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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX
Shout Factory // Unrated // July 29, 2014
List Price: $59.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 21, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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You knew it was just a matter of time: MST3K XXX!



Oh, but I kid.

Shout Factory figured this whole thing out a long time ago, and for the triumphant thirtieth volume of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there's not some super-huge, colossal celebration to ring in the milestone. They just keep doin' what they've been doing so well for years and years now. You know the drill! Four discs. Four episodes.


The Black Scorpion
This collection spans pretty much every era of MST3K, kicking off with its first season's swan song. Wave g'bye to Josh Weinstein, everybody! This marking the final appearances of Dr. Erhardt and Tom Servo's original voice is really the most noteworthy thing about The Black Scorpion. Well, the second most noteworthy, anyway. It's kinda tough to top the onslaught of titanic, prehistoric scorpions unleashed by an erupting volcano south of the border. That's pretty much the beginning and the end of the plot too. Mexico. Earthquake. Volcano. Army of giant scorpions. A couple of plucky scientists, your mandatory love interest, and the not-terribly-effective might of the Mexican military that are all that stand between these scorpions and mankind being rocked like a hurricane.



Okay, those close-ups of the scorpions are awfully goofy looking, but the bulk of the creature effects are genuinely impressive. King Kong's Willis O'Brien and his protege Pete Peterson spearheaded the stop-motion animation, and even with the microscopic budget and some effect shots near the end that aren't even finished, the scorpions and other assorted creepy crawlies really do look phenomenal. Too bad about pretty much everything else. The Black Scorpion is a paint-by-numbers '50s-giant-bug drive-in flick whose worst crime is being really, really boring. MST3K was still finding its rhythm and sharpening its sense of humor throughout its first season, and the show really hadn't figured out how to handle aggressively dull movies like this sucker quite yet. There are some pretty terrific quips -- a 10-outta-10 Eurythmics jab, a bunch of always-appreciated Jaws references, and even a nod to Battleship Potemkin -- but the riffs are mostly a swing-and-a-miss and not unleashed at nearly the usual rapid fire pace. In the same way that The Black Scorpion recycles that same closeup of the scorpion's...face? (there's probably a better word for that, but I'm no entymologist) over and over and over and over and over, MST3K will sometimes hammer the same nail into the ground relentlessly, especially a Ten Commandments gag that's barely funny the first time and really isn't the sixth or seventh. Not a whole lot about The Black Scorpion -- the movie or the riffage -- makes an impression until all Hell breaks loose in the last act. Not a great start to this collection, and it's a little bit of a drag that this is the only Joel ep in the set.

Obligatory star rating:


Outlaw (of Gor)
Cabot? Cabot. Cabot! Cabot!!! Guess who's back on the other-dimensional alter-Earth of Gor? If you guessed "Cabot!", and then kept guessing "Cabot!" until I balled up in the fetal position and started moaning, you nailed it! See, on our planet, Cabot is a quiet, devlishly handsome professor, but on Gor, he's a legendary hero! You probably knew that if you'd suffered through the first Gor flick, which you didn't, and that's part of the reason why the first reel of Outlaw is just about completely incomprehensible. Anyway, he's desperately needed on Gor, and this time, Cabot has brought some undersexed, nails-on-chalkboard comic relief with him.



Oh, I'm supposed to still be droning on about the plot of this Italian swords-'n-sandals trashterpiece. The king is dead! Long live the queen! The widely-beloved Cabot was pegged to be next in line for the throne, not just because of his manly might heroics but also because of his thing with Princess Talena. The king's trophy wife Lara refuses to let such power slip through her fingers, so she and her scheming sorceror-slash-advisor-slash-high priest Xenos (played by Jack Friggin' Palance) frame Cabot for regicide. So, yeah, it's kind of like The Fugitive meets Game of Thrones and then suffered severe head trauma. With his HeWee-Man-type companion by his side, Cabot sets out to clear his good name and restore justice to the kingdom.

Catfights! Paper maché sets! Boobies! Outlaw has it all. This mid-'80s import is pretty much tailor-made for MST3K. For one, it's incompetently made on just about every conceivable level. The premise early on is borderline-impossible to follow, at least if you haven't already been indoctrinated into the lore of Gor. Next to no one gets much of an introduction, and even less is properly explained. It doesn't really play like the battles royale were choreographed or anything beforehand, so the whole thing is teeming with flubs, howlingly unconvincing stunt doubles, and lots of swords plunging into the desert sand instead of badniks' chests. The best is when Cabot throws a sword hilt-first at a stuntguy who covers by turning the sword around and stabbing himself. There's also the most gloriously unconvincing spear-chuck this side of A*P*E. It's fast, it's frenetic, it's goofy as all get-out, and there's a whole lotta cleavage and mostly-exposed keisters to distract you if you start to think too much. Outlaw gives Mike and the bots a whole lot of meat to tear into, and the riffing is pretty much perfect. I couldn't get over how hard and how loud I was laughing, and this late season five ep kept me howling pretty much from start to finish too. With as much skin and sex as there is throughout Outlaw, the riffs can get brilliantly bawdy. There wouldn't be an Edgar Winter gag this great until Arrested Development rolled along, and Mike and company mercilessly skewer Jack Palance as he growls his way towards a paycheck. This is also the ep that brought us "Toobular Boobular Joy", one of MST3K's all-time greatest (and breasticaboobical and chesticamammical) musical numbers. Just about worth the price of entry by itself.

