DVD Review: A Double Dose of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ (“Hamlet” and “Gunslinger”)

The cult classic television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” features a man and his two robots trapped in outer space and wisecracking through some of the worst movies they (and you) have ever seen. DVDs for the show were originally handled by Rhino, but in 2008 those duties were taken over by Shout! Factory. They’ve done a great job with eight multi-episode volumes so far (and a ninth coming out later this summer featuring all their Gamera episodes), but through their Shout! Select online store they’ve recently started selling DVDs that were previous Rhino releases that are now out of print. They started the ball rolling with the episodes Beginning of the End and The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. These must have done all right for them, because they’re releasing two more from the vaults: Hamlet and Gunslinger.

Hamlet, from the show’s tenth and final season, features Maximillian Schell in this 1961 German television adaptation of the melancholy Dane. Maybe all the bad movies I’ve seen have changed my perspective a bit, but I didn’t think the movie itself was that bad. Sure, the set was somewhat sparse, and occasionally the dubbing of the voices threw off the cadences of the lines, but I’ve seen worse. The offshoot of this is that many of the jokes Mike and the robots throw out are just as suitable to any version of Hamlet. For example, when Hamlet says, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio,” Crow responds with “I sat next to him in Trig.” That doesn’t make the jokes any less funny; just more versatile. Of course they also have ample opportunity to kid around about the acting and dubbing (including King Claudius’ voice, which sounds an awful lot like Ricardo Montalban). The skits tie in well to the movie too, like a game show where contestants are shown a bone and must identify its famous owner, and a talking Hamlet action figure with an extremely long string to pull.

Gunslinger from Season 5 was significant for a couple or reasons. Firstly, it was the next to last show starring co-creator Joel Hodgson, and secondly, it was the first western that MST3k tackled. Gunslinger is a Roger Corman quickie from 1956 featuring Beverly Garland as a marshal’s wife who decides to take over for her husband when he gets shot and killed in the first five minutes of the movie. (You can’t accuse Corman of dawdling to get to the plot here!) The bad guys hire a gunslinger who, instead of knocking off the new sheriff, falls in love with her.  Lots of abuse is heaped on one of the henchmen who Joel and his robotic compatriots  take to calling “Wormy.” (Trivia note: Wormy is played by  Jonathan Haze, a Corman mainstay probably best known for playing Seymour in the original The Little Shop of Horrors.) Joel, Crow and Servo get to play with the convention of westerns, and there’s plenty of laughs in this one. While it is a cheapie Corman western, you gotta give the guy (and writer Charles B. Griffith) credit for finding a new wrinkle to the genre. And Garland does a pretty nice job here too. (Of course I could be partial to the fact that I got to meet her when she appeared at the first MST3k ConventioConExpoFestaRama.)

Both DVDs are bare bones releases, with only a “Play Movie” option on the menu, and a picture identical to the front cover of the DVD. The Hamlet DVD plays the MST3k end theme during the menu, and Gunslinger plays music from the opening credits of the movie itself.  However, there is something else special at the beginning of the Gunslinger episode that’ll bring back fond memories to MSTie nerds like myself: the title card that showed at the beginning of every episode for a couple of seasons. You’d hear a voice (usually editor Tim Scott) saying “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Show (whichever show number it was), Reel One.” I always thought it was a mistake that these were shown, but it was nice to know as soon as the show started whether I’d seen it or not!

These two episodes are departures from the more typical horror or sci-fi movies they skewered, and that makes them especially worthy for fans of the show who missed these the first time around. Remember these are available only through Shout! Factory’s online store, and if you order them both together, you also get free shipping and an MST3k Stress Ball!