Film

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII

Director: 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: 2010-03-16
US Release Date: 2010-03-16

Classic TV shows just don't spring to life, fully formed. They grow, are nurtured and blossom over time, trial, and error. It sometimes takes years for their true genius to shine through, while many see the greatness initially, but acknowledge that the best is often yet to (and does eventually) come. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a perfect example of this "vintage" ideal. Like a show it is often compared to, the equally brilliant SCTV, it started out strong, found real footing around Season Four, and then had to retool its entire approach when star Joel Hodgson left. His replacement, head writer Mike Nelson, hit the ground running and around the time the Sci-Fi Channel was growing weary of all the schlock spoofing, the series was pure parody gold.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII, the latest DVD release from Shout! Factory, offers a wonderful overview of this prickly process. Disc One offers The Crawling Eye, the very first episode to hit the national cable airwaves (the show was originally a local Minnesota UHF broadcast only). It offers a glimpse at the material in its infancy - staggering, sometimes unsure, but always hilarious. Next up, a true MST classic - The Beatniks. Not really your typical genre material, this show business story of a hoodlum turned hit parader is one of Joel and the 'bots best. Mike's up next with the wonderful Final Sacrifice, a nutty Canadian action/fantasy horror film which can best be described with one word - Rowsdower! Finally, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z showcases the final phases of series; banging on all six cylinders, brilliant…and a little bewildered.

Of course, it wouldn't be hard to top the mangled monster mash of Eye. Made in 1958 and featuring Forrest Tucker, this Switzerland set stinker features a massive alien creature that likes to decapitate its victims…and that's about it. The movie moves at a snail's pace, the F/X are cheap and chintzy, and whatever atmosphere or mood is gained from the European backdrop (the material was based on a BBC teleserial) is smashed to pieces by the standard levels of '50s b-movie mannerism. There are some who consider the film a minor masterwork, unfairly demeaned by a movie going public that purposefully dismiss any horror film from the era as underdeveloped and thin. One look at The Crawling Eye, and such cinematic malnutrition is obvious.

There's a clear parallel to the start of Mystery Science as well. Like any origin story, this first big time episode has to rework the show's premise (Joel is shot up into space by two mad scientists - Dr. Forrester and Dr. Erhardt - and is forced to watch cheesy movies). The main characteristics of his automated defense mechanisms - read 'robot pals' - are starting to take shape, and the entire movie riffing/host segment dynamic is still being fully worked out. Some of the jokes are recycled, borrowed from the KTMA days, but for the most part, The Crawling Eye is a successful introduction to what would soon become a funny business force to be reckoned with - and said reckoning would arrive quickly.

Paul Frees was a hugely successful character actor and voice over artist when he got a chance to write and direct his own take on the current teen idol/juvenile delinquency crazy sweeping the nation. Bringing up and coming actors Tony Travis and Peter Breck along, he crafted some crappy songs and referenced the dying hipster craze by calling the whole thing The Beatniks. Convoluted, and about as cool as a rotting cucumber, the entire movie revolves around how well you like Travis' Steve Alaimo vocals, as well as madhouse mannequin looks of lead Joyce Terry. Sadly, once Breck goes into gonzo mode, there's no turning back - or turning good, for that matter.

Which means that The Beatniks is perfect Joel fodder. The main difference between our original host and his replacement is a desire to mine the past for wit and wisdom, instead of grinding through the current clime to locate some merriment. This means that the entire bongo beat bizarreness of the title becomes the foundation for a nonstop nod to nostalgia, the lack thereof, and every hoary old rags to riches rock star story imaginable. Season Four was the second to last for Hodgson (he would leave halfway during Season Five) and he is priceless here. Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy do such great work as robots Crow and Tom Servo respectively that you feel like you're watching a real comedy team, not just a pair of puppets. Indeed, when the subject of classic episodes is debated about, The Beatniks always lands high on the list - and with good reason.

So does the Mike-era masterpiece The Final Sacrifice. Not the film, mind you, the material garnered from it. The movie centers on a whisper thin wimp named Troy who gets mixed up with a murderous cult when he uncovers a secret map left by his late dad. With the help of beefy ex-sect henchman Zap Rowsdower, he heads off into the Canadian tundra, hoping to locate the fabled lost city of Ziox. Along the way, they run into the most grizzled old prospector ever to hornswaggle, several out of shape masked assassins, and one of the worst villains ever to speak in low, modulated tones. With its Great White wasteland qualities and dedication to all things Zap, Sacrifice has become a true MST favorite - and in this case, it might have more to do with the schlock than the satire.

Of sure, Mike and the crew go gangbusters here, presiding over a motion picture present perfectly wrapped for their style of silliness - and they do make the most of it, though sometimes, the jokes seem too easy and obvious (Troy and Zap's various adventures are indeed suggestive in ways both weird and weakling). Perhaps the best bit is a hilarious song which eviscerates Canada as a bunch of "bacon loving bastards", but the in-theater quips are equally adept. Still, Final Sacrifice arrived just before the end of Season Nine, and there were already hints that Sci-Fi was not interested in keeping the show around that much longer. Season Ten would indeed be the last, and The Blood Waters of Dr. Z clearly suffers from such a predetermination.

It wouldn't be fair to call the episode "minor" MST, since all Mystery Science is pretty great, but you can almost sense the lack of real effort here. Granted, any movie which features a voice-over protagonist ("Sargassum…the weed of deceit") who changes himself into a giant walking catfish (kind of) to get revenge on all the scientists who thought him mad isn't out to be Ben Hur. But within ten minutes of the story starting, we get way too much local color (in the guise of a gold old boy sheriff and a group of Florida Wildlife Preserve officers) and lots of Sunshine State tourist trappings. Before long, our lead is looking for love, and his attempts to create a viable lady fish are quite incompetent.

As for the show itself, there seems to be a battle raging between malaise and insanity, a desire to pack it all in vs. a need to go all out. That may explain the sexual innuendos, the surreal sequence where two Sci-Fi era characters (amiable ape Professor Bobo and alien know-it-all Brain Guy) help Crow and Tom Servo prove that all movies are better with nudity (?) and a real lack of depth in the ridicule. While still strikingly funny, you can almost smell the surrender. More importantly, when placed up against other similarly themed episodes in Season Ten (Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues, Squirm), it just can't compete.

Which brings us full circle - uneven origins to equally patchy summation. In between are enough undeniable gems to encrust a dozen royal headdresses. As with any reconsideration of such things, consensus is easy - individual perspective is slightly harder. We all have our favorites, our 'can't live without' moments that make up our final judgment. But within said verdicts are smaller, seemingly insignificant aspects which end up further defining the determination. How things start, and how they end, are two such rudimentary aspects. Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII offers an excellent illustration of both - and all paths in between.

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