Let me begin by expressing how ecstatic I am to have to chance to watch and review another volume of one my favorite TV shows. Thank you Shout Factory! Thank you, Comics Bulletin! Thank you, Publisher Jason Sacks!
I've loved Mystery Science Theater 3000 since my preteens, and consider myself a superfan, but I'm not even sure if I've seen half of the almost 200 episodes. Three of the four in this set are new to me, and each is an adventure in its own.
Shout! Factory deserves all types of praise for putting these collections together. Not only are they polished, with each episode receiving it own individual case, artwork, animated menu screen and special feature, but the act of securing the rights is a beast in of itself. MST3K is a show wrapped around an old movie, and in 2013 those movies might as well be considered relics. Rights can switch estates many times in 50 years. That's why the series isn't released by season, there are just some properties that are simply impossible to get.
As I learned with my review of the previous volume, it's hard enough comparing the episodes up against each other let alone judging the collection as a whole. It's all one weird experiment set in space and these episodes showcase an ever broader spectrum starring all four different three-man cast combos. Also, there's a bit of a loose theme here — a monster movie tone — but that's like a third of the movies lampooned in the show's history, so take it as you will.
The Slime People
(1963; Director: Robert Hutton)
First up: a season one episode featuring the horrendous 60's flick The Slime People. It's a movie about a subterranean race of spear-wielding savages trying to take over the surface world. As the Bots point out in a host segments — why in the hell would peeps from the underground have a slime-based physiology? That's just the start of the absurdity.
I've seen more episodes of this show than the next guy, but honestly, I don't think I've ever watched one from Season 1. The biggest tell for me is the absence of Kevin Murphy, the longest running cast member, who voiced Tom Servo for more than 90% of the series. More accurately, it's the presence of Josh Weinstein, the man behind Servo in the premiere season, that makes it strange.
Weinstein left the show after that first year because he wasn't' satisfied with the direction of the riffing and went on to write for various network TV shows (as well as participating with other alum in one of MTS3K's successors, Cinematic Titanic). Due to my unfamiliarity with his voice and style the experience felt uneasy, but that went away quickly. If Weinstein chose to stay with MST3K he would have developed nicely as a performer. His voice has a Jon Benjamin quality to it, baritone and sometimes deadpan, and the delivery of lines might be the best out of the trio of Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu. The biggest pratfall is his puppeteering, which is amateur when put up against the often brilliant Beaulieu.
The show is sick with flubs and flaws. Missed lines, poor blocking and staging, and missed opportunities riddle the two hours. However, it's hard to be too harsh on a show pioneering such a novel concept.
A short film begins the episode, a part of a serial titled "Radar Men from the Moon" (Part 6). Uh huh, it's as bad as the title. I couldn't even really follow the primary action but essentially it's about some agent scientist guy named Cody with a jetpack. This is just one part of the serial and the MST3K crew covered several installments throughout the first season.
The main feature is a streaming pile of mess. The Slime People follows a pilot (Robert Hutton, also the director) as he lands in L.A to find it taken over by lumbering monsters. He meets up with a doctor, his fabulous looking daughters, and a young soldier, and they all get lost in this preposterously thick fog before making a final stand with secret weapon in hand, sodium chloride. Yep, table salt.
The riffing starts out surprisingly well, with a thread of California-based jokes hitting the mark. Joel is more energetic than I've ever seen him, interacting a lot with the screen and raising his voice in excitement. In that same vein the focus of the humor hovers around the movie's terrible plot and special effects; in later seasons the humor had a much more abstract and tangential quality. Even the host segments revolve around how horrible the movie is, pointing out plot holes and the like, instead of some contrived aspect of it.
While it's hard not to notice the growing pains, the missed chances and long periods of time with little to no commentary, Slime People impressed me…until that last portion. Trying to mimic a humid atmosphere (I guess), the entire third act is obscured by manufactured fog, making it near impossible for the viewer to view and the quipper to quip. The crew does its best, but their jokes just boil down to how little we can see.
Special features are the big bonus of these collections and the first one doesn't disappoint. Judith (Morton) Fraser, the actress who played one of the scientist's daughters, relates her experience in the film industry and on the set of The Slime People. Fraser dishes a little slime on her costars, and gives insight to why the film was so terrible and her thoughts on its legacy. Since it's highly unlikely it would afford a DVD with its own special features I love how these retrospectives pull us back in time to gain insight and perspective on a film fading from relevancy.
Best line (of the short):
(Cody toys with his rocket before takeoff.)
"Nipple, nipple. Tweak, tweak"
Best line (from the main feature):
(Professor from the movie: " Now, we've always known that there are fish in the ocean…" )
"Oh, that's a little farfetched."
Rocket Attack U.S.A.
(1961; Director: Barry Mahon)
What a hellish nightmare of a movie. Pure propaganda, and it's offensive merely on the grounds of its atrocious quality.
At the start of Season 2 the show started to get their creative wheels rolling downhill, and Rocket Attack U.S.A is a good example. The jokes are tighter, calling back to previous gags and the writing has a zany quality to it. Kevin Murphy has replaced Josh Weinstein at this point, and it shows, although if you forced me to compare this to the previous flick I might say they're dead even.
The short in front, "Phantom Creeps", is something to behold. I couldn't even try to explai
n what the hell happens. Someone has an invisibility belt, Bela Lugosi shows up, spiders explode… The action moves at a quick, frenzied pace and it's so busy the guys have trouble fitting riffs in. I think the crew realized the serialized shorts really don't work in this format, and in later seasons they switched to PSA-type features.
