Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the granddaddy of laugh-at-the-screen comedy shows — its protégés range from the Sklar Brothers to “Doug Benson’s Comedy Interruption” to Rifftrax (complete with MST3K’s Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy) — and Shout! Factory soldiers on with XXVI, the 26th (for those of you not versed in Roman numerology) collection of skewered “cheesy movies,” as the theme song goes, “the worst we can find.” Having made deals with MGM and Universal, distributor Shout! Factory has a whole new slew of titles to choose from and, here, gives us everything from ‘50’s monster icons to classic ‘80’s direct-to-video hilarity (starring Kathy Ireland no less).
First up, ‘50’s and ‘60’s exploitation stalwart Bert I. Gordon, best known for creature features like The Amazing Colossal Man and Food Of The Gods, gives us The Magic Sword (episode #411), a 1962 United Artists swords-and-sorcery adventure starring a young Gary (2001: A Space Odyssey) Lockwood and a slumming Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood. It’s based loosely on the medieval legend of Saint George And The Dragon, but the majesty of the poster is undermined by the cheap special effects and hammy performances, including that of Malia Nurmi, best known as “Vampira” of ‘50’s TV horror and Plan 9 From Outer Space fame, as a deformed, one-eyed hag. The consensus of Joel Hodgson and the robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot was that, seeing that they had already sat through The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel (and would later riff on Gordon’s Tormented and Village Of The Giants), this was “pretty good” for a Bert I. Gordon film. Extras include the theatrical trailer (which is as misleading as the one-sheet), the “MST Hour” wraps from when the show was cut to an hour on Comedy Central and, “The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker,” a compelling profile of the very likable Bert I Gordon, who details how he found work in Hollywood because he brought his own camera with him from Wisconsin, where he shot TV commercials.
Stepping down in quality, Mike Nelson and the ‘bots are forced to sit through 1987’s Alien From L.A. (episode #516), a post-Apocalyptic twist on Jules Verne’s “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” which stars supermodel Kathy Ireland as a mousy girl who, on a trip to Africa to find her missing archeologist father, falls into the long-lost city of Atlantis, which looks like a cross between Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and New Wave kabuki theater— on a chintzy budget. In an interview, director Albert (The Sword And The Sorcerer) Pyun admits that he had to totally restructure the story around its star to minimize the presence of her incredibly tinny, annoying voice. Pyun claims he’s never seen the MST3K version of the film and never will and complains that most audiences haven’t been able to see this Cannon production in the widescreen format in which it was filmed— but it’s hard to see how more robot clutter and broadly made-up characters would help compensate for the piece’s goofy shortcomings— or the admittedly beautiful Ireland’s Betty Boop voice. The highlight here is undoubtedly “The Kathy Ireland Song,” perhaps Mike Nelson’s greatest musical moment on the show.
Danger!! Death Ray (episode #620) is a completely nonsensical ‘60’s-era spy thriller that is supposed to echo the James Bond series but, thanks in no small part to a storyline that makes no sense, special effects which are clearly toys in a tub of water, and a charisma-free hero in ridiculously-named lead “Bart Fargo” (played by former Tarzan Gordon Scott), comes off as a parody of the whole spy genre. The “death ray” itself is a laser that can barely melt down a door and, as Bart Fargo travels throughout Italy and Spain, he runs into one deadly assassin after another— all either with hilarious fake facial hair (one with an Abe Lincoln-style beard concealing a telltale scar) or looking like, as Crow calls one henchman, “Jerry Reed.” The film is such a stinker — one shot of a helicopter attacking an oil tanker is so obviously fake that it pulls you right out of the piece — that a good deal of the riffs are just Mike and the ‘bots laughing at how silly it all is. The only extra outside of the theatrical trailer is a “Life After MST3K” segment about Mike Nelson and how he eventually continued on his career path of making fun of movies at Rifftrax.
The most ambitious film here is 1956’s The Mole People (episode #803), one of the movies from MST3K’s shift from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel, owned by Universal Studios— not coincidentally, The Mole People’s distributor. The film is goofy for its own reasons — not the least of which is TV’s Batman butler Alan Napier as the fussy pale-white leader of the Sumerian albino race leads John Agar and Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver from TV’s Leave It To Beaver) encounter — but the mole people slaves themselves are creepy enough (if not shown enough) and there’s a vein of ‘50’s-esque earnestness that elevates it slightly above similar projects. There’s plenty to mock however — Mike Nelson gets plenty of mileage out of dumpy, klutzy Nestor Paiva (best known for a supporting role on the ‘60’s-era Zorro TV show), who he constantly refers to as “the load” — and the show delivers real laughs. Extras include the theatrical trailer (bombastic in the best Universal horror fashion) and the fantastic documentary “Of Mushrooms And Madmen: Making The Mole People,” by Daniel Griffith of Ballhyhoo Motion Pictures, who’s providing many of the great supplemental features to classic sci-fi and horror DVD and Blu-Ray releases, including VCI’s great Blu-Ray of Gorgo. The piece includes interviews with filmmakers and historians such as Bob Burns, who shows off one of the original Mole People masks he has in his possession, and is a great supplement to a solid box set.
The names of the titles in the next MST3K box set (due sometime this summer) have been released, so look forward to The Slime People (with the short “Commando Cody Part 6”), Rocket Attack USA (with the short “The Phantom Creeps Part 2”), Bert I. Gordon’s Village Of The Giants, and The Deadly Mantis. If you pre-order from Shout! Factory, you’ll get the “MST3K Serial Variety Pack Bonus Disc” that stitches together the riffed installments of “The Phantom Creeps,” “Undersea Kingdom” and “General Hospital.”