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Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIV
2009 marks a full decade since Mystery Science Theater 3000 left the airwaves, and yet it is somehow as ubiquitous as ever. Original host Joel Hodgson (and four of his castmates) are cranking out direct-to-DVD episodes of their new MST3K-style venture Cinematic Titanic on an increasingly frequent basis, while his replacement host Mike Nelson (and the remaining two cast members) have found great success with their Rifftrax project, wherein viewers can download faux-MST3K audio tracks and sync them up with big-budget Hollywood garbage.
Meanwhile, old episodes of the show continue to roll out on DVD; after a series of stand-alone releases, twelve volumes were released in four-disc "collections" by Rhino (the two-hour length of the show and malleable rights situation of some of the mocked movies have rendered full-season sets seemingly cumbersome and/or impossible). Shout! Factory took over the releases with last fall's 20th Anniversary Edition. Now, Shout! is releasing its second collection, Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XIV.
So why does the show refuse to go away? Why are two prolific spin-offs carrying on its tradition? Why are fans willing to shell out more than $10 per episode for DVDs of a low-rated cable show? Well, it would seem that bad movies are timeless; these are shows that don't show their age (aside from the occasional Billy Ray Cyrus reference--and hell, even he's sorta back in the spotlight). Bad movies, it seems are forever (or at least they are when Joel, Mike, and the 'bots are riffing on them). More than that, the concept itself (three guys--okay, one guy and two robots--poking fun at bad movies) was so simple, yet so beautifully executed. MST3K's talented writing staff reportedly each had their own particular pool of pop culture knowledge, so the show's riffs are a dizzying mix of references (some obvious, some head-scratchingly obscure) and comedy styles (from highbrow to fart jokes). The result just works--it is smart, entertaining, sometimes sweet, often devastatingly mean, and above all, funny. Laugh-out-loud, side-splitting, run-that-back-because-you-were-laughing-over-the-next-joke funny.
As with most of the previous sets, Volume XIV presents a mixture of shows from the first half of the series (hosted by Joel Hodgson and originally seen on Comedy Central) and the second half (hosted by Mike Nelson and seen on Comedy Central before moving to the Sci-Fi Channel). In fact, this collection dips way back into season one (or the "official" season one, anyway--there are a handful of formative shows that aired on UHF station KTMA and have never been officially released for home viewing) in which Josh Weinstein (who left the series after that first year) voices Tom Servo and plays mad scientist Clayton Forrester's assistant, Dr. Laurence Erhardt. Most fans are more familiar with Servo's subsequent voicer, Kevin Murphy, and Erhard's replacement, TV's Frank (Frank Coniff).
In fact, Mad Monster was only the third episode of the series broadcast nationally, which makes it an interesting show from a historical perspective, if not the most logical choice for sheer laughs. The movie itself (a 1942 Povery Row mad-scientist-and-werewolf picture directed by Sam Newfield, who also helmed I Accuse My Parents, beautifully destroyed by Joel and the 'bots in season five) is ripe for riffing, though it sure is one dull piece of work. The trouble is that the show hadn't really hit its stride yet. Trace Beaulieu both played Dr. Forrester and voiced Crow T. Robot, but neither character feels altogether defined in this episode, and while Weinstein has proven himself mighty witty on the recent Cinematic Titanic discs, he simply isn't as funny as Murphy or Coniff, at least not here. It's this reviewer's opinion that the show didn't really gel until it reached season two--the first season's riffing isn't nearly as rapid-fire as in later years, so while these early episodes have a looser vibe, they also aren't nearly as amusing. Mad Monster does nothing to disprove that hypothesis.
Which is not to say that there aren't huge laughs in this episode--the weakest MST is still funnier than just about anything on television. There's even a very funny host segment during the film (this reviewer is, candidly, no great fan of those interludes), in which the gumball machine-shaped Servo tries to pick up a blender. The "experiment" itself begins with the second installment of "Rocket Men From The Moon," an old serial starring "Commander Cody" that the guys suffered through in several season one shows. It begins with a typical replay of the ending of the previous installment, this time showing the hero's escape, prompting Servo to note, "Oh, if they'd have shown him diving away the first time, I wouldn't have spent all week worrying about him." Then it's on to the feature, of which Forrester aptly notes, "the screen is alive with crepe hair and spirit gum." In it, a mad scientist develops a serum to turn his gardener into a werewolf (Joel notes during one of the many injection scenes, "It's the original Sid and Nancy!"), who he then turns loose on his fellow scientists for daring to say he was, um, crazy ("Why does he have to kill them to prove his point?" Servo asks, not unreasonably. "Can't he just show them a pie chart or something?"). An intrepid reporter catches the scent, though later than it seems he should since he's dating the scientist's daughter ("She wants to be Judy Garland in the worst way, doesn't she?"), and the film's brief running time is made interminable by endless, plodding chases (Joel: "Boy, they're getting a lot of use out that swamp set, aren't they?").