Obligatory star rating:


The Projected Man
What could make The Great Vorelli even greater? How about if he were a hideously deformed super-scientist whose touch could kill? See, Doc Steiner (Devil Doll alum Bryant Haliday) is on the brink of mastering teleportation. It's a discovery worth untold billions, not to mention a Nobel Prize or two, and the head honcho at the institute can't stomach the idea of all that going to Steiner (I guess?). The nefarious Dr. Blanchard forces a premature demonstration which he promptly sabotages. Thus begins the sinister saga of the Proj...oh, wait, not yet. Turns out that Blanchard didn't do as much damage as he thought, giving Steiner the opportunity to secretly rush another experiment into fruition. It's just that he decided on a different set of helping hands to guide the teleportation device this time around, but she twirled the wrong gawhirl and released the wrong gafleeze, and now thus begins the sinister saga of the Projected Man. There's no turning back for Steiner. He's forever cursed to life as a monster, never to be accepted or so much as touched ever again. But, hey, his touch packs a wallop of eighteen hojillion volts, so at least he can exact his revenge...!



The Projected Man really isn't aggressively bad or anything. I do like Steiner's fright makeup when it's fully exposed, and there's something to be said for a blonde bombshell who spends a whole lotta time prancing around in her panties. It's just kinda slow, tedious, and -- shamelessly nicking from The Fly and The 4-D Man -- awfully routine. Blanchard's fatal double cross is the underpinning of the entire story, and the motivation behind the whole thing is very clumsily established. It sort of seems as if Blanchard is ravaging Steiner's life's work for no reason other than that the movie needs a bad guy. If there's a meatier explanation, I must've dozed off through it. Oriented way too heavily around securing grants (seriously), the episode's just about half over before a man is projected, and seeing Steiner slowly fade out doesn't exactly get my pulse racing. The deformed Steiner spends a big chunk of the movie with a diaper on his face, talking and talking and talking and talking, and occasionally inflicting his electric-touch-of-death on some poor bastard. Blanchard doesn't even score all that satisfying a Horror Movie Villain Denouement when it comes time for that whole routine. Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo struggle to elevate such snooze-worthy material. The quality of the riffing is a huge letdown following an episode as phenomenal as Outlaw, leaning heavily on lazy British stereotypes, Holiday's fluourescent orange hair, and Tom Servo being way too horny despite his lack of an area. The host segments are no great shakes either, although if you're into charting key episodes, The Projected Man is the episode where Pearl and her minions first set up shop in Castle Forrester.

Obligatory star rating:


It Lives by Night
There are two great loves in the life of Dr. Beck: (1) his newly-minted wife Cathy and (2) bats, and not necessarily in that order either. They're supposed to be on something resembling a honeymoon. John and Cathy, I mean, not the bats, although there's that too. John would rather shrug off the slopes and poke around in dark, dank caves instead, and no, thats not a euphemism. One of his furry, flying friends chomps into this speknucklehead, though, and before you can say "chiropterology!", John's in the hospital. The guy's behaving bizarrely and all, but Cathy gets it. He was bitten by a possibly rabid bat! Maybe he's having an allergic reaction to the anti-rabies serum they gave him. Maybe he's slowly transforming into a giant vampire bat! Okay, okay, that one never really crosses Cathy's mind, but she'd know all that if she'd bothered to thumb through Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide beforehand. Around the same time John starts losing his mind, all sorts of mutilated bodies start to pile up. Dr. Langstrom...errr, I mean, Dr. Beck is kind of sloppy about leaving incriminating evidence behind when he transforms, and stealing ambulances and stuff doesn't exactly endear him to the leery, way-mustachioed sheriff either. Cathy is hellbent on protecting her husband at all costs, but it turns out that a Man-Bat can do a pretty darned good job of taking care of himself...



It Lives by Night did somehow manage to score at least some sort of theatrical release, but it plays like a TV movie-of-the-week more than anything else. Pretty much all of the havoc is wrought off-camera. Aside from what gets splattered all over the sheriff's windshield, the horror end of things is awfully tame, visually. Up until the final moments, it doesn't even seem as if It Lives by Night is trying to unnerve or terrify anyone bothering to tune in. A lead character gradually descending into madness and transforming into a waking nightmare would work if John were even a little bit compelling. The guy's mildly annoying more than anything else, so his de-evolution -- which is only glimpsed on-camera for a few seconds in all -- doesn't draw viewers in so much, and the same goes for his dull-as-dishwater bride. There's a grand total of one suspect, so it's not like the sheriff has anything to do other than hound Doc Beck the entire time. The whole thing is a parade of uninvolving characters doing mooooostly uninteresting things (Grand Theft Ambulance is one exception for sure), pretty much twiddling their thumbs until it's time for the big reveal at the end. It's basic cable Ambien.

