There are two types of people-- those who love MST3K, and those who have never seen it.
OK, so that should tip you off, I'm a huge Mystery Science Theater fan. I love the show so much that it's a little weird to me when people haven't heard of it, which is an absurd, selfish thought because the guys on the Satellite of Love practically define the meaning of "cult status"
I discovered MST3K by complete accident sometime in my preteens, possibly my pre-preteens. This was the age of scheduled bedtimes, even on the weekends, a time so long ago that it feels a little bit like a fairy tale. I remember I was over at my cousin Tommy's house, and we were watching TV under the supervision of my uncle. Though I can't remember a single specific detail about it, Tom and I religiously tuned into a TV show on Sci-Fi on Saturday evenings. As soon as the credits rolled on this super important show that occupies so little of my memory we were always ushered directly to bed without reprieve. This particular evening my uncle had fallen asleep on the couch, and we continued watching television, hoping to gain precious seconds of awake time. The subsequent program came on, and with promises of puppets and a spaceship in the shape of a femur we could not turn the channel.
After a seriously odd intro, a man and two robots enter a theater and an old, very boring looking movie begins. What ensued ended up being one of the most memorable moments of my childhood. My cousin and I couldn't believe our ears -- these puppets were CUTTING THE FUCK UP. We did our best to contain our laughter, trying earnestly not to wake up our parental supervision, but after about fifteen minutes our luck ran out and we were sent directly to bed.
That night we stayed up, buzzing from one of the craziest things we had ever saw on television. Us, two certified smartass kids, found a show that spoke sarcasm and cynicism like a poetic language. We had only seen a small sliver of MST3K, but we were hooked. The next few months Tom and I tried to find as many episodes as possible, from convincing our parent to let us tape it, to even using something called
KaZaa to get whole episodes for FREE!
Over the years I've seen a decent portion of the nearly 200 episodes of the long running series. I'm able to recommend choice selections or explain the concept and philosophy behind the show (no, they're not riffing live...). I know the flavor differences between Joel and Mike, and I'm aware that sometimes the jokes can be as lame as the movie about the giant rubber suited monster.
Although I have a couple single episodes on disc I don't own any Volume Collections of MST3K and I was very curious as to the content of this one. Just from hanging around forums and my own personal viewing experience, I'm aware that some seasons are far better than others, and there are patches within each of the seasons where the writing is either hot fire or ice cold. There was a legitimate concern I would get a bunch of stinkers.
I'll happily report that Shout Factory has a good set of episodes on this four disc set. They're hand selected from different seasons, and it seems that they were chosen to embody the different stages of a show that went on for ten seasons. Additionally, Shout Factory really made a valiant effort to produce awesome-quality special features, one for each disc. Along with the animated DVD menus and the new promotional/box art by Steve Vance it's safe to say that these aren't just episodes slapped on a disc. They really do offer something extra for long-term, die-hard fans like myself.
I don't like when people throw around the word unique, but it applies perfectly to this show. A puppet, matinee comedy musical thing that works, and sometimes doesn't. Anyway, here's what Volume XXVI offers up.
The Magic Sword
(1962, Director: Bert I. Gordon )
From the fourth season, this episode is a good sampling of what's normally regarded as the first period of the show, with Joel the handyman dealing with the evil Dr. Forrester and his zany experiments in the form of bad movies. The (slightly) more musical Hodgson/Beaulieu/Murphy combination, the longest running iteration of "a man and his robot pals", lay down zingers on The Magic Sword, a 60's film by Bert Gordon, one of the pioneers of 50's drive-in horror B-movies.
Mr. Bert Ira Gordon has the distinction of having the most films (8) lampooned by the MST3K crew. This flick follows a knight (Gary Lockwood) on some arbitrary mission, and it's got magic and a huge dragon and stuff. It's a pretty silly adventure, but not the worst I've seen, and that might contribute to this being the worst episode in the collection.
The first thirty minutes or so of the episode are stocked with pop culture references, which I'm cool with, except this was made in 1992, so I'm just about completely clueless as to what the hell the gang is talking about. I can give that a pass because the show often throws out miscellaneous references. It's part of the overall charm, but maybe that charm is a little thick here.
