Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of the greatest television shows in history. It’s easily in my top five favorite shows of all time. When I’m having a lousy day and I want to feel better about myself few things cheer me up as watching Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, and their sardonic robot companions Tom Servo (voiced and performed by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) on the Satellite of Love rip apart the horrible Z-grade genre flicks they’re subjected to on a weekly basis by the cruel Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and his hapless assistant TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) with magnificent aplomb. Shout! Factory took over the DVD distribution of the show from Rhino back in 2008 and ever since have been releasing several box sets of the show’s finest episodes every year with fresh supplements.
This time around the company has gifted us with a very special edition of MST3K: none of the movies submitted for the disapproval of the crew of the S.O.L. in this set originated in the United States. We get two movies from Japan, one from Finland by way of the former Soviet Union, and the set closes out with a oily gem from South of the border, down Mexico way. I suppose you could call this the first MST3K foreign film collection if you want to give it more class than it really deserves – which is none at all – so with that mind let’s get into Mystery Science Theater 3000 XXIV.
WE GOT MOVIE SIGN!
Episode # 310 – Fugitive Alien/Episode # 318 – Star Force: Fugitive Alien II
I’m treating both of these episodes as one because they’re two sides of the same crappy coin. Sandy Frank, the television repackaging guru who was known taking entire seasons of Japanese sci-fi TV shows and hacking them down into 90-minute feature films for American distribution (and also the answer to the question “What do you get when you drop a hot dog on the beach?”), strikes again with the eminently forgettable and incomprehensible Fugitive Alien duo-ology. Season three was chock full of Sandy Frank masterpieces such as Time of the Apes, Mighty Jack, the Master Ninja flicks, and of course the five-film Gamera series (which got its own separate box set last year). Each Fugitive Alien installment is comprised of two episodes from another Japanese Star Wars rip-off show, this one following the rogue Wolf Raider Ken from the planet Valnastar. Turns out Ken has a strict moral code against killing off other beings named Ken, especially little kids, so he’s declared a fugitive alien (hence the title) and joins up with the crew of the Earth spaceship Bacchus 3 on their adventures across the galaxy and against the forces of Kabuki makeup-wearing evil. If Ken’s crewmates don’t kill him with a forklift some other lower form of galactic life probably will, and chances are their name will be Ken too.
These movies are mind-numbing enough without being nigh impossible to follow due to the slapdash editing and piss-poor English dub job. Fortunately Joel and the ‘Bots come up with enough material of mockery to lessen the pain, although most of the time their riffs are limited to making light of Ken and all the other Kens in the movie. In the host segments we get Joel pretending to be a dairy farmer (with the ‘Bots as his livestock, scared for their very lives), hat parties, the inane and irrelevant natterings of Jack Perkins (Nelson), really big noses, Servo literally having his mind blown during the movie, and Frank declaring his love for the music of Tom T. Hall.
Episode # 617 – The Sword and the Dragon
If you’ve seen either the Jack Frost or The Magic Voyage of Sinbad episodes you’ll know very well that there’s no experience in this universe quite like watching a Russian-Finnish children’s fable from the 1950′s reedited and dubbed into English for U.S. audiences. While The Sword and the Dragon, the first of two episodes from the sixth season, was brought to us by the same twisted geniuses who gave the world the aforementioned Magic Voyage it rarely scales the same heights of absurd hilarity, but it’s pretty freakin’ funny all the same. The plot revolves around a burly bearded goofball with wonky legs and a reputation for being a country bumpkin named Ilya Mourometz who comes into possession of the magic sword of the awesome hero Invincor and must lead his people into battle against the marauding Tugars.
There’s musical numbers, a puffy-cheeked wind demon, lots of impressive visuals, and yes, even a dragon, and a three-headed one at that (Calling Ghidorah!). Mike and the ‘Bots get in some golden riffing with references to Wagons East, Matt Groening, Popeye, Doctor Who, and The Princess Bride. In the host segments Mike, Crow, and Servo spoof the films of Ingmar Bergman while the Mads almost get lucky with a pair of attractive new female neighbors who just moved into Deep 12 (directly above Deep 13 of course). Almost.
