Not only is it the funniest show that’s ever been on television (save, possibly, for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), but it’s also a handy and intense irritant in the jaundiced eyes of humorless film snobs. For the central conceit of Mystery Science Theater 3000—in which the galactically marooned Joel “Robinson” (Hodgson) and his caustic robot companions are forcibly made to suffer (and crack wise) through a new example of maladroit filmmaking every week—is to turn all of cinema into the sounding board for ironic pop culture references. Which, to be honest, isn’t much less insidious and limiting than what Dreamworks achieved with the one-two Shrek franchise. The crucial difference is that the Shrek films callously use their cachet as a cultural catch-all to sell their captivated, adoring audience the same old Hollywood lies of idealism through consumerism. MST3K found redemption and escape by slashing and burning through all the bullshit in the ideal image of cinema. (As often as the comments from the peanut gallery scoffed unfairly at Z-grade shaman’s attempts to elevate their snake oil to the level of the art house, they also rightfully chided anyone who was blessed with a different cinematic view but, in the end, chose the path of convention and cliché.) If a few genuinely interesting films and filmmakers (not to mention offended critics) ended up with egg on their faces in the bargain, well, at least the ends were the same: both Ed Wood and Joel and his ‘bots could be said to have existed to shake up the staid Tradition of Quality.
Because the show’s success has reminded the film’s distributors of the value of their product (and some of them scarcely needed to be told twice; after all, they invented the hard sell), the home video releases of MST3K are notoriously sporadic. What is available at any given time and for a reasonable overhead price is released when it’s convenient, hence the haphazard single-episode releases and the half-recycled four-disc boxes. One can be forgiven for being skeptical that any release could possibly buck the licensing odds and assemble episodes worthy of being deemed “The Essentials.” But this two-episode set comes pretty close. Manos: The Hands of Fate is notorious for being very probably the single worst movie ever tackled on the show. The plot involves a young couple, their whiny daughter, and their valiant poodle getting lost in the middle of nowhere and, more or less, stumbling upon what might be the lair of Hell and then again might just be a community theater production of The Insanity of Mary Girard. In either case, their “gatekeeper” is a lumpy little dude with beer-gut thighs who mainly stumbles around looking oily. The other episode is the non-classic yuletide romp Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, made at a time when Martians apparently still stood in metaphorically for Russians. (Do even the staunchest of cinephile MST3K-detractors deny Tom Servo his credentials as a film connoisseur when he wishes for a less depressing Christmas movie than Martians—“like, you know, The Sorrow and the Pity?”) If the former episode has the bad-movie endurance seal of approval, the latter has possibly one of the most consistently funny sets of zingers in the whole series (other contenders that are overdue for DVD release are Racket Girls, San Francisco International, and Village of the Giants).
The video transfers look as good as can be expected from an early-'90s low-budget cable series that already degenerated its source material once from greenscreening it in front of the fabricated row of movie seats. Of course, the show was more verbal than visual anyway, and the sound presentation is just fine. Flat, but clear.
The only chief extra is a half-hour reel of bloopers (none from inside the theater, but from the intermission segments with the show's hosts) that was previously issued on VHS under the cute title Poopie. I would say that MST3K fans would likely eat this collection of high jinks up, but I couldn't help but notice that most of them keep it tucked away under their mattresses in shame.
"Pills for dinner! What are we: Judy Garland?"