Rocket Attack U.S.A holds distinction as one of the harder MST3K films to sit through. Joel, Kevin and Trace have a lot of good joke,s but the bland plot, the lifeless characters, and the copious amounts of stock footage test the boundaries of what a movie actually is. A U.S. spy is tasked with infiltrating the Soviet Union and along the way meets a female agent and a Brit with NO ACCENT. Agent and girl tragically fail in their mission and die in a ditch. That happens at like the mid-way point and the rest of movie fills the minutes with confusing shots of missiles and running soldiers. Oh, and New York blows up at the end.
This episode features the series' very first stinger, a snippet of footage that sums up the movie's ridiculousness. This motif that ran through the rest of the show, and it's fitting it started here, where a random shot of a random blind man saying "Help me" flashes on the screen during the big finish. It's such an iconic moment that the entire DVD menu animation is revolved around the old man. That type of attention to detail that makes a fan squee.
The host segments demonstrate the specific humor the show produces. Following the theme of the movie the writers take a political slant, never forgetting the funny but loading the skits with lots of tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes the segments run a little long, but they score extra points in terms of flavor. A nice bonus for fans is the appearance of Mike Nelson as the Russian counterpart to Joel.
The special feature on the disc is "Life After MST3K: Trace Beaulieu," catching up with one of the show's more influential figures. Trace reviews the various projects he's been involved with since his departure from MST3K after the seventh season, between working in the TV industry on shows like Freaks and Geeks and America's Funniest Home Videos and reaching out to other media he's been a busy guy. While this info is always readily available online it's a little better to hear it from the person themselves.
Best line from the short:
("Is he stunned?")
"Stunned?! He took six bullets!"
Best line(s) from the movie:
(The protagonist sits in a restaurant/club waiting to meet the female agent. A long dancing performance ensues.)
“Could somebody get this guy some service please?”
"Not coming back here again."
"Could you get me some crackers or something? Just anything! I–"
Village of the Giants
(1965; Director: Bert I. Gordon)
In Volume XXVI one of the special features reviewed the life of Bert I. Gordon, the director infamous for his high grossing B-movies featuring huge monsters. The Village of the Giant People, supposedly adapted from a H.G. Wells story, is simply, majestic. Something about this movie fascinates the shit out of me. (I'm not the only one, apparently.)
An episode near the middle of the series, Mike Nelson has just taken over as the primary human on the Satellite of Love. The machine runs smoothly at this point, there's continuity to just about everything. The riffs have a sweet rhythmic venom to them, and countering that are a series of host segments all revolving around TV's Frank, a beloved side character. Frankly (ha!), the host segments don't get much better than this, and I'm not even a big fan of them.
Gordon produced a lot of fodder for MST3K and this represents the last serving of hilarity. The film opens to a car smashing against a pole. A litter of wild looking young people pour out and wrestle each other in the mud, laughing like shroomed-out jackals. Done with beating the hell out of each other the group eventually stumbles into a town and find a growth-inducing substance created by a child genius named Genius (Ron Howard) and try to take over a small town. One guy (Tommy Kirk) manages to turn the tide with a slingshot. There is a lot of dancing, partial nudity, Beau Bridges and The Beau Brummels.
Simply put, there's just too much to like about this episode, the batty movie makes the riffing easy and the writing produces quality zingers. I find the sensationalism of the flick really alluring. Attractive delinquents in togas plan oligarchy through force. With mostly decent special effects I can understand how it drew attention in drive-ins, etc. The gang misses a few beats, but they make up for it by getting deep digs on the actors for their poopy performances. And jeez, poor Willow.
Like the Slime People extra this one also interviews an actress from the movie. Joy Harmon enjoyed a very good career in Hollywood in the 60's. She reminisces on her time in show business and eventually gets around to talking about Village of the Giants. Again, these features make movies like Village of the Giants time capsules, and hearing about how the movie was made from someone on the inside lets us open them up.
“Never has a car crash been celebrated so well.”
The Deadly Mantis
(1957; Director: Nathan Juran)
Standard stuff right here, and I mean that in the best and worst ways.
Let's start with the bad: the film. Deadly Mantis represents a pillar of 50's cinema: the threat of giant bug attacks. With a plot built merely to revolve around a spectacle of a praying mantis creature, this movie delivers a nest of logic gaps and grandiose ineptitude. Admittedly, the special effects are pretty good, but it can't make up for how boring everything else is.
OK, now the good, this is a Season 8 episode, and though the best episodes aren't until later in the season the formula of success begins to take form here. I first saw this one maybe ten years ago but that didn't dawn on me until about halfway when I realized the same jokes were making me giggle a decade later. A very basic rundown of a very basic plot — volcano explodes, mantis kills people, stock footage, baffled scientist convene, people kill mantis.
At this point Bill Corbett has replaced Trace Beaulieu, this being his fourth episode. Although the trio is newly formed, the riffing is nonstop and hits the target almost every time. The quality that jumps out is the fluidity and harmony in the jokes. Mike and Bots bounce gags off of each other at a faster rate making it feel more improvisational. It's in this era that it really feels like a bunch of friends cutting up in a theater.
The Deadly Mantis works on a lot levels. When compared to the first episode of Volume XXVII it shows the cohesion of MST3K over time, from great idea to great show. The host segments don't live up to expectations but as far the main presentation, it's the bee's knees.
Two(!) special features on this one. The first is an "introduction" by Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester), expressing her views on the movie and its place in history. The second is a short film "Chasing Rosebud: The Cinematic Life of William Alland", which chronicles the life of the movie's writer and producer. Both pieces are very insightful and informative.
"No, Richmond the United Arab Emirates. Wake up! "
Honorable Mention (just 'cause it's classic);
"But I gotta mantis in my pantis"
Another splendid set of DVDs by Shout! Factory. The four episodes collate to an above average quality, and the last two are often considered upper tier in most fan's favorite lists. It's really a can't miss for someone looking for a platter of everything the show offered up over its long, illustrious run.
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. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.