The show speaks to people in different ways, that's part of its success, and I always enjoyed when the jokes pertained to the terribleness of the movie. The Magic Sword does not possess many flaws; aside from general campiness and uninspired acting, there isn't too much to poke at.
As per tradition the host segments (short skits that break up the movie) are pretty absurd, with a song sung by Crow proclaiming his love for Estelle Winwood serving as the highlight.
Thought not a standard quality episode it managed a good number of "HA!"s from me. The Magic Sword lacks a high point, but is solid throughout.
The special feature on this disc is an interview with Bert I. Gordon himself. The notable director details his early career, expressing his dreams and path to becoming a seminal filmmaker in an era when the industry started to shape itself into the machine we know today. Gordon might have made some really terrible movies, but he made studios a lot of money, and we all know what that counts for.
Also on this disc are the framing sequences for The Mystery Science Theater Hour, a reedited version of the show formatted to fit a shorter timeslot.
Alien From L.A.
(1988, Director: Albert Pyun)
Yeah, neither did I.
Alright, I don't mean to be facetious, I'm sure some of you were going through puberty in the mid-to- late 80's and totally wanted to do/be Ireland. She's real hot, so I, like, totally understand that.
However, she's a ghastly actress, and that factors into the mess that's Alien From L.A
. It's a sort of retelling of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 1959 movie, not the book. Director Albert Pyun never read that. In this movie the nerdy, unconfident daughter of a crotchety explorer travels underground to save her father and then discovers that once she takes her glasses off, she had a ridiculous body and great personality the whole time. In the end, we're all winners.
Except that Kathy Ireland's voice is fucking bananas. At first I thought the effect was embellished to contribute to the character's naivety, but after the movie characters start to reference the high pitch squeal it's apparent that the poor kid sounded like a Valley girl in real life.
The gang, now four episodes into the Mike era, obviously poke at this endlessly, and dig into just how ridiculous some of the sci-fi concepts are. This episode is notable among fans for a few reasons, one being that it's got some memorably funny moments, another is that the movie came out only five years before the show's airing.
This season five episode is very good overall, with plenty of jokes about the air-headed main character and a classic moment in one of the host segments (Dull surprise!). Just like Kathy's voice, the jokes do start to get tiresome, but it's overflowing with personality. The balance of humor, character and spectacle embody what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is all about.
An interview with Pyun caps off the DVD and it's a delight. It's a bit fascinating to watching him wax nostalgic about his creation, brimming with a bit of pride. And rightfully so! Dude probably worked hard to make Alien From L.A., but man, it's a goofy flick.
Pyun's anecdotes are kind of awesome, from his opinion on Ireland's voice, to if he's ever seen the MST3K episode of his film. I do admit I agree with him that in the modern age of special effect the whole thing might of fared better. Maybe.
Danger!! Death Ray
(1967, Director: Gianfranco Baldanello)
Take James Bond and strip away everything cool and majestic about him. That's Bart Fargo.
Danger!! Death Ray is an Italian-made film that follows secret agent Fargo as he tries to thwart the plans of a terrorist group who have stolen a powerful weapon originally designed for "peaceful purposes." It's a movie so quickly slapped together that the MST3K episode that spoofs it has more craftsmanship in the first five minutes alone.
This season six episode is a great example of how a truly horrid movie can produce a bunch of unintended entertainment. From the super catchy theme song, to the piss-poor gadgets and unforgivable discrepancies, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo are relentless, particularly in the way of callbacks and running jokes ("Watermelon Man!"). Stemming from that cult status, possibly even boring it, the show is at it best when it's self-referential, and sustains running gags, and that happens a lot in this 90 minute serving.
The movie is almost hard to sit through as it feels like nothing happens aside from amassing a body count, higher than a Georgia pine. There's not much to say except that it's a bad movie and the guys don't let Danger!! Death Ray get away with it.