I know it's kind of a recurring theme throughout this review, but It Lives by Night is yet another example of a painfully dull movie saddled with generally forgettable MST-ing. To be fair, the riffing is at least a little sharper than The Black Scorpion and The Projected Man, but only a few gags -- "Hunter Thompson: Texas Ranger" and all sorts of quips about John going out of his way not to get laid during his honeymoon -- really connect. Your reaction to Mike and the Bots' sense of humor this time around will probably depend on how much of a laff riot it is when someone says "squeak". Middle of the road all around.

Obligatory star rating:


Video / Audio
C'mon, you see the "XXX" on the cover. If you don't know what you're getting into by the time volume numero thirty rolls around, I'm not sure what to tell you. These episodes were shot as far back as 1990 on less-than-bleeding-edge gear, the movies they're riffing on are obviously culled from fairly lousy lookin' sources, and the compression is no great shakes either. Watch out for those wildly unstable moire patterns on the Satellite of Love in The Projected Man, f'r instance. If you stomp your way into MST3K demanding reference quality presentations, you're watching the wrong show. These discs look about as good as can reasonably be expected, and they're in the same league as the dozens of volumes that have been hammered out for so many years now.



Ditto for the perfectly listenable Dolby Digital 2.0 (192kbps) audio. No crystalline highs or foundation-rattling lows, but the riffs are clear and totally discernable, and that's all that really matters.


Extras
  • The Black Scorpion: Direct-to-video horror auteur C. Courtney Joyner is the driving force behind my favorite of the collection's extras, "Stinger of Death: Making The Black Scorpion" (13 min.). This retrospective delves into the drive-in horror atmosphere at Warner Bros. at the time, the kinda unlikely credits its writers and director had under their belt before making a giant insect flick, and all sorts of details about the location photography and Willis O'Brien's stop-motion effects. It's a wonderfully comprehensive look back on the film, and I appreciate how skillfully Joyner places it all in context: the era, the formulas, and the mentality of studios large and small alike. Along for the ride is a two minute trailer for The Black Scorpion.

  • Outlaw (of Gor): Maybe it's not a coincidence that the best of the episodes in this collection also scores the most extras. The two Gor movies are very loosely based on a long-running series of novels by John Norman, and "Writer of Gor" (13 min.) charts the popularity, controversy, and tumultuous publication history of these dozens of books. John "Bud" Cardos -- who earned a lifetime pass from me for directing Mutant, one of my all-time favorite basically-a-zombie-movies -- has the spotlight shone his way in "Director of Gor" (7 min.). He chats candidly about taking over a movie where he had approaching zero prep time, a cast that was already used to working for the previous installment's director, and getting stuck with leftover sets. Cardos makes no bones about his lack of enthusiasm for the flick but is good-natured enough about it. Finally, there's "Producer of Gor" (7 min.), which is ostensibly production manager Danny Lerner speaking about his mentor, producer Harry Alan Towers. I'm not sure why this featurette is framed that way since Towers is not exactly the central topic of discussion. It's a pretty phenomenal interview just the same, though, tackling everything from Jack Palace shamelessly there to collect a paycheck, accusations of Towers having been a Soviet spy, filming in South Africa during the peak of Apartheid as part of a whole tax shelter thing, and...oh, too many highlights to rattle off here. Lerner's accent can be a little tough to navigate, but it's worth it.


  • The Projected Man: Horror historian Tom Weaver reflects back on The Projected Man in the four minute retrospective "Shock to the System", touching on the maybe-not-deliberately-derivative screenplay, being produced alongside Island of Terror, and how much its approach to horror is owed to the genre flicks of the 1950s. There's also a strangely cropped trailer that clocks in at two minutes.

  • It Lives by Night: There aren't any extras about the movie itself, but you do score a minute-ish teaser for "The Frank", a newly-produced short featuring a gaggle of MST3K alums.

The packaging remains the same as ever, spreading this four disc set across a bunch of slimline cases with shiny, new artwork. ...and, yup, there are mini-posters for each of those covers too. We've been loving it for this long, so why stop now?


The Final Word
Do you remember that fan poll that Rhino did a million years ago? Three of these episodes are scraping the bottom of that barrel, so at least I know it's not just me when The Black Scorpion, The Projected Man, and It Lives by Night just about put me to sleep. All three of 'em are excruciatingly dull movies with substandard riffing. I really would love to see every episode of MST3K claw its way onto DVD sooner or later, but it is kind of a drag to have so many clunkers grouped together like this. I love the holy heck out of Outlaw (of Gor), though, so at least it's not a total loss. Then again, you're reading a review of the thirtieth boxed set for this show so far, chances are that you don't need a review to tell you if you're gonna buy this or not. Definitely not my favorite but still Recommended.


A Couple of Leftover Screenshots Because Why Not?
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