Of Bots And Martians And Ghoulies

Tax season is finally over, so grab a frosty beverage (or one on the rocks) and kick back with another volume (32 in the series) of Shout Factory’s venerable Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short); you won’t need any appetizers, as this box set delivers more rich cheese than you can eat in one session.


The show’s format is simple, as MST3K host and show creator Joel Hodgson (followed up halfway through the show’s run by head writer Mike Nelson) is joined by robot companions Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy to endure “cheesy movies” sent to him by evil-doers Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) and, later, Forrester’s mother Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl). In Vol. XXXII, we’re given a quartet of fine fromage spread out over the show’s ten seasons, starting with one of the most unusual films they’ve ever riffed— Space Travelers, which is actually a syndicated TV version of the 1969 Columbia picture Marooned, a prestige space-rescue drama directed by The Great Escape’s John Sturges and starring Gene Hackman, Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna and James Franciscus. The movie’s only real sin is that it’s pretty dull and Joel and the Bots struggle to find a way in to mock it, relying mostly on impressions of Peck and making fun of Gene Hackman, “who’s always good” in anything. In a featurette, Frank Conniff reveals that Marooned, er, Space Travelers (the new title spliced in with a cheap Chyron logo) came as part of a package deal — likely because of an error on the studio’s part regarding licensing — and that everyone was kind of embarrassed by it. A featurette from Daniel Griffith detailing the history of the film is also included on the disc, along with a beat-up version of the original trailer.


Better is the original 1959 Hercules, the granddaddy of the Italian “swords-and-sandals” genre, complete with giant sweaty men, scantily clad ladies and a lot of awkward dubbing. Hercules — played with gusto by Steve Reeves, who would portray the Greek fighter again the sequel, Hercules Unchained — goes in search of the Golden Fleece, only to fall in love with Antea, the Queen Of The Amazons (Gianna Maria Canale). The jokes run fast and furious here, with Joel and the Bots having a good time with the dubbed vocals and the stiff action beats, though the movie is so chopped to pieces for time that it’s hard to make heads-or-tails of the story. The host segments are solid, however, even when one of the bits involves obscure rock trio Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. Extras include an introduction by Frank Conniff, another interesting Daniel Griffith-directed documentary, this one about American producer Joseph E. Levine, who made a fortune out of importing titles such as this and Americanizing them with cuts and dubbed vocals, and the theatrical trailer.


The set takes a down-turn, however, with the clunky Radar Secret Service, an interminably dull 1950 espionage thriller involving government agents using the then-new invention of radar to track down thieves who have stolen black-market “atomic material.” But if the feature is a dud (even though it’s only just over an hour long), the accompanying short, Last Clear Chance,” about the dangers of ignoring railroad crossings, is one of the show’s best— heavy-handed, over-earnest and laughably grim as a cop (who’s called “the impish officer of death”) tells a hapless young teen who’s just gotten his driver’s license just how dangerous driving can be. This was one of Mike Nelson’s first episodes and his goofy friendliness helps us get through the artlessly directed, extremely generic film, which, made on the cheap, feels like many of MST3K’s other “Poverty Row” features— and for good reason, as director Sam Newfield is the man responsible for duds like Lost Continent and I Accuse My Parents. The sole extra here is a lengthy travelogue detailing Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff’s trip to a UK sci-fi convention.


Fortunately, the best has been saved for last with the 1970 TV-movie San Francisco International, the pilot for what would become a six-episode series dealing with crises at SF International Airport. Pernell Roberts (of Bonanza and, later, Trapper John, M.D. fame) stars as the lead administrator of the airport, which is beset by a terrorist plot hatched by former teen idol Tab Hunter which uses future “Good Morning America” host David Hartman as his patsy, as well as Van Johnson as an alcoholic flight inspector whose tween son (Teddy Eccles) steals a propeller plane to get his father’s attention. The film, directed by TV-movie mainstay John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker), lurches from one silly subplot to the next and Mike and the Bots have no shortage of material, particularly when all of the male characters — including character actor supreme Clu Gulager — spend most of their time drinking Scotch.  There are some huge laughs involving a terrible hippie guitarist (Cliff Potts, later seen in Silent Running), who gets detained by Roberts for annoying Dana Elcar (of “MacGyver” fame), resulting in Mike’s classic burn— “the answer my friend is… blow it out your ass!” Extras here are limited to a featurette on the Satellite Of Love fanzine and webpage.


