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Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII
Briefly, for those that don't know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a show about a ordinary Joe, or Joel, and his two wise-cracking robots Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo. The trio are stuck in space by a mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Bealieu) or his mother Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl) depending on the era you are watching. They are forced to watch bad movies, which they make fun of, and generally they goof around a lot. It began in 1988 on cable access in Minneapolis, then ran on The Comedy Channel which quickly morphed into Comedy Central. The show was briefly canceled after its seventh season only to be picked up by the SciFi Channel for three more seasons, ending its run in 1999. Further, MST3k did one feature film and the various teams of hosts, actors, writers, etc. have gone on to other flick chaffing projects like Cinematic Titanic, Rifftrax, and The Film Crew.
Previously released by Rhino, Vol. XVI is Shout Factory's fifth Mystery Science Theater 3000 release. This set has four episodes, two with original host, drowsy jokester Joel Hodgeson and two with the shows second/final host, mocking mantle-bearer Mike Nelson.
"Beatnik guys don't wear sensible Sear's windbreakers." Episode 415 (Season Four, Episode Fifteen): The Beatniks (1960) with short General Hospital: Segment 2.
Crooner Eddie Crane gets his big break when a music manager overhears him singing along to a diner's jukebox. Problem is, he drags his nogood beatnik buddies along with him, including mantis-faced vixen Iris and the psychotic Moon. As Eddie gets the spotlight, makes a bid for the straight life, and eyes his managers assistant, his buddies all accuse him of selling out to squaresville and trouble follows. Beatniks is a typical bit of youthful, b-movie, rebel rousing where the main actors are all far too old for their youth-leaning roles and the very concept of criminally inclined, maudlin song loving, snotty beatniks is extremely tenuous.
Beatniks is what I consider a mid-tier MST3k episode, certainly funny, consistently entertaining, but lacks that classic feel of a great bad film with superior MST crew riffing. Plus, the film itself slightly pales to other rebellious youth pics they riffed like I Accuse My Parents, The Rebel Set, and, one of my personal faves that gets callback riffs in this episode, Daddy-O. The scene-chewing villainy of Moon provides some lines with Crow observing that Moon is like, "an evil Gilligan." Eddie, doing his best James Dean via screaming at his pals, "I ain't walkin' out on nobody!" which Joel bizarrely (and awesomely) finishes with, "It's just that I love pancakes!" Wide ranging film references include nods to Midnight Cowboy, The Last Picture Show, They Do Shoot Horses,... Don't They?, and Videodrome.
Skits include the bots continuously losing to a big brother bullying Joel in "Rock, Paper, Scissors" because they have no articulation, the bots hair salon, teen idol gal talk about Beatniks lead Tony Travis, an overnight star skit with gratuitous spinning newspaper, and discussion of whether "dickweed" is a swear word.
"What's a giant eye going to do to you anyway, pick you up and wink you to death?" Episode 101: The Crawling Eye (1958).
How's this plot for a bit of 50's scifi cheese? Hikers are losing their heads or being driven insane in the Trollenberg mountains while a mysterious, moving, radioactive cloud hovers in the air. Drawn to the scene are psychic girl Ann, her sister, and boozy scientific investigator Alan Brooks who is there to aide his researcher friends. Naturally the chaos is being caused by head-munching, brainwashing, giant alien eyeballs. By the end they find themselves under siege in a fortress research base, Molotov cocktails are thrown, an air strike is called in, and tentacled eyeballs are sizzled.
Because it is MST's first scripted episode, The Crawling Eye marks the start of their learning curve. Personally, while I like some of the inaugural episodes, I don't think they found their groove with riffing or the skits until the second season. So, it is a tad awkward and overall slower with the joke-making. With less pop culture referencing and no callback jibes to draw from, the jokes mainly involve general observations of the onscreen action or finishing lines of dialogue. Tom (then played by J Elvis Weinstein) gets off some black-humored bits like when a mountain denizen says, "His head was torn off," finishing with, "You say that like it was a bad thing," and observing one climber gone mad murdering his buddy with a pick-axe, "Hey, buddy, it won't get better if you pick at it."
