At least during its initial run, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a fairly unique presence on television, in that the series was the result of the efforts of not only its own creators, but the countless filmmakers blessedly ignorant to the fact that the films they slaved over to produce would be razzed decades later by the silhouettes of space-stranded robots and their lonely human captain. Sure, it was up to the show’s writers to select the films for each episode, but there’s a difference between creating and curating, and even the best efforts of the MST3K writing staff could be wasted on a miscalculated subject. Volume 27 of Shout! Factory’s ever-growing collection of DVDs devoted to the series illustrates this almost limitless flexibility with a quadrilogy of episodes that cover the qualitative gamut of riffing on B cinema, simultaneously offering something of a breakdown of the show’s evolution from a low-budgeted public broadcast program to slightly less low-budgeted cable broadcast program.
For a first-season effort, The Slime People isn’t terrible, but it’s an uphill climb for the MST3K writers given the monotonous tone of the spotlighted feature, a 1963 horror flick in which subterranean monsters take over Los Angeles and terrorize a handful of refugees in the vacated city. The crudeness of the Satellite of Love sets and robot puppets is almost charming under the circumstances, but the sophomoric jokes do little to counter the drudgery on screen, which reaches heretofore unknown heights of inertia during an extended climax that so excessively utilizes a fog filter that the action is rendered virtually incomprehensible. (Those who find the work of Béa Tarr “boring” would do well to watch this film and subsequently recalibrate their misguided definition of the phrase “nothing happens.”) Less forgivable is Rocket Attack U.S.A., one of the worst movies ever featured on the show (yes, even worse than Hobgoblins) and such a feeble MST3K effort (even by season-two standards) that I occasionally found myself in kinship with the show’s detractors. This tasteless, artless Cold War propaganda film is poor fodder for the crew of the Satellite of Love; even a bit in which the incidentally foreshadowed likeness of 2001’s monolith is met with the cast’s spontaneous rendition of György Ligeti’s Requiem offered only a momentary reprieve from the cinematic torture.
And what better way to wash down such double-edged hackery than with season five’s Village of the Giants? This ’60s exploitation picture is certainly one of the most interesting films to be included on the show and an episode agreed on by fellow Slant writer Eric Henderson as an easy top-five title for the entire series (so sayeth wise Eric, “I forgot to wear a bra!”). It’s no surprise that this Burt I. Gordon title was popular on the drive-in circuit during its original run; the story of a group of teenagers who grow to the size of buildings has a strangely sexual tone, first hinted at by the indelible image of a pair of giant dancing ducks, but more explicitly later when a tiny man clings for life to a giantess’s bosom. The riffing is dispersed with the efficiency of a machine gun, and the less-than-savage nature of most of the jokes suggests that the show’s writers thought this movie was pretty close to decent at that (among other points of interest is the presence of Ron Howard as a young scientist). Not far behind is disc four’s The Deadly Mantis, a much greater episode than I’d recalled, and a far worse film, embarrassingly reliant on stock footage and thoroughly unimaginative on almost every level. An opening skit in which Mike Nelson inadvertently fosters the destruction of a Planet of the Apes-era Earth sets the tone for the episode, and the bomb-dropping from the front row barely, if ever, lets up.
Things haven’t changed since Volume XXVI, so we’re reprinting what we said last time: For a show limited to cable-video quality, these transfers are about as good as they’re likely to ever get. The colorful sets (and sometimes less-than-colorful films) are nicely balanced, and there’s next to nothing to be found in the way of pixelation or combing. Sound is similarly acceptable: Dialogue is crisp and the music is consistently hum-worthy.
With The Slime People, you’ll find an interview with actress Judith Morton Fraser, who was clearly a good sport during the film’s sloppy (and underfunded) production. Rocket Attack U.S.A. comes along with the set highlight, Trace Beaulieu’s "Life After MST3K" entry; among other interesting details of his career since leaving the show is the revelation that he auditioned for the role of Jar-Jar Binks. An interview with Joy Harmon accompanies Village of the Giants, and The Deadly Mantis includes a new introduction by Mary Jo Pehl, who dubiously wonders about the ability of 1950s audiences to suspend disbelief, and the 12-minute featurette Chasing Rosebud: The Cinematic Life of William Alland. Minus Rocket Attack U.S.A., every disc also includes the feature film’s original trailer.
This 27th DVD set devoted to the long-running series is a net cast widely across the qualitative layers of this most xenomorphic example of cult television.