Episode # 624 – Samson Vs. the Vampire Women
When centuries-old female vampires with extremely flaky skin rise from their slumber to terrorize a woman they want for their depraved purposes who are you gonna call? Van Helsing? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Hell no hermano, this is Mexico and you get your ass to the legendary lucha libre wrestler Samson! Apparently when he’s not whooping the mierda out of his opponents in the ring the man in the silver mask fights evil in his tiempo libre. Expect plenty of grappling, bare-chested rolling on the ground, a pair of male vamp goons who look like nightclub bouncers, rubber bats, and an extended wrestling match that stops the plot cold for about ten minutes. Samson doesn’t even make his first appearance until 46 minutes in and only then does the movie begin to realize its godawful potential. We also get references to Great Expectations, Robert Mapplethorpe, the Grateful Dead, and Coco Chanel.
Samson Vs. the Vampire Women is crazy enough but this episode of MST3K is notable for being the final appearance of Frank Conniff’s lovably buffonish TV’s Frank, who gets taken to the wonderful land of Second Banana Heaven by Torgo the White (Nelson, reprising the role he’s played on the show twice before). Dr. Forrester is left an emotional shambles because without Frank he has no one to kill on a regular basis. Conniff’s departure left a hole in the show’s comedic soul that it was never able to properly repair. Sure the show continued to be uproarious on a regular basis but without Frank it was never again able to hit those highs of unhinged hilarity in the host segments. He’s the best sidekick in television history and I will go to the mat with anyone and beat them senseless with a whiffle bat to defend that declaration.
Farewell sweet TV’s Frank. Thanks for the laughs.
Each episode is presented by Shout! Factory in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The picture quality isn’t spectacular but it sure beats that of the bootleg tapes.
The 2.0 mono audio tracks are clear with no distortion and audible dialogue. That’s the best we can hope for where MST3K is concerned.
Disc 1 features a 6-minute introduction to Fugitive Alien by Japanese monster movie expert August Ragone and five minutes of wrap segments from the syndicated MST Hour version of the episode with Nelson as Jack Perkins.
Disc 2 has only one extra but it’s the best of the entire set; in the newly-produced featurette “You Asked For It: Sandy Frank Speaks!” (25 minutes), the soft-spoken entertainment impresario regales us with stories from his colorful career in show business, including his nurturing of the career of Liberace and working with television legends like Betty White and Steve Allen. Towards the end of the interview he discusses how he brought the animated Japanese program Battle of the Planets to the U.S. and briefly mentions the humorous treatment that MST3K has given many of his imported features. It’s a fascinating piece that gives us a nicely-detailed overview of the life and career of a minor industry legend.
Disc 3 only has two vintage shorts shown on MST3K before: “Snow Thrills” (9 minutes) and “A Date with Your Family” (10 minutes). Both are pathetic and hopelessly outdated but at least they’re good for some righteous riffing.
Disc 4 has the 11-minute featurette “Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo”, a brief but watchable short documentary about how the “luchador monster movie” sub-genre of Mexican cinema came to be with contemporary interviews from fans, self-titled experts on the subjects, and even a few participants from the actual movies.
There’s also a minute-long classic television spot for the original American release of Samson vs. the Vampire Women, which the narrator keeps calling “Samson AND the Vampire Women” even when the actual title is on screen.
The final extra on this box set is the latest in the “Life After MST3K” series, this one focusing appropriately enough on Frank Conniff (11 minutes). It’s a statically-shot interview with Conniff as he discusses his post-MST3K career that included writing stints on TV shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Drew Carey Show and the Cinematic Titanic movie riffing project that reunited him with many of his MST3K colleagues. Despite being a pretty dry interview Conniff makes for an interesting subject.
Shout! Factory continues to deliver excellent Mystery Science Theater 3000 box sets every time with this latest volume. Four insanely funny episodes, four monumentally crappy movies, and a plethora of terrific bonus features make this a surefire buy for devoted fans of the show. Bring on Volume XXV!