At first, many wondered if it was a weird Halloween prank. Longtime info outlet The Satellite News, the (former) official web address for all things Mystery Science Theater 3000 announced that, after years away from the format, both Best Brain Industries (producers of the classic TV series) and creator Joel Hodgson were coming back to the theater riffing roost – sort of. Jim Mallon and former show writer Paul Chaplin are resurrecting MST3K via a new site and a collection of online cartoons featuring the formidable robots – Gypsy, Servo, and Crow. Hodgson, on the other hand, is teaming up with former friends and cast/crew members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to create Cinematic Titanic, a DVD based update of the old talking back to the screen format. For fans of the former stand-up, it was a dream that many thought would never come true.
Oddly enough, nowhere in the publicity materials is there a mention of The Film Crew – otherwise known as Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Now, some of it may have to do with contracts, outstanding obligations for other companies (like the Internet commentary collective Rifftrax), and some minor animosities that still exist among the participants. It could just be an oversight. While the obsessive are probably crafting conspiracy theories, using the success of the trio’s Shout! Factory releases as a motive for the uninvited’s sudden interest in returning to the medium, it’s clear that the one time cult is marching toward the mainstream respect it so richly deserved/deserves. And based on the brilliance shown in The Giant of Marathon, the final installment in the Crew’s digital quadrilogy, there’s a lot of life remaining in the old cinematic criticism gig.
For this episode, employer Bob Honcho appeals to Mike, Kevin, and Bill to create an alternate narrative track for a subpar sword and sandal epic featuring that mountain of man meat, Steve Reeves. Playing an Athenian Olympian named Phillipides, he is so well loved after his athleticism based triumph that he’s put in charge of the Sacred Guard, a group of strapping, overly defined men who wear nothing more than a snug fitting diaper. A falling out with the political powers that be, including the treasonous Theocrites and his paid whore Karis, leads our hero back to his country home – but not before he can woo and fall in love with Andromeda, the daughter of a high raking member of the Council. In the meantime, exiled leader Hippias has banded together with the Persians to take over Greece. Hoping to halt their advance, Athens calls on Phillipides for help. He gets Sparta’s support, and before you know it, loincloths are leaping across the screen as scantily clad extras beefcake it up for a homoerotic tour de force.
As a film, The Giant of Marathon is a talky, disposable affront. Steve Reeves is given the same old dubbed voice vacancy that tends to mar his entire cinematic catalog, and he’s once again paired up with women who aren’t as attractive as him. The storyline will remind viewers of 300, except with more gay overtones, and the regular sequences of man on man action (wrestling, grappling, battling) will have you instantly mulling over director Jacques Tourneur and substitute helmer Mario Bava’s proclivities. Yes, this is one of those notorious productions where the original filmmaker was fired, and a soon to be Italian maestro stepped in to pick up the hack. In this case, Bava was merely a cameraman, but when feelings toward Tourneur turned sour, the Mediterranean auteur in the making was given the go ahead. His success in completing the project led to his first credited film as a director.
The Film Crew, on the other hand, needs no rescuing. Thanks once again to the DVD format, which frees them up to contemplated quips of a slightly more sexual nature, we get a nonstop laugh-a-thon offering jabs at male genitals, numerous butt references, and a running gag concerning Karis and her less than virtuous reputation. Under Mike, Kevin, and Bill’s constant badgering, the aging Italian actress playing the part is vicariously saddled with every STD known to man. During a particularly potent section (the character is trying one last time to seduce Phillipides – though a strumpet, she loves him) the guys give her such a thorough going over that you envision the onscreen disgrace and fall that Karis goes through paralleling the pall late actress Daniela Rocca would experience could she hear their taunts. Most of the naughtiest knocks come at her and her B.C. hooker’s expense, and each one’s a classic.
Similarly, the Crew dishes out some fine funny business regarding Reeves. Stoic and as statue like as ever, the former bodybuilding champion does make the Governator look like Sir Ralph Richardson, and the script doesn’t make things better. This is one of those performances that relies almost exclusively on what the actor looks like sans shirt. Phillipides may be a wonderful sportsperson and skilled competitor, but once we see him shimmy with his fellow semi-nude Olympians, the vast majority of the action is over. We have to wait another 80 minutes before the last act battle, and then again, Reeves and his steroided buddies spend more time in the water setting up harbor-protecting spikes than flexing their quads. With his standard, dopey heroic dialogue and unflinching blandness, he’s a far too easy target for the comedians. As they did with prior Hercules-oriented epics during the MST days, Reeves gets ripped – and not in the good GNC way.
As part of the presentation of this pathetic peplum, Shout! Factory and the Film Crew do their usual bang-up job of supplementing the shortcomings. During the opening skit, Mike plays unskilled laborer to hilarious results, while during the mandatory “Lunch Break” intermission, Bill explains how the real Battle for Athens played out (it’s history as a Hellsapoppin’ food fight). Finally, at the end, Mike makes a ridiculous racist plea. It warrants a DVD bonus feature apology that’s equally unhinged and borderline bigoted (especially if you’re Norwegian). Finally, there’s a “commentary track” (about 9 minutes in length and covering various scenes in the film) where a supposed actor on the shoot, one Walter S. Ferguson (Mike in old coot mode) provides some gloriously goofy anecdotes. In combination with the jolly joyful riffing, we wind up with another post-SOL winner.
Still, the question remains, what happens now? Shout! Factory has had great success with these titles. They’ve been very popular and critically acclaimed. As much as the fans love Joel, Trace, Frank, Jim, Paul, Mary Jo, and Josh, they’ve been out of the game for a while, and seeing them pick up the MST-styled mantle at his point questions their motivation. Of course, what everyone wants is a full blown reunion, something that can work the Film Crew, the Cinematic Titanic, the new MST3K.com gang and the ridiculously resplendent modern film mocking of Rifftrax into one big comedic gathering, a return to the days when a tiny cowtown puppet show gave notorious new life to bad B schlock-busters. Whatever happens, the four films that made up the Crew’s initial output deserve a place among the best these performers ever offered. The Giant of Marathon is indeed a huge cinematic load. Thankfully, these satiric caretakers are still around to clean up the mess.