Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXIII (Shout! Factory, NR)

mst3xxiii 75I’ve come to treasure these box sets not just for the movies and commentary, but also for the short documentaries included which fill in background on the films.

 

 

 

mst3xxxiiiDO 200The 1950s brought us many marvelous things—among them credit cards, the microwave oven, and Velcro—and others that are more unintentionally amusing than useful, like a spate of JD films that use the cover of cautionary tales as an excuse to shock gullible audiences with lurid tales about what those dreadful teenagers are up to. Two such tales grace the latest collection of Mystery Science Theatre programs, and they’re a main selling point in the collection, which also includes a cheesy giant creature feature and a humorless pilot for a never-to-be TV spy series.

Daddy-O (1958), directed by Lou Place (mainly a production manager and assistant director, as his only other directorial credit is a single TV episode), is notable as the film debut of composer John Williams, and perhaps it also deserves a merit award for the number of clichés it manages to cram into 74 minutes. Not that I’m complaining, because if you don’t like bad movies you have no business venturing into MST3K territory in the first place, but if you drink a shot every time you spot a quotation from a better film or a sexual stereotype, you’ll be under the table in no time.

The action begins when Phil (Dick Contino, a popular singer of the era) is nearly run off the road by the driver (Jana, played by Sandra Giles) of a sports car. We’re supposed to find Phil very cool (despite the fact that he wears his pants halfway to his armpits and his belt buckle on the side) and cheer for him after he is challenged to a drag race through Griffith Park by Jana, a buxom blonde clearly not selected for her thespian talents. Not only does Phil lose, but he is soon arrested for a variety of charges, including reckless driving and manslaughter. Phil’s attempts to clear his name lead him to discover a drug ring, involving a nightclub run by Bruno VeSota (if you ordered an overweight gangster from Central Casting, he’s the kind of guy you could expect to answer the call), and there’s some nonsense in a gym also, as well as some singing that gives “white people music” a bad name.

mst3xxxiiiTCW 200Teenage Crime Wave (1955), directed by Fred F. Sears, is equally a pastiche of bits and pieces from other films. Bad-girl Terry (recognizable by her very short haircut) and good-girl Jane (rather incongruously clad in a skin-tight sweater, but her conservative hairstyle indicates that she’s the innocent one of the pair) attempt to scam an older man, but get busted and sentenced to the state reformatory. Terry’s boyfriend Mike springs them from the car taking them to the pen, however, and they take over a farmhouse occupied by an older couple and (later) their straight-arrow, college-boy son. It all ends up with a shootout in Griffith Park, which may remind you of another film also released in 1955: Rebel Without a Cause. It’s not exactly immortal celluloid, but Teenage Crime Wave is actually the better of the two JD films in this set, even if it was clearly shot in a rush (reportedly, in 10 days).

Earth vs. the Spider (1958), directed by Bert I. Gordon, is one of the many gigantic creature movies of the 1950s that played on people’s fears of science run amok, and particularly of the effects of radiation (the latter sometimes assumed even if not stated directly in these films). In this case, a gigantic tarantula is terrorizing a small town, killing people by sucking their innards out and leaving only a husk of a corpse. Two high school students (June Kenney and Eugene Persson) and their science teacher (Ed Kemmer) urge the town sheriff (Gene Roth) to do something, so he doses the creature with DDT (completely legal then, of course). However, this only stuns the spider, which revives to attack a school where a group of students are rehearsing for a dance (presumably a device to include some rock’n’roll in the film).

mst3xxxiiiEVS 200Meanwhile, the two students have entered a cave (reportedly shot at Carlsbad Caverns, although as one of the bots notes, it seems more like a postcard of Carlsbad Caverns) in search of a bracelet purchased by the girl’s father, who was the spider’s first victim. Of course, they get chased by the spider, and their presence in the cave precludes simply setting off an explosion to seal it shut. Demonstrating the power of scientific thinking, the science teacher works up a way to electrocute the spider. Since there is no backstory on how the spider got so large or hostile in the first place, this film actually can be counted as a rare double win for science education.

If people in the 1950s were all worked up about those crazy, out-of-control kids and the monstrous products of science gone awry, people in the 1960s shifted focus to those crazy Russians and what they were likely trying to do to us. The Cold War provides the necessary backdrop for the 1966 film Agent for H.A.R.M., which aspires to be a sort of poor man’s James Bond franchise (it was originally produced to be the pilot for a television series). Unfortunately, director Gerd Oswald left out an essential ingredient—fun. Instead, he produced a humorless blend of sci-fi and espionage, with a story about an Eastern European scientist (Carl Esmond) who defects to the United States and sets to work on an antidote for a weaponized, flesh-eating mold already in possession of the bad guys. He shares a beach house with his niece (Barbara Bouchet), who seems to spend most of her time in a bikini.

Doesn’t the name “Adam Chance” just scream “action hero” to you? Me neither, but that’s the name given to Mark Richman’s character, who works for the organization named in the title (the acronym stands for “Human Aetiological Relations Machine,” with the British spelling presumably used to avoid the acronym being “H.E.R.M.” because that would just be silly). The yellow cardigan doesn’t exactly promote a tough-guy image either, but Richman soldiers on, exposing a plot to spray the fungus on American crops, and finding out what is really up with that “niece.”mst3xxxiiiAFH 200

As far as the interludes go, the best single item comes with Daddy-O: Joel Robinson sings a parody of “Rock Candy Baby,” a song featured in the film, with new lyrics poking fun at Phil’s sartorial choices. Also worthy of note is Mike’s (Michael J. Nelson’s) trial, filmed in black-and-white and presided over by Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), which is paired with Agent for H.A.R.M. The worst inclusion is a kids’ short (“Alphabet Antics”), included with the screening of Daddy-O, which falls squarely in the “not funny, just annoying” category.

I’ve come to treasure these box sets not just for the movies and commentary, but also for the short documentaries included which fill in background on the films. This set comes with a veritable bonanza of five documentaries (not bad for four films): “Beatnick Blues: Investigating Daddy-O,” “This Movie Has Legs: Looking Back at Earth Vs. the Spider,” “Film It Again Sam: The Katzman Chronicles,” “Tommy Cook: From Jungle Boy to Teenage Jungle”, and “Peter Mark Richman: In H.A.R.M.’s Way.” Other extras are wraps for the MST Hour, theatrical trailers, and mini-posters for each of the films. | Sarah Boslaugh

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