Late in Joel Rapp’s High School Big Shot (1959), the teenage femme fatale Betty (Virginia Aldridge) asks her boyfriend: “What’s love got to do with it?” For a child of the ’80s, such a phrase is impossible not to respond to with, as Mike (Michael J. Nelson) does: “What’s love but a second-hand emotion?” In Shout! Factory’s latest Mystery Science Theater 3000 release, love has at least something to do with four films that range from anti-communist propaganda to low-rent science fiction. Indeed, except for the fact that all four releases feature Mike as host, that’s pretty much the only thing that connects these disparate films.
This is a bit of shift from recent MST3K releases; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV was a tribute to director/producer Roger Corman, and Volume XXXIV, to the late American International Pictures. The reality is, 38 releases in, the series is running out of inventory.
The series premise — a mad scientist, Dr Clayton Forrestor (Trace Beaulieu), along with his sycophantic companion, TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff), traps a man in space and tortures him with bad B-grade movies — equals 97 individual films for the series’ 97 episodes. These films — made in both the US and abroad, and spanning the ’50s to the ’90s — means that distributor Shout! Factory has to acquire the rights for each one before they can be released on DVD. While the first season, which aired on Minnesota public access channel KTMA, remains mostly unreleased, there are only about 15 episodes from the Comedy Central/SyFy Channel eras that have not made their way onto DVD, and due to rights issues, not all can be released.
For all the innovations the industry has undergone in the past 60 years, from TV itself to home video to streaming services, the media industry has shown itself to be a poor prognosticator of what programs or services will be of value to the viewing public. One of the most egregious examples of this would be the destruction of early television programs, from the BBC’s wiping of old Doctor Who episodes (among many others) or the junking of the majority of early US television network DuMont’s series, a network that not only launched Jackie Gleason’s career, but also aired programs that were the first to feature Asian American and African American women in lead roles.
In this respect, it’s not surprising that the industry didn’t really anticipate how television on DVD would take off. While this was a happy (and remunerative) surprise, it created additional problems that a little pre-planning would have fixed.
This isn’t to imply that Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXVIII is scraping the bottom of the episode barrel. Invasion USA opens with the classic short “A Date With Your Family” (a personal favorite), and the host segments for the sword-and-sorcery episode Colossus and the Headhunters feature Dr. Forrestor’s amusingly nefarious plot — the creation of the “most adorable pet in the world” Nummy Muffin Coocol Butter — to distract others from his evil schemes. This, as do many of his plans, goes awry when every human (including him) falls in love with the fluffy pink puppy.
Colossus and the Headhunters (1963)
Indeed, love is the predominant theme that links the films in this release, whether it’s the wartime romance between a socialite and a broadcaster in Invasion USA, between cheesy beefcake Maciste (Kirk Morris) — dubbed “Cheesesteak” by Mike, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), and Crow (Trace Beaulieu) for obvious reasons — and Queen Amoha (Laura Brown) or between a photographer and a mineralogist/moon beast, none of the disparate genres of the four films: noir (High School Big Shot), sci-fi (Track of the Moon Beast), war film (Invasion USA), or sword-and-sorcery (Colossus and the Headhunters) escapes without a romantic subplot. It’s fitting that as we near the end of these releases, and start anew with the forthcoming series reboot on Netflix, that we’re reminded that even in the worst movies, the Satellite of Love always comes through.
High School Big Shot (1959)
The box set offers the usual episode posters from Steve Vance, and the uncut and un-riffed version of High School Big Shot, but the documentary extras, created by Ballyhoo Films continue to be a high point in these releases. Invasion USA offers a short tribute to the film’s producer Albert Zugsmith, whose career had the fascinating reverse trajectory of producing such quality pictures as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil relatively early in his career, and ending with such deathless classics as Sex Kittens Go to College. The interview with actress Leigh Drake, who played photographer/love interest Kathy Nolan in Track of the Moon Beast answers the question of whether the actors in such terrible films know the films are terrible with a qualified no. While Drake shares that she actually burst into tears when she saw the awful final cut — a revelation that makes mocking the film a little challenging — the Mystery Science Theater take on the film and her performance, she says, made the whole experience worth it.
Colossus and the Headhunters (1963)
From a fan perspective, the best extra is the one included with Colossus and the Headhunters: “Mike, by Joel”. The fan community was one of the most active in the early days of the Internet, and was the home of one of the earliest fan “flame wars” when Nelson replaced Joel Hodgson as the host of the series. Joel, a more laidback presence, offers his insights into the reasons why he appreciated the different energy Mike brought, a transition eased by the fact that Nelson had served as head writer for the series for years before being tapped as host, indicating that the supposed resentment between the two was primarily a fan creation.
Invasion, U.S.A. (1952)
While the series inventory is diminishing, there’s still a lot to love in this latest release. Here’s hoping the new series on Netflix can live up to its predecessor.