Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVI
For those who haven’t seen it, a streamlined description of Mystery Science Theater 3000 goes something like this: a mad scientist traps a man on a satellite, forcing him to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. The man, however, builds some robot friends, and together they make fun of the movies as they watch them. There’s a bit more to it than that, but as the show’s opening credits explain, “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes / And other science facts / Then repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show / I should really just relax.’”
Over the course of 11 seasons and one feature film, MST3K stood as one of the most consistently funny shows on the air. Sometimes, though, even the MST3K crew could seem like they were punching the clock like the rest of us: the movies were just so bad that it was an act of pure masochism to sit through it, even if you reaped the pyrrhic revenge of tearing it down for posterity. For this viewer, that feeling typified several of the show’s final episodes for the Sci-Fi Channel, when the show was limited to savaging movies from the channel’s vaults that were not only bad, but free of the opportunities for fun social commentary that earnest (but still very bad) movies about female prisons or teenage junkies offered.
But then there’s a movie like Santa Claus, a 1959 Mexican brought to American audiences courtesy of K. Gordon Murray (producer of more than 20 films along the lines of The Bloody Vampire, Savages from Hell, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, and a host of Santa films like Santa’s Magic Kingdom and Santa’s Giant Film Festival of the Brothers Grimm). Santa lives in a crystal palace in the sky populated by children of the world who have supposedly volunteered to help Santa make his toys. I say “volunteered” only because their songs—sung at Santa’s command—sound disturbingly listless, and Santa tends to keep this army of child laborers out in the snow all the time.
At any rate, Santa spends much of his time in his observatory, using tools straight out of Pee Wee’s Playhouse to watch the children of Earth. Lucifer sends one of his devils, Pitch, to turn all of the world’s children toward evil. Santa must undo Pitch’s work via all sorts of technology devised for him by, yes, the wizard Merlin. But if that were all the nonsensical ammunition that Santa Claus had loaded into its chambers, it would still be just another run-of-the-mill MST3K victim.
Instead, Santa Claus was created with such a unique and cohesive vision that it seems to draw the Satellite of Love crew in, stunning them into moments of silence. It’s as if the MST3K crew are content to let Santa Claus unfold and and unleash its “nightmare fuel” on its own. And it actually makes you want to seek out director René Cardona’s other films, such as Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy or Man in the Golden Mask vs. the Invisible Assassin, to see if the weirdness continues.
Santa Claus is obviously the centerpiece of this well-assembled set, but there are plenty of pleasures to be had in its three other titles. The Corpse Vanishes (1942) features a slumming, late-period Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who kills brides on their wedding days, only to steal their bodies and use them in procedures to inject youth into his elderly wife. A female reporter full of brass and moxie, a family of evil assistants, secret passageways: this one has all the clichés.
Night of the Blood Beast, courtesy of Roger Corman, is your standard “astronaut goes into space, astronaut returns from space impregnated with alien spawn” bit of ‘50s science fiction— and it provides ample opportunity for commentary on the doe-eyed, helpless nature of any females in these types of films. But nothing on this set is a victim of its decade as much as Warrior of the Lost World. Starring a mumbly Robert Ginty (or, as he’s constantly referred to, “the Paper Chase guy”), Persis Khambatta (from the first Star Trek film), and Donald Pleasance, Warrior of the Lost World features a warbly soundtrack that sounds like John Carpenter underwater, a band of rebels who wandered off the set of an ‘80s new wave video, and a talking onboard computer that actually utters words like “tubular”. Set in a surprisingly verdant post-apocalyptic setting, and full to the brim with both mystical and technological hogwash, Warrior of the Lost World is the kind of film that MST3K can really sink its teeth into. All in all, a fairly strong set of DVDs, containing some long-requested fan favorites.
MST3K DVDs used to be pretty bare-bones affairs, but the folks at Shout Factory! are really starting to bring it. A limited edition version of this set includes a Tom Servo figurine, but all editions also include a series of prints for each movie, each done up in the style of old B-movie lobby posters. The onscreen menus are clever scenes featuring the robots Crow and Servo that parody the movies.
And there are even bonus features for some of the films. Santa Claus comes with a vintage radio spot, a still gallery, and a mini-doc called “Santa Claus Conquers the Devil: A 50-Year Retrospective”. It’s actually a very interesting piece, discussing not only the work of K. Gordon Murray, but also discussing the role the film played in introducing Santa Claus to Mexico. Warrior of the Lost World includes production stills and even an interview with writer/director David Worth. After you hear his tale of working without a script because the producer told him to make the film from a 40-page treatment, and of directing via storyboards because most of his Italian cast couldn’t speak English, you gain a new appreciation for the film. I’m not saying you suddenly consider the film to be good, but you learn a little something about how a certain type of movie gets made, and how agreeable actors can be when they’re getting a free month-long stay in Rome.
Heck, the MST3K discs are starting to get more supplemental materials than some Criterion Collection releases I’ve seen. More bonus items like that, and MST3K will really be making good on one of the show’s more subtle pleasures: its honest and unabashed love for even some of the worst movies, and how there’s a lesson waiting in every ‘80s lingo-spouting robot, every jazz-dancing devil, and every unintentionally hilarious educational short film.