TV on DVD: “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Although no new-to-DVD episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seem likely to come our way anytime soon, Shout! Factory continues their efforts to return to print all the titles released by Rhino with The Singles Collection. “Don’t look for a theme or pattern behind this collection,” says the packaging, and you should take them at their word. Happily, this theme-less outing contains several all-time classics, and a nice opportunity to save some space on your shelf for all of us who already have these as single disks. So with no further ado, Dan Wiencek and Tony Redman reunite to provide another tag-team review.

The Crawling Hand (Episode #106)

Dan: An astronaut is stranded in space without oxygen, yet somehow does not die; he then crashes back to earth, where a boy and his Swedish girlfriend come upon his severed arm. And that’s when things get weird. The Crawling Hand has everything going against it: It’s cheap, broadly acted, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and pretty boring for a movie about a severed hand. It’s also a first-season episode, chock-full of Early Installment Weirdness such as green silhouettes in the theater and Joel eating a pellet each time he operates the bridge controls. For all that, it isn’t too bad. The film at least has Alan Hale, Jr., playing the sheriff (it’s fun to close your eyes and imagine you’re hearing the younger version of the character he played in Giant Spider Invasion), and some pretty effective camerawork. As for the episode, the riffing is way more reliant on puns (courtesy Josh Weinstein) and repetition than it would subsequently, but a few moments do stand out. A gesticulating actor prompts Servo to muse, “I wish I had command of my arms like that.” And Alan Hale’s presence prompts some predictable Gilligan’s Island references, and my favorite was when he opens a letter and Crow reads, “Dear Skipper, why haven’t you sent help? Signed, the castaways.”

Tony: I thought it was a grape that Joel got every time he behaved. Regardless, it’s nice to see the very first nationally televised episode available again. Even at this early a stage it was interesting to see the formula for the show starting to gel.

Extras: “Don’t Knock the Strock,” a profile of Crawling Hand director Herbert Strock, which makes a semi-convincing argument that the movie deserves at least a little better than its reputation.

The Hellcats (Episode #209)

Dan: It feels like MST3K did a hundred of these late-60s biker epics, and even the best of them weren’t all that good, and The Hellcats is very far from the best of them. By way of plot, we have an undercover cop who’s killed by an associate of the gang, and so his girlfriend and brother then infiltrate the gang, as totally happens. Beyond that, it’s one phony-seeming biker ritual after another, with parties, drag racing, ritual combat, and a weird recreation of a medieval rack. It’s a tribute to the crew that they manage to make something even fitfully entertaining out of this, and as an episode, Hellcats is surprisingly good, even if a lot of jokes center on how damn confusing the whole thing is. I enjoyed the gang’s meeting with crime boss Scorpio (Servo: “Tell Scorpio to use his codename!”) in his car, where a German Shepherd is sitting proudly in the back seat. “You’re late,” says the boss. “Don Fido is mad,” interjects Servo. Host-segment wise, this is the episode when the writing staff had left Minnesota to hobnob with the network execs, and so the segments are all flashbacks, framed with each character keeping some kind of journal. Thankfully, this was the first and last time MST3K attempted something akin to a clip show.

Tony:  They only did thirteen shows in the second season, and three of them were biker flicks. They all tended to blend together for me. The guys still seemed to have fun with this one. I read that the writers thought the flashback segments seemed like a good idea at the time but, according to Michael J. Nelson, “It took just as long to write the introductory material as it would have to to an entirely new show.”

Extras: The movie’s trailer, where we’re informed that “the Hellcats do what they want to, even if somebody gets killed.”

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (Episode #321)

Dan: Between MST3K, Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched this movie — whatever the number, it’s more than Citizen Kane or Casablanca. As holiday traditions go, however, I’d much rather sit down to Joel and the bots teeing off on this Christmas not-classic than just about anything else, even if it edges close to the territory of being too stupid to make fun of. (As I think I noted when reviewing Cinematic Titanic, when you’ve got actors in green body paint and funny hats pretending to be Martians, making fun of the writing or the acting seems kind of beside the point.) This one is really about the host segments anyway, most prominently “A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” which could only have come from the mind and pen of Michael J. Nelson and is probably the best holiday-themed bit they ever did. (Lest we forget, here’s the choral version.) And I love Servo’s recitation of “A Child’s Christmas in Space,” in which the reindeer start exploding like balloons in the vacuum of space until Joel talks him down.

Tony: This is one that I pretty well know by heart, and there was a very good reason that this was also included in a set called “MST3K: the Essentials” (along with the ubiquitous Manos, the Hands of Fate). This is a classic, with a wonderfully odd movie, on-target riffing, and the great host segments. I still wish I had one of those Wham-O Air Blasters though…

Extras: A newly recorded intro by Joel Hodgson, the movie’s trailer, and the wraps for this episode when it appeared on The MST Hour (a syndicated version of the show that split each show into two hour-long episodes and was hosted by Mike Nelson as a narrator based on Jack Perkins).

