If you've never seen or heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000 I weep for you. I weep because that means you have missed out on a series that combined really bad movies, witty commentary, smart-ass robots, schlocky comedy and some of the most quotable lines - at least in my house - from just about any program in the history of television.
I know that might sound like hyperbole, but damn if this is not a B-movie-geek's fantasy, with the opportunity to watch a rotten, forgotten movie while funny people crack wise during it. So if you're new to the wonders of MST3k this release from Shout Factory (a reissue of an out-of-print Rhino edition) is as good as any place to jump in, because the show's theme song provides all you need in terms of setup and premise. Plus, the song is so catchy you will find yourself singing it to yourself for weeks to come.
This review isn't going to be a primer on MST3k, but I'll give you some essentials. The show - which ran from 1988 to 1999 - operated under a very simple concept. A man (that varied depending on which season) and a few homemade robots (Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, Cambot, Gypsy) are trapped in the Satellite of Love space station, forced to watch bad movies while riffing on them, as well as performing wacky antics in an attempt to keep their sanity, before and after commercial breaks.
Some very talented and funny people were involved with MST3k - Joel Hodgson, Michael J.Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, Jim Mallon, Josh Weinstein, Bill Corbett - and they carved out a unique niche in B-movie love with this series. This particular entry (#619) is from season six, with an original air date of December 17, 1994. It's a Mike Nelson ep, and even though I know fans are often split on who was the better "host" - the dry brilliance of show creator Hodgson or the smart gee-whiz humor of head writer Nelson - I always found that argument rather pointless. I liked 'em both, and it never mattered to me who was helming an episode because the funny always came.
Let's cover the film content briefly, which includes the 1949 short Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance and the feature, a 1966 Coleman Francis directed travesty known as Red Zone Cuba. The speech short is one of those laughable vintage 'how to' titles, top-loaded with hokey narration, odd fashion and unintentional humor, to the point where it would be comical even on its own. It serves as a workable opening act for the main salvo, the sloppily constructed Red Zone Cuba (or Night Train to Mundo Fine), a film that features a theme song "sung" by John Carradine (!). Coleman Francis is something of an MST3k legend, having directed only three films, all of which have served as fodder on the show (Red Zone Cuba, Skydivers and The Beast of Yucca Flats). The plot has something to do with invading Cuba, pitchblende, trains, airplanes and plenty of bad acting; at one point Crow utters the spot-on accurate "this film dares you to watch it" line.
The host segments - the bumpers before and after the original commercial breaks - represented here aren't the show's best work, but anytime we're given the smarmy cool of pompadoured TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) is alright by me. We also get to see Mike imitate Carol Channing, Tom Servo shoot Lotto balls out of his head and the collaborative silliness of the "Bouncy Upbeat Song'. The riffing on the short and feature film are where it's at for this release, because that stuff is comedy gold, my friends. Damn funny stuff.
The 1.33:1 fullframe transfer from Shout Factory appears to be on par with the original Rhino release, though with this series image quality was hardly what kept the faithful; it was the comedic weirdness. As with most MST3k entries the film itself is chock full of imperfections, which leaves the host bits to really be the point of judgement. While edges seem to lack any measurable definition colors and fleshtones look decent enough, from the white of TV's Frank's scary hair to the purple tones of good ol' Gypsy. Don't expect HD quality and you'll be just fine.
Nothing fancy here, folks. Just a basic, stripped-down 2.0 stereo offering that is more than adequate for the minimalist presentation. No hiss, no crackle, no problems, no frills. Sure sounds better than my old recorded-from-cable VHS tapes did, that's for sure.
No extras to be found here, and that's sad.
There is really no such thing as a poor Mystery Science Theater 3000 experience, if you ask me. While this entry is hardly the show's high water mark Red Zone Cuba still fulfills the bad movie requirements in spades (does it ever) and the comments by Mike and the bots had me laughing as they always do/did.
Shout Factory has done fans a solid here, reissuing an out-of-print Rhino release of this perfectly off-kilter MST3k title. So barebones as it is this one still comes recommended.