Shout! Factory keeps churning out more Mystery Science Theater 3000 collections, and the latest one is Volume XXXVIII (or 38 for those who've forgotten their Roman numerals). This set contains another four episodes, all from the Mike era of the show, and while none of these are classic installments, they all have their moments. This set is well worth picking up for fans of the classic program.
The shows included in this set are:
Experiment 602 - Invasion, U.S.A.:
"Will somebody please invade something!" - Tom Servo
This experiment starts off with a great short, A Date with Your Family. ("The Woody Allen Story!" - Crow) This short was also included on the compilation disc Shorts Vol. 1 which can be found in Rhino's release of Mystery Science Theater Volume 2. It's an amusing piece of 50's Americana, instructing the school-aged kids that it was aimed at to dress up for dinner with the family. That way everyone feels like it's a special occasions. Mike and the 'bots pick up on some of the rules that are given (don't talk about unpleasant subjects or anything that would upset the family) and really run with it. They advise viewers not to show any emotion and to push their feelings down so that they won't show. In a lot of ways shorts are the best format for riffing, and this is a good example of when it works well.
The feature itself is an abysmal piece of Cold War propaganda. A group of people are in a New York City bar chatting. A man who owns a tractor factory complains that the government wants him to make tanks instead of farm machinery, a cattle rancher complains about his high taxes, and no one likes the idea of a permanent draft when it's floated. That all changes when "the enemy" invades Alaska. Within hours they're in the continental US and before long California starts to fall. Part of the reason for their quick advancement is that they're wearing US uniforms to confuse the American Troops, but a bigger part is that they're nuking cities and bases. Atomic bombs notwithstanding, California wouldn't have fallen if the US Army had just a few more tanks, however. Darn those famers and their need for tractors!
Mike and the gang do a decent job of sending up this rather drab and dull movie, and really go to town with the fact that a large chunk of this low-budget feature consists of stock footage. "Apparently the next world war will look a lot like World War II."
Experiment 605 - Colossus and the Headhunters:
"Isn't it cute the way they're making a stab at a plot?" - Mike
Though the title would imply that someone named Colossus is the star, this film is actually an Italian Maciste flick. For those who haven't heard of the character, Maciste is a long-running Italian superhero who has appeared in over 50 films going all the way back to 1914's Cabiria. He had a lot of success in the silent era, but then his popularity died out. He would have faded into obscurity, but 1957's Italian production of Hercules staring Steve Reeves started the sword-and-sandal craze and ol' Maciste got a second chance at life. This man with superhuman strength who lived in ancient times was just want Italian producers hoping to cash in on Hercules' success needed. For the American market, Maciste's name was usually changed, though they only changed it in the tile of this film. He's called 'Maciste' in the movie, and there's no one called Colossus at all. Since it's dubbed, it would have been easy to change the main character's name and it's a bit of a mystery why they didn't. It's not hard to imagine the producer of the American version hearing the news and saying "Eh, what ev."
As this adventure starts, a volcano erupts on an island and totally destroys the village there. Luckily Maciste had just landed on the island and takes the few people who survived out to sea, hoping to find another place to live. They do find land, but as luck would have it the peaceful natives have been pushed out of their home by a villainous gang of headhunters. It's up to Maciste and a princess native to rout the savages and reclaim the city.
This is a pretty typical sword-and-sandal flick, with a fairly nonsensical plot with a few action scenes scattered throughout for good measure. The riffing is okay, but Mike and the bots do get in some pretty good riffs now and again. One of my favorites, when everyone is at sea on a raft waiting to find land, has Mike starting to sing "99 amphora of mead on the wall... 99 amphora of mead..."
Experiment 618 - High School Big Shot:
"This guy gives awkward adolescence a bad name." - Mike
There's a short included in this episode, Out of this World, in which a demon and an angel make a bet over... get this... whether a bread delivery man will start slacking off. It must have been a slow day. In any case their wager gives the perfect excuse on how to instruct bread wholesalers on how to approach their clients and stock the shelves they've been given. This 50's short was amusing in itself, and the riffing only made it more enjoyable.
