Turkey Day, Mystery Science Theater 3000-Style

To most, Thanksgiving means turkey, stuffing, gravy, and the inevitable post-meal tryptophan coma. But to many, Thanksgiving also means memories of “The Turkey Day Marathon,” the non-stop, round-the-clock pile-on of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST3K) that ran for five consecutive Thanksgivings Days in the early ’90’s on Comedy Central. Shout Factory has embraced this with Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXI: The Turkey Day Collection, featuring four cinematic gobblers along with new Thanksgiving bumpers and an archive of all three of the marathon host segments from 1991, ’92 and ’95 (Comedy Central used substitute hosts in ’93 and ’94, including Batman’s Adam West). It’s a perfect way to segue from the pain of gorging yourself to laughing yourself sick.


The show’s format — host and show creator Joel Hodgson and, later, head writer Mike Nelson find themselves trapped in space with robot pals Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy, forced to watch “cheesy movies” over and over again — remains the same, but the “Turkey Day” phenomenon was a great way, particularly in the time before DVDs and DVRs, to revisit favorite episodes and get the premiere of a new one thrown in for good measure. The 1991 segment features series nemeses Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) badgered by Thanksgiving guest and “Biography” host Jack Perkins (Mike Nelson). 1992 features TV’s Frank being tortured by Forrester as he’s forced to eat one turkey per movie for the full thirty-hour marathon. And best of all, 1995 features Forrester — now that TV’s Frank has ascended into heaven (Conniff left the show) — fending off all of the guests Frank invited before he left this mortal coil, including a drunk Perkins, pianist Michael Feinstein (Nelson again), Pitch the devil from the Mexican Santa Claus (writer Paul Chaplin) and the androgynous Mr. “B” Natural (Nelson’s real-life wife, Bridget Nelson) from the infamous musical short of the same name.


The films in The Turkey Day Collection live up (or is it down?) to the excellent extras, 1948’s Jungle Goddess is a terrible adventure starring George Reeves, later TV’s “Superman,” hunting for heiress Wanda McKay in darkest Africa, where, in typical condescending ‘40’s fashion, she’s somehow been made ruler of a native tribe. The film was produced on the VERY cheap by low-budget producer Robert Lippert and Joel and the ‘Bots have a field day mocking the characters, one of whom shoots natives like it’s something he routinely does, and the condescending white imperialism that drapes over the story. This episode also includes the first episode of the Bela Lugosi espionage/fantasy serial The Phantom Creeps, which is best known for its giant eight-foot slave robot that looks more like an Easter Island statue than any sort of mechanical man. Extras include a new “Turkey Day” intro by Joel Hodgson and the original first-season voices of Crow and Tom Servo, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein as well as “Undercooked And Overstuffed,” a nice overview of the Turkey Day Marathon phenomena.


Up next is The Painted Hills, a 1951 Western adventure starring none other than cinematic canine superstar Lassie in her final role— not as “Lassie,” but as “Shep,” who’s the companion of crusty gold prospector Jonathan Harvey (Paul Kelly), who’s murdered by his partner, Lin (Bruce Cowling), who’s out for his claim. Lassie, er, “Shep” spends most of the time being tormented by Lin, who even poisons his food, only to be rescued by young Tommy (Gary Gray), the son of Jonathan’s late partner, and a group of kindly Indians, before going after Lin, Charles Bronson-style. Dog Charles Bronson-style, that is. The movie is a serious clunker— while it gets points for being one of the few Westerns MST3K ever tackled, it’s slow, predictable and not particularly fun. And, to make things even more confusing, “Lassie” (er, “Shep”) is played by dog actor “Pal.” Joel and the ‘Bots do what they can with this material — the best running gag is where they think the character “Pilot Pete” is actually named “Pile-On Pete” — but they have more fun with the opening short, “Body Care And Grooming,” where hopelessly square ‘50’s era college students struggle with the concepts of basic hygiene. Extras include a new “Turkey Day” intro from Joel and every single “Turkey Day Marathon” bumper involving the MST3K crew.


