TV on DVD: “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XXXI”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Popdose’s resident “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gurus Dan Wiencek and Tony Redman review the “MST3K Turkey Day Collection”. Will these turkeys fly high or fall like a rock?

Ah, Thanksgiving — that yearly ritual of coma-inducing food, awkward conversation with scarcely seen relatives and, if you come from a certain kind of family, hours and hours of cheesy movies, expertly skewered by Joel (or Mike) and the ‘bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanksgiving and MST3K have always gone hand in hand: the first episode ever broadcast went out on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, on KTMA in Minneapolis, and during the height of the show’s popularity on Comedy Central, the network ceded its entire Thanksgiving schedule to MST3K to run the beloved Turkey Day Marathons. In those pre-Internet, pre-file-sharing days, the Turkey Day extravaganzas — blocks of as many as 15 two-hour episodes in a row, with seasonally appropriate skits and bumpers recorded by the cast — gave fans a much-needed opportunity to catch up on their home taping; beyond that, in a television landscape filled with numbing parades, predictable football games and The Wizard of Oz, Turkey Day was a chance to unbutton your pants, sink into the sofa and surf a wave of tryptophan grogginess accompanied by the cleverest, hippest comedy on the box.

In salute to the glorious Turkey Days of yore, Shout! Factory is enlisting series creator Joel Hodgson to host a second, online Turkey Day Marathon, beginning at noon EST on the day, and it has also bequeathed us a new DVD set — the 31st — featuring special Turkey Day-themed packaging and extras. Only Dr. Forrester (and possibly Bobo) would bogart such a feast, so once again, Popdose Mega-MSTies Tony Redman and Dan Wiencek came together to share in the joys of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XXXI: The Turkey Day Collection.

Jungle Goddess (Episode #203)
Tony: 
This is an early entry in the second season, and it feels like they were still getting their bearings. Despite that, it’s still a pretty good “find the missing woman who’s now worshipped by natives” flick. There was even a line in the movie that become a running riff that they used for years, when the woman says she wants to get back to civilization so she can have “a hamburger sandwich and some French fried potatoes”. I thought it was interesting that the movie starred George Reeves (TV’s Superman), and yet nobody riffed on it until an hour or so in, when they joked about it constantly for a few minutes, and then barely mentioned it again. This also had a memorable host segment where Joel and the Bots do a sitcom parody called My White Goddess, which featured an early instance of Kevin Murphy multitracking his voice on the theme song. The movie is prefaced by chapter 1 of the old serial The Phantom Creeps starring Bela Lugosi and a very large, ugly robot.

Dan: Given how silly a lot of MST3K is, it’s surprising when they pull out something as pointed as “My White Goddess.” But what else are you going to do in the face of something like Jungle Goddess, one of the most politically incorrect films the gang ever tackled? While not a great episode, It must be said that films like this show the Satellite of Love crew at their indignant best. “Meanwhile,” says Servo at the onset of a new scene, “in an equally racist Tarzan movie across the way …”

Extras: The extras start with a new Turkey Day intro by Joel Hodgson (and a skit with Crow and Tom Servo (played by Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein respectively)), There’s also a great documentary, “Undercooked & Overstuffed: Inside the Turkey Day Marathon” that goes into the history of MST3K’s Turkey Day tradition, hosted by Hodgson, Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff.

The Painted Hills (Episode #510)
Tony: For some unexplainable reason, I was excited that they finally released this episode. It stars Lassie (yes, the dog) playing a dog named Shep. I think I liked the fact that it was not the kind of movie they normally tackled, so the riffs felt fresh to me, plus that the film turns rather dark toward the end, when Lassie/Shep turns pretty cold-blooded toward the villain of the piece. There’s also mention of a character called Pilot Pete, but misheard by Joel and company as Pile-On Pete. They get a lot of mileage out of that! Preceding the movie is a short called “Body Care & Grooming”, which attempts to teach college students the importance of bathing, pulling your socks up, and trying your best to look just like everybody else. (And for the record, I agree with Crow from the corresponding host segment. I liked the “messy” version of the young lady better!)

Dan: I’m with Crow too — I like the girl before the narrator shames her into looking like everyone else. And I liked the movie too; they were so on fire in season five that even a middling piece of crap like this (with just four characters, counting the dog, and a color pallet that consists entirely of grey and brown) can be alchemized into comedy gold. “I know what you’re thinking … did I fire six shots, or only five? Well, this film is so poorly made it doesn’t matter.”

