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

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXII, available March 24, comes to us without a theme or anniversary tie-in — just another slate of four pretty-funny-to-outright-hilarious outings with Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo, ranging from forgotten ’70s TV pilots to an actual, bona fide Academy Award winner. Without further ado, Popdose MSTies Tony Redman and Dan Wiencek give you Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXII!

Space Travelers (Episode #401)

Tony: You might be familiar with the movie in the first episode, but probably not under the title Space Travelers. This is actually 1969’s Marooned, starring Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, and Richard Crenna. A company called Film Ventures International somehow obtained the rights to the film, recut it, added a totally different title sequence, and renamed it. That’s probably the only way the show could have gotten a star-studded movie like this. Marooned was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (and won one for Best Special Visual Effects) so, needless to say, this movie looked a lot better than the Roger Corman/rubber suited monster cheapies Joel and the Bots usually tackled. And it really wasn’t that bad a movie either, albeit a bit melodramatic. It also gave Trace “Crow” Beaulieu a chance to break out his killer Gregory Peck impression.

Dan: Dennis Miller famously chewed out the Best Brains for taking on this “prestigious” picture, and even Frank in his intro has some misgivings about ridiculing an effort by legitimately good director John Sturges. Today Dennis Miller is a conservative hack, and Space Travelers (née Marooned) stands as fine mid-period MST3K, with Crow’s  Peck impression a consistent highlight of a movie that, otherwise, really is kinda boring.

Extras: A new introduction by Frank Conniff, the documentary Marooned: A Forgotten Odyssey, and the theatrical trailer

Hercules (Episode #502)

Dan: The Hercules series doesn’t quite occupy the same lofty terrain as the Gamera movies in the Mystery Science Theater canon, but it was still a pretty reliable source of laughs. This is the fourth Herc movie tackled by the Satellite of Love, though actually the first one released — not that you’d ever guess it from the messy hairball of a plot that unfolds on the screen. The movie takes the myth of Hercules and his various labors, ladles on a serious helping of Jason and the Argonauts (shoehorning Ulysses in for good measure), throws in the Amazons and adds a dollop of Hamlet, just for the hell of it. It’s enough plot for three films, making Hercules pretty incomprehensible and even relegating the big guy himself to the sidelines for most of the movie’s final act. With no coherent plot to follow, Joel and the bots have fun with the movie’s poor attention to detail (Crow: “Wait, this is ancient Greece! They don’t have ruins yet!”) and, once the Amazons show up, its retrograde sexual politics. (Crow again, on the Amazons’ man-filled cemetery: “It’s the Andrea Dworkin Memorial Cemetery!”) The riffing is solid if not stellar throughout, but what raises the episode for me is the host segments. Not many fans would deny that the movie segments are the heart of Mystery Science Theater, but a strong clutch of host segments can lift an episode from good to great, and these are particularly good: a funny invention exchange (the cellular desk versus instant karma), a visit from modern-day, space-faring Amazons, played as gossiping Midwestern hausfraus by Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Nelson; and best of all, an amazing tour de force by Trace Beaulieu wherein Crow reenacts an entire episode of Match Game solo, capping it off with a harrowing existential soliloquy from Gene Rayburn. Yeah, it may be a simple cow-town puppet show, but there is some serious comic talent on display here.

Tony: I used to enjoy seeing these old Hercules movies, despite the muddled mythology (and even more muddled dubbing), and adding a layer of Joel and Co. just made it all even better. The highlight of the Match Game skit for me was hearing Crow’s stellar Charles Nelson Reilly.

Extras: The theatrical trailer; a new introduction by Frank; and a salute to Joseph E. Levine, the man who made a killing importing and dubbing foreign-language flicks like Godzilla, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and the Hercules flicks, before going on to produce The Graduate. Not a bad record, all told.

Radar Secret Service (Episode #520)

Dan: If Hercules is a stereotypical sword-and sandals picture, Radar Secret Service is a suit-and-hat movie — scene after scene of near-identical guys in standard postwar menswear, some of them presumably good guys, some certainly bad guys, all of them moving to and fro in a vaguely plot-like way until enough people either get arrested or killed that the movie can’t go on anymore. In his introduction for this episode, Frank Conniff admits that, once the Best Brains gang finally secured the rights to it, they were dismayed to realize how flat and boring it is. Radar Secret Service posits a world in which ground-based radar has an infinite number of forensic uses, from finding buried handguns to somehow capturing live video from miles away. Characters are constantly going on about how awesome radar is, yet their enthusiasm does nothing to lift the dreary proceedings. Mike and the bots respond in kind: “Radar doesn’t make the world any more interesting, does it?” sighs Crow, while Mike later vents, “Only radar knows what the hell’s going on!” The Satellite of Love crew can’t quite pull this turkey out, though there are some inspired moments along the way, particularly a chase scene involving a car and a helicopter that prompts Crow and Servo to reenact the helicopter scene from Goodfellas (“So my plan was to take my little brother back to the house and then start working on the sauce, plus I had to take the stuff over to Sandy’s,” etc.), complete with Servo singing “Jump in the Fire.” More successful is the opening short, “Last Clear Chance,” in which a stone-faced traffic cop laments all the rash young drivers who persist in dying in grisly car accidents. More portentous than a Bergman film, the film inspires a suitably aggrieved response from the crew: “You see, son,” says Crow as the cop rolls out yet another depressing anecdote, “we all die alone and afraid!”

Tony: “Why don’t they look?” Yes, the delightfully morbid short was my favorite part of this episode. And out of all the things they said radar could do, they left out the most important part: making popcorn.

Extras: An intro from Frank and “MST-UK,” a mini-doc in which Trace and Frank visit London to appear at a sci-fi convention, hosting a panel that, sadly, seems pretty poorly attended. Some things really don’t translate all that well.

San Francisco International (Episode #614)

Tony: The final episode in this set is San Francisco International, another star-studded movie from 1970. Well, actually a TV movie that’s TV star studded. Pernell Roberts stars as an unconventional chief of security at the titular airport. Tab Hunter, Van Johnson, Clu Gulager, and David Hartman (whose “nose wheel feels mushy”) round out the cast. For some reason, the host segments featured Mike doing an intentionally bad Steve Urkel impression that everybody found hilarious. The saving grace here was a chance to revisit some old characters played by the show’s cast, like Jan in the Pan (from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), Santa and Pitch (from Santa Claus), Nuveena (from the short “Design for Dreaming”), and Torgo (from ElementaryManos, the Hands of Fate”).

Dan: Surprised as I am to say it, this was my favorite episode of the set. As I’ve noted in the past, certain areas of the cinematic landscape just bring out the funny in our spacebound crew, and recycled ’70s TV fare, whether it’s Riding with Death, the Master Ninja “movies” or this turkey, is certainly one of those. The whole sequence with Davie landing the plane is just gold. “See all those people down there? Those are the people you’ve disappointed, Davie!”

Extras: The featurette Sampo Speaks: A Brief History of Satellite News, which spotlights the popular MST3K newsletter started by Chris “Sampo” Cornell (of which I was a subscriber back in the day).

Included as usual are the four awesome mini-posters by Steve Vance (shown above) and the wonderfully crazy animated menus. I thought it was interesting that these four episodes were all within a three year span, but it was when the show was just hitting its stride, so that’s definitely a good thing. Another great boxset from the good folks at Shout! Factory.