For the discriminatory fan, there are times when the cult television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which one man and two robots are forced to watch bad movies while marooned in space, proves to be more of a chore than a joy. At its frequent best, the series is a hilarious, democratic, and introspective meditation on the very act of watching, and the many insights it offers into one’s relationship with cinema are further compounded when the diversity of potential viewing experiences—individual and communal, private and public—are explored. At its occasional worst, it leans on snarky cheap shots, juvenile narcissism, and needless hyperbole, and this 29th DVD set devoted to the series tips decidedly toward these latter qualities. In the long run, such traits were perhaps unavoidable, given the very nature of a series founded on the idea of mocking bad films, but these shortcomings prove all the more dispiriting when found in such concentrated fashion.
It doesn’t help that none of the movies featured in this set’s four episodes aren’t nearly as awful as the characters of MST3K make them out to be. The curatorial qualities of the show have always been just as important, if not more so, than the in-movie commentary itself, and anyone who’s watched enough cinematic garbage must eventually come to the realization that some films, no matter how worthless, are simply unworthy of the time and energy required to hate on them. The second episode of this set, which features Hercules and the Captive Women, offers a fleeting nod to that truth: Initially excited to be included in the movie-watching experience, the robot Gypsy’s rare appearance inside the theater is rapidly cut short when she decides that her usual housekeeping duties are more worthy of her time. Given that the remainder of the commentary (which arbitrarily repeats jokes from previous episodes featuring earlier Hercules films) elicits little in the way of laughter or interest, one can hardly blame her. The movie in question is piecemeal tedium at best (though a sequence with an island god is practically phantasmagoric), but to listen to the uninspired sarcasm being lobbed at the sight of the barely clothed titular hero, it’s clear that there’s nothing more horrifying to these characters than the male body. MST3K’s cast of nebbish misfits are prone to giving in to their base hetero instincts, such as the occasional bout of gay panic, but when their typically potent sense of self-deprecation gives way to snobbish superiority, as it does here, such attitudes prove not only unfunny, but intolerable.
Season one’s “Untamed Youth” and season nine’s “The Pumaman” similarly add little to their respective subjects, a ’50s teensploitation film starring Mamie Van Doren and a bizarre ’80s Italian superhero picture. That leaves season eight’s “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” as the lone inclusion worthy of recommendation. The eponymous, boilerplate Universal horror title wants for many things, but it’s somewhat atmospheric and competently made, and it’s to the credit of the inhabitants of the Satellite of Love that their razzing focuses less on direct mockery and more on incidental humor: Shakespearean puns, deftly placed Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction references, disembodied-head sight gags, and a knowing acknowledgement of the fact that long-castaway straight men would absolutely lose their minds at the sight of two women in bed together. This episode is also notable for being the first to feature the “observers,” an albino humanoid species known for carrying their brains around in oversized petri dishes (to zero evolutionary advantage), and it speaks volumes to MST3K’s influences that their presence is as much indebted to The Seventh Seal as it is to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Par for the course, this set offers what is likely the best presentation possible for a show with cable-access origins. The image, such as it is, is crisp, though I noticed some bleeding around anything that can be described as neon-colored on the disc for "The Thing That Couldn’t Die." The 2.0 audio tracks are expectedly lacking in bells and whistles, but dialogue, sound effects, and music are clear throughout.
A solid collection of features helps to compensate for the lackluster main attraction. Joel Hodgson appears in newly recorded introductions for both "Untamed Youth" and "Hercules and the Captive Women," and on the former’s disc there’s also a six-minute featurette on the "Riffing Myself" show that the MST3K creator has been touring with for the last few years. Rounding out "Untamed Youth" is an interview with Mamie Van Doren that runs for an endearing seven minutes, while the "Hercules" disc also features a 10-minute look at the creative process behind artist Steven Vance’s illustrated MST3K posters, as well as the gem of the set: a gallery of every poster yet produced for Shout! Factory’s DVD sets, including the four that come in physical form with this package. "The Thing That Couldn’t Die" includes a 10-minute featurette on the production of the film, arbitrarily titled "The Movie That Couldn’t Die," and an original trailer. The last disc, for "The Pumaman," includes an interview with that film’s cast member Walter Alton Jr., a four-minute featurette on the MST3K’s "nanite" characters, and an unedited version of The Pumaman itself.
Your mileage with these episodes will vary based largely on your proclivity toward jokes about Uranus, but MST3K: Volume XXIX still provides a healthy enough chunk of supplemental material to be of historic interest for the dedicated collector.