Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a classic series that turns B-movies into masterpieces with peanut-gallery commentary that is both laugh-out-loud funny and critically insightful. Imprisoned aboard the Satellite of Love space station where he is forced to watch the worst, most cheesy films you can imagine, a man (sometimes Joel Hodgson, sometimes Mike Nelson) struggles to keep his sanity with the help of his robot friends by finding the funny in the tragic. While all four films in this, the 26th volume of MST3K, are indisputably bad, we find that some are worse than others, but the quick-witted commentators can still manage to entertain.
It’s not clear how episodes are selected from the show’s 11-season run for each box set, as they are not in order or even necessarily related, yet the value of each volume depends almost entirely on the films it contains. Perhaps this is why the lack of continuity is not a concern, as no one really seems to care about the adventures aboard the Satellite of Love anyway, which largely detract from the true appeal of the show. Various regular segments have appeared over the years, such as an “Invention Exchange” or fan mail readings, but they all digress from what viewers really want: a good roast with wonderfully bad movies in the flames. Indeed, the best scenes outside of the theater are those that provide further commentary on the films, such as the robots’ game show quiz to discern Kathy Ireland’s emotions in various screencaps from Alien From L.A.—the correct answer invariably being “dull surprise”.
While this box set lacks chronological continuity, interestingly enough there is some (limited) thematic consistency. Two of the films depict subterranean civilizations, and both provide far more material for MST3K’s scathing humor than the other two in the set. The Mole People (1956) has all the makings of classic sci-fi, rife with awesomely cheesy monsters, an earthly but still alien underground society, and social commentary highly relevant to its context during the Civil Rights era. But by far the best bad movie in the bunch is the emphatically ‘80s adaptation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring model-not-quite-turned-actress Kathy Ireland.
Alien from L.A. (1987) depicts a shy and fearful teen’s discovery of her confidence and sense of adventure through the discovery of an entire underground civilization, completely unaware of life on the surface. The real standout feature is the shrill sound of “a voice that gives everyone a headache,” belonging to Ireland. As director Albert Pyun explains in the bonus features, her squeaky, childlike voice was so mockable that he couldn’t help but write some jokes about it into the script itself. But despite Ireland’s unpleasant vocal quality and forced performance, Alien from L.A. actually has a relatively engaging plot that provides more than enough fodder for the quipsters.
Danger!! Death Ray (1967), on the other hand, is the unbearably slow story of a generic superspy battling a generic terrorist organization that stole a death ray supposedly intended for peaceful purposes. While the commentary includes such spot-on critiques as “it was an interesting choice not to have any suspense in this movie,” the film itself is almost too bad to provide enough riffable material. Heavy on (poorly executed) action sequences and light on the dialogue (“Four people down and not a single quip.”), the commentators don’t have much more to work with than the annoyingly repetitive musical theme that is peppered throughout nearly every scene. The insistent “ba-ba-da-ba-da-da”’s very soon become overdone, but they manage to regain their comedic impact through enough variation in the types of jokes used.
And finally, while The Magic Sword (1962) is actually a coherent adaptation of a medieval legend, it’s largely forgettable. In true form, the Mystery Science Theater gang continues to serve up superb jokes and critiques alike, but yet again the very slow pace of this film generally impedes ready commentary. For example, in a wordless scene wherein two knights are searching a cave, the jokers very successfully turn to the lack of movement itself as their source material: “No, nothing happening with the plot over here.” “Not over here either.”
If one thing is certain, it’s that Mystery Science Theater 3000 knows its audience, and, while many of the riffs can be appreciated by a wide variety of viewers, some of the best quips directly appeal to hardcore movie fans. Not only does a large portion of the commentary specifically address narrative and formal conventions of film, but it also frequently contains intertextual references to cult film figures, famous movie quotes and obscure trivia. So this box set will have a lot to offer the B-movie buff, but Mystery Science Theater 3000 is also supremely entertaining for others, as well. With four wonderfully awful movies, fantastic mini posters of Steve Vance’s original cover art for each, and informative and entertaining bonus features, MST3K: XXVI definitely gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Despite some comedic limitations presented by the slower films, the commentary is still as sharp and clever as ever, and it’s sure to give some laughs.