Gamera Is Still Really Neat

When Shout! Factory gained the video rights to the Daiei Films Gamera series in 2009, it seemed like the death knell for fans’ hopes for Mystery Science Theater 3000’s five-episode take on the big green flying turtle. Rights issues are the bane of any “Mistie” fan— there are so many different studios, distributors, etc. in the mix over the decade-long run of the show that it’s hard to make deals with all of them, particularly for more higher-profile titles that are owned by the likes of MGM, the estates of producers like Sam Arkoff, or, most notably, Universal, which supplied the series with most of its titles in its three years on the Sci-Fi Channel (meaning if you’re waiting for Leech Woman or The Mole People, you’re probably out of luck).


It didn’t seem likely that Daiei would allow one of their crown jewels to not only be mocked by MST3K on video, but that they’d want any sort of competition— though the logic that true fans would likely buy both versions seems to have been lost on the likes of Roger Corman, who is adamant in keeping MST3K takes on titles like Time Walker (aka Being From Another Planet) — part of Shout!’s Corman-branded Vampires, Mummies and Monsters set — from being released.


Lo and behold, all five Gamera titles in the MST3K canon — Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs. Gaos, Gamera vs. Guiron and Gamera vs. Zigra — have all been released in a handsome limited-edition tin from Shout! Factory, complete with copious extras. While far from the beautiful, widescreen HD transfers from the Shout! monster series (which include three additional films— why MST3K didn’t take a stab at the bizarre Gamera vs. Viras is beyond me), these MST3K takes on the Big Turtle are just the ticket for monster-themed hilarity.

What’s great about watching these all in a row is that show host and co-creator Joel Hodgson (aka “Joel Robinson”) and robot pals Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) grow just as fatigued by the plot contrivances, constantly repeated themes and silly monster adversaries as we do. The first Gamera, much like its giant-monster inspiration Godzilla, is meant to be taken seriously as a horror film — here, Gamera, clearly the villain, wreaks havoc across Japan in scenes of vividly-drawn mayhem — the sequels are significantly sillier and play to a more youthful/child-like audience. Gamera quickly goes from being a prehistoric monster with a thirst for wholesale vengeance to the “friend of all children,” most of whom are pudgy brats named “Kenny.” While the original Shout! titles have both Japanese-language tracks (with subtitles) and English-dubs, the MST3K versions are all dubbed, often with much hilarity— Joel and the Bots get a lot of mileage out of the unintentionally hilarious Deep South dubbing of the alien women in Gamera vs. Guiron.


The films quickly dovetail into self-parody, which makes them perfect MST3K fodder. Barugon is a clunky adversary in the second film — to Joel and the Bots, he looks just like a dog and they constantly tell him “down boy!” — but he’s nothing compared to the knife-headed Guiron, who somehow is able to shoot throwing stars out of a port in his nose (and, who, in the goriest scene of the series, attacks a leftover Gaos monster from the previous film — the costume must have been in storage — and chops off his wings and head using only his noggin!). Guiron and Zigra (as well as Viras) all involve evil aliens who are trying to take over the world with their films’ namesake monster, only to be thwarted by plucky kids who get into trouble. When two boys encounter the poorly-glued-together spaceship model in Guiron, they don’t fear the new technology, but take it for a joy-ride which lands them in hot water. Gamera doesn’t turn up until much later, as if the filmmakers were trying to cut as many corners as possible; his appearance is often accompanied by the “Gamera Song” on the soundtrack, which Joel and the Bots translate as “Gamera is really neat/Gamera is full of meat/We all love you, Gamera.” The tag at the end of the Guiron episode where series baddies Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) listen to writer/future show host Mike Nelson — posing as lounge pianist/songwriter Michael Feinstein — do his mannered take on the Gamera song is particularly hilarious. Even Gamera super-fans — and they most certainly exist — who might cringe at the disrespectful treatment have to realize how bizarrely infantile the series became; just one look at the cheap-jack spaceship model in Zigra (which looks like a bowl filled with stuck-together hard candies) shows you that you’re not supposed to take this all that seriously.


The MST3K vs. Gamera box is handsome indeed, housed in a beautiful embossed tin containing a slip-case that holds the five films, each in its own thin DVD case. Shout! could have easily just thrown the set together, but each film contains bountiful extras, including the “MST Hour Wraps” (intros hosted by Mike Nelson — posing as one-time American Movie Classics host Jack Perkins — for when Comedy Central cut episodes in half and showed them in two one-hour time-slots) and documentaries on both MST3K and the Gamera phenomenon as a whole. On the first Gamera, we get the perspective of MST3K performers/writers Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and producer/director Jim Mallon; Gamera vs. Barugon gives us a run-down on Japanese monster movies and man-in-suit performances by FX masters the Chiodo Brothers; and Gamera vs. Gaos has Gamera expert August Ragone — who provides many of the commentary tracks on the Shout! Gamera films — give a rundown of the history of the giant turtle. It’s an invaluable look at the background of Gamera and Japanese monster movies in general.


 If five Gamera films weren’t punishment enough, Shout! has also released the MST3K version of the infamous 1966 cult classic “Manos” - The Hands Of Fate, which is inarguably one of the worst films of all time. It sounds like hyperbole, but truly, “Manos” — essentially the tale of a family that happens upon a motel which is actually a gateway to Hell — is as bad as it gets. The film looks like it was shot on “short ends” (extra pieces of film stock discarded from other shoots) and the sound is so bad that you can barely hear the characters speak; apparently the entire thing — shot in thirty-second bursts with a spring-loaded Bell & Howellcamera — was entirely post-dubbed. The piece runs on forever before the story gets started; the opening is a long series of tracking shots of a family — led by writer/director/fertilizer salesman Hal Warren — driving nowhere in particular before they turn up at a motel where the hapless “Torgo” (John Reynolds in one of the twitchiest performances of all time) warns them that “the Master will not be pleased” by their presence. It all goes downhill from there. Amateurish beyond comprehension, “Manos” makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Citizen Kane.


Previously released by Rhino in a no-frills two-film edition with Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, Manos (the name of which is, translated from Spanish, “Hands” - The Hands Of Fate) has been given the deluxe MST3K treatment, including the MST3K version on one disc along with a roundtable discussion of the film from Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Coniff and writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl. The second disc contains an “un-MiSTied” version of “Manos” with an awful transfer that’s even more difficult to watch than the MST3K version (we’re not expecting Criterion results, but you can’t help but wish to see the film look better than this muddy version, which makes the piece look even worse than it actually is), along with the fascinating Hotel Torgo, a half-hour documentary that looks at the making and history of the film, along with visits to the original rural Texas locations. Disc Two also gives us the two parts of the Hired! MST3K short subject (part two of this runs before “Manos”) and a faux-serious documentary on Jam Handy, the creator behind Hired! and hundreds of other industrial and educational shorts which stars Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra writer/director Larry Blamire.

Also available from Shout! Select are individual MST3K episodes that have gone out of print from previous distributor Rhino, including Beginning Of The End, The Touch Of Satan, The Atomic Brain and the notorious Red Zone Cuba from Beast Of Yucca Flats director Coleman Francis.

Between MST3K vs. Gamera and the “Manos” deluxe edition, Shout! delivers the goods in giving us “cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la)”— at least until December, when Volume XXII, containing cult classics The Brute Man, The Violent Years, and the jaw-dropping Japanese TV exports Mighty Jack and Time Of The Apes, the latter of which is one of MST3K’s high- (or low, depending on your perspective) water marks.

You can order both MST3K Vs. Gamera and “Manos” - The Hands Of Fate at Amazon or directly through Shout!.

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