1958’s The Screaming Skull is the third episode of the set and it’s a doozy— a supernatural thriller that, according to the fascinating Ballyhoo Motion Pictures short “This Film May Kill You: Making The Screaming Skull,” was developed because the filmmakers had access to the Huntington Hartford Estate, a massive Los Angeles property which served as the sole location for the film. The movie is supposed to be a remake of Rebecca, involving a husband (John Hudson) moving his new bride (Peggy Webber) into a shockingly unfurnished mansion following the accidental death of his first wife, but it ends up being a silly ghost story hampered by horrible special effects and an unintentionally hilarious performance by director Alex Nicol as Mickey, a gardener so affected that it brings to mind Torgo from Manos, The Hands Of Fate. Mike and the ‘Bots have a field day with this — the host segments are particularly inspired — as well as with the animated Gumby short “Robot Rumpus,” which due to music rights issues, seemed unlikely to ever make it to DVD. Extras include the aforementioned “This Film May Kill You” (in which director Larry Blamire acknowledges that The Screaming Skull was a direct inspiration on his shlock-film parody The Lost Skull Of Cadavra), a “Turkey Day” intro from Joel and an interview with Joe Clokey, the son of Gumby creator/animator Art Clokey, where he admits his father laughed at the short’s MST3K treatment.


Last but not least comes Squirm, a 1976 eco-horror story about killer worms literally consuming a rural Georgia community. Actor-turned-director (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) Don Scardino stars as an (no kidding) antiquer who finds himself stranded in a small town which, due to a freak lightning storm, has turned all of the worms in the ground — and 100,000 from a local worm farm — into carnivorous monsters. The worm sequences are genuinely creepy (though many are trimmed here— more on that later), but the story moves at a snail’s pace, full of redneck stereotypes, particularly a sheriff (Peter MacLean) so creepy he sleeps with his waitress mistress in an empty jail cell, which Mike and the ‘Bots mock incessantly. Female lead Patricia Pearcy is a particular butt of the jokes— she’s so skinny and pale that Tom Servo keeps mistaking her for things like a “moldy Slim Jim.” The accompanying short, “A Case Of Spring Fever,” where a man is haunted by a taunting animated spring named “Coily” after wishing the world would be rid of springs, is a classic. Extras include a “Turkey Day” intro by Joel and an interview with Squirm star Don Scardino.


Scream Factory, Shout’s genre-movie sibling, has also just released Squirm in an uncut Blu-Ray edition that, compared to the fuzzy, full-frame MST3K version, is a revelation—the print here is pristine, clean and looks like it was just pulled from the negative. The movie is still goofy — no matter how beautiful the picture, you still have to put up with the scene where Don Scardino foolishly orders an egg cream at a backwoods diner — but Squirm has never looked better— or grosser. To fit the run time of most MST3K episodes, movies are cut down, sometimes drastically (another, largely justified, reason why many turn up their noses at the show). In this unrated cut of the film, we see a lot more of the hapless R.A. Dow, who plays dim-witted worm farm heir Roger— and who, after falling into a boat full of hungry critters, earns his nickname of “Wormface,” an early creation of makeup FX genius Rick Baker. You don’t see a lot of ol’ Wormface in the MST3K version of Squrim, but he certainly makes an impression in the regular version of the film, fighting his way out of a literal sea of worms. Scream has packed this “Collector’s Edition” of Squrim with a number of solid extras, including an audio commentary with director/writer Jeff (Blue Sunshine) Lieberman, a half-hour documentary on the making of the film (which includes the interview with Don Scardino from the MST3K disc), a look back at the origins of the film with Lieberman and a number of trailers and TV spots (the interview with FX artist Bill Willing mentioned on the packaging is nowhere to be found, however).


Shout has also brought back their own version of the Turkey Day Marathon, streaming six classic episodes of MST3K with brand new introductions by Joel Hodgson. Point your browser here or on Shout's YouTube Channel here starting at 12 noon EST or 9 AM PST and enjoy twelve hours of sharp riffs and big laughs that will help cut through that Thanksgiving bloat.

Shout Factory has announced the contents of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXII set. Look forward to Space Travelers (aka Marooned), the original Hercules, Radar Secret Service and San Francisco International in late March.


You can buy Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXI: The Turkey Day Collection from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can buy Squirm from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory. 

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