MYSTERY-SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME I
MOVIE: **** (out of 5)
DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
Joel Hodgson as JOEL ROBINSON
Michael J. Nelson as MIKE NELSON
Trace Beaulieu as CROW T. ROBOT
Kevin Murphy as TOM SERVO
Trace Beaulieu as DR. CLAYTON FORRESTER
Frank Conniff as TV’s FRANK
Studio: Shout Factory
Created by: Joel Hodgson
BY KEVIN CARR
Now that Shout Factory has made it through almost three dozen box set releases of the classic movie commentary show “Mystery-Science Theater 3000,” it’s time to start dipping back into the vault. They have gone back and started to resurrect the out-of-print earlier volumes, releasing them in a more condensed, streamlined standard DVD case.
The set still includes four discs, though they are compactly packaged and take up less room on your DVD shelf. For fans of the series who haven’t been collecting the home video releases since Shout Factory took over, it’s a great time to catch up on some that have been recently unavailable.
Like most of the releases from the MST-3K library, there’s no set pattern of which films are chosen for the different volumes. Recent releases have seen a 50-50 split between Joel and Mike episodes, though Volume I only features one with the original host, Joel Hodgson. The rest of the episodes fall in the Mike days, concentrating on the old Comedy Central episodes rather than dipping into the Sci-Fi Channel years.
In fact, all three of the Mike episodes (“Bloodlust!,” “The Creeping Terror” and “Skydivers” come from season six, which was relatively early in his run and still had much of the spirit of Joel in the Satellite of Love.) This offers a certain degree of consistency, reminding me of the Turkey Day weekends when you could binge-watch 30 straight hours of the show over Thanksgiving Weekend.
If there is one common bond between all the films in this set, it’s that they are all some form of Crown International release from the 1960s, which isn’t saying anything unique for them considering that Crown was known for low-budget cheese from the 60s and makes a likely target for Joel, Mike and the Bots.
Like all the other MST-3K releases, Volume I is a great choice for those of us who want to keep these episodes in our hands but are tired of looking at blurry VHS tapes loaded with vintage commercials.
Here is your token Joel episode, from the beginning of the second season, which is when the show was really starting to hit its stride. It has plenty of classic MST-3K moments, from multiple dance numbers in the film to a Tom Servo crush on the disturbing “Creepy Girl.”
Unlike many of the other episodes of MST-3K, “Catalina Caper” seems to have a higher production value than you’d expect, and considering it opens with the Warner Bros. logo in picture (owing to contemporary distribution rights), it feels like a step above the rest of the grainy black-and-white episodes.
This is a fun episode, a classic from the Joel days, which was great to revisit. Comparing the chemistry of him and the Bots to those of his successor really brings into focus how the internal dynamic of the show changed over the years. For these host segments, the show was still in its friendly Saturday morning children’s matinee mode, and it makes me want to watch it while eating a giant bowl of sugar cereal.
In addition to the “Catalina Caper” theatrical trailer, the special features includes a new featurette that looks at Crown International as a distributor and why it was perfect for the MST-3K library.
“The Creeping Terror”
And as quickly as we were in the Joel episodes, we’re in season six with Mike. Similar to how Joel and the show hit full stride in the second season, Mike really found his footing in season six, discarding the Joel-centric bits (like the invention exchange) and developing his own rapport with the Bots.
As far as movies go, “The Creeping Terror” is one of the worst ones ever made. Its story is almost nonsensical. The effects are laughable. The acting is dreadful. And the look of the film is so murky and poorly composed that it could have been shot by a twelve year old. To make things worse, the production was so cheap, there’s very little synched sound, leading to awkward narration over everything from driving scenes to exposition dialogue.
Still, it’s an oddly watchable train wreck of a film, and the MST-3K riffing on the film makes it even more watchable. I’m actually kind of shocked that it took until the sixth season to find this weird little bad movie gem.
This disc includes the most special features of all four, but to be honest, they’re more there to promote the Shout Factory release “The Creep Behind the Camera,” an intimate fictionalized look at the sleazy production of “The Creeping Terror.” These features include an extended trailer for “The Creep Behind the Camera” as well as a modernized trailer for “The Creeping Terror,” which played at ScreamFest in 2014. The meatiest feature is the Q&A at ScreamFest, which features Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu (though Trace has a bushy beard as a disguise and barely speaks a work in the whole thing).
The next Mike episode is “Bloodlust!,” a low-rent version of “The Most Dangerous Game,” notably starring Mike Brady himself, Robert Reed. The story follows a group of teenagers (of course), including MST-3K alum June Kenney (also seen in “The Viking Women vs. The Sea Serpent” and “Earth vs. The Spider” from season three) who find themselves on a secluded island, hunted by a mad doctor.
Of all the episodes on this disc, “Bloodlust!” is one of the more watchable films. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it serves as fun late-night viewing of cheesy movies. In this sense, two of the movies in this set (with “Catalina Caper” as the other one) make for passable films that can be watched outside of the MST-3K environment. Of course, the riffing makes them even more entertaining.
This episode is significant in the history of MST-3K for no other reason than it is the first time we meet Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) as Dr. Forrester’s mother (and eventual key mad scientist once the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel). It also includes the corny industrial short “Uncle Jim’s Dairy Farm” which is a hilarious way to pad out the short 68-minute running time of the film.
Aside from the original theatrical trailer, there’s no additional special features on this episode.
Easily the worst film of the bunch, “The Skydivers” rounds out the set. Still funny by MST-3K standards, in which the film is improved greatly by Mike and the Bots’ riffs, “The Skydivers” would be difficult to sit through outside of the Satellite of Love.
A Coleman Francis production, “The Skydivers” was one of those films that relied on concept and some stunts to draw people into the film. Shot with the care of a snuff film and featuring some truly awful and unattractive actors, “The Skydivers” suffers from sheer boredom and very few interesting things happening… at all. It’s a sad point when the obligatory teen dance number is the most compelling moment in the film.
It’s certainly still entertaining with the jokes and all the other bells and whistles of an MST-3K episode, but “The Skydivers” is definitely the low end of the batch.
Like “Bloodlust!,” the only special feature on this disc is the original theatrical trailer… which is stunning considering it actually got “released” in “theaters.”