In the not-too-distance future…
A man, his bots and a bad movie. It's an idea so funky, so unique, that it could go one of two ways: either it'd be entirely forgettable, or it would spawn one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
Luckily, it was the second one. Nearly everything about Mystery Science Theater 3000 screams "cult following." The subject materials are old, campy movies, the performers are connoisseurs of geek culture, and now, a quarter century years after its debut it still garners waves of attention from fans. Enough to prompt this nifty 25th Anniversary Edition box set.
Clad in a tin case, this edition carries a load of four previously unreleased episodes plus the added bonus of the "host bridge," the two episodes that mark the end of the Joel era and the start of the Mike rule. Shout! Factory has done a remarkable job putting together these sets, from packaging to surprising special features, and this one has a bonus helping of extras to celebrate the show's legacy.
There are four individual cases in this set, with the last one housing a disc for Gorgo and another disc that carries both Mitchell and The Brain That Wouldn't Die (don't worry, that disc still has its own animated menu). There are also mini posters by artist Steve Vance and the original trailers for the four unreleased movies.
Alright, let's to jump in. We've got movie sign!!!
Moon Zero Two
(1969 – Director: Roy Ward Baker)
Ah, Season 1.
MST3K is not a show you should watch chronologically. I mean you can, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you have uncanny patience. Up until the Volume XXVII box set I had never been able to sit through entire episode from first full season. The experience was too unlike what I was used to and frankly many gags missed the mark completely.
Moon Zero Two came late in the season (although that might not mean a lot since the first year broadcasted out of order), and it's not a bad offering with context in mind. The movie is pretty damned good if you ignore the atrocious parts. Though the plot is far from sizzling, it's arguable that Moon Zero Two is the granddaddy of the Space Western subgenre. Set on the moon (duh), a scavenger of space garbage, and apparently the first man on Mars, encounters a manipulative, sleazy businessman who employs the former astronaut to shoot down a comet made entirely of sapphire. Things get messy when a woman looking for her missing brother and a gang hired killers get involved.
What gets in the way of this being a good movie are the tonal shifts. The movie opens with an extended animated scene set to upbeat music (which the DVD's animated menu parodies). It then tries to get serious and poignant with commentary on the technological growth of humankind. When it starts to settle in, a bunch of cute girls come out of nowhere dancing around in ridiculous outfits, and then an anti-gravity bar brawl erupts.
In my viewing of The Slime People I was surprised at how much Josh Weinstein aka J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Tom Servo aka "Tom Sirbol") carried the episode, and that's even truer here. Many of the best lines, snickers and observations involve Servo in some way. Weinstein is just on another level, and that's part of the Season 1 charm I guess, as he regularly went off script, which in part led to internal disagreements and his departure from the show.
The gang lays dormant in periods where they completely miss opportunities for jokes, almost as if they're afraid to get too mean about the several logic and physics flaws in this ambitious, but seriously sloppy sci-fi flick. The host segments are slim pickings also, merely a mix of choppy pacing and oft-kilter jokes backed by a peasant's budget.
In a fifteen minute special feature, film historian Constantine Nasr gives much needed context to this confusing movie. After a major rewrite and a reduced budget, the movie went through several stages of development and revision, and passed through the fingers of different visionaries. Nasr points to the patchwork nature of Moon Zero Two, from the western themes, to the "hip" 60's pop culture, and the major special effects, even mentioning how Stanley Kubrick is tangentially related in its development.
It's not necessarily an impressive episode, but is a good demonstration of how this idea slowly wove together into something great; particularly when contrasted with the rest of this collection.
*Joel: "It's the same dance with different hats, but it's a totally different experience!"
(Movie shows a random switch being flipped)
Servo: "See that? Means absolutely nothing."
*(Main character achieves some ends through a completely unbelievable move or tactic)
Servo: [cool guy voice] "Works every time"
The Day the Earth Froze
(1959 – Director: Aleksandr Ptushko)
The first movie in the show's Russo-Finnish Trilogy adapts a story from the Kalevala and it can be described with one word. SAMPO.
Changed in order to bring in American crowds (duped into thinking it was a sci-fi movie) the film's original title refers to a mythical mill able to produce unlimited grain, salt and gold. A witch kidnaps a young maiden in order to convince her brother, a blacksmith, to create this magical object. With the blacksmith, a dashing lad rescues the woman, but fails to bring back the mill, plunging the world into a deathly darkness. It's basically a string of peculiar, confusing scenes, revolving around a colorful heap of glittered rock that resembles Super Aggro Crag from Global Guts. The end result is "Sampo" becoming a buzzword among MSTies, and it basically makes up every punch line for the second half of the episode.