The main feature, High School Big Shot, is actually a decent, albeit short and done on the cheap, film noir with a wonderfully wicked femme fatal. Marv Grant (Tom Pittman) is a very bright, if nerdy, high school senior. When the hottest girl in his class, Betty (Virginia Aldridge) pretends to like him, he happily writes a term paper for her... and loses his chance at a college scholarship when they're caught. Betty dumps him over the fiasco, and lets him know she's only interested in someone who can make a lot of money. So when Marv overhears his boss say that they'll be a million dollars in cash in the office safe in two days, Marv figures it's his chance to win the girl and go to college. But Betty has no plans on running away with a drip like Marv though. After he confides his plan to her, she uses her feminine wiles to convince the school thug to kill Marv after he steals the money and run away with her.
While the movie is no masterpiece, it was interesting to some extent which makes it poor fodder for riffing. Mike and the bots give it a good try, but there comments generally reach the 'amusing' mark rather than hitting 'hilarious.' Still, it's a episode worth watching, especially if you enjoy film noir.
Experiment 1007 - Track of the Moon Beast:
"Oh no! We've stumbled into an Eagles concert and it's a nightmare!" - Mike
This low budget direct-to-video film is just plain bad. (Even the female lead admits that the movie is horrible in an extra. When's the last time you heard anyone who acted in a film admit that it was bad??) The plot revolves around a graduate student in minerology who is grazed on the head by a meteor that came from the moon. (Imagine the odds!) A piece of the moon rock is somehow lodged in his brain and that causes him to turn into a monster whenever the moon is out. He goes on a rampage every night while his friends try to figure out a way to save him.
This is one of those low-budget flicks that leaves you scratching your head saying "what were they thinking?" There's not much of a story and a lot of it feels like padding, especially when everyone takes a break from what they were doing to see a folk-rock concert and watch a group preform a song, "California Lady." What? Everything from the acting to editing to direction was really subpar. My favorite example is when a Native American is showing off his archery skills. He shoots a piece of corn, and misses. But they kept it in the film.
The riffing isn't as strong as you'd think it would be for this movie that approaches a Manos level of awfulness. Having said that, the skits were pretty funny (and I tend not to like the skits in the Pearl-era). Mike and the crew were inspired by their production of faux TV show Legends of Rock present: The tragic story behind The Band That Played "California Lady." There's also a hilarious skit where Servo and Crow spy on Mike as he gets ready for bed. Overall, this experiment isn't bad, it's just average.
The audio on the host segments is very clean, and the riffs coming through loud and clear. The audio during the movies are pretty good, though the films soundtracks leave a little to be desired. There's some light distortion in a couple of cases but nothing major. They actually do a very good job mixing the audio from the movie in with the actor's comments however, adjusting the levels so that both the riffs and the movie can be heard. Of course there are a couple of times when one or the other isn't easy to discern, but that is fairly rare. There are no subtitles.
After watching this show for years on the copies that I taped off of Comedy Central when it was first broadcast, I was very pleased at how clear it was. My S-VHS tapes were acceptable, but this is much better. Some of the prints that were used for the show are showing their age, but there's not anything that can really be done about that.
Once again Shout! Factory has included featurettes created by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, on three of the four titles in this set. Zugsmith Confidential looks at the producer behind Invasion USA (who went on to do some good movies including Touch of Evil). Mike, by Joel has MST's creator talking about his replacement on the SoL, and Tracking the Moon Beast is a wonderful interview with the female lead in Track of the Moon Beast where she describes how awful the movie is, even though it was fun to shoot. There are also trailers to two of the movies, the un-riffed version of High School Big Shot, and four miniposters.
There is a lot of fun to be had in this collection of four 'Mike' episodes. While none of them are classics, there aren't any that are really bad either. Recommended.