[12 December 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As they have done in seven previous DVD collections (as well as several single disc releases), Rhino Home Video continues to preserve the legacy of one of the finest television shows every to grace the pay cable airwaves: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 8. When Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was first conceived by comedian Joel Hodgson back in the early ‘90s, it was positioned as a localized late night UHF, offering a chance for some native talent to perk up the otherwise drab Minneapolis airwaves with some homemade hilarity. Two decades and 197 episodes later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 stands as one of the truly original and innovative comedies ever created for the small screen.
For those unfamiliar with the program, the premise is simple. Joel Hodgson (later to be replaced by head writer Mike Nelson) plays a poor schlub who gets shot into space by devious mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. In order to test the mantel of his mind, Dr. Forrester, along with his goofy assistant known as TV’s Frank, sends Joel/Mike bad movies. By monitoring his reactions, the sinister scientist hopes to take over the world.
But Joel is wise to this bemusing brainwashing. He uses some of the spaceship’s parts to build robot pals, friends who can help him get through the cinematic torture. So along with the amiable automatons Crow, Tom Servo, and Gypsy, Joel/Mike sit in a makeshift theater and talk back to the screen, ridiculing the rotten filmyster. The purpose behind such salacious quipping is two-fold: first, it prevents the movies from warping Joel/Mike’s fragile metal state; and second, it acts like an audience umbilical, tapping directly into the universal anguish most fans feel when viewing those awful, awful movies.
And what a bad bunch they are. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is famous for celebrating several of the worst films ever made. Examples include the Howard Johnson’s of Horror as run by a silly Satanic cult in Manos: The Hands of Fate, the prehistoric love triangle of a socialite, her Cabbage Patch Elvis boyfriend, and a undersexed Neanderthal known as Eegah! and the entire tainted oeuvre of one Coleman Francis. In interviews about their film selection process, the show’s cast members would often argue that the most miserable, mind-numbing movie experience would often produce the best, most memorable episodes. Volume Eight adds yet another example to the list of the laughably lamentable: the Bill Rebane/ Hershell Gordon Lewis helmed cosmic slop known as Monster a Go-Go.
The plot of this sci-fi stool sample is straight out of a child’s picture book of rocket science. An astronaut gets caught in some manner of cosmic anomaly, and when his capsule crash lands on earth, he turns into a hulking old geezer with rotten bread dough hanging from his cheeks. As he stumbles across the countryside looking for victims to satisfy his newfound homicidal space dust lust, the individuals in charge of saving/slaughtering him stand around arguing over journal entries while downing martinis with anchovy stuffed olives. Eventually, our interstellar beast wears out his Earthly welcome, and instead of some fancy action sequence or effect-laden send-off, our title creature just up and disappears. Talk about your spastic speculative fiction.
When faced with a movie as dauntingly bad as Monster a Go-Go, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast seems to reach even further down into their treasure trove of talent and pull out some spectacular sarcasm. Nothing is safe from their snide remarks; not NASA, nuclear physics or bad garage rock. Yet even something as horrid as Monster a Go-Go can reap some minor rewards. Because of its insanely brief running time, the show was able to incorporate a classic educational short from the ‘60s as part of the episode. Entitled Circus on Ice, it is truly everything you’d imagine a perky and peppy celebration of the Icecapades as big top extravaganza could be; complete with one skater’s interpretive ballet of a dying fawn.
Yet it’s not just ancient atrocities that fuel the Mystery Science Theater 3000 machine. Take 1987’s Hobgoblins for example. Writer/director Rick Sloan actually sent this Gremlins/Ghoulies-style rip-off to the TV show for spoofing and boy did he get his mad money’s worth. Filled with laughable ‘80s idiocy, a completely out of place sex comedy vibe, and the only LA strip club featuring an effete, Cabaret-like MC, this mishmash of meandering macabre and pissed-off puppets is enough to make you question Sloan’s sanity. His clothesline plotting a collection of space creatures who resemble skid row stuffed animals escape from a movie studio vault (don’t ask) and wind up tormenting a group of gangly teens is just an excuse for lame laughs and even more handicapped horror.
Cast into this creative abyss, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gang has no choice but to come out with gaffs ablazin’. Naturally, the inanimate monsters get most of the jibes, but plenty is left for the amateurish actors who misconstrue mugging for subtlety and shouting for sentiment. One scene in particular stands out over the others: as a bad bar band blasts through a terrible tune that sounds like hair metal mixed with head cheese, Mike and the robots try to decipher the lunkheaded loser lyrics. Some of their most memorable guesses? “Fish Picker” and “Pig Liquor”. The real title is, of course, “Kiss Kicker”. Makes sense.
Sometimes, the show was stuck with your standard grade-Z drive-in schlock fare and there really wasn’t much they could do about it. Such is the case with The Phantom Planet from 1961. This dopey, dreary space opera has another ill-fated astronaut landing on a mysterious moon, only to be shrunk down and thrown directly into an extraterrestrial race war. Seems the miniature denizens of this desolate world can’t stand the damnable dog people known as the Solarites. They use a kind of mind control device to ward off these wicked bow-wows. Our hero’s not much help, though. He’s too busy making cow-eyes at the available native skirt.
Part of the problem with installments like this is that the movies are so horrid, so devoid of anything remotely resembling imagination or creativity that the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew has a hard time filling in the farce. Still, they find the easy object of humor (the puppy people, the obvious overacting) and turn it into a compendium of cleverness.
Volume Eight also illustrates one of the most important elements of the show’s legacy. On occasion, the series uncovered new cinematic atrocities to stun and pain the audience, films that had never seen the light of day before being broadcast on the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 airwaves. This set’s misplaced masterpiece of misery is entitled The Dead Talk Back. A whodunit that plays like a mystery dinner theater version of And Then There Were None, we immediately find ourselves smack dab in the center of a boring murder case. Seems a young gal of questionable repute has been found cross-bowed to death, and it is up to the police, along with an odd duck psychic researcher, to discover the killer’s true identity.
Naturally, the man of metaphysics has an ESP gimmick up his sleeve; a gizmo that supposedly lets him speak to the deceased. In the past, he has used his mad mental powers to solve crimes. Now, with the help of his hereafter radio receiver, he is sure he can crack the case. One thing is for sure, however: such festering filmic cow flops are like manna for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew. In this single episode, they manage to make fun of Jerry Garcia and prostitutes, and employ some really lousy special effects. And if that’s not enough, Anheuser-Busch steps up to advertise its line of ice cream refrigeration units in the industrial short subject The Selling Wizard. Between jibes at hippies and jokes about marketing, the show really covers the compendium of cleverness.
Indeed, the best thing about any installment of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is its omnibus use of humor. All types are tossed into the mix: irreverent and weird, surreal and sophomoric, even the occasional dry and droll are churned with puns, homages, impersonations, lampoons and direct attacks on individual aesthetic. The result is like a reference book for rib tickling; a televisual tome where every possible pratfall or wicked witticism is stored for future, frequent use.
After all, where else would you find Shakespeare references nudging knock-knock jokes out of the way, where fart humor successfully commingles with sharp social commentary. Though the DVDs are usually released with nothing more than the episodes intact (very few offer any manner of bonus material), Rhino still deserves kudos for keeping the Mystery Science Theater 3000 flame alive. Though the films they fidget with are definitely not timeless, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a true boob tube classic.