This trippy foreign feature is something like a too-friendly nightmare, and it's right up with there with the famously absurd Jack Frost. The culture gap is thick. The Season 4 episode captures some of the best elements of the Joel era peak, mainly the synergy between host and bots and the generally laid back approach to riffing. The Joel episodes are always a little more musical and this one does not lack soulful rhythm. The jokes are very much in the moment, and other than the Sampo thing there are not a bunch of running gags, just reactions to the immediate images and sounds on the screen.
There are some lulls here and my attention strayed through some of them. One downside to watching MST3K in the present day is the dated topical references, or callbacks to things that were common knowledge in the 90s but are trivial facts now. The host segments don't really do much to be memorable, although one does center on Gypsy, which was cool. It's not an episode I would recommend individually, but again, there is a firm fanbase for these weird Russian films. Sadly, I did not feel the almighty power of Sampo.
"Here Comes the Circus" saves the day, however. The short film that runs before The Day the Earth Froze highlights the endless joy of grown men in clown makeup, animals forced into tricks for food, and people flipping mid-air on wobbly ropes two stories up. It's probably the best short I've ever seen on the show; every line is a treasure.
This disc also includes a "MST Hour Wrap" which were little host segments conducted by Mike Nelson (dressed as Jack Perkins) that bracketed some episodes when Comedy Central thought the show ran too long and asked for an abridged version.
Best lines from the short:
*Random footage of a trapeze artist:
"It's a living!"
*Mimicking the exaggerated voiceover:
(Various image of clowns.)
Servo: "Store this image way for a later nightmare"
Servo: "Yes, children's windows of perception are open for a second only to take in the horror that is the circus."
Best lines from the movie:
*Joel: “Kids come running for the rich taste of Sampo!”
*Joel: "Is it Sampo yet?"
*Joel: "Sampo is flavor!"
*A several minute song about the main character's "failure" to retrieve the Sampo.
The Leech Woman
(1960 – Director: Edward Dein)
I've often lauded Season 8 as the pinnacle of MST3K. A hearty cluster of my favorite episodes were made during the eighth year. Gut busting stuff, no doubt.
I was excited to find an episode from that season in this collection, and having never seen The Leech Woman I prepared myself for two hours of chortle and snorts. I was very disappointed. This one is a bit of a clunker. Though, as any fan of the show knows, like most humor, it's pretty subjective. I'm sure there are huge fans of Experiment 802 out there, it's just not me.
It doesn't help that the movie is tiresome and brimming with some of the most unlikeable characters in MST3K history. The movie opens with a long scene of a dickhead doctor and his boozy wife, June, saying terrible things to each other again and again. After they meet an old woman who claims to be impossibly old, the movie is quickly whisked over to Africa, or should I say "Africa" as the middle portion of the film blasts the audience with stock footage of wild animals and tribal dances. (It's also amazing to see the extras in this movie "mimic" the dancing of African tribes whilst in rampant blackface.) The doctor and his wife continue to say horrible, biting things to each other, even after they discover that the old woman is able to return to youth for a brief period via a magical ritual involving the extraction of pineal gland juices.
June steals the artifacts that induces the ritual, kills her husband, and travels back to the mainland to pose as her fictitious niece. Upon returning home, the (now) young woman immediately throws herself at her husband's assistant who is so enamored in their first meeting that he completely ignores his already hot girlfriend. When June discovers she must keep killing people in order to stay young, she does so with little trepidation, apparently planning on murdering men every day or so until someone notices. Nothing in this movie adds up, or is at all compelling. It's packed full of shallow characters with thoughtless motives.
That's obviously not the issue, as the movies are supposed to be bad. The big problem is that this is the second episode of the final iteration of the Man and his Bots trio, and the newest member has not yet congealed to the ebb of a solid MST3K performance. Bill Corbett replacing Trace Beaulieu was just as huge as Mike Nelson taking over for Joel. Beaulieu was a huge force on the show, contributing not only snarks, riffs, and great writing, but was an intricate part of the design and feel of the entire thing. It's clear in The Leech Woman that Corbett has yet to catch the flow, trying too hard to play Crow T. Robot and not naturally lampooning in his idiosyncratic style.
