Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, NR)

MST 75But no one comes to MST3K looking for lessons, and this box set is particularly generous with bad films (six in all) and extras.

 

MST 500

Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its genius approach to bad-movie baiting have become so much a part of film culture that it’s easy to forget that it all started just 25 years ago. The other thing that’s easy to forget is how much of a do-it-yourself operation it was — a television equivalent of one of those Mickey & Judy movies where someone blurts out “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” and the next thing your know they’re all building sets and sewing costumes and rehearsing in Dad’s barn.

One of the best extras included with the Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD set is a three-part documentary, Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of Mystery Science 3000, which reminds you just how shoestring the early shows were. It’s a lesson to would-be creators everywhere to go with what you’ve got, whether it’s a library of bad movies at a local TV station (KTMA in Minneapolis/St. Paul) or robots built out of whatever is available. Return to Eden Prairie also demonstrates how the show evolved over time — for instance, Tom Servo started out as a “baby” robot that nobody liked — offering another lesson, which is that you don’t have to get it 100 percent right the first time.

But no one comes to MST3K looking for lessons, and this box set is particularly generous with bad films (six in all) and extras. Hammer Films’ Moon Zero Zero (1969) is squarely in the so-bad-it’s-good school of moviemaking, as it tries to blend a futuristic story about colonizing the moon with a groovy-man-groovy aesthetic that simply must be seen to be believed. The female characters wear outrageous wigs, heavy makeup, and peekaboo costumes, the men’s space suits look like something a five year old would reject at Halloween, and there are lots of “2020 is just like 1969” moments, from the coffee vending machine to the “Moonopoly” game on the spaceship.

The Day the Earth Froze (1959) is a heavily edited version of Sampo, a Russian-Finnish co-production based on the 19th century Finnish poem “The Kalevala.” It’s hard to know what to make of this film, since about 24 minutes are missing (the story involves lovers, an evil witch, and a magical machine that produces unlimited food), but it certainly provides a springboard for some of the best riffing Joel (Joel Robinson) and the bots ever came up with. I just hope nobody in Finland sees it and decides to declare war on us for besmirching their national epic.

Gorgo (1961) is a British take on Godzilla, with borrowings from Mighty Joe Young and Beowulf. Following the eruption of a volcano off the Irish coast, a 65-foot-tall dinosaur-like creature begins terrorizing the inhabitants of a small island. A crew of fishermen capture it and sell it to a circus owner, while scientists brought in on the case determined that it’s a juvenile, so guess who is probably lurking nearby? Mom, who is 200 feet tall and wants her kid back, right now.

The Leech Woman (1960) offers an interesting view of the bad old days when the only things valued about a woman were her beauty and youth. It also features the best actor of any movie in this collection — Colleen Gray, who played Tyrone Power’s wife in Nightmare Alley. In The Leech Woman, Gray plays the wife of a sleazy scientist who is tipped off to the secret of eternal youth, feminine style — it involves drawing fluids drawn from the pineal gland of a man, using a special ring. So, of course, Gray’s character steals the ring and goes about killing men to keep herself looking young — and let’s just say that you can only cheat Father Time for so long.

Many people involved with the films given the MST3K treatment take it as a compliment, or at least can enjoy the fun. However, Joe Don Baker was not one of them. He was so upset with the series’ treatment of his 1975 film Mitchell that he threatened to beat up anyone associated with the show, should he ever have the opportunity. Right idea, wrong target: he really should have beat himself up for appearing in such a silly movie, which is somewhat worse than the porno/crime-fighting series dreamed up in Boogie Nights. In Mitchell, Baker plays a Dirty Harry wannabe cop with a shaggy haircut chasing down criminals Martin Balsam (OK, another real actor) and John Saxon, with lots of gratuitous violence and cheesy sex scenes along the way.

Mitchell was Joel’s last episode, and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) was Mike’s (Michael J. Nelson) first, so there’s a nice circle of life feel to including those films in the 25th anniversary collection. Good ol’ Jan-in-the-pan does not disappoint, nor does her surgeon boyfriend who clearly hasn’t seen enough horror movies to know that only God should play God.

There are many extras included with this collection, starting with the nifty tin case and including, besides the documentary mentioned previously, a tongue-in-cheek featurette about Gorgo, a making-of featurette about the Mitchell episode, a brief clip with Leonard Maltin, and interviews with Mary Jo Pehl, and Hammer Films historian Constantine Nasr. | Sarah Boslaugh

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