Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVDirector: Various
Cast: Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein, Kevin Murphy
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Studio: Best Brains Inc.
UK Release Date: 2009-07-07
US Release Date: 2009-07-07
There are literally dozens of fanboy feuds in the realm of MST3K, fights as futile as Joel vs. Mike, Sci-Fi vs. Comedy Central, Crow T. Robot Mach 1 vs. Crow 2.0 - heck, even Rifftrax vs. Cinematic Titanic gets the cowtown puppet show geek juices flowing. Yet the one subject that seems almost lost in the entire compare and contrast dynamic is the participation of one Josh "Elvis" Weinstein. Perhaps it's because he was gone before the series went mainstream - meaning he was around for the KTMA and Comedy Channel years, but left before the rest of the media made the show into a cult phenomenon. As a participant in the founding days of what remains one of the funniest things ever to grace an analog television screen, he seems misguidedly ill-considered. Of course, new fans haven't had much of a chance to monitor Weinstein's skills…until now.
That's right - as part of their continuing desire to bring as much Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the digital age as possible, Shout! Factory is releasing Volume XV of their bravura box sets. This time around we are treated to surefire classics like The Girl in Lovers Lane (two drifters land in a small town and stir up some powerful hormones), Zombie Nightmare (voodoo and body building meet the living dead) and the immortal Racket Girls (spinsters put on unflattering togs and grapple like your grandma). Also included is one of the best episodes from the first season of the series - The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. As Mexican macabre goes, it's all flashbacks and K. Gordon Murray mandated exposition. But as an example of what Weinstein contributed to the mix, it's eye-opening, especially when you toss in the Scrapbook bonus features which trace the show's seminal UHF roots.
Of course, this isn't the first time that the original parameters of MST have been available on DVD. Rhino released a volume (#9) which offered up episode 104 - Women of the Prehistoric Planet, and last time around, Volume XIV presented the oddball offering Mad Monster (episode 103). But with Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, we get one of the greatest between-movie skit selections ever - the arrival of the menacing (and poorly house trained) demon dogs. Riffing on everything from Land of the Lost (the main "intelligent" pup is known as Enoch) and Star Trek (the cosmic cur suggests a toast of "Tranya" as a symbol of friendship) there is a whole Alien/Aliens vibe going on which transcends the trip into easy toilet humor (remember, these bow-wows have squirrel like space bladders).
As for the movie - well, that's another story entirely. It seems that whatever original director Rafael Portillo was trying to accomplish with all the slipshod science and ersatz folklore in this scary movie, the Americanization of such falderal created an even more incomprehensible mess. What many fans don't realize is that this particular goofiness was actually part of an ongoing series featuring the title terror, the villain known as The Bat, and the attempts by both to thwart the good people of Mexico. Perhaps that's why this material is so reliant on flashback and explanations. Instead of action, we get inert explanations of things that happened so many years ago that the characters should have heard of them by now. By the time we've reached the 60 minute mark, we are still waiting for the automaton part of the mix to make its appearance. It's not worth it.
As for the remaining features, Girl provides the kind of Joel-based cracks that made his eventual retirement (three episodes later, with Mitchell) all the more meaningful. He is excellent here, leading compatriots Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Servo) through a plethora of exquisite gags, including takes on actors Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, and, best of all, Jack Elam ("what is that ODOR???"). The skits are sensational as well, especially the cracking train ditty "What a Pleasant Journey". It matches perfectly with the maudlin melodrama of the film, a potboiler filled with homoerotic ridiculousness, rampant brotheling, and enough pie-eyed puppy love to give those notorious demon dogs a run for their interstellar kibble. Between the fey father figure who immediately warms to the concept of vigilante justice and the bare-assed babe casting entendres from a sitting room bathtub (?), there's enough strange surreality to keep the rather limp premise at bay.
Similarly, Zombie Nightmare lingers long in the memory for reasons that have very little to do with the faux frights onscreen. The actors are so incredibly arch, everyone from nice newcomer Frank Dietz to the media-hardened hilarity of Adam West and rocker Jon Mikl Thor, that it's hard not to fall into this movie's misguided machinations. Perhaps more memorable is Shawn Levy - yes, THAT Shawn Levy. The future director of such unbridled dreck as the Pink Panther remake and those two nauseating Nights at the Museum shows why he's a wholesale hack with his turn as the freewheeling Id-case, Jim. With hair that would make New Jersey mall rats blush and a build that suggests one too many Slim-Jim dinners, he's anti-sex personified. That he is considered a menace in this movie says something about the script's overall ineffectualness. As for the MST material - it's aces, as usual.
But neither of these nuggets can match the matron-on-matron gag reflexing of Racket Girls. Originally entitled Pin Down Girls, we are treated to a proposed inside look at the tumultuous and tantalizing world of female wrestling, highlighting the potential criminal element hiding within. In actuality, the only thing revealed is the spastic anti-athleticism of the thick-thighed models passing as competitors populating Scalli's gymnasium as jiggle show. And that includes the immortal Peachy Page, whose R. Crumb carriage becomes the main cinematic focus as she tumbles, tousles, and teases the audience with her various "skills". Mike and the 'bots have a field day with this dreary dames as doormats exposé, especially when real life wrastlin' champs Clara Mortensen and Rita Martinez show up to prove that Ms. Page isn't the only one with limited 'thespian' tendencies.
As for the added content included with these titles, Shout! Factory has gone all out. Both The Aztec Mummy and Girl feature material lifted from the MST Scrapbook (an old compilation of behind the scenes and early KTMA clips). Zombie Nightmare has actual cast members Frank Dietz and Jon Mikl Thor traveling down memory lane in updated - and very funny - interviews. There is also an odd "sneak peek" at something called Hamlet A.D.D. The animated material, featuring Trace, Kevin, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry is quite peculiar…and quite entertaining. Along with a few promos and a collection of MST mini-movie posters, Shout! certainly signals their intentions of keeping their announced commitment to all this amazing in-theater spoofing.
And in the process, here's hoping that Weinsten gets the recognition he so richly deserves. Granted, Kevin Murphy did make Tom Servo solely his, so much so that any other version of the character seems simplistic and half-hearted. In addition, Frank Conniff's turn as Beaulieu's beleaguered sidekick, TV's Frank, is such a sublime supporting effort that Weinstein's Erhardt does pale in comparison. But you can't have comic greatness without a foundation of funny business, and those in the know argue that there was more to this teenage whiz kid that bad glasses and false bravado. J. Elvis is an important part of the MST3K legacy. The more exposure he can get (and Season One definitely deserves it), the sooner fans will see what purists have known for all these years.