Film critic Armond White recently topped off his decade-long feud with the Harry Potter series by dubbing it the most banal franchise in movie history. Other implications aside, this can only mean that he’s never seen the original Gamera films (eight in total over a 15-year stretch), or that he’s giving them entirely too much credit. Even as an under-10 fan of the kaiju genre, these supposed romps with an 80-foot turtle and his many nemeses felt like so much dead weight, and were startlingly lacking in the kind of creativity and imagination craved by my young mind and eyes. Godzilla and his monstrous ranks covered the gamut of earthly and extraterrestrial life forms turned skyscraper, and, to boot, the films were relatively intelligent in their treatment of the various species and lifestyles. The flying Gamera, who always deserved better, was stuck fighting a lizard with a rainbow machine, a giant bipedal knife, and an alien shark with the same knack for foreign occupancy as the 2004 Republican Party. Among my age group, I was in some kind of blessed minority. Both Japanese and American children helped immeasurably in popularizing the films during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and you don’t have to be a marketing cynic to notice the Caucasian children awkwardly shoehorned into the sequels to help their stateside likeability. Such minor, “Where’s Waldo?” pleasures are desperately needed when the films themselves are so fundamentally incompetent (in pacing, editing, framing, etc.) that they occasionally suggest one epic-length, avant-garde nightmare. If you chug enough cough syrup, they just might pass for David Lynch’s table scraps.
These and innumerable other sci-fi movies from my youth made my attendance at the altar of Mystery Science Theater 3000 an inevitability, so it’s only appropriate that the fusion of these two episodic creations would eventually parallel something of a spiritual crisis in my adult life. Five Gamera films were acquired for the popular movie-riffing series for a total of 10 episodes, first aired in 1988 during the show’s public-access run and again during the program’s third season on Comedy Central. It’s the latter five episodes that are available in MST3K vs. Gamera, the 21st DVD box set of the long-running, long-retired movie-watching series, and the most generous package yet released (featuring five episodes instead of four).
Alas, I’ve been transparent in the past about my preference for the later seasons with host Mike Nelson, and as eye-scorchingly bad as these episode’s featured films frequently are, the Gamera series doesn’t strike me as particularly conducive to the as-of-yet unperfected art of riffing; too much “dead air” for Joel and the robots to improvise during, and frankly, some of their exhibited trends herein (aren’t Japanese names just hilarious?!) are downright lame, and arguably worse things than that. That said, I seriously doubt that I’d have emerged from nearly eight hours of giant turtles, bad dubbing, and annoying children protagonists with my sanity intact but for the cheeky distractions of Joel, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo. And while the movie segments of these episodes left this junkie craving more, they’re rather accomplished works when one focuses on the writing and sharp comedic timing displayed in the host segments. Tom Servo’s love song to a turtle is an early high-water mark, Crow T. Robot’s impersonation of Ed Sullivan has rarely been surpassed by human or puppet alike, and fans of Wagner will appreciate the production of “Gameradamerung.” And fear not, died-in-the-wool Nelson fans: There are frequent oases to be found, as the future host was already a brilliant member of the supporting cast. In part or in whole, MST3K vs. Gamera might not be every MSTies cup of tea, but it’s essential nonetheless.
You know the drill: DVD technology tends to expose the limitations of its preceding formats, so while the transfers herein are probably as good as the material is ever going to look or sound, it's nothing you'll want to use to show off your plasma screen. This shouldn't bother fans in the least. The image is perfectly serviceable, and the 2.0 stereo mix nicely separates the riffing from that which is being riffed.
A nice collection, spread out over the entire set. Disc one ("Gamera") features the Mystery Science Theater Hour wrap segments used when the original episode was broken up for networks unable to accommodate the original two-hour time slot, as well as the enjoyable, if redundant, featurette "So Happy Together: A Look Back at MST3K & Gamera." Disc two ("Gamera vs. Barugon") includes a conceptually amusing interview with the Chiodo Brothers (of Killer Klowns from Outer Space) that outstays its welcome. Disc three ("Gamera vs. Gaos") bears the crown jewel, an exhaustively informative interview with August Ragone, a Japanese monster guru who admits early on that his love for kaiju "pretty much ruined" his life. Disc four ("Gamera vs. Guiron") includes more MST Hour wraps. Each disc also includes the original Japanese trailer for the included film and is the only feature on disc five ("Gamera vs. Zigra").
Test your MST3K faith with this prodigious Gamera box set, which comes in its own turtle-like metal casing. All that's missing is fiery fart propulsion.