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Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVI
Vol. XVI is Shout Factory's fourth Mystery Science Theater 3000 release since they picked up the loving but venomous, b movie riffing series last year. This set finds four episodes all from the Comedy Central/Channel years, two with original host, drowsy jokester Joel Hodgeson and two with the shows second host, mocking mantle-bearer Mike Nelson.
"A midget in a stairwell. You cannot get much shorter than that." Episode 105 (season one, episode five), The Corpse Vanishes (1942), prefaced by the serial entry Radar Men From The Moon, Part 3: The Bridge of Death.
I'm the kind of MST fan who actually went the extra mile and tape traded back in the day. KTMA episodes were something of the Holy Grail with the Comedy Channel season being right behind. Until it became Comedy Central, the channel wasn't in many areas of the country, including where I lived. Most MSTie's acknowledge that the show didn't begin to click until the second season when the pacing of the jokes got better, Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo, and henchman Dr. Lawrence Erhardt played by J. Elvis Weinstein (also the original Servo) exited and the void was filled by Frank Conniff as the beloved TV's Frank. So, that said, as an MST episode, The Corpse Vanishes is a tad lukewarm.
The pic is typical z grade, slumming Bela Lugosi fare, the kind of double bill stinker aimed at bargain theaters. A rash of bridesmaids have been dropping dead at the alter and their corpses disappear before they get to the morgue. A plucky fourth rate His Girl Friday is on the case. Her dim reporter skills lead her to mad doctor Bela Lugosi, who is abducting the women in order to steal their youthful essence for his eccentric, shriveled-up wife.
Though the rhythms are a tad off compared to later era episodes, MST's variety of jokes are all present- sly comments, references, finishing/tacking onto lines of dialogue, and little bits like Joel interacting with the screen. They mine good laughs out of Lugosi and his gaggle of freak assistants (double trouble: he's got both a midget and a hunchback!) going after the ladies youth juice. The episode also has a nifty skit with Crow as a barber, Joel as his client, and Tom as a homespun local gossiper telling a long anecdote involving a clown parade through the center of town that descends into drinking, chaos, and mass clown death. I pity the soul who doesn't chuckle at mass clown death.
"What I'm about to say might sound strange, but I think we should eat this corpse." Episode 701, Night of the Blood Beast (1958), with the short Once Upon A Honeymoon.
This episode marked the beginning of the end for MST's run on Comedy Central. It was also the introduction of Dr. Forrester's mother Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl) as his nemesis, making this seasons theme The Emasculation of Dr. Clayton Forrester. The short is a bit of soul-draining, 50's marital kitsch. Before Jeff and Maryanne can go away on their honeymoon, Jeff must overcome his writers block and pen a song for vaguely European diva Sonja. They are aided by their bespectacled guardian angel Wilbur. Poor, domesticated, housewife Maryanne sings a wish song including inspiring lines like, "I wish the faucet wouldn't drip all day," to which Crow retorts, "Aim high, sister!"
The feature is a routine Roger Corman AIP monster number. The most meager space crew in history (six people, including the astronaut and a useless eye candy photographer) finds their rocket crashed with the pilot appearing to be dead. A tag along alien menace cuts off their small base, kills a few of them, and- no joke- has impregnated the astronaut with its shrimp babies. Mike and the bots have a lot of fun with this as well as the fact that the monster looks something Barney + parrot + drain clog and when it does eventually speak it has a voice like a bad Bogart impression in an echo chamber.
Really solid episode. There is a great stretch of jokes involving the crash and recovery of the astronauts corpse, from Mike as the base doctor, "Did he have a skull when we sent him up?" to Crow as part of the crew, "Well, we had to snap him in two like a frozen dog to get him out of the capsule." The skits are pretty good too, like Crow having his own shrimp babies and a list of odd demands for his pregnancy and a final bit where he then complains of all the favoritism afforded to infants.
"Now this is good, old-fashioned nightmare fuel." Episode 521, Santa Claus (1959).
Part of my Christmas tradition is to watch the MSTied version of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. I only occasionally pop in Santa Claus. I've always considered Santa Claus fine but the lesser of the two Christmas MST's. Even in something as simple as comparing the two episodes songs, ...Martians has Crows' classic ode to to the throat-ripping, dancing, romantic ghost stylings of "A Patrick Swayze Christmas," while Santa Claus has the mild chuckle of Mike's new wave Santa Klaws number and a fumbling, mediocre Christmas carol for all religions.
The thing about this K Gordon Murray import is that it is so weird and colorful the riffing often takes a back seat to the onscreen oddity. Here you have a film where Santa, among other things, lives in a crystal castle in the clouds, is aided by a bag of dreaming powder and a flower of disappearance given to him by his assistant Merlin, and has animatronic reindeer that turn to dust when they are out in the sun. If that isn't bizarre enough, the main plot has Santa battling the Devil, or at least, a devil, Pitch. It's like a kid's move dreamed up by Jodorowsky.
I have always found that, while I like this episode, I walk away from Santa Claus recalling the films wackiness and not Mike and the bots quips. Yes, its funny when Santa is looking through his mail and Tom puts on an old lady voice and says, "Dear Santa, I'm an elderly woman who doesn't enjoy sex," or there is a crack of thunder and Crow chimes in with mock commercial speak and says, "Diarrhea is like a storm raging outside your home", but the jibes rarely rival onscreen antics which are positively surreal, from narrators trying to influence the action, children in the midst of hallucinatory settings, to Pitch influencing a trio of boys to ambush, kidnap, and enslave the big red guy.
"You know, it's not so much the apocalypse, it's the humidity." Episode 501, Warrior of the Lost World (1983).
