The TV Series:
It's hard to comprehend a time before Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along, when we were forced to supply our own snarky obvservations on the awful movies we watched. Good thing we have Shout Factory's continuing reissues of this long-running masterpiece to school us armchair comedians on how it's supposed to be done.
The release of Volume XXVII (that's 27 for the Roman numeral-illiterate) brings Shout's series of spiffy DVD box set packages to fifteen volumes strong, picking up where Rhino left off with volumes I-XII. With four episodes in each set, it's easy to conclude that they'd be running dry at this point. Due to the vagaries of old movie licensing, however, there's always the possibility that a particular gem of an episode may not arrive on disc until later releases. This one sports some notable cinematic turkeys and well-written riffing from both the Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson-hosted eras.
What this means, of course, is the opportunity to enjoy more of everything we love about the show. Appropriately for a project that lampoons old movies that frequently make no sense, the excuse for MST3K's cutting commentary hangs on the flimsiest of premises (back in the '90s, I remember that it took several episodes to get the concept - despite the catchy theme song). An ordinary working stiff at the Gizmodo Institute (Joel Hodgson as Joel, later Mike Nelson as Mike) gets beamed onto a rickety spacecraft known as the Satellite of Love. Turns out the guy is a pawn in a diabolical scheme of world domination engineered by mad scientist Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), who uses Joel/Mike as a guinea pig to measure just how much bad movie watching it takes to drive a person crazy. Like the theme explains, our subject "can't control where the movies begin or end," but at least he has the company of "his robot friends" - the sarcastic, short-armed Tom Servo (mainly voiced by Kevin Murphy), and the Minnesota-accented, gold-tone Crow (mainly Trace Beaulieu). In later seasons, Dr. Forrester's duties are taken over by his crazy mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Piehl).
Like Shout's previous MST3K sets, the contents of XXVII reflect a cross-section of the series' 1988-99 run. It's got two Joel-fronted episodes and two Mikes; one from the early Comedy Channel period, two from the primo Comedy Central years, and one from the Sci Fi channel era. The following four installments are included:
The Slime People
Episode #108; December 30, 1989.
The Slime People is another one of those early, Joel Hodgson-hosted affairs notable for its laid-back groove - or perhaps Joel and the 'bots were simply too numbed out by this talky, none-too exciting 1963 opus to feel the need to be inspired. This lumbering grade-Z monster flick follows an average middle-aged guy named Tom (bland '40s leading man Robert Hutton, who also directed) piloting his own small plane into Los Angeles, only to find that the city has been deserted. He eventually comes across a professor (Robert Burton) who explains that they've been taken over by crustaceous monsters which have emerged en masse from underground, killing whomever gets in their way. While Tom shelters the professor and his two lovely daughters (Susan Hart and Judee Morton), the group enlists the help of a snarly-lipped Marine (William Boyce) and a half-insane writer (Les Tremayne) to help defeat the pimply-textured, smog-lovin' beasties. While The Slime People doesn't seem like the kind of outing that MST3K fans are clamoring for, the episode is fascinating to watch - even when it's supporting a dreary, draggy film that spends much of its running time shrouded in fog (preceded by an installment of the cheesy Commando Cody serial). The guys' banter is more breezily delivered but suitably hilarious and cutting, especially so when Joel and Company dissect this film's many faults during the bridging segments. Josh Weinstein voices Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy was a huge improvement) and plays Dr. Forrester's short-lived sidekick, Dr. Erhardt.
Memorable lines: "Nipple one, nipple two and hop, hop, WAAAAA!" (during Commando Cody's odd launching routine); "Hi, I'm a Slime Person."; "Airport '77: the other guy's story." (Hutton flying a light aircraft); "It's Roger Ebert." (crazed man throwing film cans in a screening room).
Rocket Attack U.S.A.
Episode #205; October 27, 1990.
What a difference a year makes. With this installment, Joel and the 'bots take on a similarly inept early '60s cheapie (a Cold War-era cautionary tale about a cut-rate spy attempting to disarm a Russian bomb) - only now the pacing is perkier, the riffing is stronger, and the between-film segments are more hilarious (some of the strongest of the Joel-hosted period, in fact). The latter include an illustrated bit on the (Charlie) McCarthy Hearings, a Red-themed quiz show, and a sojourn with a Russian cosmonaut (Mike Nelson) piloting a weirder, cheaper version of the Satellite of Love. As for the film itself, the guys need all the help they can get with this bizarre, reactionary drama in which an American spy (John McKay) teams up with a slinky blonde Russian woman (Monica Davis) to extract Soviet secrets regarding their ballistic missile program. Before we get too comfortable with that stupefyingly dull premise, however, the film becomes a grade-Z Fail Safe with a shoddy enactment of what might happen if we Patriotic Americans let our guard down. Side note: maybe the only thing on earth to reference both Fibber McKee and Molly and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This MST3K installment is also notable for Tom Servo's slimming haircut (supposedly done, for a few episodes, in response to viewer complaints that his head was blocking the screen too much) and the first instance of the post-credits film snippet. Preceding the feature - an episode of 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, sporting lots of riffs on star Bela Lugosi's distinctive speaking voice.
Memorable lines: "I'm ready for my Mystery Date."; "Enjoy the falafel, I'll be here all week." (nightclub belly dancer concluding her act); "Could you say that a little more woodenly?"; "Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy the only arty shot in the entire film."; "No one will be admitted during the breathtaking car parking sequence."
Village of the Giants
Episode #523; January 22, 1994.