We zip ahead three seasons for the next installment, Manhunt In Space, and the contrast with the previous episode is startling. They're really firing on all cylinders here, with a non-stop barrage of hilarious material provided by a seemingly archetypal MST3K target. Manhunt In Space consists of badly-meshed episodes of a cheapo 1950s television series entitled "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger"; it is rife with turgid melodrama, awful "futuristic" dialogue, lousy special effects ("Industrial Light and Magic, you've done it again!"), and hilariously cheap sets (though Joel and the 'bots note, in a host segment, that it's a tad hypocritical for them to lob that particular criticism).
The experiment begins with an ancient episode of General Hospital, and the gang packs about as many laughs as you can imagine into its brief running time (most of it at the expense of the depressed leading lady: "She's the dark nurse of the soul," "Here comes Nurse-furatu," etc.). In the feature, "space ranger" Rocky Jones and his increasingly irritating supporting cast bumble through a ridiculously convoluted tale of space pirates, invisible spaceships, and so on. Many of the biggest laughs come at the expense of Rocky's sidekick "Winky," a punchable schmuck who is clearly meant to provide comic relief, but only does so unintentionally, particularly when going on and on about his stable of ladies and his "gay night life" (oh, do they ever have a good time with that one). Even more intolerable is the required smart-aleck kid, Bobby (who reduces Servo to simply screaming "SHUT UP! SHUTUP!"), though he gets his just desserts when Winky sings him to sleep, serenading him on some sort of space mandolin (Joel: "That kid's gonna have the darkest dreams he's ever had"). They also get in a nice jab at their own network (when one character proclaims, "It's a million-to-one shot that we'll ever be seen," Crow retorts, "Oh, they're on Comedy Central"). Overall, Manhunt In Space is just about a perfect episode--the short is hilarious, movie is ridiculous, the riffs are uproarious, and it never loses its momentum (the crew did another GH episode and Rocky Jones adventure, Crash of the Moons, later in the season; here's hoping that one is being earmarked for a future DVD set).
From there we make a big leap, from season four to season ten (the final year of the series). By then, the show had changed networks (from Comedy Central to Sci-Fi), hosts (from Joel to Mike Nelson), Crows (from Beaulieu to Bill Corbett), and mad scientists (Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank were gone, replaced by Forrester's mother, Pearl, and her sidekicks, Bobo the ape and the Observer). The "Joel Vs. Mike" online wars had begun, and extra ire was reserved for poor Mary Jo Pehl, whose Pearl Forrester was deemed an inexcusable replacement for Dr. Clayton. You'll hear fans proclaim that the host segments stopped being funny when either Joel or Trace left (depending on who you talk to), but here's the thing: there are plenty of us genuine fans who seldom thought the host segments were ever all that funny, no matter who was in them. We weren't watching for the wrap-arounds, we were watching for the movies. At Sci-Fi, the host segments got considerably slicker (with more intricate costumes, props, and sets, along with a great deal more camera movement), while the movies and riffing maintained their mostly stellar quality (with the exception of a few exceptionally dull movies at the beginning of season eight that even this crew couldn't do much with).
Soultaker is an episode with can't-miss host segments, however, because both Joel and TV's Frank pop up for brief appearances (their only performances of the Sci-Fi era), related to a strange system shutdown on the Satellite of Love. The movie is a choice slab of late-1980s crap (it was officially released in 1990, but few films feel more like the 80s than this one). In fact, many of the biggest laughs come from their cracks on the costumes, hair, music ("This must be the all-Whitesnake station"), and white trash attitudes (as the main characters flee to a convenience store, Mike proclaims, "3.2 beer run!"). The other primary source of jokes is star Joe Estevez, brother of Martin Sheen, uncle to Charlie and Emilio. When his "starring Joe Estevez" credit pops up in the opening titles, Crow asks, "Does anything really star Joe Estevez?" He plays a shape-shifting grim reaper pursuing a group of teens who are unaware that they've been killed in a car wreck (as they run from him, Crow jeers, "I'll race you to film obscurity!"); Estevez is unable to close the deal because he is infatuated with Natalie, who is played by screenwriter Vivian Schilling ("You're beautiful," another character tells her. "Yep, she did write this," Crow replies).
Some MST episodes run out of gas in their final half-hour or so, but not this one; Soultaker actually picks up steam as it goes on, primarily due to the odd construction of Schiller's screenplay, which stretches the hospital-bound third act to about twice its logical length (when the screen is filled with the close-up of an EKG flatline, Servo calls it "the movie's story arc"). We get a belabored plot twist ("You still haven't figured it out," one character chortles, and Crow responds "We have! Can we go?") and endless chases through the hospital ("You know, this has action and nostalgia, because we've seen all this before") before the film finally arrives at its goofy conclusion (Servo sums up the movie as "something Hitchcock would have been proud of... his pet chimpanzee directing"), which is then summarily taken apart by the 'bots during the film's closing credits. In all, a top-notch representation of the Sci-Fi years.
