What a difference a few months makes. When our last review hit the Interwebs, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was just another mostly-under-the-radar, dormant-but-not-quite-dead cult TV show, kind of like The Prisoner except with more puppets. Now, series creator Joel Hodgson is bringing MST3K back — his Kickstarter campaign, still ongoing as this review goes live, has raised more than $3.3 million, enough to produce at least six new episodes (and hopefully entice a network suit to foot the bill for more). Nerdist podcaster Jonah Ray is hosting, and geek megastars Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt have enthusiastically agreed to appear. (The original cast, not so much, but time may yet tell.) And almost overlooked in all the to-do, Shout! Factory, the company behind MST3K on DVD, decided they liked the product so much they went and bought the company.
This is the best time in ages to be a MSTie, and so it’s with unusually light hearts that Popdose scribes Tony Redman and Dan Wiencek came together once again to review the latest offering, Volume XXXIV. All of the movies riffed in this set hail from legendary B-movie mill American International Pictures, meaning they’re all in black and white, made on the cheap and really, really quite bad. On with the show …
Viking Women & the Sea Serpent (Episode #317)
Tony: The festivities start with season 3’s Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent (or technically The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), a quasi-rousing adventure of the titular ladies sailing to a land of enslaved men. The riffing is fine in this, but for some reason the host segments are all about waffles. It’s fun stuff (especially the Waffle Song), but I’m not sure what any of it has to do with the movie itself. One segment ends up making sense years later: Servo wonders what the world would be like without waffles, when Crow appears as Willy the Waffle, who shows Servo just how important waffles are. It’s a reference to a short called A Case of Spring Fever (using a similar scenario involving springs) that the gang doesn’t riff until seven years later!
Speaking of shorts, the best thing about this episode is the short The Home Economics Story, the adventure of four young women learning to do jobs that involve home economics because, well because they’re women. I had forgotten just how great the riffing was on this one.
Dan: I’m gonna be honest with you all: I don’t really care about the movie and would much rather talk about The Home Economics Story. If I wanted to introduce someone to MST3K in only twenty minutes or so, I’d show them this. The riffing is just stellar, ranging from whimsical and witty to sharply satirical. (Narrator: “Kay’s home will be like this.” Crow: “A dungeon!”) Mr. B Natural may be the more famous, but Home Economics might be the funniest short ever tackled on the show.
Extras: A new introduction by MST3K cast member Frank Conniff, and a wonderful documentary about the history of American International Pictures. A company called Ballyhoo Pictures does most of the docs for these sets, and this one is one of their best, with copious footage and interviews with a number of people who were there (or related to those who were), including Roger Corman. It even made me want to read the books the two authors wrote about the studio.
War of the Colossal Beast (Episode #319)
Tony: The next show, War of the Colossal Beast aired a mere two episodes later. This was the sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man (which appeared earlier in the season), although it wasn’t nearly as good as the original. Giant guy Glen Manning survives his fate in the first movie, which apparently caused him to lose some of the flesh on his face and lose his ability to talk coherently. The riffing is pretty good, but the primary thing people remember about this episode is arguably the most famous riffed short the show did, Mr. B. Natural. It’s the story of Buzz, a young boy trying to figure out how to be more popular in school. He’s visited by a magical, annoying Peter Pan-like woman named Mr. B. Natural, who helps him learn the fun of music and pushes him to join the band. This short’s reputation is well deserved, and is recommended to everyone (especially those who were in the school band themselves).
Dan: Did someone just mention Mr. B Natural? Yes, once again the short subject handily outstrips the feature as the Satellite of Love crew tear into one of the most bizarre cultural artifacts ever unearthed from pre-Elvis America. Mr. B’s relentless perkiness and peculiar gender ambiguity bring out the funny yet again in Joel and the bots, and even prompt Dr. Forrester to call it “a musical nightmare from the heart of whiteness.” You ain’t kidding.
Extras: An introduction by Conniff and the theatrical trailer.
The Undead (Episode #806)
Dan: OK, what the hell is going on here? The Undead begins with a renegade hypnotist/headshrink named Quintus who forces his old mentor to help him with an experiment in which he attempts to regress a prostitute back to her previous life — as an accused witch. (A step up, or a step down? Your call.) We gradually immerse ourselves in the witch’s story and the whole Quintus thing looks like nothing more than a framing device … except then Quintus announces he has to go back in time personally, himself, through her dream (or something) and prevent her from saving her life, because unless she’s killed for being a witch, her descendants will never come to be. Which makes zero sense. Oh, and the devil is in it — the actual devil. And three chicks dancing slinkily in a graveyard. And there are large, heaving breasts in virtually every shot. Did I mention this was a Roger Corman film?