Eegah (Episode #506)

Tony: Eegah was one of the very first episodes that Rhino released to DVD, and that’s because this is another one of the best shows Joel and company had done. The movie featured giant Richard Kiel as a prehistoric caveman discovered in the California desert by a scientist, his teenage daughter Roxy, and her singing boyfriend. With all the craziness going on, the thing the guys seemed to want to harp on quite a bit was the boyfriend, played by Arch Hall, Jr. Crow referred to him as “Cabbage Patch Elvis” (actually a pretty fair assessment). One nice thing about filming in the desert is that it gave them a chance to do an obligatory dune buggy driving scene, which caused Roxy to shout, “Whee!” (and Tom to respond, “Stop saying ‘whee’! Nobody says ‘whee’!!”) It also provided one of the shows lasting taglines, when Roxy’s dad and the teens go off in search of Eegah. As they were walking away, he had the oddly sounding dubbed line, “Watch out for snakes!” This line was often used as a callback in other episodes, and even became the name of the tour that the new MST3K cast did last year where, appropriately enough, they took another swing at Eegah. This episode also featured one of my favorite inventions, the Porkarina, a large pig-shaped instrument that provided the distinctive music for rural shows like Green Acres.

Dan: Like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, this is classic, top-ten MST3K, with the greatest call-back joke in the show’s history. Like a lot of classic MST movies, this one tries to do two things at once and so fails at both: it wants to be a horror-thriller while also launching its hero as a rock and roll teen idol. Fans who saw the new cast tackle this movie on the Watch Out for Snakes tour last year can attest that its stupidity and incompetence is more than sufficient to survive a return riffing.

Extras: A new intro from Joel and the original trailer for the movie.

I Accuse My Parents (Episode #507)

Tony: This holds a special significance for me, for when I worked as a volunteer at the first MST3K ConventioConExpoFestARama, I showed this episode to the con-goers. Proceeded by a short extolling the wonders of “The Truck Farmer” (Crow: “Worship the Truck Farmer at the church of your choice!”), the movie itself was a cautionary tale so prevalent when this was made in 1944. It’s about a young man named Jimmy who wins an essay contest where he talks about how great his parents are, when in reality they’re a couple of neglectful lushes, where Tom (as Jimmy’s mother) exclaims, “Mirror mirror on the wall. Will I make it to last call?”. Jimmy later gets a job in a shoe store, where he meets a girl and ends up getting mixed up with gangsters. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Jimmy’s accidentally shot a man. At his trial, Jimmy takes the opportunity to declare to the judge, “I accuse my parents”, which sounds like a good title for a movie, doesn’t it? But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, while Jimmy’s Mom and Dad were far from adequate, they really had nothing to do with any of the serious crimes that Jimmy committed! Another great episode from Joel and the bots.

Dan: I’ve always kind of liked this movie — it’s a pretty well-executed example of its type, and if the songs aren’t very good, there’s something likable about the whole thing that makes it a pleasant watch. And how many of us have adopted the phrase “french-fried potatoes garnish” as a result of this movie? Or is it just me?

Extras: Another new intro from Joel, the wraps for this episode when it appeared on The MST Hour, and the documentary “The Man on Poverty Row: The Films of Sam Newfield”.

Shorts Volume 3

Tony: This was the rarest disc out of the four, as it was only available if you bought the aforementioned MST3K Essentials set from Rhino’s website. Not only that, but some of the shorts contained within are from episodes that Shout! Factory were unable to release. I think my favorite ones here were the earliest ones, mainly because they were the ones I saw most often. I’m particularly fond of “Speech: Using Your Voice”, where the venerable host reminds us that you must be heard (John Heard?), you must be understood (Huh? Whaa?), and you must be pleasing (Do I please you? Do you find me pleasing?). I also enjoyed “Aquatic Wizards”, which featured kids being taught to water ski by instructors referred to as Chad and Connie Slab-body. In one scene with a 9-year-old towing a 7-year-old skier, Crow notes, “This has got litigation written all over it.”

Dan: My sentimental association with this one: “Once Upon a Honeymoon” was the first Mystery Science Theater I ever saw, when I was still in college and a friend of mine got Comedy Central. The first few shorts in this one are kind of duds in my view, but it picks up as it goes, with “Design for Dreaming” being the best of the bunch. It’s simultaneously futuristic and incredibly dated, and an amazing relic of post-war America; Mike Nelson’s plea “Someone invent rock and roll!” is the perfect response.

I’m glad to see that Shout! Factory is finding a way to re-release some of these harder to find episodes, and including new extras with them as well. It gives us all something to do while we wait for the premiere of season 12 on Netflix. Enjoy, and watch out for snakes!