While the riffing was a tad low wattage compared to later episodes, the skits are really off kilter. The skits involve the usual first episode exposition and leaden, cutesy explanation of the show's premise and characters. They felt the need to involve lots of Q&A between Joel and the bots, like "what did you think about the movie so far?" It also features the shows initial common ending with the bots having to say one good thing and one bad thing about the film in order to get a treat. After the show got popular, this bit would be replaced by a fan letters segment.
"Okay, so he's a dumpy seahorse." Episode 1005: The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (1975).
This Southern-fried (specifically Florida), poor man's ode to Creature from the Black Lagoon finds the nebbish Dr. Z unleashing his scorn for the scientific community via his formula Zaat which transforms him into a mutated man-fish creature. Along with lots of cheesey voice-over and tons of underwater stock footage, we witness as Dr. Z murders a couple of rivals and kidnaps a few babes that he hopes to turn into his merbrides. His quest for world domination doesn't get much further than the surrounding swamplands thanks to some government scientists investigating the area... oh, and I guess the fat, backwoods sheriff helps in some way but damned if I know how.
When you have a film with a monster this silly, the poor actor inside the cumbersome suit often visibly tripping, it is clear and easy fodder. As Dr. Z (fish?)eyes a camping babe, Tom gives him voice with, "Oh great, and I just got internal genitalia." The actor playing the human Dr. Z is a hunched, wispy, Droopy-looking man leading to many comments, including Crow's observation that, "It's like he's been sculpted out of belly skin." Some of the, at the time, topical referencing includes when a character in the hospital wryly sneers, "First class service," and Crow finishes with, "And, yet I still feel compelled to take a dump on the drink cart."
Skits include Pearl wanting to experiment with controlling Mike and the bots by withholding love, only her twisted idea of what is love basically amounts to a collection of objects so random they might only be found in a hoarders junk drawer. We also get to see the drawbacks of fishing in space and the bots try to get Mike to acknowledge that nudity always makes a film better, even, say, something like Glengarry Glenn Ross.
"Rowsdower." Episode 910: The Final Sacrifice (1990).
Oh Canada, you make wonderfully lousy student films. Final Sacrifce tells the epic tale of nerdlinger Troy being pursued through the depressingly dank Alberta backwoods by the cult of Ziox and it's deep throated leader Satoris. It seems Troy's father was an archeologist with a map that leads to the cult's ancient temple and they want it back in order to summon demon aliens and rule the world. But really none of that matters. What matters is that Troy gets an aide in squat, beer guzzling, mullet sporting, denim wearing, middle-aged drifter Zap Rowsdower, who belongs in the Reggie Bannister pantheon of unlikely action film heroes. That is, he leaves you eternally thinking, "Really? That guy? He's our hero?" As a general rule of thumb, shouldn't a macho hero at least be taller than his twiggy teen co-star and be able to run five paces without looking like he's going to have a heart attack?
First of all, this is a classic episode. Fans have always deservingly regarded it as one of the best from the SciFi Channel cycle. Running jokes include jabs at Canada and insults lobbed at our awkward teen dweeb lead. Crow at one point asks, "Mike, is there a way I can jump into the movie and dump this kids books?" Really what makes this one a classic is not so much the riffs, which are fine, but the fact that the thin fourth wall is broken down. The crew are often naturally giggling at the film, particularly every time the name "Rowsdower" is uttered. They barely contain themselves during scenes with the cartoonish mountain man character, Pipper. The end credits have a good bit with Crow pitching the film as a series and Mike shooting him down in meddling Hollywood producer speak, suggesting things like retitling it either Night Mistress or Cloochy(sp?) and The Lieutenant and insisting that Rowsdower do full frontal nudity.