Scream Factory, Shout’s horror imprint, has just put out two movies that have real MST3K  potential— Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of Invaders From Mars and the 1985-1987 killer-imp epics Ghoulies and Ghoulies 2, both out this month on Blu-Ray. Invaders From Mars is a goofy, tongue-in-cheek remake of the 1953 classic, and Scream has pulled out the stops with a gorgeous transfer and a slew of extras. The movie (which this guy saw in the theater in the summer of 1986) struggles in terms of tone — the frightening elements are undercut by the pieces’ goofier, more extreme ones. The story is essentially the same— a little boy (Hunter Carson from Paris, Texas and the son of writer and Hooper pal/collaborator L.M. “Kit” Carson) who’s the only one who realizes an alien invasion is nigh as a brain-like beast takes control of his parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman), his teacher (Louise Fletcher) and most of the town. But the piece, produced by Cannon film schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, hitting for the big-budget stars this time out), never really comes together, with writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, fresh off Hooper’s equally loopy Lifeforce making the piece more pulpy than necessary, with scenes such as Fletcher eating an anatomy-experiment frog (spoiler alert— it’s a gummy frog) in front of Carson more silly than scary. The creature and FX work, designed by William Stout and late makeup genius Stan Winston, is astounding and shows what you can do with practical effects. But it’s almost too weird— the giant lumbering brute aliens are appropriately otherworldy but almost pull us out of the movie. Scream has given Invaders the royal treatment, with a fun, easy-going audio commentary by Hooper, trailers, radio spots, extensive production galleries from Stout and the documentary “The Martians Are Coming: The Making Of Invaders From Mars,” which goes in-depth into the production with Hooper, Carson, makeup FX artists Alex Gillis and Gino Crognale and composer Christopher Young, who found much of his work cut out of the finished film. While the movie isn’t sure if it’s to be scary or silly, it’s still an impressive piece of work and Blu-Ray producer Cliff MacMillan has gone a great job documenting it.


More sure about its footing is Ghoulies, a 1985 horror-comedy from Empire Films (and later, Full Moon Entertainment) producer Charles Band. While the shrewd Band actually developed a story called “Beasties” in 1983 with Stan Winston, it wasn’t until the 1984 success of Joe Dante’s Gremlins was he able to package and market it. Ghoulies isn’t ever going to be confused with high art — the poster art, featuring a slimy imp popping out of a toilet with the tag line “They’ll get you in the end!” assures that — but it’s an entertaining, low-brow romp regardless. Peter Liapis stars as a young man who, naively messing with his father’s collection of occult materials, ends up not summoning the demons he expects, but rather a group of tiny demonic monsters— the “Ghoulies” of the title, who wage war on Liapis and his friends, which include, in her first role, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s” Mariska Hargitay. Veteran rocker Michael Des Barres stars as Liapis’ undead father and David Lynch mainstay Jack Nance has a supporting role. Faces are chewed. There are eye lasers. The sequel, Ghoulies II (also included here), essentially has the Ghoulies — given more screen time here and looking even more hand-puppety than in the original — escaping and heading to a carnival where, mistaken as attractions, they wreak even more mayhem.  Band makes no bones about what kind of movie this is and the pragmatism he shows in the interviews attached to each title is refreshing; this was in Empire’s heyday, the era of Re-Animator, From Beyond, Troll and Crawlspace, when their movies still got a theatrical release and were pre-sold with the most lurid posters possible. It’s the Roger Corman approach, even if Band’s films weren’t nearly as innovative. Both films are given solid transfers, with cast and crew interviews and trailers; Ghoulies II, which had its violence trimmed before its release, contains a generous selection of relatively gory deleted scenes. These films are nowhere near as bad as the infamous MST3K classic Hobgoblins, but given a few stiff beverages, you can easily find yourself talking back to your television set (particularly when the scenery-chewing Des Barres turns up on screen).


Shout Factory has just announced the contents of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXIII set. Look forward to the beatnik thriller Daddy-O; Earth Vs. The Spider; Teen-Age Crime Wave and the hilarious Agent For H.A.R.M. sometime this summer.


You can buy Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXII from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can buy Invaders From Mars from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can buy the Ghoulies double-billfrom Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.





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