Mania Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume 24 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Friday, August 10, 2012
For fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (proud MSTies, one and all), Christmas comes thrice yearly, thanks to the fine folks of Shout! Factory. Since taking over the release duties from Rhino in 2008 (beginning with volume 13), they've been providing us excellent episodes, with clockwork regularity, each spring, summer and fall. This newest batch contains an international smorgasbord of cinematic obscurity, rife for riffing. Before we get there though, let's indulge in a quick recap, for those who might have actually resided under a rock for all of the 90's (or for those young-ins among us).
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short) was a television show created and staring Joel Hodgson. In it's time on the air (1988 through 1999), it lived on three separate channels, went through numerous casting turnovers (including Hodgson himself in the middle of season five), spawned it's own film incarnation, and became a pop cultural phenomenon with a sizable fan base, still thriving to this day. The basic thrust of the show is explained in the opening theme song, but can be boiled down to this: A mad scientists kidnap an average guy and shoot him into space, forcing him to watch bad movies in an effort to find the worst one, then use it to conquer the world. Lucky for us, Joel creates sassy robots to keep him company and retain his sanity. Together, they watch these low budget bombs along with us, as companions on the journey, cracking wise and yucking it up with class and wit. Spaced regularly through out are host segments, which originally happened at the commercial breaks. These gave the crew license to craft songs, perform skits and generally take a deep breath from the cinematic stink of the experiment.
This volume's exploits feature a double dose of Japanese import action with episodes 310 and 318, Fugitive Alien and Star Force: Fugitive Alien II respectively. These small screen gems are feature length mash-ups, created taking pieces of the 70's television show Star Wolves. American producer and distributor Sandy Frank is the creative force responsible for gracing stateside audiences with this treasure trove of rubber dub-dubbed, science fiction cheese (more on Mr. Frank shortly). While we're on the subject of producers importing cold foreign fare for red blooded sensibilities, the third episode in this set just so happens to be The Sword and the Dragon (episode 617). Titled Ilya Muroments in Russia, its country of origin, this 1956 fantasy epic is one of the more beautifully shot movies to be skewered by the bots (it was the first Soviet movie to be filmed in CinemaScope). Independent cinema maestro Roger Corman produced the American import, which includes voice over narration by Mike Wallace.
All three of these episodes provide marvelous proof of concept, shining a light on exactly why MST3K remains popular to this day. Still, there remains a hole in your movie riffing collection. It seems that you aren't getting quite enough masked Mexican luchadores in your diet (9 out of 10 doctors agree). Episode 624 - Sampson vs. The Vampire Women fills that need, like an open handed chop to the torso (and far better than a flying drop kick could hope to). Sampson is actually Santo, the famous Mexican wrestler, turned movie star, comic book hero and eventually folk hero. As is customary of luchadores, he never removes his mask and goes about meeting with dignitaries or fighting the undead in the same outfit: shirtless, armed with his trusty cape and boots. This is among my favorite episodes for a number of obvious reasons, but it's also important in MST3K-dom, marking the departure of TV's Frank (Frank Conniff). There isn't a sour grape in the volume twenty-four bunch. But what about the special features?
If you've been playing along at home, you probably already know that Shout! Factory hasnot been content to simply follow in Rhino's footsteps. They continue to pack these sets with unique and fascinating special features, both of the MST3K variety and of cinematic ephemeral value. Volume 24 is no exception. Continuing the series started in volume 23 with Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff rightfully receives the Life after MST3K treatment. While this feature doesn't travel any new roads for long time MSTies, it's still wonderful to travel with our favorite second banana. We're treated to another illuminating conversation with August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. I love this feature, as it gives Ragone the chance to wax Japanese pop culture philosophical. What this man doesn't know about TV and film from the land of the rising sun could barely fill a sushi roll. Keeping the variety show rolling, Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo features and in depth look at Santo, the masked man of Mexico, and gives the American audience a peek inside the wild world of luchadore wrestling.
Awesome as these specials are, none could match the pure MSTie anticipation to hear rumored long time antagonist, Sandy Frank, speak. For years, the fans of MST3K have speculated that it was this man who made it impossible for the home release of several much loved episodes. These rumors were taken as true for so long that they became legendary. Well, get set to have your preconceived notions shattered like the end of Fulci's Gates of Hell. Sandy Frank actually seems like a nice guy. Crazy, right?
This is yet another in a long line of excellent releases from Shout! Factory. The folks there clearly care about pleasing the fans and as long as they keep this up, the good times will keep on rolling.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist for Mania writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights and Colonial Cult Cinema.You can delve further into his love of all things weird and campy on his blog, The Midnight Cheese or hear him occasionally guesting on eminent podcast You've Got Geek.
Mania Grade: A-
Title: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume 24
Distributor: Shout! Factory