Seasons 8-10 house some of my favorite installments because the synergy and camaraderie surges like an undammed river. Corbett, with his innate sarcasm and skepticism paired with his piercing voice, balances out the deep toned and more tender Servo/Murphy and goes well with Mike's subdued, nudging comments. This early version of Crow 2.0 is too careful and some of the riffs miss the mark because of it. It's not until the end of the episode (particularly a scene with an oddly nonchalant detective) that things pick up, and by then it's too late.
I've generally enjoyed the Mike-era host segments over his predecessor's but there a really no good ones in this batch. The Nanite sketch is probably the best, but this is actually the last time we ever seen the minuscule ship helpers in the show, so there's that. Other sketches revel in being kind of a "non-sketch", most notably the final one where Tom Servo yells "Jeb" over and over like Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies (complimented with Kevin Murphy holding a "Jeeeeeeb!" over the entirety of the show's end credits).
The special feature on this disc is Life After MST3K: Mary Jo Pehl, interviewing the "Mad" of the later seasons on what she's been doing since 1998. Answer: She's written books, worked for NPR, and contributed to MST3K's two successors, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, among other endeavors. So, basically, more than you.
*Crow: "This is the 50′s, why am I explaining things to a woman? GET IN THE CAR!"
*(Guy walks by his girlfriend after meeting the de-aged fem fatale)
Mike: "Excuse me, sir."
*Anything with the word "pineal" in it.
(1961 – Director: Eugène Lourié)
The English Godzilla. That's a pithy way to describe the subject of this Season 9 episode. MST3K has a long, raucous history with giant monster movies, and this story of a pissed lizard momma is standard fare.
Gorgo might be most remembered for the show
9;s only true guest star, Leonard Maltin, who shows up in the host segments at the employ of the evil Pearl Forrester. The seasoned film critic pimps out the 1998 edition of his movie guide whilst offering up Gorgo for lampooning. He actually, almost shamefully, admits he likes the movie. Additionally, in this disc's minute-or-so special feature, "Leonard Maltin Explains Something," he reiterates his affection for the film, more proudly this time, and again, gives a shout out to the newest edition of his yearly movie guide. A truly frivolous bonus feature, but I legitimately appreciate the effort.
Though really, this episode might not be remembered at all. It aired twice on one day in the summer of '98 and never graced the small screen again due to a dispute over rights and use (this trend has cropped up a few times over the years with right holders, oftentimes the estate of the original filmmakers, not too happy with the justice administered). Kudos to Shout! for procuring the evasive rights to this one.
Like Moon Zero Two this movie has some killer special effects, a rarity for MST3K. This makes the riffing hard sometimes, I think. Some of the jokes are really detached from the film's action or are a little too complex or "inside" to enjoy. Then again, there are some gold nuggets, like the sequence in the one-man submarine, and the Sampo-like fascination with a circus owner named Dorkin. Those moments had my cheeks aching with laughter.
Together with the Maltin bookends the host segments are pretty good. "Waiting for Gorgo" is the perfect pairing of silly and sophistication that the program excelled at, and the last one examining the fact that the film Gorgo sports no female characters, main, side or otherwise, is spot on in a quippy, matter-of-fact way.
In case you didn't get enough Gorgo, the 40 minute(ish) documentary "Ninth Wonder of the World: The Making of Gorgo (MST3K Edition)" details the entire history of the semi-seminal movie, including interviews with various historians and experts. From origins to hiccups, successes and legacy, this thorough look examines a movie many probably aren't aware of and establishes its place among the crop the monster flicks made at that time. I've stated it repeatedly in my coverage of the Shout! collections, but this is why I love these sets. The look back at Gorgo and its massive footprint is very interesting and made me value the movie, no matter how much it misses the mark, a lot more.
*Servo: Why does that octopus have a hacksaw?
*(The shot switches suddenly from a doll to a bunch of tanks)
Servo: Now tanks are brought in to roll over the doll!
*Crow: Oh, Dorkin was a person. A character. Weird.
(1975 – Director: Andrew V. McLaglen)
Originally put on DVD in 2001, Episode 512, undoubtedly, is one of the most famous installments of the show. The final go-around for Joel Robinson, real name Joel Hodgson, aka the creator of MST3K, is a near perfect episode. The movie is terrible, the rifting is fantastic, and the host segments are thick with meaning and goofiness. It's Joel's coup de grace and it's beautiful, man.