The fourth and final film in the collection, Final Justice, isn't quite as strong as Soultaker, but it comes mighty close. It marks a return to MST for Joe Don Baker, the roly-poly hillbilly whose turgid cop flick Mitchell made for one of the show's finest episodes (albeit a bittersweet one, since it was Joel's final show as host). The film is the handiwork of writer/producer/director Greydon Clark (director of season six's Angels Revenge and producer of season nine's Hobgoblins--"We're doomed!" Servo cries), and is the charming tale of an especially ugly American punching, drinking, and farting his way through Malta in the name of American justice. Baker stars as the improbably-named Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III, a Texas sheriff's deputy who captures an Italian Mafioso trying to cross the border. Through complications too convoluted to explain quickly (as Crow says, "Wow, this movie is really drawing me in... to a deep well of despair"), he ends up blowing the assignment and losing the boss on the island, spending the rest of the movie in an endless series of foot chases, boat chases ("The movie Midway had fewer boats than this") and assaults; Joe Don is then arrested, reprimanded, told that he's going out on the next flight, and then hits the streets again and the whole cycle starts over (Mike calls it a "Mobius strip" of a movie).
As in Mitchell, Baker is the most frequent object of ridicule: his eating habits ("Quit drinking baby oil!"), his physical agility (he fakes a heart attack in one scene, prompting Mike to comment, "That's the only exercise he ever gets"), and his girth (during the endless boat chase, Servo says "It's a danger for Joe Don to be in the water--someone is bound to try and harpoon him"). The jabs start to get repetitive as the film winds down, but Final Justice still has plenty of big laughs at the expense of a worthy target.The DVDs
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.Video:
The full-frame image is consistent with what we've come to expect from the previous releases--pretty basic, but consistent. Mad Monster is in the roughest shape, with some noticeable smearing and pixilation on the show's signature silhouettes, though they look much crisper (with deep blacks and clear lines) in subsequent episodes. Host segments are also bright and well-saturated, particularly on the two Sci-Fi episodes. The films themselves look either dirty, scratchy, and beat up (the two older films) or dull and poorly aged (the newer ones)--and that's exactly how they should be.Audio:
The 2.0 soundtracks are simple and satisfactory, with the riffs clear and movie audio as good as can be expected (though the soundtrack for Mad Monster itself seems particularly low and scratchy; the age of the film is probably to blame for the latter issue, and it seems plausible that they hadn't quite gotten the sound balance right this early in the series). There is no separation to speak of in the two older films, though some directional effects and music are heard in the more recent efforts.Extras:
"Misties" may have gotten a little spoiled by the wealth of bonus material on the 20th Anniversary Edition, so it is my sad duty to report that the extras in Volume XIV are closer to the sparse platter of the Rhino releases. Mad Monster only comes with that film's original (and goofy) Theatrical Trailer, while Manhunt In Space sports no extras at all.
Soultaker includes a brief interview, "Joe Estevez on MST3K" (5:16), which begins as a serious discussion of the film and how great he thinks it is--describing the low-budget conditions, he says that the actors and crew pulled together because "we knew that Soultaker was a good movie!" You feel a little bad for the guy, though he does acknowledge that it was "an honor" to be an MST3K target.
Final Justice has a similar segment, "Greydon Clark on MST3K" (4:11), a fairly enjoyable interview with the writer/producer/director of the film. He too seems to harbor a few illusions about the product (he insists that the film got a good review in Variety and proclaims Baker to be a "terrific actor"). But Clark seems to be a good-natured guy with the right attitude about the show (and his contribution to it).
The fourth disc also includes the final cast's guest spot on a 2005 episode of ESPN's "Cheap Seats Without Ron Parker" (3:08), which is the only appearance (to date) of the characters since the final episode of the show. "Cheap Seats," which features MST-style riffing to clips of old sports tapes, is visited by the famous silhouette, and while it is lovely to see the 'bots back in action, the segment is too brief to gain much traction (though it does have one very good meta-line: "A cable show where you make fun of other people's videos? It'll never last").Final Thoughts:
These collections are, I would imagine, tricky for the distributors to put together; with a show this beloved, with this much of a changing cast of characters, it must be difficult to put together a package that will please the rabidly opinionated fan base. The "two Joels, two Mikes" compromise is a good one, though a later Joel episode would have been nice; as mentioned, the historical value of Mad Monster is high, but it is a much weaker episode than the other three. That said, the remaining shows are so strong (particularly the spot-on Manhunt In Space) that Volume XIV remains Highly Recommended.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.