Faced with something so slapdash and incomprehensible, Mike and the bots do a standup job of keeping the laughs coming. Seeing the movie’s title card, Servo quips, “I saw the Undead at Unalpine Unvalley!”, a nice call out to those of us who’ve made the drive to East Troy, Wisconsin for a concert. (Servo knows his stuff too — the Dead actually played Alpine Valley 20 times in the ’80s.) Billy Barty’s appearance as a silent, sneering imp prompts Mike to confess, “Now I understand dwarf-tossing.” But the proceedings are probably best summed up by another remark from Mike: “I’ve never known more about what isn’t going on in a movie.” The host segments show Pearl and Bobo getting entangled in the planet of the Observers, which is all fine, but I preferred Bridget Jones’ appearance as the witch from the movie: unable to control her powers, she turns herself into a bottle of bleach. Mike and the bots should have joked about pouring it into their eyes.
Tony: Cast member Bill Corbett stated in the online episode guide that “this movie sat on all of our heads.” It was confusing and overly complicated, but it did have a decent twist ending. (Well, decent for a Corman film.) And hey, it’s got witches and an imp and the devil and a gravedigger that sings nursery rhymes (but substitutes some of the original words for rat, death, and/or coffin). How could you go wrong?
Extras: The theatrical trailer.
The She-Creature (Episode #808)
Dan: Wait, didn’t I just watch this movie? How is it possible that there is more than one film — that there is even one film — about a deranged hypnotist whose power is so off the scale he can essentially send people back in time? The hypnotist this time is named Carlo Lombardi, and for a twist, instead of sending his hapless subject back to a previous life as a witch, somehow regresses her into a sea monster, hence the title. As a premise, this is no more or less stupid than The Undead, but Roger Corman, say what you will about him, at least knew how to keep things relatively lively and interesting. (Hint: breasts, and/or Satan.) Director Edward L. Cahn, whoever he is, isn’t in Corman’s trashy league and so The She-Creature drags quite a bit, and Mike and the bots can’t quite pull this one out. There are an awful lot of callbacks to “SLEEEEP!!” and some good mileage gotten out of the inert performance of the film’s lead, Lance Fuller. Mike performs scenes from King Lear and Schindler’s List in Fuller’s minimalist fashion in one host segment, which leads me to a point I want to make about the host segments in general. The Best Brains crew complained about the Sci-Fi Network mandating a stronger narrative arc carried through the host segments, and for good reason: MST3K never was or will be that kind of show. But it must be said, that edict spurred the team to directly take on sci-fi tropes in a way they probably wouldn’t have bothered to do otherwise, and the results are better than they’re sometimes given credit for. The Observers are a funny take on the clichÁ© of the remote, omnipotent “watcher race” (they bizarrely claim to have evolved beyond bodies, despite clearly having bodies), and the moment they cease being funny, Mike just blows them up (with the help of the nanites, another sci-fi convention nicely sent up). The story of Pearl, Bobo and Brain Guy may never work as a “story,” but it proved a good vehicle for parodying a lot of crappy sci-fi, and that stuff still holds up. Now of course, today’s SyFy just parodies science fiction through their own original movies, a fine example of cutting out the middleman.
Tony: But the problem with having the show do an overarching plot was that it only worked if you watched the episodes in first-run. When the Sci-Fi Channel reran the shows, they didn’t show them in order so the plot (such as it was) was a mess. And even Shout! Factory (as great a job as they’re doing with these DVD releases) had to skip an episode between The Undead and this one due to rights issues.
As for the movie, the only thing I had remembered from seeing it originally was the ugly gill monster with large breasts, the host segment featuring the Tickle Me Carlo Lombardi doll, and the fact that the male lead was not very good. I think that’s about all I took with me this time as well. Not one of their better episodes, but I still maintain that an OK MST3K show is better than just about anything else that’s out there now.
Extras: Again, the theatrical trailer.
As has been mentioned a number of times recently, it’s a great time to be a MSTie. And if you’re a fan of the show, be sure to visit the Kickstarter campaign and do your part to bring it back for a new generation. And as for the boxset releases, Shout! Factory has already released the next titles. They will be Teenage Caveman, Being from Another Planet, 12 to the Moon, and Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. It sounds like another great lineup, and Dan and Tony will be sure to let you know all about it when it comes out.