For a show that was all-too-often treated like a redheaded stepchild by its networks (The Comedy Channel/Comedy Central, Sci-Fi) during its decade-plus run on television, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has survived and thrived even when some of the cultural references mentioned have faded into the ether. While the show’s writers and performers have carried on the MST3K tradition with Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, Shout! Factory has pushed on with their series of episode compilations, now with even more extensive special features and, in the new XVIV set, a bunch of Japanese guys in blonde wigs all named “Ken.”
The four episodes in the latest installment are Fugitive Alien (Episode 310) and its sequel, Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2 (318), The Sword And The Dragon (617) and Samson Versus The Vampire Women (624). While the Russian fantasy epic Sword And The Dragon runs a bit long (who the hell can tell is who with those giant beards and the same guy dubbing practically everyone), the rest is comic gold.
Fugitive Aliens 1 and 2 are actually clunkily edited together episodes of the 1978 Japanese TV series “Star Wolf,” which was rushed into production following the massive international success of Star Warsthe year before (along with movies like Message From Space). Re-edited and dubbed by TV impresario Sandy Frank — the guy responsible for both “Name That Tune,” “Battle Of The Planets” and the unintentionally hilarious Time Of The Apes, included in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 XXII box — the story is filled with ambitious special effects and… not much else. The story is incomprehensible to the point of being hallucinogenic, involving interstellar Japanese warriors fighting “Wolf Raiders” (who wear bizarre blonde-wigged space-suits and are all named “Ken”), one of whom turns against his people to become an ally and then basically fights with the crew, particularly the beefy alcoholic pilot Captain Joe. Ken is used to help the others escort a Colonel (wearing powder-blue face paint) to a military base to sabotage a secret weapon, the purpose of which, par for the course here, remains murky.
Everything about the Fugitive Alien films feels off— it’s not as in-your-face of a Star Wars knock-off as you might fear (no cute robots), but the efforts of the filmmakers to Anglicize the material results in spaceship instrument panels marked “presser” (for “pressure”) and “tenperature.” The piece might have made sense in Japan, but the so-called narrative is so choppy and confusing that even MST3K star Joel Hodgson tries and fails to explain to robot pals Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) what the story is on a whiteboard graph marked with Robert McKee’s Story Structure. Extras onFugitive Alien include an excellent introduction by Japanese monster expert August Ragone, who gives a good background on how the series came to be, and the MST Hour wraps, bumpers for the abridged version of the show on Comedy Central starring MST3K writer and eventual star Michael J. Nelson as A&EBiography host Jack Perkins. Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2 contains “You Asked For It!” a half-hour biography of Sandy Frank himself, a one-time MST3K foe who didn’t look kindly upon a show where robots sung a ditty mocking how bad his Japanese imports were. Frank, who speaks very highly of himself and his achievements, barely mentions MST3K in this piece.
The Sword And The Dragon is actually a 1950’s-era Russian epic called Ilya Muromets, based upon a medieval myth about a famously strong warrior who helps end a decades-long battle between the Russians and the Asiatic Tugars. Roger Corman imported the film, hacked it down to under two hours, changed the names and the title and had the entire thing quickly dubbed into English (with narration by newsman Mike Wallace). What’s left is a draggy story that’s less about swords and dragons, though a three-headed beast finally appears in the last five minutes, than it is about burly Russians and their beards. So many characters look alike here that you wish they wore name-tags. At least the Khan — dubbed by veteran voice actor Paul Frees and sounding like Frees’ Boris Badenov from “The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle” — sticks out like a sore thumb. Extras here are two bonus shorts— “Snow Thrills” (from Episode 311, It Conquered The World, unavailable due to rights issues) and the hilariously deadpan “A Date With Your Family” (from Episode 602, Invasion U.S.A.).
Samson Versus The Vampire Women is just as absurd and hilarious as the Fugitive Alien series, with “Samson” actually being the classic Mexican wrestler “Santo” fighting a cabal of undead female bloodsuckers whose sexy appearance gives way to the visage old crones (i.e. the actresses with what looks to be mud and oatmeal spread across their faces) when spied in mirrors. While the dubbing doesn’t make things any better, the acting is stilted at best and the plot almost surreal as Samson, turning up late in the game, does more thoughtful pondering than wrestling, though he finally gets in the ring and bests a fearsome opponent— only to discover he’s a werewolf! And one that can turn into a bat which dangles on a string on a pole! Mike Nelson and the ‘bots have a field day with this one— pointing out just how much, er, “area” one ends up seeing as Santo, fortunately wearing stretchy wrestling pants, lays crotch-first to the screen in a good half-dozen scenes. The extras on this disc include a look back on the career of writer/ comedian Frank Conniff, “TV’s Frank” on MST3K; an interesting documentary on how American producer K. Gordon Murray imported and altered the film, amongst many other Mexican features, for the American market; and a TV spot.
Good news on the MST3K front— selections for the next set have been chosen and include two films from MGM (Robot Holocaust and Operation Kid Brother aka Operation Double 007) and two from Universal (Kitten With a Whip and Revenge Of The Creature), two studios which previously refused to license product to Shout! for the MST3K sets. So look for a floodgate of new MGM and Universal titles to come in the future. The set hasn’t been given a street date yet, but look for it sometime in Q4 of this year.