[8 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.
Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson et.al. seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.
For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!
While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.
Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.
Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.
Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business.
Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.