In the summer of 1993 Hodgson decided to leave over minor disputes with producer Jim Mallon and a general desire to pursue other creative activities. Mallon thought it smart to serialize the show just a tiny bit more to strengthen the brand and make MST3K stand up in the long run. Joel, the constant inventor (and magician), wanted to keep pushing forward but was limited by the realities of studio forces and contractual obligations. Joel spoke about this period in a recent interview with ET:
"We started fighting and it just kind of escalated, and I just felt like I didn't like the way it was going," explains Hodgson. "I was always really happy when I was making Mystery Science Theater and I could see the end to that, and I felt like that would be really bad. I didn't want to be one of those bitter comedians — I'm unemployed, being the sad clown. So I left, and it turned out to be the right thing. Everything's kind of reverted back. For example, you're talking to me about Mystery Science Theater, not Jim Mallon, so I feel the universe is in the right place."
Indeed, Joel. I can't tell you how happy it makes me that Joel looks at his most famous creation with unmitigated pride and is still on good (enough) terms with the people who grabbed the steering wheel once he jumped ship.
Joel's last show as host begins with him putting the finishing touches on a matchstick house, one which he knows Crow and Servo will inevitably destroy. He's strangely at peace with his meticulous creation being hacked to pieces right in front of him. Meta!
Outside of a couple other skits, the rest of the segments are uncharacteristically plot heavy, focusing on getting Joel off the Satellite of Love (RIP Lou Reed!) and introducing Mike as a new character in a show where the same dozen people played every single role. It actually works extremely well, and Joel gives a goodbye that is very much in the mold of the program, by quoting an old movie no one's heard of.
Due to the ceremony of this it might be easy to overlook the movie at the center of the hurricane, the detective thriller Mitchell, staring Joe Don Baker as the most unremarkable, unbelievable bad boy lawman in the history of film. The gang comes out firing on this one and rarely turns down the intensity. A good MST3K makes you laugh your butt off a dozen or so times; a great one keeps you gigging like a nutcase for eight minute stretches. In a flurry of glutton, slob and doofus jokes poor Joe Don Baker never stood a chance.
Mitchell is a mess. Baker hams it up big time in a cop drama that zeroes in on an alcoholic zero and his wannabe Dirty Harry life. Joel and bots make sure to tear this one down, and dig in with a stream of food and beer riffs that might sound immature, but dear god are they appropriate. Even the guys shouting "Mitchell!" every time Joe Don awkwardly scuttled across the screen were brilliant in their fitting simplicity. They send Joel off right this in this very musical episode, one with fantastic running gags.
Everyone is on their A+ game and it shows in the small details — the interactions, the sneer in Crow's voice, the bravado of Tom's singing, the pure madness of the…Mads. It's probably apparent I love this one, and it's n
ot the stomach-churning Joe Don Baker/Linda Evans bizarro sex scene that tickles my fancy. Mitchell stands as a prime example of the pure, inexplicable, inimitable joy inherent to the MST3K concept.
For a Mitchell lover like me the special feature "The Last Flight of Joel Robinson" is a perfect follow up. Trace, Kevin and Joel are individually interviewed about the making of the pivotal episode, and all three give frank and reflective accounts of the big transition. Really though, it's an opportunity for them to trash the movie all over again, and it's lovely. They also get a little nostalgic about that time and place in their lives, and it's a must-see for any/all Joel fans.
*Mitchell: There's a police investigation going on here.
Joel: There is? I thought there was just a big slob walking around my house.
*Kid: My mother doesn't like you.
Mitchell: I don't like your mother.
Kid: Why not?
Mitchell: Why not?
Kid: No, why not?
Mitchell: No, why not?
Kid: Why are you repeating what I say?
Mitchell: Why are you repeating what I say?
Servo: Tonight on Crossfire.
Kid: I'm not!
Mitchell: Well, I'm not.
Kid: You are!
Mitchell: Buzz off!
Kid: What did you say?
Mitchell: What did you say?
Kid: Did you say something?
Mitchell: Did you say something?
*Joel: Mitchell, license to slouch.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die
(1962 – Director: Joseph Green)
I gotta believe that some of the earliest Internet flamewars were ignited over the Joel/Mike debate.
MST3K had a presence online before many of the top 100 websites were even conceived. There in an intrinsic brotherhood to the whole phenomenon, possibly stemming from the concept itself, a bunch of buds sitting around watching a terrible movie. The community element that eventually bore the term "MTSie" started long before the net when fans were trading tapes due to the one-and-done nature of TV back in the less-digital days. Chat rooms and message board became natural gathering places for fans of a show that catered to a niche audience. After all, it takes a certain type of person to actually enjoy a movie interrupted with incessant witticisms.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die not only introduces Mike, but a whole smattering of differences that long-time fans would notice immediately. Big, though subliminal, changes slowly take place after this point, changes that still bother some fans. I'm personally a huge supporter of the Mike-era (that's because I didn't discover the show until 1997), but I can understand how and why so many resisted the change. Even in his first episode, Mike is clearly not Joel: he's less passive and interacts with the bots more as peer than patriarch.
