You can feel it, yes? The buzz in the air, the energy in the ether. We’re at the precipice, folks… New MST3K is on the way!!
We’re only days from fresh episodes of one of television’s most innovative and intelligent comedy series; a modern miracle possible through the most successful Kickstarter effort of all time. But before we imbibe the glorious new wonders we have must celebrate the old ones.
Call it an appetizer. The ever-reliable Shout! Factory appeases the appetite of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd with another quartet of episodes never before released on DVD. Along with publishing the deep cuts the collection also includes a host of special features, individual cases, box art by Steve Vance, animated menus as well as the aura of a well-tended garden. MST3K is a major limb of the Shout! Factory brand, part of that is the cult following but it’s also because the distributor has promoted the property in a respectful and novel way
If plagiarism wasn’t a thing I’d overview the content of the 38th DVD collection by copying the back of the box but I guess paraphrase can work too — this volume is all about Mike set against the backdrop of bad movies in a variety of genres.
I prefer Mike episodes, generally, so I can’t really gripe about the assortment, but if there is any broad detriment to this set it’s that it lacks the diverse episode selection that Shout! typically strives for. Three episodes from Season 6 and one from Season 10 is the lineup. The remaining pool of un-DVDified episodes is shrinking so something like this is pretty much inevitable. If you’re a Mike fan you can jive with this, but if you’re chi-focuser type, looking to achieve balance wherever possible, other volumes might carry more allure.
On the sunny side I bestow a sneaky high Strength of Hilarity score to this four-pack of episodes. Almost none of these would make anyone’s Top Ten but none are close to stinkers. Collectively, this is one of the best sets I’ve reviewed, and in a way demonstrates that even middle tier MST3K is prime cut TV. I absolutely recommend it to the semi-casual MSTie or even someone eager to own one of these episodes but is unsure about the others. It’s a good batch.
Invasion USA (and short “A Date With Your Family”)
(1952 – Dir: Alfred E. Green)
The Satellite of Love comes under siege by one of their greatest foes. A horrifying enemy that shows no sign of stoppage. The sights and sounds will never die. It persists! Beware: STOCK FOOTAGE.
In a weird reflection of our current times the second episode of the sixth season has Mike and Bots screen a film centered on a vague, though very dangerous, threat of Russians disguised as Americans. This fuzzy plot point is backhandedly introduced due to the copious amount of World War II stock footage depicting American aircraft and troops. To explain this inconvenience the audience is told it’s all Soviet deception. Well, maybe Soviets? The movie doesn’t ever mention the Ruskies by name, though it’s heavily implied.
Invasion USA hails from the rife age of 1950’s cinema, a frequent fodder for MST3K due to the decade’s proliferation of terribly crafted movies. This one is just as bad any other, centered on a group of bar patrons who are each individually affected (killed) by the invading army of the Commie-esque opponents. An undertone that implies that America’s people failed to protect their land by not dedicating enough resources to national defense furthers the modern day parallels, or maybe just the points out the circular, unchanging nature of humanity.
The jokes are pretty neat, especially considering the movie is a bland and unoriginal mashing of yapping actors and parachuting soldiers. As with eps like “The Mole People” and “Invasion of the Neptune Men” stock footage bogs everything into a monotonous wasteland. Still, this isn’t a poor episode by any stretch, it’s got a few hilarious moments, and the gang does an excellent job of nailing the goofy characters on their eccentricities. Oh, and THAT THE WHOLE MOVIE IS A COLLECTIVE DREAM. WTF, movie?
The preceding short film, “A Date With Your Family” (“The Woody Allen story!”), exhibits an interesting dynamic of many MST3K episodes: an alright-to-poor movie packaged with a superbly lampooned short. The premise of “A Date” is hilarious on its face, an instructional film on how to enjoy the evening meal with kin, including reminders on how to be, and stay, pleasant so your parents don’t leave the table profoundly disappointed. The slams are powerful, and tightly packaged, and it boosts the entire episode’s watchability. Along with the quality host segments I’d say this is a distinctly average episode of MST3K, which is to say it’s pretty gosh darn good.
