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Mystery Science Theater 3000: Hamlet (1961)
According to the current talking-back-to-the-movie-screen clime, almost anything is capable of a curt audience responsorial. No matter the level of success or artist triumph, someone almost always has something sarcastic to say about a subject. It doesn't matter if you win the Oscar or suck on stale theater ice - if a quip can be legitimately lobbed at the target, it should sit back and take it. Thus we have Rifftrax, which more or less messes with everything that comes out at the local Cineplex (and then some). While the Cinematic Titanic side of the MST3K spilt sticks to the bad and the b-movie, Mike Nelson et.al. will deconstruct anything, from Martin Scorsese to Michael Bay. It was a lesson learned well during their days as part of the best cowtown puppet show ever to cross basic cable - case in point, this slaughter of Shakespeare. Yes, you read right. The Sci-Fi Channel era embodiment of the series finally fell upon their literary sword as they stuck it to the greatest play in the history of the civilized world - and as they did through the majority of their amazing decade long run, they found a way to make even the most revered sound silly - especially this lousy German adaptation of MC Willy S's greatest.
Not sure if any of you have heard about this sordid saga of Denmark gone death wish, but here goes. A sad sack prince returns home from brooding school to discover that his daddy has been ear slaughtered and that his uncle is tub-thumping his mom. And even worse, the rogue relative has also named himself the new king, right over Hamlet's gloomy birthright. Ham gets all glum about the circumstances and talks to himself a great deal in mind-bendingly long non-internal monologues. He sees ghosts, gives his one time girlfriend Ophelia some rather rude convent-based advice, and formulates all manner of overly articulate plans for getting revenge.
Eventually, our depressed Dane decides that the best way to tell everyone that their new leader is an underhanded, sniveling killing machine is to get some actors together and stage a play about the dastardly deed. Seems Hamlet is hoping that once His Royal Heinous suddenly witnesses the moving performances and close-to-home narrative, he will jump up and confess out of pent-up guilt. Well, it's time to chime "Wrong again, Danish breath" as things don't work out quite the way anyone planned. The entire court ends up sword fighting. Everyone dies. Endless literature classes are created. A subject called English is invented. Numerous PhD's are awarded. Gilligan's Island does a great musical parody of it. Millions of high school kids are bored. The End.
The poor Dane. His dad is dead. His mom married the man who killed him. His girlfriend is a whack job (not the kind of j.o.b. he was looking for), he sees dead people, and his best friend can't quite get his finances worked out. Amidst all this scandal and intrigue, these monumental moments of dramatic irony and double-dealing, all our hero can do is chatter. Prattle. Blather. Like a one-man Tower of Babble, he runs his mouth like he is in desperate need of a mega dose of oral Kaopectate.
There is just no stopping him. Wherever action is called for, whenever an instant demands his mobility and proceeding, he drops off, tunes out, and turns to the audience in a mad attempt to explain his innermost thoughts in 40,000 couplets of less. And it's not like his wordiness is wise. He is just, basically, complaining. About his girlfriend's lack of nunnery getting. About how dear old dead daddy had a little bit of an earwax problem and his unctuous uncle's underhandedness cleared it up with an unguent made from deadly nightshade.
Still, Hammy-let can teach us a thing or two about dealing with life's little destruction book. For example, just because you don't intend to do anything about something, doesn't mean you can't have a several volume opinion about it. When faced with the choice of existing, or not existing, don't immediately answer the quandary but, instead, make a really long speech out of it which high schools kids will be forced to memorize centuries later. In 2011, Hamlet represents the quintessential slacker--pissed off at his life and surroundings, but too filled with funk punk ennui to do much about it except sponge off of mom and step-dad, bitching and moaning the entire time. Something, indeed, is rotten in the State of Denmark. And it's our spoiled little passive protester.
In the literary life, you either love Shakespeare or you don't, and the Germans definitely do not. This 1960 television version of the Bard's brainchild is so cold and calculated it's like Berlin in February. Many consider Hamlet to be (or not to be) the perfect performance piece, the ultimate drama and the titular tragedy, but in the hands of these talented, if apparently traumatized, Teutonic thespians, all the power and glory is gone. What's left is an Aryan atrocity filled with fetid Frankfurters.
It's interesting to see how the MST crowd works within one of the literary sources they referenced so often. And the answer is that they are awesome. Mike and his robot pals are electric here, careening through obscure fictional asides, random jabs, and brutal character assaults. And if the proof for something's mythical worth lies in the number of ways one can make fun of and draw humorous sketches from it, then Hamlet is a licensed guffaw goldmine, as all the skits in this episode are just as classic as the play itself. Crow and Tom's attempts at "spooking" Mike like Hamlet's father are priceless, as is the hilarious "Alas Poor, Who?" a game show in which various bones are examined by players (in this case Tom and Crow) who then try to guess who they belong to. Even the setup is clever, with Mike winning at Three Card Monty and getting to pick the movie. Little did he or the audience know it would be this death camp version of Shakespeare's classic.
Presented on a single disc in a standalone DVD box, the solo shot of Hamlet retains the original Shout! Factory box set's hit or miss transfer. The full screen image is colorful and bright, and the print proffered of the title TV treat is culled from a crappy kinoscope dull. It more a series of grays than a true black and white presentation, and the lack of any real set design limits one's visual reaction. The MST material is just fine. The film within the fun is lame and lifeless.
Standard Dolby Digital Stereo without much depth or atmosphere. Granted, all we want to hear is the movie's dialogue and the cast's comebacks, so the lack of real immersion is insignificant.
Sadly, there are no added features here.
It really shouldn't work. Hamlet is a classic, and even in a drab, dreary, Germans should have known better production, it should avoid even the appearance of commentary impropriety. But the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 never met a cinematic challenge they couldn't completely and utterly countermand. When they finish, they leave our sense of Shakespeare as dead and/or dying as the various cast members at the finale. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, there is no need to double dip on this item if you already own it. If you don't sit back and let some bad boys (and a couple of gals) of buffoonery baffle your Bard. Alas, poor MST, we knew yee well - and nothing is finer than this unusual if wholly satisfying offering.
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