While Gorgo was seen by almost no one, this episode about a severed head is possibly one of the most watched due to a VHS and subsequent DVD release 10-15 years ago. Surprisingly, it's actually quite good for Mike's first foray into torture by means of bad movies. Nelson was the head writer for the show since Season 2, so it's not like his sense of humor is in doubt, it's just thinking something funny and actually using your mouth to make it funny are two separate things.
Of course, The Brain That Wouldn't Die offers up plenty of ammunition for pokes and jokes. An amoral scientist only concerned with results, kills his wife in a senseless "accident" then keeps (part of) her alive with the help of a groundbreaking serum. Truthfully, there are figments of a decent plot structure, but holy shit is this movie unsettling. Bill, the scientist, schemes to reattach his wife's skull-piece to a body, but not any body, a hardbody. Thus, Bill spends nearly the entire movie stalking strippers and bikini models, vetting out a victim for his wife's disconnected cranium. I suspect a working title for this movie was The Creeping Creepster.
(It just dawned on me how anti-women all these movies are/were. Damn!)
One of the Creepster's prey is interviewed in a special feature. Marilyn (Harold) Neilson, former Playmate, has an extremely small nonspeaking role in the movie as a model vetted by Bill Ick the Scientist, and talks about her career and her memories of the movie. I'm assuming she's the only surviving cast member because there is really no point to it.
Watching this episode and the last one back-to-back, along with the rest of this collection, it never truly feels like Mike misses a beat. While the trio doesn't stride until later in the next season (reaching its crescendo in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie) this is still an excellent, must-see for a curious fan.
*Crow: "Doesn't she need lungs?"
Servo: "No, she's got neck juice!"
*Crow: "Oh, shut up little pan woman!"
*(Man walks in on grisly murder scene)
Servo: "Luuucy, I'm ho- LUCY, OH MY GOD"
The multipart hour-long documentary "Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000" is a good way to finish this off. Spread across the first three discs of the set it takes an examined look at certain aspects of the MST3K experience from the people who were there from the beginning.
The first part of the doc focuses on the crew behind the camera at Best Brains Inc.(the production company created by Joel, et all), chronicling their challenges and accomplishments in creating set pieces and props that relied heavily on quick turnaround and fresh ideas.
The second installment is subtitled "The Locations" but really needs to be called "The Origins." Hodgson, Beaulieu , Murphy, and Mallon all give accounts of the birth and first stages of the idea that eventually formed this cultural monolith. While the early days have been documented before, this is easily more in-depth, informative and enlightening than most of what I've read or watched online. The actors/writers/producers detail everything from the creative spark to the hectic production of the first season to finally achieving the bulk of their vision in Season 2. The anecdotes and tidbits of memory are priceless.
Finishing the documentary is a look at the characters of the show. In a way it really highlights the host segments and the content that populated them. It's fascinating to see the show handled logistical problems with creativity.
As a whole "Return to Eden Prairie" is the jewel of this celebratory collection. In terms of a nostalgic rewind it's unrivaled in depth and content, and se
eing all the old faces again really feels good as a fan. On the downside, it's very Joel-centric, and slants more toward beginnings and inspirations. It hones in on certain aspects (the set pieces; KTMA) but backs off other areas (the writing process; the cheesy movies).
The ol' critic line of "good for all fans, new and old alike" is as decrepit as the old African woman in The Leech Woman, but it's very true here. MST3K is a difficult show to introduce to friends and family because of its constant evolution and the mitigating humor tastes of the human species. That makes this box set an excellent sampling of all that the show has to offer. The selection of episodes aren't top-notch, and some of the special features are duds but there is a lot there to like, or even love if your cold heart is open to it. Pick any six episodes of this show at random and you're bound to find something worthy of your time.
Shout! Factory has proven their quality over and over, and this follows the pattern. If you can afford it, get it.
(Thanksgiving is sort of the patron holiday of MST3K, and I'm a celebratory mood, so I'll hit you with some special features, review style:
- Joel did an AMA recently, and reveals the next movies for the next box set.
- I linked the ET interview above, here are two more with Joel.
- And finally, this Thanksgiving Joel handpicked six episodes to stream online.
Turkey Day is the new Christmas, y'all.)
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.