Part of the glut of early 80's, Italian-produced, Road Warrior knock-offs, Warrior of the Lost World features nameless motorcycle rider Robert Ginty (The Exterminator) finding himself deemed "The Chosen One" in aiding Fred Williamson (Black Caesar) and Persis Khambatta (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in their fight against the totalitarian regime of Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape, Halloween). Joel and the bots have plenty to riff on like the 80's dated scoring and production, actors clearly in it for the paycheck, and the low budget stumbles which include car chases set along lush woodland roads that jarringly cut to a desolate quarry location for the crashes and explosions.
The recently deceased Ginty (R.I.P.) gets a lot of guff over his anti hero mumbling dialogue delivery. For instance, at one point he slurs what I believe is the line, "Skip the wall and head to full capacity," to which Joel snaps back, "Huh? Skip Dionne Warwick and eat a patsy?" Ginty's Knight Rideresque motorcycle Einstein is also heartily derided and it's destructor, the evil flame throwing dump truck MEGAWEAPON, is cheered. Gotta' love comments about how you can film your low budget scifi film most anywhere, Joel observing that one shot appears to be filmed inside "an unfinished 1960's Methodist church."
The bumpers are pretty good in this one. There is a phone call from MEGAWEAPON, who is now living in Florida with his sister and gives brief anecdote about working with Killdozer. The opening finds Dr. F and TV's Frank doing an amusing workout infomercial gimmick riff, pitching their own idea, "The Squaremaster." Joel and the bots do a skit with Joel as Ginty's The Rider pestering his mother to get his learners permit. A roundtable of comments on the films not-so-bad apocalyptic setting begin with Crow admiring the well-maintained roads and then skews into the benefits of being an end of the world survivor, like the shorter lines at Nordstoms, being able to walk around naked, and the freedom to don football pads and dive through plate glass windows.
The DVD: Shout Factory.
The Standard Fullscreen image for all the episodes is pretty much as expected, understandably rough. You'll find the usual bits of pixelation and macro-blocking, root issues that plague every MST release, part of the production/era. The prints remain as they were broadcast, rough vhs quality images. Of course, the low quality services the shows comedy. Take the case of Corpse Vanishes, the oldest movie ever MSTied and easiest the worst looking film on this set, where a couple of jokes are fostered from the mangles and gaps in the source print. Also, Corpse being a first season episode has the greenish border and a grayer hue on the silhouettes, a tech problem they corrected in subsequent seasons.
While I have no problems with the image quality remaining rough, one area I wouldn't mind that extra touch of restoration is with the 2.0 source audio. A grouse I've always had with MST is that the mixing between the riffing and the source is sometimes too uneven. With poorer prints like the Corpse Vanishes or ones featuring a muffled dub like Santa Claus, I am forced to turn up the audio quite loud to hear the source film and this makes the cleaner riffing track very loud. Sure, the pops and hiss add to the charm, the overall aesthetic, of MST but I also don't want to wake the neighbors. Furthermore, though I'm sure it would be a headache, a subtitle option would be nice.
Those of you who get the first pressed limited edition will get this nifty Tom Servo figurine.
Each movie has a mini poster. The animated menus, usually the sort of thing I gloss over, are simple but cute.
The Corpse Vanishes is the lightest of the group and only has a Trailer.
Night of the Blood Beast contains the original "Turkey Day '95" bumpers (11:43). These can be played stand alone with a brief Kevin Murphy introduction or played with the film as it was broadcast. The Thanksgiving marathon was a five year tradition on Comedy Central, a day of MST episodes with new holiday-themed skits tying the broadcast together. MST regulars from Jack Perkins, Pitch, and Mr. B Natural show up at Dr. F's for a drunken Thanksgiving.
Santa Claus features a nice round of supplements starting with a Still Gallery, Original Trailer and Radio Spots, plus Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray in Color Scope" documentary promo/trailer (6:54), and the meatiest extra "Santa Claus Conquers The Devil: A 50-yr. Retrospective" featurette (41:50). Additionally, you will find two Easter Eggs with interview anecdotes from show writers/actors Kevin Murphy and Paul Chaplin. The retrospective featurette is wonderful. It details the history of the film, from the Mexican production outlet, director Rene Cordona, the main actors, its import into the US, and finally reflections about the films generation into an MST episode.
Warrior of the Lost World features a Still Gallery (with commentary, 5:21) and an interview with director David Worth (20:42). A very easygoing Worth, also director of Cythnia Rothrock's Lady Dragon 1 & 2 and SciFi Channel staples Shark Attack 2 and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, discusses the genesis of the film and how he feels about it today. It's one of those only in low budget Hollywood stories of pitching "High Plains Drifter with a motorcycle," agreeing to set the premise in the future, then off to Rome within a week to scout locations, cast, and write the film, finally getting a greenlight to shoot with only forty pages of script.
Grab it, get it, hurry before they are gone. I procrastinated with the first limited edition Shout Factory set, the one that included a Crow T. Robot figurine, and as a result completely missed out. They were all gone by the time I had the scratch to spare, and thus my Tom Servo figure will forever be missing his riffing buddy. It's like having Abbot all by his lonesome. "Who's on first?... Anyone? (crickets).... Anyone?"
Shout Factory has been doing a great job with MST, but this set echoes my only real complaint with their releases so far, that 3/4 of the sets have a season one Joel episode where I'd rather see something from Joel's superior 3rd, 4th, or 5th seasons. But, hey, I'm a fan, love it all, get it all. MST3k remains on my lifetime top five list of favorite tv series. Though I see this set as two weaker episodes alongside two stronger ones, all are worthwhile and the extras are great.