The Films (4/5)
I have been a fan of MST3K from the moment I first saw it on Comedy Central in the mid-90's. My friends and I were used to watching bad movies on shows like USA Up All Night, but never before had we seen a show that built itself around cheesy/bad movies. On top of that they made fun of these films like we did, only they were actually funny.
For those that may be out of the loop Mystery Science Theater 3000 basically follows the antics of a man (Joel in the early years, Mike in the later ones) who are trapped on the Satellite of Love by a couple of Mad Scientist, who subject them to cinematic experiences. Every week Joel or Mike get sent a movie, and their reactions are observed. Accompanying them on the satellite are a few robots that Joel created as not to be lonely in the depths of space. These robots are Cambot, Gypsy (included as an action figure with this set), Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. While in the theater Tom and Crow sit to Joel or Mike's side, and together they proceed to riff on the movie as it plays.
The MST3K guys did this for 10 years, and over the years the humor evolved from sort of funny, but slow burn humor during it's initial seasons on Minneapolis public access station KTMA, and on Comedy Central, to a much faster paced with a greater variety of topical humor in the later Comedy Central and Sci-Fi channel years. Interspersed throughout the episodes are host segments which feature Joel and Mike, the robots, and their captors, and are essentially short comedy sketches that allow the cast to shine outside of the theater, and even add some minor character development and plot to the whole proceedings.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XIX is the sixth MST3K box set to come out, since Shout! Factory took over the license from previous distributor Rhino. I do not have any complaints about the Rhino discs, as I was quite happy the show was being released at all. That being said since Shout! took over the show with Vol. XIV there has been a notable jump in quality across the board, with these releases having nicer packaging, better (but still far from perfect) Audio/Video, and a nice slate of extras on each set. You can tell the people in charge now are truly fans of the series, and want to see it done right. Vol. XIX follows the template of many of the Shout! Factory box sets to date, and includes 2 episodes with Joel, and the other 2 with Mike. This gives a nice balance to these sets, as both actors have a different way of using their various comedic talents.
The first film on the set is from the KTMA era, and features Joel hosting. It is the infamous Golden Turkey winner Robot Monster. Robot Monster tells the story of the alien Ro-Man (essentially an ape with a scuba helmet) who comes to Earth bent on the destruction of the entire human race, and nearly succeeds. That is until he discovers love in the form of the sexy daughter of Earth's last remaining family, and begins to question his actions.
This is a movie that is a trip to watch on it's own, and is even better when Joel and the 'Bots riff on it. I have not been a very big fan of the KTMA material that Shout! has been putting on these sets, and this one is the first of those episodes I truly enjoyed. The show still feels like it is developing into what it would eventually become, but it is a bit faster paced, probably due to the fact that this particular movie has a lot to make fun of. It still has some of the weaknesses of many of the early episodes from this season, but overall is a good fun, and funny episode of the series. The film is proceeded by a couple of Commander Cody and the Radar Men from The Moon shorts, that have been public access staples since they were created, and seeing them made fun of like they are here makes them all the more enjoyable.
Bride of the Monster
Bride of the Monster is one of director Ed Wood's most notorious films, right behind Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. I have never found Wood's films to be as bad as they are made out to be, and while they are quite technically inept, they do have a charm to them that at the very least make them entertaining. As many people have said, Ed was an enthusiastic genius, minus the talent.
Bride of the Monster stars Bela Lugosi (in his last living film role), as the scientist Doctor Vornoff trying to utilize radiation to create a monster. A reporter who gets wind of some mysterious disappearances in the area begins to investigate. Dr. Vornoff much like Ro-Man in Robot Monster discovers her investigation, and falls in love with her. Lucky for her, her boyfriend is a high ranking police official, and immediately begins investigating her sudden disappearance. It is revealed that Dr. Voronoff has created a monstrous octopus out of nuclear energy, and it has been killing wanderers nearby, this experiment in a series of test to invent a super solider, that he will use to take over the world.