Extras: Another Turkey Day intro by Joel Hodgson and the bots, and “Bumper to Bumper: Turkey Day Through the Years”, which features all the host segments that Joel, Mike and their repertory company did for the Turkey Day marathons in 1991, 1992, and 1995. (1993’s marathon was hosted by costumed fans of the show, and ‘94’s was hosted by Adam West.) Even though the video quality on these are all over the map, it’s a treat to have them all together in one spot.

 The Screaming Skull (Episode #912)
Dan: We now come to a pair of Sci-Fi episodes with an unusual trait in common: both include a short — a rarity in the Sci-Fi era — and in both episodes, the short completely blows the feature out of the water. “Robot Rumpus” is the second pilot episode produced for what became the Gumby series, and is a fine example of the whimsy and bare-bones aesthetics that make Gumby work (assuming he does, for you). The riffing is terrific, with the capper coming at the end: the titular robot’s head is mounted above the Gumbys’ garage, inspiring horrified exclamations from the bots (“This is worse than Seven!”). The short returns in a host segment wherein Tom and Servo try to expiate their trauma by reenacting it with their own shapeless clay lumps, with Mike’s reluctant participation. As for The Screaming Skull itself, it’s what the interesting bonus feature refers to as an “estate movie” — essentially a story written around a nice house. Said house is mostly empty, and so is the movie: try as it might, the film can’t shake a lot of scares out of a cranium that occasionally materializes on a lawn or in a cabinet. The riffing starts out pretty strong — a ponderous opening promises “a film that climaxes in shock and horror,” to which Servo adds, “But we cut that” — and gradually deflates along with the movie. The Screaming Skull is not a terrible episode, but it’s not a particularly distinguished one — at least, not once Gumby and Pokey are off the screen.

Tony: From what I understand, getting the rights to the Gumby short is the primary reason this episode wasn’t released sooner. It is wonderfully surreal though, even if it did overshadow the movie. (And I’m so thankful that they took the strident tone out of Gumby’s voice in his later appearances!)

Extras: Aside from the Turkey Day intro with Hodgson and the bots, this disk includes This Film May Kill You: Making the Screaming Skull, which centers on an interview with leading lady Peggy Webber, who has no illusions about the middling effort she starred in. It also includes Gumby & Clokey, an affectionate documentary on everyone’s favorite green, lozenge-shaped homunculus, featuring creator Art Clokey’s son Joe.

Squirm (Episode #1012)
Dan: Another movie, another short, and not just any short. Possibly the most notorious MST3K short (with the exception of Mr. B Natural, of course), A Case of Spring Fever kicked around the Best Brains production offices for ages, inspiring a host segment years before it was ever shown on an episode. This tale of a shrill, animated coil that vengefully deprives the world of springs is so bizarre that Rifftrax was able to pay it a strong second visit, and it could probably be riffed a dozen times over without exhausting its lunacy. The same cannot be said for Squirm, a ’70s cheapie that’s somehow creepy and gross well before giant worms start burrowing into people’s faces. There aren’t a lot of typical MST signifiers here for the gang to work with (except for a gag about a character’s era-appropriate platform shoes), so we get some Southern jokes — a cranky bus driver inspires Mike to quip, “Imperial Grand Dragon and I still have to drive a bus” — and some good comic business around a character who constantly calls “Mr. Beardsley!” Other than that, it kind of puts you in mind of the similar Touch of Satan, except it isn’t as good.

Tony: Holy crap! I never made the connection between A Case of Spring Fever and the “No Waffles!” segment filmed seven years earlier. I guess it shows that these guys were ahead of their time even for themselves! The movie was actually kind of creepy, so that was a bit of a distraction to me. I guess that means the riffs should have been stronger. Maybe their hearts just weren’t in it, considering this was the next-to-last episode of the show.

Extras: An interview with Squirm leading man Don Scardino, the movie’s original trailer, and another Turkey Day intro with Hodgson, who reveals that Squirm is the only MST movie he paid to see on its original release.

Also included as usual are the fun animated menus that cobble together new host segments using soundbites from the episodes, and mini-posters by Steve Vance, all housed in a nice tin box. This is another fun collection spanning nearly the entire run of the show. Enjoy, and have a great Turkey Day, everybody!