Aside from a nod to Cambot and his (her?) delicate sensibilities, the host segments are mostly forgettable. The special feature for this disc has nothing to do with the movie, which make sense because they probably couldn't find anyone who even claimed to have worked on it. Instead the segment, "Life After MST3K: Mike Nelson", is a short interview with Mike about his activities and projects after the show ended in the late nineties. Nelson, as straight laced as I've ever seen him, details what he learned, and how he views his career post-MST3K. Of particular note is RiffTrax, the application of the MST3K concept to major Hollywood movies. Nelson reveals that the idea behind RiffTrax had always existed, but the logistics of it were impossible before the age of the Internet. As a huge fan of RiffTrax, I have to give an endorsement to their brand, it's really solid stuff all around.
The Mole People
(1956, Director: Virgil Vogel)
The reason I really love RiffTrax isn't necessarily because it takes one my favorite activities-- making fun of shitty movies-- and brings it to the next logical step, it's the people who do it. The final trio for MST3K is, in my opinion, the best. The lineup of Nelson, Murphy and Bill Corbett, replacing Beaulieu as Crow T. Robot, is my favorite iteration of the crew. While Trace Beaulieu was extremely central to the show's look, feel and success, Corbett's tone and approach is so much more piercing and pessimistic, a great foil to the normally demure Mike and largely whimsical Tom. I believe that the late-era MST3K episodes are consistently some of the best, and the work on RiffTrax continues to prove me right.
Season eight of the show might be the greatest. The writers and performers were just at the top of their game for entire strings of episodes, so it's great there is a sampling of that 1997 magic in this collection. The Mole People is my favorite of the four in the Volume, though I'll refrain from saying "best" because personal tastes might consider the content of the other three episodes funnier. (You'd be wrong, but I
just think it's fair to give you the opportunity to be wrong.)
A movie brimming with stock footage and cheap special effects, The Mole People follows a team of explorers led by John Agar as they stumble across a lost civilization deep inside a mountain. These humanoids are split into two castes, the pale-skinned, zealous ruler class and their servants, giant vermin-looking creatures that dig holes and abduct people on command. Apparently, both of these races are considered the "mole people" as no name is given to either.
The movie, for its time, actually has some decent ideas as far as hierarchy and the role of religion and spirituality in society, however the production values on this are so bottom dollar the people who saw this movie in the theaters probably lost networth on their way out.
The trio relentlessly trashes The Mole People for all its fallacies. You think any movie with so much stock footage of people climbing mountains would suck any way you slice it, but those are among the best stretches. Not missing a beat, there's plenty of commentary on Agar's know-it-all, never-shuts-up performance, and a few Batman references as the original Alfred (Alan Napier) plays a high priest and the chief antagonist.
The host segments carry the tone that works best. While the Invention Exchange (a fixture in the first half of the show's history) was all good and well, I liked when the actors dressed up like monkeys from Planet of the Apes, or were trapped in ancient Rome or chased through space, a lot more. The absurdity is still there, it just has a steady theme, and there are always plenty of opportunities to entertain with a catchy song or an off-the-wall sketch. A note from the vault of randomness: the last segment in this episode features an appearance from Ohio State University running back, and occasional sports pundit, Robert Smith. He represents the first of two guest stars in the show's entire history.
A twenty minute mini-documentary about the making of The Mole People accompanies the episode. Interviewing film historians and using quotes from producers and directors, a movie that is probably remembered by a few hundred people gains a half second of re-relevance. It's actually a bit captivating, and much like the other special features, shines a spotlight on the inner operations of the film industry,
both then and now.
As you can probably tell, this show is very personal for me, and I found the episodes to increase in quality in their boxed order. As I already revealed, I like the late-era MST3K a lot more than the early stuff, so that might speak to my preference.
The selected episodes are not the crème de la crème, but none are duds, and all provide at least a few gut-busters. I give the episodes themselves a slightly above average rating, but the collection as a whole receives extremely high marks. Shout Factory could have easily thrown four movies on two discs and called it a day. No fan would have complained, especially since I know a couple of these episodes are seeing official release for the first time. However, the distributor produced new box art specific to each episode, created new animated title menus and produced their own short pseudo-documentaries on the source material and the show itself.
The only downside might be the price point, but I honestly think it's worth it. With a great mix of episodes there is little reason not to grab Volume 26. If you're a die-hard collector, or just someone who fondly remembers the series the laughs are equal opportunity.
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.