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Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIII
At the end of Castle of Fu Manchu, a particularly terrible movie that makes up one of four episodes in the new box set Mystery Science Theater 3000 XXIII, a pained Joel (Joel Hogdson) issues a challenge to the "Mads" who force him and his robots to watch this dreck: "You should try to watch a movie sometime!" They take him up on the challenge, and their subsequent lame riffing--TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) blasts, "Here's a car that... you could say something about!" to which Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) retorts "It's old!"--proves that this stuff isn't as easy as it looks. (It's also a bit of a fake-out, since Dr. F and Frank prove themselves able riffers elsewhere in the box.) I sometimes think of that show's ending when trapped in a movie theater with a would-be wit who thinks himself capable of MST-style wisecracks; like NASCAR or the flying trapeze, this kind of thing looks fun but should really be left to the professionals.
This new set (the eleventh since Shout Factory took over the releases from Rhino) is a strong sampling from the show, offering a two-Joel, two-Mike mix, with episodes from the second, third, and sixth seasons. Shout spent several sets insisting on including episodes from the inferior first season, before the show had hit its stride; they've backed off of that over the last few releases. The earliest episode here, the second season effort King Dinosaur, finds the show doing what it does best: destroying a grade-Z sci-fi clunker, with a dopey educational short decimated for good measure.
The show starts with "X Marks the Spot," presented by (no kidding) the State of New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. In it, a comically bad driver is nearly killed in a car wreck, whereupon he is hauled in front of a judge by his guardian angel for a Defending Your Life¬-style review of all of his poor roadwork. The location of origination gets skewered, of course (Judge: "You were born in New Jersey, eh?" Crow: "I thought I smelled something"), as does the '50s period (Judge: "Was the car regularly inspected?" Joel: "Hey, I'm no commie!"). At the end, the judge turns to the camera, insisting that the audience acts as "jury" to Joe, and Joel and the 'bots oblige ("Oh, guilty!" "Hang him!" "Stranded in space, and we've still got to pull jury duty!")
The name of King Dinosaur producer Robert Lippert causes crying and screaming from Joel and the 'bots, and for good reason; he was already responsible for three previous movies in season two (and one in season one). King Dinosaur is a typical Lippert cheapie, in which a pair of male and female scientist couples go on an expedition to "Planet Nova," which looks suspiciously like some empty land owned by someone Lippert knew (Servo cracks, "Guys, I think they landed in Wisconsin"). While there, the encounter exotic animals, and even dinosaurs--all in stock footage, of course (when one character says he saw a lake, Crow replies "I think you mean you saw a clip of a lake"). In a host segment, Joel introduces the secondary character of "Joey the Lemur," prompting a maddeningly catchy song and plenty of jokes during the movie itself ("Well, we're getting a lot of mileage out of that lemur bit")--which is helpful, since it is so glacially paced that the riffing goes in some particularly odd (and entertaining) directions. Overall, it's a first-rate episode--this is the kind of film that the show always ripped well, particularly in earlier seasons--with some especially good bits for Crow, who amusingly stays behind at the end of the short to listen to the judge's big speech (murmuring in agreement throughout), before coming out for a very funny host segment about how to be a better citizen ("Crush someone with an emotional word or enigmatic look").
The Castle of Fu Manchu, though frequently funny, is probably the weakest episode of the box; I had seen it before but had forgotten most of it, simply because the movie itself is so incomprehensible that the guys, at times, don't seem sure what the hell to do with it. They're well aware of how awful it is; in the introduction, Dr. Forrester says it "makes The Unearthly look like Citizen Kane." And there's plenty of good lines, most of them about the picture's incompetence. Crow, at one point, despairs, "Wouldn't it be great if we knew who they were, where they are, what they're doing..."; when the title character (Christopher Lee) purrs "I need him conscious and coherent," Servo snaps, "I WISH THIS MOVIE WAS CONSCIOUS AND COHERANT." Their best joke, ultimately, is about how close the picture comes to breaking them, and while that's a good gag, it can only go so far. Still, it's by no means a bad episode.
The first Mike Nelson-fronted show in the set is Code Name: Diamond Head, a failed pilot that was shown as a TV movie. But first is one of their all-time greatest shorts, "A Day at the Fair," in which a farm family ("No one can explain why father is 85") heads off to the state fair, where they take in cake and grain juggling, livestock competitions, a display of butterflies (Crow: "Later the moths turn up in the mouths of Bob's victims"), rides on the midway ("You've spent your nickel, we're done") and horse races ("C'mon, you chunk of dog food, I've got a year's allowance on you!") Compact and hilarious, this is exactly the kind of who-the-hell-was-this-for short that the show skewers so well--every line lands.
The feature, from venerable TV producer Quinn Martin (Crow notes, "Quinn Martin considered this his most personal film") is surprisingly--or maybe not--the work of director Jeanott Szwarc, who would helm Jaws 2 the following year and go on to do Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie. A Hawaii-set detective series, it features "guest star" Ian McShane, but since the episode first aired in 1994, we get Lovejoy jokes (too many of them, if we're being honest) rather than Deadwood jokes. The 1970s décor, music, and costumes are ripe targets--there are bellbottom gags galore, along with Servo's insistence that "this is so almost Mitchell," to which Crow replies, "It's about fifty pounds short of Mitchell"--as are its TV roots (Mike cracks, "When this originally aired, by this point everyone had turned to Carter Country"). The episode only falls short in the host segments, which are mostly spoof variations on This Boy's Life that don't really play.
