Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is nothing if not a niche enterprise—that is, if “enterprise” is not too grandiose a noun for a futuristic TV program whose celestial bodies and space paraphernalia are clearly suspended from miniature dioramas with visible strings. Quite possibly the most “cultish” cult hit of all time (it’s often quipped with a kernel of truth that the Internet was invented for the sole purpose of connecting MST3K fans who wanted to swap bootlegs—take that, Al Gore!), the show remains an irreproducible, madcap blend of highbrow, camp, and giggle-inducing potty humor, as well as the most effective distribution method of esoteric cultural references this side of The Simpsons.
Why more cinephiles don’t adore its gust-busting, self-effacing acumen is inexplicable: MST3K captures the tetchy, irreverent glory of a film buff forced against his will to endure subpar on-screen antics with only slicing wit and the memories of legitimate cinematic art to mollify his anguish (and who hasn’t been there?). Perhaps it’s the fact that indulging in the comedy requires one to sit through reels and reels of shlocky F-grade horror and sci-fi. Or maybe it’s the equally cheap-o (albeit lovingly so) narrative premise that pits a marginally educated everyman (first creator Joel Robinson, and then later the more punchline-centric head writer Mike Nelson) and his snarky robot pals against interstellar trailer trash and their mad scientist momma’s boy offspring.
Either way, if you’re among the vast, hermitic legions of MST3K fans, you’re likely to have already pre-ordered DVD box set XVI: No dazzling display of critical aplomb on my part is likely to dissuade the devoted or proselytize the lukewarm. Still, continuing kudos (and purchases) are in order to remind Shout! Factory of the venerable service they’re providing the human race by issuing the now defunct show’s extensive back catalog of episodes, as well as to applaud the appropriately democratic system used to compile each DVD set. Rather than releasing messily chronological boxes that would have taken years to advance from the souped-up public access charm of the early seasons, Shout! Factory constructs each release as a representative, if highly selective, cross-section of the show’s various stages; episodes from the program’s larval manifestation are paired with fan favorites from later years to vary the quality and tenor of the mayhem.
The jewel of the 16th box is a powerhouse of a sixth season riff on Santa Claus, an English-dubbed Mexican holiday classic wherein Jolly Saint Nick rescues various children of the world from an impish, spandex Satan. (Or, as the denizens of the Satellite of Love would parse it, Santa’s “here to eat candy canes and kick ass, and [he’s] all out of candy canes!”) In the same frenzied league as the earlier, ubiquitously celebrated Santa Claus Conquers the Martians episode, and the similarly-mocked, wintry ethnic oddities of Jack Frost (a freakish Russian fairy tale whose low-rent magic and “mythic” undertones of pedophilia must be seen to be believed), the triumph of Santa Claus over the set’s ancillary inclusions also provides further evidence for the soft criticism that MST3K could only be as good as its filmic targets were abominable, though Mike Nelson’s subsequent classic and contemporary film “riff” projects are never less than entertaining.
The box also features a horror highlight from the show’s ramshackle first season, The Corpse Vanishes, wherein an evil scientist (Bela Lugosi) poisons brides on their wedding night and sustains his wife’s youth with their harvested glandular fluids—and that’s just the first act. We’re also treated to the post-apocalyptic shenanigans of Warrior of the Lost World—or, as the acerbic, film-conscious bots dub him, “The High Plains Loser!”—and the alien-impregnation sci-fi melodrama Night of the Blood Beast, whose titular monster resembles a misshapen pile of melted rubber stacked six feet high.
The quality of Shout! Factory's MST3K sets continues to improve; these DVDs even have 3D graphic-enhanced menus. Unfortunately, the boost in image clarity often works to the show's detriment, especially in earlier seasons when the crew wasn't using the most seamless chroma-keying techniques for its signature lower-third silhouettes. In Volume XVI, only The Corpse Vanishes truly suffers from this, however: The remaining episodes are from later seasons with comparatively bigger budgets, and it shows. The bottom line: This is as good as MST3K is ever gonna look. The sound mix is a bit desultory due to the quality of the film prints used (occasionally the robots drown out the on-screen dialogue), but it's generally tolerable.
The supplemental material on Shout! Factory's MST3K releases has also been rather generous as of late; Volume XVI is no exception. In addition to the usual trailers and stills galleries there's a highly informative (and only half-apologetic) interview with the director of the abysmal Warrior of the Lost World and, perhaps most enticing, a 20-minute featurette about the production and legacy of Santa Claus featuring interviews with Mexican film historian David Wilt and the MST3K cast (bad movies nearly always have fantastically entertaining back stories). Two versions of Night of the Blood Beast are also included for completists: both the regular season broadcast and a subsequent "Turkey Day" revival with new inter-sequences and riffs. Rounding out the glut of extras is a collection of lobby card-like mini-posters featuring the Satellite of Love bots standing in for each of the four movies' main characters, and a spiffy Tom Servo action figure that alone might make this the best DVD box set of the year.
It may sound pathetic, but receiving a miniature Tom Servo action figure with this DVD set might be the current high point of my career as a film critic.