The TV Series:
Anyone up for some leftover turkey? Four more episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have arrived on durable, re-watchable physical media with volume XXXIV in Shout Factory's long-running series. For this particular multi-DVD set, Shout have gone international - American International, that is. Not only do all four episodes riff on grade-z movies from the famous cinematic teensploitation factory of the '50s, '60s and '70s, the set includes a nice, brand new feature-length documentary on the studio's history with contributions from Roger Corman and other insiders.
It's inevitable that there would be an AIP-centric MST3k box set - other than Japanese monsters and Italian sword-and-sandal flicks, the grade-Z teen horror and campy creature features pumped out by Corman and company would provide the most eminently riffable material for Joel, Mike, Tom Servo and Crow. The four features lampooned here date from 1956-58, making it more consistent than other MST3k sets. Additionally, the episodes come from just two seasons, with Joel fronting two scrappy autumn 1991 outings while Mike hosts the more assured (but less spontaneous) episodes that aired in spring 1997 on cable's Sci-Fi Channel.
While MST3k nuts could likely make a nifty spreadsheet pointing out the differences between vintage '91 Joel and '97 Mike on this set, I'll just go right ahead and plunge into the relative merits of each one. Without further ado, here are the four episodes included on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIV:
Viking Women Vs. the Sea Serpent
Preceding the movie, this episode has Joel, Crow and Tom riffing on The Home Economics Story, a weirdly sexist and patronizing educational short from 1951. This segment was previously released on DVD way back in 2003 on Volume 2, although it's worth revisiting to see it in the context of the episode it comes from - Joel, Crow and Servo truly are at peak form here. Skits in this episode find Joel obsessed with waffles, eventually seducing the robots to their buttery, sweet spell.
Memorable lines: "Here's a young Judy Chicago." (college co-ed making paper sculpture in vaguely lady-parts shapes); "Look! Look! Look at my crotch!" (cheerleaders); "How appropriate - a boar in a Roger Corman film."; "It's Where's Inga?, the wacky new comedy on ABC."; "Kiss me by the matte painting."
War of the Colossal Beast
Preceding the film is one of the funniest-ever shorts the MST3k guys ever tackled: Mr. B-Natural, an über-perky, indescribably strange educational short intent on getting '50s kiddies interested in taking up a musical instrument. Most of the riffing centers on the character of Mr. B-Natural, memorably, unnervingly embodied by actress Betty Luster as (in the words of the box) "an androgynous pixie." After the short, Joel moderates a point-counterpoint debate with Crow and Servo discussing Mr. B's gender identity.
Memorable lines: "Joel, I'm scared." (Crow reacting to perky female voice); "You know, I think Oscar Wilde only wished he was this gay."; "It's Mayberry, Mexican style."; "Golden Books presents - ding! - The World of Geography - ding!" (memory-triggering slide show).
Skits? Not as funny this time around - Tom Servo's superior intellect allows him to join the Observer in a select club of brain-keepers, while Mike and crew are visited by a shape-shifting witch similar to the one seen in The Undead. In a savagely funny bit, Mike, Crow and Servo mock Leonard Maltin's generous three-star review of this piece of junk.
Memorable lines: "Completely devoid of internal organs!" (Diana in an impossibly tight belt); "Thank you. Mr. Zebub."; "His response to the film is just like ours." (shot of dozing psychic); "The June Taylor corpses!" (trio of undead dancing women); "Uh, excuse me, hello? I'm looking for a tuffet." (fake spider descends onto a witch's head).
While the Mike-era MST3ks tended to do better on monumentally awful flicks like Space Mutiny or Pumaman, their overly rehearsed but hilarious riffing makes this one a pretty good outing. Skits include a great bit with Mike reading various scripts with the same emotionless non-brio as actor Lance Fuller, with Crow and Servo coaching him on. Elsewhere, Crow demonstrates the "Tickle Me Carlo Lombardi" doll with Mike.
Memorable lines: "Who am I trying to kid? I'm not a She-Creature, I'm a She-Loser."; "Look deep into my eyebags." (Chester Morris in an intense moment); "Oregano?" (Cockney-accented pronunciation of the word "space"); "They tried to light it, but this movie is like a super-absorbent black hole."
Shout Factory's Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVII comes packaged in four clear plastic slim-width DVD packs housed in a paperboard box.
Visually, all four episodes sport the kind of glassy, overly sharpened picture one would expect with vintage videotape-recorded TV productions. Even on the earliest episodes, the image is relatively sharp and wobble-free. The later Mike-hosted episodes fare the best visually, while the Joel episodes from 1991 have a slightly depreciated, less detailed picture. Color is over-saturated yet fine on all four episodes.
A simple stereo mix, pleasant if unremarkable, is supplied with all four episodes. There are not a lot of flaws with the soundtrack, even in the earliest episodes. No subtitles options are provided.
It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story, a 92-minute documentary produced by Ballyhoo, is included on the Viking Women disc. For those used to the short extras Ballyhoo did for previous MST3k sets, this is more of the same - an affectionate look at AIP's history, with a focus on the studio's colorful founder Samuel Z. Arkoff and his overlooked partner, James H. Nicholson. The gentlemanly-as-always Roger Corman is on hand to share his memories, along with recollections from Arkoff's son and other fans of the cheesy movie factory. Viewers beware: the film is presented as one long program with no chapter stops. Pithy, newly filmed Introductions by Frank Conniff are included on Viking Women and Colossal Beast, while Theatrical Trailers are provided on Colossal Beast, The Undead, and The She-Creature. Again, colorful Mini posters reproducing Steve Vance's wild artwork for each title are included in the box.
Two hilarious Joel-era episodes, two somewhat routine Mike-era outings, and an affectionate new documentary on '50s cheese factory American International Pictures make up Vol. XXXIV of Shout Factory's series of Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD sets. The uniformity of the four movies getting roasted (all '50s AIP productions) slightly downgrades this set to recommended, although as usual it's a nicely done package with a ton of laughs.