Film

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 10.2 (The Upgrade)

Blame it all on Godzilla. Or better yet, blame it on Toho Studios, Sandy Frank, and any other individual or entity that has a say in how Japan's favorite oversized lizard gets manipulated and marketed around the world. When Rhino released Volume 10 in their recently halted Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection (don't worry - Shout! Factory is taking up the mantle), it included the satiric show's riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon. Famous for introducing the Ultraman-inspired Jet Jaguar, as well as a weird arms race theme (the undersea kingdom of Seatopia decides to fight nuclear testing by…sending a massive monster to destroy Tokyo?), it stands as a fan favorite.

Unfortunately, as with many movies in the MST3K catalog, issues over rebroadcast rights reared their ugly head. Devotees of the classic cowtown puppet show have long had to resign themselves to the fact that many of the series' most memorable episodes would never see the light of a home video release. The reasons are many - post-commercialized claims, long unsettled legal disputes, family tiffs, limited use contracts - but the fact remains that both Godzilla and his success inspired turtle brother Gamera have been visibly absent from the Rhino releases. When Megalon hit, many thought the drought may finally have ended. Others believed it was too good to be true. They were right.

Indeed, aside from a few review versions sent to websites and publications for write-up, and a couple of accidental brick and mortar sales, Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Collection soon became an out of print prize. The box set was pulled, rumors surfaced and were settled, and anyone desperate to own the DVD version of the installment had to pay big bucks to collectors and/or price gougers. In response, Rhino is releasing a 'replacement' disc, an 'upgrade' if you will. Taking Gojira's still warm seat in the digital package will now be the classic Season Four installment, The Giant Gila Monster. Starring the leg up vocalizing of Don Sullivan and directed by The Killer Shrews' Ray Kellogg, this forced perspective reptile on the prowl picture is truly bad…meaning it makes for flawless MST fodder.

It seems that Chase Winstead and his fast driving teen buddies just can't get enough of tearing through the dirt roads of their backwater burg. But when a pal and his pretty thing fail to show up for a rendezvous at the passion pit, the town gets worried. Seems the boy is the son of factory owner Mr. Thompson, and this rural entrepreneur loves to throw his weigh around. He especially enjoys bossing the likable Sheriff Jeff. When more people go missing, the mystery deepens. Then local lush Old Man Harris sees a giant Gila monster crossing the road. It causes a massive train accident where victims confirm the creature. It is up to Chase, his crippled sister, his French speaking girlfriend, and the aging lawman, to save the barn dance and destroy the beast once and for all.

In a clear case of Fourth Season syndrome (a theory among critics by which a television series reaches its first of possibly many creative peaks), The Giant Gila Monster stands as many MiSTie's most memorable outings. It contains the sensational second on air cast incarnation - Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff - and finds the program banging on all of its sarcastic cylinders. From the sensational invention exchange (who doesn't want to punch out Renaissance Fair stereotypes) to Tom Servo's expose on how Kellogg employed the 'bended knee as blocking device' technique, it's a marvelous installment. While it may not replace the mesmerizing "man in suit" dynamic of Godzilla's Eastern promise, it satisfies in its own schlocky way.

Indeed, the movie itself is a mishmash of horror, rock and roll, melodramatic schmaltz, and standard formulaic filmmaking. Kellogg uses minimal sets (a garage, a barn, a soda shop) and lots of local Texas backdrops (the movie was filmed in the Lone Star state) to tell his tale, and via the use of miniatures and massive close-ups, he creates a well-meaning (if rather unexceptional) giant beast. Sullivan's Chase Winstead is a juvenile delinquent in the Steve McQueen/The Blob sense. He's a good kid, occasionally misguided in his engine revving routine. There are songs (composed and sung by the star himself), a wacky old drunk, some choice chest puffing, and a good amount of over the top orchestration. All of it tries to make The Giant Gila Monster more imposing than it is.

As for the MST material, it's above reproach. The in-theater joking is marvelous, most of the mirth centering on giving the title character a rib-tickling running critter commentary. Though it admits to having a brain "the size of a chickpea", the Gila definitely gives good wit. Similarly, there are numerous mentions of the actor's everpresent knees, a complete deconstruction of Sullivan's tune "The Lord Said Laugh", and a choice skit where comic drunks are discussed. This is the kind of movie that easily lends itself to the MST3K treatment. It's hokey without being completely horrible, pedestrian without plodding along. The combination of film and funny business represent the reason many think Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains the best show in the history of the medium.

Of course, what many outside the obsessive will wonder is - is this DVD worth getting? Rhino is selling them for under $8 (for those who already own Volume 10) and it will be included in every new version of Volume 10.2. The answer is a resounding YES, if only for the introductory material. Somehow, Joel, Trace, and Frank were all convinced to re-don their character costumes and recreate an opening sequence from the show. Within this older, balder, and bulkier version of MST's memorable players, Joel and the 'Bots help Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank explain the "upgrade" process. It's one of the best things the series has ever done, and a burst of badass nostalgia for anyone who truly adores the show.

But there's more here than that. Along with a gallery of stills, the disc also houses a 12 minute interview with actor Don Sullivan. He expresses his love of the film, how MST3K helped him appreciate it even more, and how he came to Hollywood with big dreams and $3 in his pocket. He also talks about his songwriting, the meaning of "The Lord Said Laugh" and why he dropped out of show business. It's an insightful Q&A, one of the best ones these discs have provided. As an added bonus, we get two audio-only tracks from the Sullivan catalog. They're a hoot. It all turns a must-own DVD into one of the best format fortunes out there. So perhaps instead of blaming Godzilla and his monetary keepers, we should thank them. If for nothing else than the return of our favorite MST icons, The Giant Gila Monster makes Volume 10.2 terrific!

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