[4 August 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Here we are, finally, at Volume 30.
During Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s incredible run, some 197 episodes were produced over the course of a decade, during which Mike, Joel, and the Bots have riffed on movies and educational films of the worst kind, punching them up with riffs, jibes, and playful pokes that could be crass, brilliant, base, or niche all within the space of 30 seconds. While reaching your 30th box set is no small feat for any show, you also have to keep in mind that when you’re not counting the KTMA (or, “Season Zero”) days or the films that just can’t be re-released due to copyright issues, we are starting to run down on the number of episodes left to get the proper DVD treatment.
Thankfully, with Volume XXX, we are treated to a rather joyous cadre of cinematic excrement.
What may arguably be the most historically-significant of these releases is the final episode of the show’s low-budget first season, The Black Scorpion, which is notable because it was also the final episode to feature Josh Weinstein before the role of Tom Servo was taken over by Kevin Murphy. Weinstein’s presence has always been a contentious part of the canon for Misties the world over, as the show was still very much finding its satirical voice; some of that “improvised in the theater” vibe hangs around, even though many of the jokes are clearly scripted.
There’s an air of amateurism to the whole affair, but the crew still manages to get in some solid jokes for this 1957 film about a Mexican volcano spewing forth a gigantic scorpion that wreaks havoc on the town. While some of the jokes work due to just how obvious they are (referencing the flowing lava: “You know, maybe you wouldn’t get burned if you got out of the way?”), the best wit does remain firmly in the theater, as the host segments here are a mere shadow of what they would eventually become.
After that, we head firmly in to Mike territory, starting with 1989’s Outlaw, wherein a college professor named Cabot returns to a medieval-style planet named Gor, where he must undo a vile queen’s plot to ascend to the throne. It’s a late-‘80s sci-fi misfire of epic proportions, right down to the whiniest hero sidekick you ever did see. The film is an absolute must-see, however, for the inclusion of Jack Palance, here somehow playing an evil wizard, and the Bots’ riffs in Palance’s cadence, which are worth the price of admission alone (“I’m supposed to be some kind of freakin’ wizard?!”).
Up next is a surprisingly potent 1966 British sci-fi tale called The Projected Man, which is a classic “monster-on-the-loose” tale, wherein a scientist’s attempts to transport matter leave him horribly disfigured and with the power to kill people with a touch. It is a very dialogue-heavy film, a majority of the “monster” aspect to it not even being introduced until half-way through. However, proper British mannerisms and an emphasis on dialogue, surprisingly, allow the guys to shine very bright, using every single pause after a question to their finest comic advantage. Sometimes it’s a bit crass (“I want you to regard what I’m going to say as highly confidential—” “—I’m a shemale.”), but it lands with great frequency, even when their ongoing joke involving a female assistant potentially removing her knickers for teleportation being played out over and over again.
The absurdity of the premise, as well as the character’s constant need to get a character named Mr. Latham to stay around a few days longer, actually makes way for some of this box set’s most lively host segments, and hardcore collectors looking for those “outside the norm” elements to the theater parts will want to see this for a skit where Crow accidentally kills Mike, forcing him and Tom Servo to drag Mike into the theater and not make any riffs of his own for a good bit. While character-removal conceits have been done with great effectiveness before (see Invasion of the Neptune Men), this one here makes for a fun little detour and footnote in the big book of MST3K.
Last but not least, we are treated to what is actually the fourth-to-last episode that was ever created: 1974’s It Lives By Night, the story of a scientist on honeymoon with his wife and gets bit by a bat, turning him into… well, not a vampire, but a bat-type creature of some sort. The film isn’t entirely clear, especially how the lead character informs his wife that he loves her… and also bats (amazingly, not a riff from the Bots). A rather inept and moustachioed town detective attempts to figure out the killings that this scientist appears to have been committing, leading to stupid car chases (when the bat-addled lead character steals a car, Crow quips “I guess by definition I’m in the Batmobile now ...”) and some rather poorly-edited action sequences. It’s not necessarily in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies territory, but in terms of style and quality, it’s not all that far removed.
One of the nicest additions that Shout! Factory has been doing for their recent sets has been adding on appropriate mini-documentaries to certain films detailing their creation, diving deep into B-movie history while keeping the MST3K brand out of it altogether. In truth, this is kind of a delightful service, as the history and creation of these generations of midnight movies is definitely worth preserving, especially as one gets to be relished with tales of studios firing directors or not giving screenwriters enough time to wrap up a particular script, really getting into the nitty gritty of some of these notable film productions. Outlaw gets no less than three mini-segments devoted to it, but all of them are fun, breezy views (although quick note to Tom Weaver: slow down when you speak please).
While certain MST3K box sets can sometimes be a grab-bag of significant and lesser films, the big 3-0 is one of the strongest to come around in a good long while, the Mike films being all-around excellent and even the Josh Weinstein set being one of the better introductions to the show’s first season aesthetic. Although arguments can be made for other sets being funnier, few have this many Jack Palance jokes in them, and that alone is worth making another trip up to the Satellite of Love.