A prime episode from the Joel-to-Mike transition season on Comedy Central, Village of the Giants benefits from having a supremely odd film to work with, and some hilarious riffing - probably not Space Mutiny or Pod People-fantastic, but pretty darn great. Another product of drive-in schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon, 1965's Village of the Giants strikes an awkward balance between Disney-like hijinks and hep teen rebellion, with a sci-fi twist (and the Beau Brummels!). The unique cast and terrible direction, not to mention the sheer weirdness of the premise, provides a lot of fodder for Mike and the bots - they have a field day. Except, perhaps, the part where Tom Servo recognizes his mom (a bubblegum machine) in one of the scenes. In this candy-colored opus, a smug teen (Tommy Kirk) has a makeout session with his girlfriend interrupted by her genius kid brother (Ronny Howard), who has invented a substance that makes living things grow to gargantuan size. When the magic pink goo gets in the hands of an itinerant clique of rebel teens (headed by a young Beau Bridges), the squeaky-clean gang grow to huge size and use their newly gained super-sized (but slow-moving) power to take over the town. Can Kirk in his short-shorts stop the marauding giants? Although the MST3K guys are at the top of the game here, I have to admit to being occasionally distracted by their riffing - in a weird way, this surreal trip-out is that absorbing. The bridging segments have Dr. Forrester firing his sidekick, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), who subsequently becomes a self-pitying slob; Mike and the bots try various tactics to cheer him up.
Memorable lines: "Aw, looks like a pupa trying to emerge." (gyrating, mud-covered teen girl); "I've just been rejected by Tommy Kirk. I can't get any lower than this."; "Attack of the 50-foot ABBA."; "Surrender, Aunt Bee." (Howard pedaling a smoke-generating bike); "Hey, I like Willow." - Crow's repeated refrain.
The Deadly Mantis
Episode #804; February 22, 1997.
An enjoyable installment from MST3K's Pearl Epoch, when the production got slicker, the riffing became more juvenile, and (personal opinion) things were getting a wee bit more tired. Mike, Crow and Servo have a ton of fun with this schlocky '50s giant-animal-on-a-rampage flick, however. Comparatively speaking, Universal International's Them! cash-in The Deadly Mantis sports a better quality production than the other films on this set. That's like saying Sandy was a more tidy and organized hurricane than Katrina, however. This stock footage-filled, cardboard character-populated fright fest opens with a ginormous creature getting thawed out from under the ice of the North Pole, striking a deadly attack on a Canadian military base. After it leaves behind a pointy digit, Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) and other military bigwigs try to determine what it is - eventually bringing it to the attention of entomologist Dr. Ned Jackson (William Hopper). Dr. Ned concludes that it's a giant prehistoric praying mantis. He heads up to the base to further investigate with his snoopy magazine reporter colleague Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) in tow. The doctor and the colonel then spearhead a mobilized effort to take down the king-sized flying pest - but not before the creature terrorizes countless extras, a tribe of 1920s Eskimos, and a doll-sized model of the Washington Monument. Mike and the bots get lots of mileage from the ridiculous premise, laughable science, and stupid characters (dig that horndog officer). Although hilarious, the film sags a bit in the second half. The MST3K riffers respond to the film's increasing tedium by being more manic (not necessarily more funny, however). The bridging segments signify the first time Pearl and her sidekick, Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy), use their flying Volkswagen Bug to monitor Mike and crew.
Memorable lines: "I think this guy knows the meaning of dishonorable discharge."; "I've got a mantis in my pantis."; "She's like a more manly Eve Arden."; "Who are you men? Where is my soup?" (doddering old scientist).
Shout Factory's Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVII comes packaged in four clear plastic slim-width DVD packs housed in a paperboard box. No spinning wheel doohickeys like in the Rhino sets, but at least the design is nice.
Visually, all four episodes sport the kind of glassy, overly bright picture one would expect with vintage videotape-shot television shot on a budget. The non-film parts generally look good, however, with a pleasant light-dark balance and no great flaws (the Mike-era episodes fare the best, with nice color and a clear picture).
A simple stereo mix, pleasant if unremarkable, is supplied with all four episodes. There's not a lot of flaws with the soundtrack, even in the earliest episodes.
Like with previous volumes, each disc contains a few nicely produced original featurettes, running about 7-12 minutes each and relating to the films they spoof. The Slime People contains a new interview from Judith Morton Fraser, the onetime actress who played the professor's youngest daughter in the film (not surprisingly, she reveals that actor Robert Hutton was an inept director). Rocket Attack U.S.A.'s sole feature is another installment in Shout's continuing Life After MST3K series; this time catching up with Trace Beaulieu. Village of the Giants contains an interesting current interview with actress Joy Harmon, who played one of the teen amazons in the film. The Deadly Mantis contains some astute observations from Mary Jo Piehl on why that particular film was perfect for MST3K. The disc also includes Chasing Rosebud: The Cinematic Life of William Alland, a breezy portrait of the producer best known for Universal's budget fright flicks from the '50s. Original theatrical trailers are included on three of the four discs. Mini posters reproducing Steve Vance's campy artwork for each title complete the bonuses.
A bonus disc containing riffed installments of The Phantom Creeps, Undersea Kingdom and General Hospital is included for those who order this set on the Shout Factory website.
Collect 'em all… Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVII sports three solid, hilarious episodes of the venerable trash cinema yukfest, plus an entertaining curiosity from the first season (personally, I prefer the quirky early Joel episodes to most of the later Mike ones). Somewhat pricey it may be, but Shout Factory's thoughtful packaging and the sheer re-watchability of the show make this one a keeper. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.