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Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXVI
Picking up where Rhino left off, Shout! Factory unleashes another four titles from their ongoing Mystery Science Theater boxed set line. For the few out there unaware of who or what the Mystery Science Theater thing is all about, basically, it was a long running show in which a recurring cast of characters - a space castaway and his robot pals - were forced to watch bad movies while doing time on a satellite. This simple premise basically allowed Joel Hodgsen or Mike Nelson (depending on how early or recent the episode in question may be), Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (who have recently teamed up to pick up where they left off with their Rifftrax project) to crack wise about 'bad' movies. The series was on the air from 1988 through 1999 and it still has a loyal cult following to this day while it's various participants have gone on to other, similar projects like Cinematic Titanic and the aforementioned Rifftrax downloads.
This time around, the gang takes on the following four films:
The Magic Sword:
Directed by Bert I. Gordon in 1962, The Magic Sword tells us the story of a sinister wizard named Lodac (played by Basil Rathbone of all people) who owns a dragon - which sort of explains why he kidnaps a foxy princess named Helene (Anne Helm)... because his dragon needs to eat. The king (Merritt Stone) is obviously none too pleased with this turn of events and so he enlists the aid of one of the kingdom's finest knights, Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), to head on over to Lodac's place to bring his daughter back. Before Branton can enter Lodac's castle, however, he must contend with Lodac's ominous 'seven curses.' Accompanying Branton on this quest is George (Gary Lockwood), a young man in love with Helene who was raised by a sorceress named Sybil (Estelle Winwood), from who he receives the titular magic sword, a weapon that will surely help him save the day.
This is a really solid episode with some great jokes from the crew that make bizarre references to everything from Teddy Ruxpin to Loretta Lynn songs to old Don Knotts movies that have nothing to do with this particular film. Though The Magic Sword is a goofy movie in its own right, it's also fairly well paced and entertaining but the fact that it's rarely ever short on riff fodder means that our guys have got plenty of material to work with here. Look for a quick cameo from none other than Richard Kiel (as a pinhead!) in this episode which was originally shown in August of 1992 during the series' fourth season.
Alien From L.A.:
Albert Pyun's 1988 Kathy Ireland vehicle finds the swimsuit model playing Wanda Saknussemm, a beautiful young woman who leads a fairly sheltered, reserved life working at a candy store. Her father (Richard Haines) is an archeologist who heads out to Africa for a research expedition but something soon goes wrong and he winds up missing. When Wanda gets word of this, she hops on the first plane to Africa she can find in hopes of locating him. It doesn't take long for Wanda to wind up falling into a really big hole, however, and once she does she finds herself on the lost continent of Atlantis. The residents of Atlantis assume she's a spy and therefore up to no good, resulting in adventure or something.
Alien From L.A. is a thoroughly terrible film. From Ireland's infamous performance as the squeaky helium voiced bookworm who inevitably transforms into a bikini clad sexpot adventuress to the goofy set design meant to 'transport' the audience to Atlantis, it really doesn't have a whole lot going for it in terms of redeeming qualities. Thankfully, the MST3K crew rip it so quickly and with such vigor that it turns out to be one of the funniest entries in the show - there's really no single scene here where they don't have something to attack, Ireland's weirdo voice being the easiest and most popular target here and for good reason. This one's got veiled references to Full Metal Jacket, nods to the mighty Clint Howard, references to Jethro Tull songs and Aerosmith's corny Love In An Elevator track from Permanent Vacation too - and loads more. This one is just great from start to finish and it's the stand out episode in this collection. This episode is from season five and was originally broadcast in November of 1993.
Danger!! Death Ray:
This 1967 Italian James Bond knock off stars Gordon Scott as a secret agent named Bart Fargo. While Bart is off enjoying his vacation in the sun, a group of European terrorists highjack a giant death ray from NATO. While the giant death ray was invented for use only in peaceful endeavors, these guys intend to use it for evil - it is a giant death ray, after all. At any rate, the guys at spy headquarters call Bart up and get him to agree to take on the assignment and so he does. The terrorists have also kidnapped the scientist who invented the ray, so Bart finds himself gallivanting from one European hot spot to the next in hopes of tracking down the weapon and it's captive creator before the bad guys can kill people.
