What starts to come across when you binge on multiple Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes is the grind that the MST3K crew must have gone through making them. If you were viewing the show when it was still on TV, you had the luxury of six days between episodes to gain your strength back, the leftover endorphins from your laughter quickly erasing the “Why, God, Why?” torment of the movies being skewered.
The folks making the show were watching these things over and over and over, though, getting their timing down and sharpening their jokes. Sometimes, when Shout Factory! spins the episode selection wheel just right while putting together an MST3K collection, they give the viewer a taste of that experience.
That’s not to say that Volume XXIII of the Shout Factory! run isn’t fun to watch. Of course it is. The Satellite of Love crew, trapped in space and forced to watch bad movies, are as entertaining as ever in their belief that the best defense against a bad movie is a good offense. If Dante had scored these guys as his guides through the underworld, he wouldn’t have had such a sour face in all of those Gustave Doré‘s illustrations. Still, there are those movies, and it’s hard to remember a set that wallowed in such turgid, gloopy waters of plot and action as this.
The Castle of Fu Manchu might be the worst offender, starring Christopher Lee as the titular criminal mastermind. For a movie with an exotic Istanbul locale, double-crosses, clandestine raids on strongholds, an exotic henchwoman who looks like she walked out of a really awesome Eurythmics video, a harumphing Englishman in a pith helmet, and more fezzes than a Shriners convention, The Castle of Fu Manchu somehow just plods along. The plot involves some sort of scheme turn all the world’s oceans to ice, but all you’re really left with is the thought that Christopher Lee in Fu Manchu makeup looks an awful lot like one of Inspector Clouseau’s bad disguises.
Code Name: Diamond Head is only marginally better, if only for the groovy ‘70s fashions and the sight of Ian McShane in lots of bad disguises. This pilot for a failed TV show centers around a secret agent in Hawaii who’s trying to foil some bad guys who are trying to steal some gas or compound or something or other from a government lab. But it’s hard to say that anything really happens. As the bots say, “It’s tough when Barnaby Jones out-actions you”.
Probably, the biggest surprise about this one is that it came from Quinn Martin, who is revealed by the accompanying short documentary to have been a quite successful producer of crime dramas such as The Untouchables, Barnaby Jones, The FBI, and The Fugitive. Best to remember him by those rather than this one. Perhaps the real shame of this one, though, is that the MST3K treatment was apparently filmed before McShane’s iconic turn as Al Swearengen in Deadwood. Oh, the possibilities.
At least 1955’s King Dinosaur hails from those heady, goofy days when you could throw a mixed-gender crew with clearly defined gender roles on a rocket and send them into space. The plot of this one involves a small team of scientists (two men, two women) who embark on an exploratory mission to a newly discovered Earth-like planet. All goes peacefully enough on this strange alien world with flora and fauna exactly like Earth’s, but before you get tired of yelling “it’s a space deer!” or “it’s a space bear!” or “it’s a space kinkajou”, one of the men falls down a hill and somehow ends up at the bottom wrestling a space alligator.
Slowed down by his injuries, the group now has time to indulge Dr. Patricia Bennett’s seemingly random fascination with a nearby island. Blithely acting as if the idea of a Monster Island were some kind of ludicrous fairy tale told to Japanese children, they set off, only to find the island’s inhabited by lizards. Space lizards! Giant space lizards! The crew’s solution? Well, it isn’t subtle, but it certainly bears an Atomic Age stamp.
The 1958 western Last of the Wild Horses is notable mainly for the MST3K skits away from the movie. The film itself is an average example of a Saturday matinee western, with plenty of platonic attraction between hero Duke Barnum and a couple of rancher’s daughters. On the Satellite of Love, however, a mishap with a matter transference device and an ion storm breaks open alternate realities. There’s the obligatory goatee-filled nod to the “Mirror Mirror” episode of Star Trek, with various characters becoming good or evil. It’s one of the most enjoyable “plot lines” of any MST3K episode.
As always, the folks on the Satellite of Love shoulder a heavy burden, but thankfully, Shout Factory! isn’t just slapping old episodes on disc and throwing them out the door. Their bonus features, when there’s something to add, aren’t always robust, but they’ve become very good at providing content that places the films being skewered in some kind of context. As bad as Code Name: Diamond Head is, the short bonus piece on producer Quinn Martin makes it plain that the film wasn’t the product of some hack.
Similarly, the interesting documentary that accompanies King Dinosaur discusses Bert I. Gordon (one of the SOL crew’s favorite targets) and his role as an independent theater chain owner doing his best to provide entertainment since he couldn’t get first runs of the major studio releases because they were showing in those studios’ chains. So yes, King Dinosaur (and many of Gordon’s other films) deserve the skewering, but they are also fine examples of a rebellious entrepreneurial spirit in action.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article