Skits are hit and miss. Lukewarm throwaway bits include the bots looting themselves during a maintenance power outage, Pearl announcing her plan to rule the world one person at a time, and Tom's pro Canada song. The only redemption is when the film infects everyone with a case of hockey hair (side effects include Crow craving Zubaz), except for Mike who is immune because he already had hockey hair in the 80's. Later, after Pipper is introduced, Mike gets his when he contracts Grizzle Prospectors Syndrome. While the skits were always sort of gravy anyway, as a MST episode, Final Sacrifice is really all about the film, and the film is a winner.
The DVD: Shout Factory.
First, kudos to the menus. Its simple animated stuff but very cute, and, speaking as someone who usually doesn't give a damn about things like menus, the extra effort is appreciated.
For example, above are Tom and Crow fishing. Dr. Z then pops up, and Tom harpoons him in the noggin'.
Just the basics with the fullscreen image. Obviously, the older the episode the lesser the quality. For the SciFi run (Blood Waters, Sacrifice), they tricked out the lighting and sets a bit more when compared to the purposefully low rent look of the Comedy Central days. It should also be noted that the theater silhouette is a tad gray in The Crawling Eye, a technical quirk they would remedy in later seasons. When it comes to the films, low quality prints was sort of the point and they went with whatever dodgy source they were provided. It's part of the fun, as Crow observes during Blood Waters, "They filmed this with a disposable camera."
Again, echoes of the image, you get a basic 2.0 English language track. If a film's soundtrack had problems, they would make it work. Such is the case with The Crawling Eye's source damage in a few spots and Joel asking, "Whats that noise? I think someone is sharpening a pencil or something." But, it all boils down to getting the riff and the film audio clear and balanced and as such there are no complaints.
Set includes bonus poster inserts of the Shout Factory cover artwork for each film.
The Beatniks contains the original trailer, the "MST Hour"* bumpers (5:10) with Mike as a wannabe hepcat Jack Perkins, and "The Main Event: Crow Vs. Crow" DragonCon '09 interview (35:03). In the interview, Trace Bealieu and Bill Corbett recall the hurdles of puppetry, developing (or in Corbett's case, taking over) Crow, leaving the show, and ending with an audience Q&A where beloved henchman (TV's) Frank Coniff chimes in with a funny bit impersonating a geek fan.
The Crawling Eye features the original trailer and an interview with show creator and host Joel Hodgeson (6:28). Joel discusses the particulars of the episode, mainly it being their move towards the show becoming professional (new sets and puppets, being scripted instead of improvised), his thoughts on that first attempt, and what advice he'd give his younger self about doing the show.
The Blood Waters of Dr. Z contains the original trailer, a minutes worth of tv promos, and a photo gallery of lobby cards.
The Final Sacrifice contains an interview with Zap Rowsdower himself Bruce J. Mitchell (9:29). Mitchell cops to not having seen the full MST version, only clips, and that he was surprised to learn of the film's cult following. He talks about how he originally auditioned for the part of Pipper- thank god he didn't get that part as any old square-jawed lunkhead actor would have made Rowsdower bland and the film forgettable. Further anecdotes include how everyone did double duty on the no budget production, filming mishaps, and finally he gives his thoughts on his performance.
So far, my only complaint with Shout Factory is that now four of the five DVD sets have a season one episode. Fans (and the MST crew) generally rank those first season episodes pretty low. Coveted Joel era episodes usually come from seasons 3-5. In this case, I will give The Crawling Eye a pass purely because it is their first proper episode and the landmark of the series aiming for something beyond cable access.
Beatniks and Blood Waters of Dr. Z are intermediate MSTies. Fine stuff, worth having, but not standout. Final Sacrifice, on the other hand, is epic, must have, essential Mystery Science Theater. Combine that with Shout Factory's usual solid effort with the transfers and extras and this set is well worth picking up.
*During the height of MST's popularity on Comedy Central, they commissioned a shorter, one hour primetime version of the show, so the crew split some past episodes in half and filmed new A&E-styled intros & outros, thus "The MST Hour."