Mystery Science Theater 3000 XXXIV (Shout! Factory, NR)

XXXIV 75You don’t have to believe that parapsychology is real to enjoy movies about it.





The 34th DVD edition of Mystery Science Theater 3000 brings to your living room four episodes not previously released on DVD, an information documentary about American International Pictures, riffing by Mike (Michael J. Nelson; two episodes), Joel (Joel Hodgson; two episodes), and the bots, and two appearances by the rarely seen Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl). The movies featured were all originally released by American International Pictures between 1956 and 1958, and two of the four share another characteristic as well: they attempt to cash in on the Bridey Murphy craze with plot lines involving hypnotism and regression to past lives.

And who was Bridey Murphy, you may ask? Cast your mind back to 1952, when a Colorado housewife, Virginia Tighe, claimed to have accessed memories of her past life as an Irishwoman named Bridey Murphy. These memories were accessed through a technique called hypnotic regression, in which a person is led back to memories of their childhood, but in Tighe’s case went a bit further back than intended, in fact, all the way back to her birth as Murphy in Cork in 1798. Tighe supplied many details of Murphy’s supposed life, which were published in a book written by her hyponotherapist, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It became a bestseller, but when people began to check out the details of Murphy’s supposed life, even simple matters like her birth could not be confirmed. Further investigation suggested that the Bridey Murphy phenomenon was a case of cryptoamnesia, in which Tighe was recalling forgotten childhood memories, some of which involved her then-neighbor, Bridie Murphy Corkell.

Before you say, “how gullible could people be?” it’s worth remembering that parapsychology was more intellectually respectable in the 1950s than it is today, with researchers at established institutions of higher education engaging in supposed parapsychological research. (Washington University in St. Louis got burned in this regard a few decades later, when two fake psychics prepared by James Randi successfully fooled researchers into thinking that they had real psychic powers.) More to the point, you don’t have to believe that parapsychology is real to enjoy movies about it, and that’s the spirit in which The Undead and The She-Creature were made.

The Undead (1957), directed by Roger Corman, features a screenplay by Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna about a streetwalker named Diana (Pamela Duncan) who is hypnotized by Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour) of the American Institute of Psychical Research. He sends her back to the Middle Ages, where she is due to be burned as a witch, but in compensation is surrounded by a cast of colorful characters including a singing gravedigger (Mel Welles) and an “imp” (Billy Barty, of Wizard of Oz fame) who appears and disappears as if by magic. It’s all shot on sets built inside a former grocery store and features a surprising number of horses for a low-budget picture (although come to think of it, you never see more than two at a time…). Best line from the riffers: “Satan, the prince of cabaret!” (upon the introduction of Satan, played by Richard Devon).

The She-Creature (1956), directed by Edward L. Cahn, tries to be two movies in one, with a less than successful result. The more promising story features a battle between a respectable psychic researcher (this was the 1950s, remember) and an apparent charlatan who not only has real supernatural powers but uses them for nefarious ends. The evil psychic, Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris, of Boston Blackie fame) does a cheesy show in a seaside theater with his “assistant” Andrea (Marla English), who is actually in thrall to him. One of the past lives he has her regress to is that of a giant sea-creature (played by Paul Blaisdell, who designed this and a number of other rubber-suited monsters for AIP) with homicidal tendencies. As the bodies begin to pile up, the respectable psychic (Dr. Ted Erickson, played by Lance Fuller) becomes involved in the investigation, and, of course, falls for the gorgeous Andrea in the process (Marla English began her career as a model). The war of the psychics story has interesting possibilities, but the homicidal sea monster sequences are beyond silly, even for a cheap drive-in flick. Other notable cast members including Tom Conway (his character is outwardly respectable and inwardly sinister, a Conway specialty), El Brendel as a Swedish waiter with a limited command of standard English, and Spike (best known as Old Yeller) as a dog that, as movie dogs always do, can tell when he’s in the presence of evil. Best lines from the riffers (tie): “The only movie based on lens flare!” and “It’s the federal witness seduction program!”

War of the Colossal Beast (1958), directed by Bert I. Gordon, is pretty bad even for a Bert I. Gordon flick (which makes it that much more fun for the riffers, of course). It’s a follow-on to the previous year’s The Amazing Colossal Man, featuring the same central character played by a different actor (with heavy makeup to try to conceal that fact). It seems that Col. Glenn Manning (Dean Parkin, who has only one other acting credit on IMDB) was not killed in the previous film, despite all that exposure to plutonium radiation and his fall from the Hoover Dam, but has re-emerged in Mexico, where he feeds himself by robbing food trucks. Never mind that a 60-foot-tall guy would need a lot of canned tomatoes just to survive one day, or that it’s unlikely that anyone of that size could be anywhere for long without being noticed. As they say in the MST3K theme song “It’s just a show, I really should relax.” The army captures Manning with the help of some drugged bread (again—how much of any drug would be required for a creature of Manning’s supposed size?) and bring him back to the United States while his sister Joyce (Sally Fraser) pleads for his life. Of course, he gets away, and chaos ensues. Best lines from the riffers (tie): “Stock footage away!” and “Get a load of Mr. Stage Business over there!”

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), directed by Roger Corman, is based on a story by Irving Block. The plot involves some lonely Viking women heading out across the ocean in search of their missing men, whom they discover being held prisoner by a barbarian tribe. If you’re hoping for some Amazonian action, you will be disappointed—this is more like Playmates Go To Sea, with none of them being able to throw a javelin (they use a shot-putting motion, which is typical of anyone who never learned to throw a ball properly) or handle an ax convincingly. There’s one cool special effect, a Viking ship that appears in the clouds, but the promised sea-creature is quite disappointing even by low-fi 1950s standards (Corman, interviewed for the documentary included with this DVD set, cited this film as an example of how the finished product did not necessarily deliver what either the title or the posters promised). The most notable actors are Abby Dalton as Desir, leader of the Viking women, and Jonathan Haze (Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors) as Ottar, the one man left behind when the men went off on their expedition (he can’t throw a javelin either). Best line from the riffers: “This story is right out of Homer…and Jethro!”

The major extra included with the set is a 92-minute documentary about American International Pictures, which distributed the four films included in this set: It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The A.I.P. Story. Directed by Daniel Griffith, who has also directed many other shorts included with MST3K box sets, It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine is a case study in how to use conventional documentary techniques (mainly interviews and archival materials) to create a film that is both informative and entertaining. (Ken Burns, take note!) Other extras include short video introductions to the films by Frank Coniff (“T.V.’s Frank”), trailers, and four mini-posters. Also worthy of mention, due to their amazing cringe-worthiness, are two industrials included on the DVDs: “The Home Economics Story” (25 min., 1951), which encourages girls to find their true path by majoring in Home Economics at Iowa State University, and “Mr. B Natural” (29 min., 1957), which features Betty Luster as the pixie-like title character who promotes the joys of participating in school music programs and, not coincidentally, the products of the Conn Musical Instrument Company. | Sarah Boslaugh

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