Film

'Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XXXV' Pays Tribute to Roger Corman's Legacy

Erin Giannini
Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell (1988)

The latest release, full of aliens and alternate realities, highlights Corman's many roles in and influence on the film industry.


Mystery Science Theater 3000

Distributor: Shout! Factory
Cast: Joel Hodgson, Michael Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff
Network: Comedy Central
US Release Date: 2016-03-29
Amazon

When I first started watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, back in the early '90s, I'm certain I was unaware of the genesis of many of the B- and Z-grade movies the show focused on. (I've always known more about television than film.) While Joel (Joel Hodgson), Mike (Michael J. Nelson), Crow (Trace Beaulieu), and Servo (Kevin Murphy) would start riffing with the opening credits, and continuing snarking through the end credits, information such as the director of Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell (1988) never stuck in my mind.

It was the release of the box sets, first by Rhino and now Shout! Factory, where the sheer number of Roger Corman-related features Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired really struck me. Of the 197 feature-length films the series skewered, seven were directed by Corman. Corman, however, never limited himself to simply directing films; he also produced, and was the co-founder of New World Pictures. It would be more difficult, it seems, to find a B-movie from the '60s, '70s, or '80s that Corman wasn't either involved with, or at least clearly an influence.

Teenage Cave Man

While Shout!'s latest MST3K release only features one Corman-directed film (Teenage Cave Man, 1958), he served as the producer for the included Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, and Being From Another Planet (1982, also known as Time Walker) was released in 1982 by New World Pictures. While Corman reportedly doesn’t like Mystery Science Theater 3000's mockery of his films, he could almost be the patron saint of the series. Like the American International Pictures-focused previous release, Shout! Factory again seems to be employing a loose theme in its episode selection for these box sets.

12 to the Moon

For Mystery Science Theater, Volume XXXV, while the main focus is clearly Corman, the fact that three out of the four selected films either take place in alternate universes or involve interactions with aliens (both on Earth and in space) serves as an interesting subtheme to the collection. While Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell fits firmly in the sword and sorcery genre, 12 to the Moon (1960) offers an interesting contrast to Being From Another Planet. Both involve humans interacting with less-than-friendly aliens, but while 12 to the Moon seems to argue for peace and international cooperation, Being From Another Planet's alien is more like a murderous version of E.T.; the alien wants to go home, and isn’t averse to killing those who stand in its way. It's also visually and narratively more akin to late '70s/early '80s slasher films than to the Space Race-era black and white of 12 to the Moon.

As Evan Sawdey wrote in his review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIII, Shout! Factory's ongoing collaboration with Ballyhoo Films to create the included featurettes really sets these boxed sets apart from the earlier Rhino releases. While in the previous collection, Shout! opted to include a feature-length documentary chronicling AIP's rise and fall, this release provides short films for each. The broadest ranging offering is the one included with Teenage Cave Man, an early post-apocalyptic film, offering interviews with film historians C. Courtney Joynes and Tom Weaver, actress Stephanie Shayne, whose father Robert had a supporting role in the film, and secured Stephanie and her brother small roles as well, as well as Corman himself.

The other included featurettes focus more narrowly on a single interview. Thom Christopher, who played the villain Troxatas in Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, shares anecdotes of its filming, including the fact that all of the actors knew it was not a good film, and couldn't help "camping around" with the over-the-top material. Being From Another Planet includes an interview with the film’s composer, Richard Band, whose work focused primarily on science fiction and horror films.

While it's easy to dismiss those involved in what are clearly less-than-stellar productions, Ballyhoo’s featurettes emphasize both the features’ historical places within film, and the dedication of those who work on them. Band’s interview is an excellent example of this; he insisted on working with orchestras to score the films, rather than the synthesized music so common across genres in the '80s, and regardless of the quality of the film itself, the score does stand out when compared to the typical genre offering of that era.

Being From Another Planet

Additional bonus materials include Steve Vance's MST3K-inspired film posters, the original trailer for Being From Another Planet, and the uncut version of that film -- a bonus that Rhino had included on many of the earlier box sets, and that MST3K fans have been requesting from Shout! Factory.

What Shout! Factory's Mystery Science Theater 3000 box sets do is something quite extraordinary. While the series itself resurrected numerous films that might have best been forgotten (I’m looking at you, Manos, Hands of Fate!), only to send up their most problematic and/or cheesiest aspects, the thoughtfulness behind both Shout!'s choice of films and their collaboration with Ballyhoo gives it another turn of the screw: they respect the material and offer it a place within the larger cinematic structure. This isn't to say that historical analysis or interviews with the cast and crew somehow rescue these films from their own limitations, but it reminds the viewer that many of those involved, both in front and behind the cameras, produced the best work they were capable of.

The downside to that, of course, is that little tinge of guilt that mocking them now brings. Thankfully, that's not a problem for Joel, Mike, Crow, and Servo.

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