Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVI

K. Gordon Murray's Santa Claus

Santa Claus, post-apocalyptic warriors, mad scientists, and alien spawn: another top-notch MST3K collection.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVI

Director: Various
Cast: Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff
Distributor: Shout Factory!
US DVD Release Date: 1 December 2009

For those who haven't seen it, a streamlined description of Mystery Science Theater 3000 goes something like this: a mad scientist traps a man on a satellite, forcing him to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. The man, however, builds some robot friends, and together they make fun of the movies as they watch them. There's a bit more to it than that, but as the show's opening credits explain, "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes / And other science facts / Then repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show / I should really just relax.'"

Over the course of 11 seasons and one feature film, MST3K stood as one of the most consistently funny shows on the air. Sometimes, though, even the MST3K crew could seem like they were punching the clock like the rest of us: the movies were just so bad that it was an act of pure masochism to sit through it, even if you reaped the pyrrhic revenge of tearing it down for posterity. For this viewer, that feeling typified several of the show's final episodes for the Sci-Fi Channel, when the show was limited to savaging movies from the channel's vaults that were not only bad, but free of the opportunities for fun social commentary that earnest (but still very bad) movies about female prisons or teenage junkies offered.

But then there's a movie like Santa Claus, a 1959 Mexican brought to American audiences courtesy of K. Gordon Murray (producer of more than 20 films along the lines of The Bloody Vampire, Savages from Hell, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, and a host of Santa films like Santa's Magic Kingdom and Santa's Giant Film Festival of the Brothers Grimm). Santa lives in a crystal palace in the sky populated by children of the world who have supposedly volunteered to help Santa make his toys. I say "volunteered" only because their songs -- sung at Santa's command -- sound disturbingly listless, and Santa tends to keep this army of child laborers out in the snow all the time.

At any rate, Santa spends much of his time in his observatory, using tools straight out of Pee Wee's Playhouse to watch the children of Earth. Lucifer sends one of his devils, Pitch, to turn all of the world's children toward evil. Santa must undo Pitch's work via all sorts of technology devised for him by, yes, the wizard Merlin. But if that were all the nonsensical ammunition that Santa Claus had loaded into its chambers, it would still be just another run-of-the-mill MST3K victim.

Instead, Santa Claus was created with such a unique and cohesive vision that it seems to draw the Satellite of Love crew in, stunning them into moments of silence. It's as if the MST3K crew are content to let Santa Claus unfold and and unleash its "nightmare fuel" on its own. And it actually makes you want to seek out director René Cardona's other films, such as Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy or Man in the Golden Mask vs. the Invisible Assassin, to see if the weirdness continues.

Santa Claus is obviously the centerpiece of this well-assembled set, but there are plenty of pleasures to be had in its three other titles. The Corpse Vanishes (1942) features a slumming, late-period Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who kills brides on their wedding days, only to steal their bodies and use them in procedures to inject youth into his elderly wife. A female reporter full of brass and moxie, a family of evil assistants, secret passageways: this one has all the clichés.

Night of the Blood Beast, courtesy of Roger Corman, is your standard "astronaut goes into space, astronaut returns from space impregnated with alien spawn" bit of '50s science fiction -- and it provides ample opportunity for commentary on the doe-eyed, helpless nature of any females in these types of films. But nothing on this set is a victim of its decade as much as Warrior of the Lost World. Starring a mumbly Robert Ginty (or, as he's constantly referred to, "the Paper Chase guy"), Persis Khambatta (from the first Star Trek film), and Donald Pleasance, Warrior of the Lost World features a warbly soundtrack that sounds like John Carpenter underwater, a band of rebels who wandered off the set of an '80s new wave video, and a talking onboard computer that actually utters words like "tubular". Set in a surprisingly verdant post-apocalyptic setting, and full to the brim with both mystical and technological hogwash, Warrior of the Lost World is the kind of film that MST3K can really sink its teeth into. All in all, a fairly strong set of DVDs, containing some long-requested fan favorites.

MST3K DVDs used to be pretty bare-bones affairs, but the folks at Shout Factory! are really starting to bring it. A limited edition version of this set includes a Tom Servo figurine, but all editions also include a series of prints for each movie, each done up in the style of old B-movie lobby posters. The onscreen menus are clever scenes featuring the robots Crow and Servo that parody the movies.

And there are even bonus features for some of the films. Santa Claus comes with a vintage radio spot, a still gallery, and a mini-doc called "Santa Claus Conquers the Devil: A 50-Year Retrospective". It's actually a very interesting piece, discussing not only the work of K. Gordon Murray, but also discussing the role the film played in introducing Santa Claus to Mexico. Warrior of the Lost World includes production stills and even an interview with writer/director David Worth. After you hear his tale of working without a script because the producer told him to make the film from a 40-page treatment, and of directing via storyboards because most of his Italian cast couldn't speak English, you gain a new appreciation for the film. I'm not saying you suddenly consider the film to be good, but you learn a little something about how a certain type of movie gets made, and how agreeable actors can be when they're getting a free month-long stay in Rome.

Heck, the MST3K discs are starting to get more supplemental materials than some Criterion Collection releases I've seen. More bonus items like that, and MST3K will really be making good on one of the show's more subtle pleasures: its honest and unabashed love for even some of the worst movies, and how there's a lesson waiting in every '80s lingo-spouting robot, every jazz-dancing devil, and every unintentionally hilarious educational short film.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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