mike chimes in: "These are just random sentences, folks."
Of course, this kind of flagrant incompetence is a comic gold mine for Mike and the 'bots, who trumpet the film's "off-camera excitement, the Coleman Francis way" and note, "It is more suspenseful when you don't know what's goin' on," and finally give it a shrugging "So.... Anyway... You can see how this all adds up to a movie..." Of course, because the film is utter nonsense, there's little for the host segments to tie in to thematically, so they're especially random--there is the "11:30 sketch" (which was, reportedly, pretty much a transcription of a daily writer's room conversation) and Crow's public service announcement for FAPS, the Film Anti-Preservation Society ("Tragically, films like this are not deteriorating fast enough"). That's an appropriate response to Beast of Yucca Flats, which is so far removed from anything resembling art or craft, it's like an import from another world--a "flag on the moon," if you will.
One thing you can say in the film's favor: it is thankfully short. In fact, two short films have to be added to it to pad it out to episode length. The first, "Money Talks" features a gawky, awkward teen (who Mike dubs a "young Christopher Walken") puzzling through his money troubles; as he palms a half-dollar, Crow explains, "In those days, that could buy a car!" Then the ghost of Ben Franklin shows up to tell the boy how to budget (Crow, as Franklin: "Could you have your slave press my suit?"). The second short is the real winner, though: a Puerto Rican tourism piece called "Progress Island, USA." The key to a good MST3K short is often the frequency of pauses in the narration--the narrator ends up serving as straight man. If that's the case, then they hit the jackpot with this 70s promo, in which the narrator offers up the benefits of the island in short declarative bursts, resulting in a call-and-response cadence:
Narrator: Bilingual schools!
Mike: Bisexual students!
Narrator: Modern hospitals!
Servo: Are not here.
Narrator: Luxury hotels!
Crow: Are desperately needed.
And so on. Both are among the show's best short films, and a perfect warm-up to the blisteringly terrible film that follows. After the heights (or lows) of Yucca Flats, the fourth film in the set is a bit of a comedown, though Jack Frost (aka Morozko) is enough of an oddity to more than hold its own. Hailing from season eight, the first of the three seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel, this Russian-Finnish co-production came around right about the point in the show's run where their host channel finally began to relax their insistence that the show stick, very strictly, to science-fiction films. They had tackled these odd folk tales brought to life before (in three earlier episodes: The Day the Earth Froze, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, and The Sword and the Dragon), and the absolute lunacy of the storytelling provides plenty of sharp fodder (Mike: "So the first plot point is knitting socks. I think we're in for quite a ride, boys!"). And God knows how goofy our fairy tales must seem to other cultures, but this story seems to have been assembled by insane people; it's an awful hybrid of Snow White, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Santa Claus story.
What makes the lunacy even more pronounced is the handsomeness of the production--in sharp contrast to the other films in the set (and most of their targets in general), it's beautifully mounted and clearly had a budget of sorts. But it's so odd. "I guess you've gotta be Rusko-Finnish," Crow shrugs. They make good sport of the bland hero, the impossibly young heroine (she "makes Olivia Hussey look like Thelma Ritter"), and the horrifying supporting casts--seriously, these are some of the most unfortunate-looking people we've seen on MST3K. And the overblown acting doesn't get a pass either; "Apparently," Servo muses, "there's no Finnish word for subtle."
As with the previous Shout sets, 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. (Again, those illustrations are also each included as a separate "mini-poster".) The four cases are housed in a simple cardboard slipcase. 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 full-frame video presentation is pretty much up to the standards set by the previous sets--the show was shot on video and certainly looks it, while the image quality of the movies is pretty much at the mercy of the source materials. Lost Continent, however, begins with an on-screen warning about the quality, noting that it was mastered from the best available materials, and you'll soon see why--there are noticeable tape glitches at the top of the first host segment, during the invention exchange, and during the letters at the end of the show, as well as a bit of visible tracking noise during the last section of the film. So that's a bit of a distraction, but kudos to Shout for being up-front about it, and I'd rather have an imperfect recording than none at all. Besides, not many folks are buying this show for the pristine picture.
The 2.0 stereo mix is also less than spectacular, but it gets the job done. The original audio tracks for the films are all pretty clean (none of the hissing that occasionally pops up, particularly on older episodes), while the riffs are crisp and audible.
From the time Shout Factory took over the series, they've made a genuine effort to create bonus material (in stark contrast to the mostly bare-bones Rhino releases), and have cooked up some good stuff for this set. Lost Continent features a new Introduction by Frank Coniff, who recalls how that film's cast drew the MST3K crew to it, and recalls the pain of writing through the film's endless rock climbing. Also included is the Original Theatrical Trailer, which basically sells the ending (they weren't much concerned about spoilers back then, eh?).
For Crash of the Moons, we get the oddball "Mystery Science Theater Hour Wraps" for that episode, when it was split in two for the MSTH syndicated program, introduced by Mike in the guise of the Jack Perkins-esque host. It's more strange than genuinely funny, though his summary of the film's TV-to-movie origins is pretty good ("It was hoped that the Rocky Jones TV series would inspire a series of wildly successful feature films. It didn't!").
Jack Frost includes a new Introduction by Kevin Murphy, in which he explains the Lord of the Dance host segment, their previous encounters with the Russo-Finnish cinema, how the high production values made that film an anomaly for the show, and their gradual move away from sci-fi films while on the Sci-Fi (excuse me, SyFy) Channel.
But the best bonus features are saved for The Beast of Yucca Flats, and deservedly so. First and foremost is the new documentary featurette "No Dialogue Necessary: Making an 'Off-Camera Masterpiece." Running just shy of 30 minutes, this good-humored retrospective (written, produced, and directed by Daniel Griffith) combines narration in the style of the film and interviews with film buffs Larry Blamire and Bob Burns, director of photography Lee Strosnider, and MST's Frank Coniff. It's thorough and engaging, covering all aspects of the 1958 production, shot (shockingly!) without a script over a year's worth of weekends and assembled (as best it could be) over a lengthy editing period. "Coleman Francis: The Cinematic Poet of Parking" is an extended interview with Strosnider, who worked with Francis on The Skydivers as well, and speaks in detail of the director's, um, methodology. The Original Theatrical Trailer is just as incoherent as the movie (promising a sure-to-be-disappointed audience "one of the most exciting movies ever made!"); a Stills Gallery of cleavage-heavy lobby cards rounds out the special features.
There are some who just can't appreciate the rapid-fire wit and conceptual genius of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I can't imagine anything I can say is going to change their minds. But when a schmuck like Harry Knowles holds forth that they're somehow defiling great works ("I hate talking during movies - and even more so - I hate talking during rare genre film efforts from the past"), you want to put him into a Clockwork Orange-style movie theater and dare him to watch Beast of Yucca Flats without the relief of the MST3K gang. Some movies, as they now say on Rifftrax, have it coming. MST3K XVIII is another stellar set from the fine folks at Shout, assembling four terrific episodes and complimenting them with a fine platter of special features. It's definitely worth a purchase for both casual and hardcore fans--just be careful not to get "caught in the wheels of progress."
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He 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. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.