The DVD extra is “Zugsmith Confidential”, centered on producer/director/rich guy Albert Zugsmith, whose first project was the aforementioned Red Scare project. Historians discuss the entrepreneur’s rise over the 50’s, including the production of classics The Shrinking Man and Touch of Evil, as well as his penchant for directing movies that were either agreeably competent or plain horrendous.
Best line from short:
“Well, there it is, spankings all around then.”
Best line from movie:
“Whoa. This war has really put a spring in my step.”
Colossus and the Headhunters
(1963 – Dir: Guido Malatesta)
Over the course of the show’s (original) run, the MST3K gang tackled four different Italian-made Hercules sword and sandal movies, all of which are frightfully absurd adventures featuring one of mythology’s most recognizable strongmen. Colossus aka Maciste aka Cheese Steak ain’t no son of Zeus.
The hero…ish…guy in Colossus and the Headhunters is a buffed down version of the famous Greek demigod, and also wanting for any skill or achievement, well, aside from the constant flexing of his abs. Like Invasion USA this one is as flat as Kansas, with the inanity reaching a peak during a busy battle scene in the movie’s last act. There’s not much going on here and it kind of takes you out of it. Cheese Steak shows up and saves an island civilization of about fifteen shirtless, skinny guys from fiery death only to drop them on another island inhabited by elaborately dressed headhunters. Then some king tries to forcibly wed some other’s tribe queen and then a blind dude shows up and pontificates and I don’t even really know. It’s pretty stupid.
The riffing is of good quality, and the writing is sufficiently clever, but the whole package lacks fluidity. There’s lots funny about Cheese Steak’s ineffectiveness, and the general goofiness of the headhunters, however, I don’t feel there’s a strong string of jokes to push the episode into a Grade A level. It’s a safe pick, certainly worth a watch if you’ve never seen, but not an essential.
It doesn’t help that all the host segments pivot around Nummy Muffin Coocol Butter, TV Frank’s pet dog, portrayed as so excruciating adorable that it wins over the hearts and minds of all the cast members. NMCB sends this early Season Six episode into a weird place and focus/execution result in one of the oddest string of skits done by the show. That’s a hell of a distinction for MST3K.
“Mike, By Joel” is a retrospective by the show’s creator on his eventual successor. Joel talks about Mike’s origins, strengths, roles and the Season 5 host switch. It’s a good feature, I learned at least one or two factoids I never knew before, but feels like it could have been longer.
Best line from the movie:
A man is shoved face first into a fire
They haven’t worked out all the kinks of that tanning booth system yet.
High School Big Shot (and short “Out of This World”)
(1959- Dir: Joel M. Rapp)
A lots about the movies screened by MST3K scream “pathetic” but few have shouted it like Marv Grant.
The callow and crestfallen hero of High School Big Shot suffers a tragic arc that guides him from bullied geek to embarrassed son, duped dope, nervous criminal and finally culpable in many senseless deaths. Yes, Marv makes for a big target.
The protagonist is fantastically ineffectual and that’s magnified once he comes up against Betty, a convincing beauty who sends Marv on a path toward committing a “low-key laid back heist.” His overall dorkiness pairs well with his domestic life too, where a jobless father practices his hobbies of slurping down canned beans and drinking swill. Truthfully, I don’t think the movie is absolutely terrible, it has some a few decent performances and is coherent enough. I’m a fan of the 1950’s Juvenile Delinquency theme with its over-the-top characterizations of both the milquetoast and the hoodlum. What shifts High School Big Shot into “bad movie” realms is a vapid, simplistic, cruel and pale motif that punishes the audience for no good reason.
