It’s the Special Features That Shine in ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIII’

The featurettes here are extremely respectful and well-made, detailing the oft-forgotten studio systems in place that made cheap B-movies thrive in the '50s and '60s.

You don’t really need to know a lot about me, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know that I have been writing for PopMatters for close to a decade. As such, every once in awhile, there will be a recall or echo from my written past that makes its way around to me, some current statement or some thought connecting with something I wrote long ago.

I had one of those moments recently. When watching the special features for Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIII, I was blown away by the sheer quality of the bonus material included. As most everyone knows, MST3K exists as a place wherein bad, terrible films receive the professional ribbing they rightfully deserve, sometimes reinventing cinematic excrement that normally would be (perhaps rightfully) lost as a modern-day comedy classic: the MST3K takedown of Manos: The Hands of Fate and RiffTrax’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny immediately spring to mind.

Yet making fun of the films because they’re bad is one thing; treating them mean-spiritedly is another. The crew aboard that fabled Satellite of Love prodded but was never cruel to the terrible films they encountered, as the show’s safe, nerdy, and deliberately-cheesy vibe is what drew viewers to it in the first place. Sometimes, the guys at RiffTrax (formed by many of MST3K‘s key players after its demise) will move a little bit too close to the snarky side for some people’s tastes, even though their jokes are at this point so expertly delivered and consistently funny that they may as well have been machine-generated (which, yes, is a compliment in this case).

So while making fun of movies is one thing, granting them an air of respect, no matter how small, is a rather wonderful and inviting gesture. For this four-disc box set of selections from the show’s seemingly inexhaustible backlog, Shout! Factory has culled a fairly solid collection this time out, featuring two episodes with creator-host Joel Hodgson (the 1959 drag-racing stinker Daddy-O and the drab sci-fi schlock of 1958’s Earth vs. the Spider) and two with head-writer/latter-day host Michael J. Nelson (the 1955 youth-vigilante flick Teen-Age Crime Wave and the second-rate 1966 James Bond knockoff Agent from H.A.R.M.). They’re all pretty high-quality runs, with perhaps Earth vs. the Spider being the weakest of the bunch and H.A.R.M. stealing the show, what with its reference to going to a “judo range” coupled with the guys’ incessant heckling of a henchmen that looks an awful lot like Prince.

I mentioned having those occasional “echoes” at the start of this article because it was in a 2007 feature we ran about the Best TV on DVD in which I wrote about Mystery Science Theater 3000 and called it “the Criterion Collection for B-movies.” Much like Ed Wood’s entire career, we laugh at some of these films even if there’s a bit of “Well by golly at least they gave it a try” spirit behind those intentions. Films like Manos: The Hands of Fate would have been lost to time were it not for MST3K, and now that seminal “classic” has a standalone DVD release on its own and even a soundtrack you can purchase through Bandcamp.

Nothing against previous publisher Rhino Entertainment, but Shout! Factory has been putting so much more effort into its MST3K releases, even striving for something more worthy of that “Criterion collection for B-movies” tag. By employing a small production house called Ballyhoo Films, each new MST3K set generally features a short (roughly 10-15 minutes) documentary about the correspondingly riffed film or perhaps one of its key players. These featurettes are extremely respectful and well-made, detailing the oft-forgotten studio systems in place that made cheap B-movies thrive in the ’50s and ’60s.

Sometimes they include interviews with the now-elderly stars of those schlocky classics (which they do with Peter Mark Richman, the star of H.A.R.M.), and other times they paint a broader picture, like they do with Film It Again, Sam: The Katzman Chronicles, an excellent look at the work of B-movie producer Sam Katzman, who made small films on a small budget and slowly built up a minor-key empire for himself. In one of the best stories, Katzman gives a meager six days of filming to the crew of a cheap war drama, and only later do they realize a faulty camera rendered all of the footage of days three and day four unusable. When asked if they’re going to do reshoots, Katzman said that they could just use stock footage in its place.

While these bonus features may only be of passing interest to the average “Mistie”, they are of such high quality and filled with so many great details that the phrase I wrote about some eight years ago is starting to feel more and more like a truism: these films were forgotten for all the right reasons, but even with a great helping of jokes and skits, its the special features that’ll make sure they’re remembered as more than “just” bad movies.

RATING 8 / 10