The feature is preceded by a Chevy Training Film called Hired! Part 1 (Part 2 can be found on Rhino's DVD of Manos: The Hands of Fate). The short shows a new Chevy Salesman hire being trained to properly sell cars for the company. Both the short and the feature offer some excellent riffing opportunities, and this episode flows at a good steady pace.
I have heard from numerous sources that Devil Doll is one of the low points of this set, however, both my wife and I really enjoyed the episode. The riffs were funny on there own, and the movie itself was actually quite good. It is not too often that I focus on the movie during an MST3K episode, but this one really got my attention. The film works as a precursor to films like the 70's horror masterpiece Magic. Devil Doll tells the story of ventriloquist The Great Vorelli who falls for a rich heiress, and hypnotizes her into leaving her fiancee to be with him. Well, this does not sit right with her fiancee, and he begins to investigate. In the process he discovers that Vorelli and his puppet are not all they appear to be.
The episode itself is fairly slow for a Mike-era show, but the riffs that are there are quite hiliarious. I would actually say the high point of this episode are the host segments, most notably the stuff featuring the 'Bots trying to buy Devil Dolls at a discount from a devil named Pitch. Mike kicks Pitch off the Satellite ,but not before he can teach Tom Servo the secret to soul transference. Tom then transfers his soul into a toaster pastry, and spends the rest of the episode in this form. This is sandwiched between segments featuring Pearl and company in Ancient Rome.
I was looking forward to Devil Fish more than any other episode in this collection. The reason being is that I am an Italian horror junkie, and Devil Fish is directed by the Jesus (Son of Mario) of Italian horror cinema Lamberto Bava. Now, I did not expect Devil Fish to be very good, it is a mid-80's Italian Jaws knock-off with some mutant sharktopus creature instead of a shark. Also, this period in Italian horror was sort of the beginning of the end for great Italian genre movies. Yeah, Lamberto would go on from here to do the Demons films, but aside from those and a few select Ruggero Deodato (Cut and Run/Phantom of Death), and Michele Soavi films (Stage Fright/The Sect) good Italian genre movies were slowly dying. Luckily, as the saying goes one man's trash, is another man's treasure, and as this film easily falls in the former category it became excellent MST3K fodder. The riffs fly pretty fast here, with more hits than misses. Overall, a good way to end this set.
Shout! Factory have presented Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XIX in it's original 1:33:1 aspect ratio. If you have been keeping up with the sets Shout! has been releasing the quality is consistent with the rest. The shows themselves look quite good, and the movies typically do not. Most of the films they made fun of, weren't exactly blockbusters, and so the conditions fare from good to passable. The audio is presented in a 2.0 stereo mix, and is quite good for the most part. The host segments and riffs come through quite clearly. The movies less so, but considering the structure of this show, it is to be expected.
In keeping with Shout! Factory's other MST3K releases, Vol. XIX has a good few extras to entice viewers that may not have been ready to retire their recorded off TV VHS copy of the episode. Robot Monster has an introduction by original Tom Servo voice actor J. Elvis Weinstein, and an interview with Joel called Inventing the Invention Exchange, where he goes into detail about the shows history. There is also a bit with Lost Skeleton of Cadavera director Larry Blamire where he discusses why Robot Monster is actually an awesome movie. Devil Doll comes with a 9 minute interview with the films producer Richard Gordon, Devil Fish features an hour long interview with Joel, and some other MST3K luminaries at a Con in Minneapolis entitled MST3K: Origins and Beyond Panel at CONvergence 2009. Finally, Bride of the Monster has a short documentary called Citizen Wood. For a limited time this set will come with a Gypsy action figure.
It's MST3K, if you're a fan you're going to buy this. If you are on the fence all 4 episodes are quite good, and while I have been frustrated in the past by Shout's decision to include a Season 1 episode in each set, this sets episode Robot Monster is actually a highlight of the set. A/V is solid, and the extras are extensive for this type of material. Highly recommended.