Judged on its own merits, Danger!! Death Ray, originally broadcast in January of 1995 during the show's sixth season, is a dull film. Yes, it's campy and it features some wacky sixties fashions, some cool miniatures and a decent swingin' sixties spy style soundtrack but there's no tension, no suspense and amazingly enough, no real sense of danger. All of this makes the MST3K version of the movie considerably more enjoyable than the film in its original form as the obvious low budget quirks, bad acting and completely stupid script allow for some pretty amusing riffs. The crew do an excellent job with this fan favorite episode, making humorously clever references to Blade Runner, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, obscure jazz albums, Jean-Claude Van Damme and even The Kids In The Hall (though if you haven't seen that show you probably wouldn't understand why they'd make that connection). There's just constant material here for them to work with and they do an excellent job, making for an episode with loads of material and therefore a good bit of replay value as well.
The Mole People:
This episode from season eight originally aired in 1997. The film in question was directed byVirigl W. Vogel back in 1956 and it stars John Agar as an archeologist named Doctor Roger Bentley. He leads a team of scientists on a research mission where they wind up discovering a tablet during their dig. This tablet makes reference to an ancient civilization that they assume has been gone for centuries. When an earthquake shifts the ground and reveals the presence of an ancient temple built into the mountain, they decide to explore and realize it's actually an entry way to an underground world populated by humanoids who have lived under the earth's surface for so long that they can no longer adjust to the light. These 'mole people' are lead by a priest named Elinu (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from the Adam West Batman TV series!) and when he learns of the intruders' presence, he decides to they should be killed. Things take a very different turn when the mole people revolt against their leaders, leaving Bentley and his crew in the midst of chaos!
This low budget cheapie from Universal is a fun movie with a few cool cast members who help to make it more entertaining than it might have been had they not been involved. It's the weakest entry in the set but still worth watching. The barrage of 'laugh out loud funny' material isn't as constant as it is in the other three features but a Monty Python reference stands out as surprisingly astute and references to Mexican cooking can elicit a chuckle. The skits in this one, where Crow becomes a 'space child' are funnier than usual but overall, this entry is just so-so. Not terrible and not the worst that the series has to offer, but not likely on that you'll go back to the way that you might with the three other movies in this set.The DVD:
The fullframe interlaced transfers that grace all four films in this set won't blow you away but they're watchable enough particularly when taken in the intended context. You will see the MST3K silhouettes in front of the screen so purists take note, and the transfers are taken from often times edited down old TV masters so those expecting the movies to appear here as they were originally intended will be disappointed. The first three movies in the set are in color and show some fading, The Mole People is in black and white and shows reasonably good contrast. That said, they look as good here as they did on TV when they first aired and pristine video quality isn't really the point here. Are the transfers great? Nope, but they don't need to be.Sound:
The commentary comes through nice and clear, there are no problems understanding the participants and they've balanced nicely against the audio from the movie itself. As far as the quality of that part is concerned, it's on par with the transfer. It's not great, in fact, there are times where it sounds quite shrill. It gets the job done, as it should, but it's nothing impressive.Extras:
The main extra on the disc for The Magic Sword is an amusing eight minute interview with director Bert I. Gordon entitled The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker in which this veritable titan of trash films talks about his illustrious career in B-cinema. He comes across as a nice guy and has some amusing observations to offer regarding his work in the movies, making this a welcome addition to the set. A trailer for the movie is here too, along with a couple of MST Hour wrap segments.
The Alien From L.A. disc includes a great nine minute interview with none other than Albert Pyun, who looks resplendent in a wolf t-shirt and is only too keen to talk about this particular entry in his legitimately odd filmography. Having never seen the MST3K version of the movie, he doesn't have a whole lot to offer as far as his thoughts on the treatment his film received here, but he does have some interesting bits and pieces to offer about the making of this movie, it's leading lady, and how he feels about the way it turned out. We also get a great theatrical trailer for the feature on this disc too.
The Danger!! Death Ray also offers up a theatrical trailer for the movie but in addition to that Shout! Factory has included another in the Life After MST3K series of featurettes that they've been making for these sets. This time around the focus is on Mike Nelson who, for twelve minutes or so, regales us with stories of what he's been up to since the MST3K years came to a close. Nelson is always a funny guy and it's nice to catch up with him here.
Last but not least, the extras for The Mole People are highlighted by a featurette entitled Of Mushrooms And Madmen: The Making Of The Mole People. At just over seventeen minutes in length this is quite an informative and amusing retrospective piece that details the odd history of this truly goofy picture. We also get a trailer for the feature included on this disc as well.
Each of the four discs contains a nifty animated menu and chapter selection. Inside the packaging along with the discs (packed in slimline cases) you'll find some neat mini posters.Final Thoughts:
Shout! Factory continues to do justice to the series' legacy and their release of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXVI comes recommended to any fan of the show. Though Alien From L.A. is the stand out favorite of the four movies included here, each entry is worth watching and pretty funny. Throw in some cool extras on top of that and you've got a really well rounded entry in the collection to enjoy.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.