Finishing out the set is Last of the Wild Horses, one of my favorite later episodes merely due to its ingenious and unusual premise: early on, Dr. Forrester sends a "matter transference device" to the Satellite of Love during an "ion storm," causing the show to flip into an "alternate universe" where Mike and the 'bots are in Deep 13, and Dr. F and Frank are on the satellite. And thus, contrary to the end of Fu Manchu, the "Mads" get to go into theater for the first segment of this Lippert Western and--seated on the left side--riff it with skill and ease. Dr. F dubs composer Albert Glasser "the man who holds you down and pummels you with music"; the pair begin a running gag that continues through the episode of tacking "of the Ooooooold West!" onto the end of just about anything, i.e. "Foot fetishists of the Ooooooold West!", "Middle management of the of the Ooooooold West!", and "Ungodly coincidences of the Ooooooold West!" There's even a return of the "Joey the Lemur" song, which says to me that someone at Shout deserves a gold star for assembling this particular combination of episodes. The only problem is that they switch back too quickly; the "Mads" are only in the theater for the first section of the movie, which feels like a slightly missed opportunity.
As with the previous Shout sets, each episode is on its own disc, and each disc is packaged in a clear ThinPak with cute cover illustrations of the 'bots in a scene appropriate to the episode. (Again, those illustrations are also each included as a separate "mini-poster".) The four cases are housed in a simple cardboard slipcase. Each disc has an animated menu, and while there are no chapter menus, each film does include chapter stops at commercial and host breaks.
Video & Audio:
As usual, a demo-quality video and audio presentation is not exactly the order of the day; the movies are usually in pretty lousy shape, and the shows themselves are pulled from the best possible materials, which aren't always crisp and clean. For the most part, though, the shows look fine--or at least up to expectation. There are a couple of bugaboos, though. In Castle of Fu Manchu, a slight video burn appears on the right side of the frame at the beginning of the second segment, and is there throughout:
A look at my old recording from the original broadcast confirms that it was there then too (perhaps it was on the tape they were using?), so it's clearly not something that could've been fixed at this point, but it's worth mentioning as a video issue. There is also a strange, quick black hit around the 86-minute mark of Last of the Wild Horses; a check of my original recording reveals that this is a new problem.
Audio is the customary Dolby Digital 2.0 job, with no glitches to report. There are no subtitles.
King Dinosaur comes with "The Incredible Mr. Lippert" (35:50), a featurette from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, who've done excellent featurettes on several previous MST3K sets (including "Jam Handy to the Rescue" and "No Dialogue Necessary: Making The Beasts of Yucca Flats"). Here, they profile Robert L. Lippert, producer/director of Last of the Wild Horses and producer of Rocketship X-M, Lost Continent, King Dinosaur, and many more. Film historians, colleagues, and even TV's Frank Coniff appear to tell the B-moviemaker's story. It's a story of productions here and abroad, of low budgets and cramped schedules (one film, Highway 13, was shot in a mere 56 hours; at one point, he shot six films simultaneously with the same casts and sets), as well as the details of how he gave Sam Fuller his start. As we've come to expect from Ballyhoo, it's fun, well-assembled, and highly entertaining. King Dinosaur's original Theatrical Trailer (1:40) is also included.
The Castle of Fu Manchu has an Introduction by Frank Conniff (3:23), in which he admits it was one of "the most incomprehensible movies we ever did," and explains how that affected the episode. "Darkstar: Robots Don't Need SAG Cards" (17:48) is a promo featurette for the long-delayed interactive movie/video game featuring several members of the MST crew. I'll reserve judgment on the game itself, but this featurette is a sloppy mess; participants Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Servo and current Cinematic Titanic member) are interviewed, but the audio is so terrible that their interviews are subtitled. Skip this one, but don't miss the pure cheese of Fu Manchu's Original Trailer (2:07).
Disc three, Code Name: Diamond Head, features "Code Name: Quinn Martin" (6:37), another contribution from Ballyhoo. This one is a bit of a disappointment. Though Martin is as interesting a subject as Lippert, it's not a full-fledged featurette like the Lippert item; it's really just an interview with Martin biographer Jonathan Etter (supplemented with stills and a few Diamond Head clips), and while Etter certainly knows his subject, he's an awfully dry interview. "Life After MST3K: Kevin Murphy" (9:24) is reportedly the first of a series of supplements for upcoming MST sets, and Murphy is a good inaugural subject. He talks about his great book, A Year at the Movies, his web collaborations with Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett, and their subsequent work together on Film Crew and Rifftrax.
The final disc, Last of the Wild Horses, has a selection of Vintage MST3K Promos (14:16). They're each about thirty seconds long, and are gloriously weird and funny; most are Joel era, though we do get two Mikes, including one for his first episode, The Brain That Wouldn't Die (he's introduced as "the new guy").
Shout has continued to do right by Mystery Science Theater 3000 with this new set; MST3K XXIII is a well-curated collection of episodes, bolstered by a batch of new and outstanding bonus features. With nary a weak episode in the bunch, this is one of the best MST box sets to date.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.