The short that leads it, “Out of This World”, is a wonderful juxtaposition because its mediocrity derives from trying to be too colorful, and too occupied with style. It begins with two otherworldly file clerks, a devil and angel, debating some dribble about good salesmanship and then somehow turns into a mash-up of Collateral and Guy’s Grocery Games. The employee training film centered on a product delivery is amusingly long, about twenty minutes (which adds to the digestibility of High School Big Shot) and Mike and the Bots stock the shelves with a mess of cracks and quips. My favorite riffs poke at the delivery guy’s rough city accent, especially how much he hams it up during the flashback sequence. There’s a lot to like…well except the premise, the actors, the cinematography or the dialogue.
The disk’s value is brought down by the lack of a true special feature. I mean there’s a copy of the original High School Big Shot feature on there but who would wants to punish themselves like that? The host segments aren’t anything special either, although there is a great moment when Mike throws Servo across the theater for belting out “Don’t Pay the Ferryman.” Despite some lackluster auxiliary elements Experiment 618 is a very good episode, especially for those who are into watching sharp takedowns of teenage drama films, an aesthetic that disappears once the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel.
Best line from the Short:
“But why does the strip club need bread?”
Best line from the Move:
I hate it when his face lights up.
Track of the Moon Beast
(1976 – Dir: Dick Ashe)
Volume XXXVIII’s last episode yanks the Satellite of Love out of Season 6 and into the final Mike Nelson year. Gone are TV’s Frank, Dr. F, and old Crow and in are Pearl, Bobo, Brain Guy and new Crow. The constant is a very bad movie.
In many ways I feel the MST3K brand ripens with age and this episode advances my theory. I had never seen “Track of the Moon Beast” before and don’t remember it charting on many personal favorites list but it might be an All-Pro on the down low. The plot and riffing remind me a lot of Season 9’s “Werewolf”, a fan-voted top ten episode, just with 100% less Joe Estevez.
When a meteor hits Paul’s brain (and later shoots a beam into his eye?) a mild-mannered rock-digging bum suddenly undergoes a series of horrifying mammal-to-reptile transformations under moonlight. Throw in a dippy blonde eager for love, the intrepid ballad “California Lady”, a bunch of convenient Native American folklore and a bangin’ stew recipe and you’ve got a hot mess of cinema.
Track of the Moon Beast could be described as many horrible scenes stacked on top of each other and it begins with an awkward one that introduces Kathy and the local professor, nicknamed Johnny Longbow, via some idiotic prank involving a giant metal mask. Laughs are easy to come by. Were-Dragon Paul’s penchant for ditching his button-up and the ridiculousness of Johnny Longbow, mystical marksman, make this movie a pleasure to mock. It’s an unequivocally poorly made film with a dried-up plot, a cast of confused actors and scenes that look like they were “lit with a spelunker’s headlamp.” The battle-tested crew on the SOL ridicule it all in an effortless manner, and it gets almost mean at moments, a mood that Bill Corbett’s Crow thrives in. It’s also surprisingly lecherous. Plenty of innuendo is thrown around.
It a complete episode, even most of the host segments are great, particularly the ones that spoof the movie. A couple notable asides about the film that add that MST3K je ne sais quoi. Legendary makeup artist Rick Baker worked on this film (yes, he of Star Wars and Men In Black fame) and it shows in very tiny spots. I still can’t totally dig the monster’s Gorn look though. Also contributing to Track of the Moon Beast was scriptwriter Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman (as well as many other beloved DC Comics characters). That’s a bit of a cipher for the movie’s wonky plot, as it certainly moves along like a Golden Age comic, with the spectacular origin, the spiritual connection, the de facto love interest, the “sidekick” character and the tragic ending.
More context is unearthed in “Tracking A Moon Beast With Actress Leigh Drake” with the actor who played Kathy Nolan, photographer turned lizard lover. Drake reveals what most of us already deduced, that the movie didn’t get much TLC.
Best line from the movie:
Paul walks into a store labeled Coins Guns
I need a wheat penny and a Glock.