Recipes for failure: Behind the making-of docs for “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ movies

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With 29 DVD editions and four movies in each edition, you’d think Shout! Factory would be running out of bad movies to put in its “Mystery Science Theater 3000” boxed sets by now.

But nope, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXX” is out in stores this week, and still has some top-level cheese in it, from the cut-rate swords-and-sorcery of “Outlaw of Gor” to the classic ‘50s giant-insect shocker “The Black Scorpion.”

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DVD Review: “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXIX”

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And the riffs just keep on coming. Between the news that the Rifftrax guys will be hosting a new miniseries on the National Geographic Channel and the latest release of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ DVD sets from Shout! Factory, it’s a good time to be snarky.

After 28 installments and over 100 films, the Shout! Factory sets have this down to a science; like its predecessors, “Vol. 29″ features four films, spanning the MST3k-verse from the uneven first season through the Golden Age on Comedy Central, and finally one from the Sci-Fi Network years. Sprinkle some bonus features on top, and you’ve got some cheesy goodness in store.

Original host Joel Hodgson, who seems to have really embraced the “MST3K” legacy in recent years, provides new introductions for the first two films in the set, “Untamed Youth” and “Hercules and the Captive Women.” “Untamed Youth” is a classic ’50s troubled-teens drama with Mamie Van Doren, who appears in a new interview on the disc talking about her experiences as a ’50 starlet. (It does not sound fun – when she wanted to start a family, the studio immediately dumped her.)

The “Hercules” movies are among my favorites in “MST3k” and “Captive Women” is classic Italian-dubbed sword-and-sandals badness. The disc also includes a surprisingly engaging interview with artist Steve Vance, who draws the delightful ’50s-style mini-posters that Shout! Factory includes with each film.

“The Thing That Couldn’t Die” (not to be confused with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”) is a slow-moving late ’50s horror film. The disc includes an entertaining making-of doc — at one time, strangely, an overstretched Universal Pictures shut down production on every film except this one, because it was so far under the radar.

But the jewel in “XXIX” is one of the best episodes of the Sci-FI Channel era, “Pumaman.” An incredibly cheap “Superman” knockoff from 1980, it boasts some of the worst “flying” visual effects imaginable, and a hero who wears a cape and sensible slacks. It is pure gold, and the disc includes an interview with star Walter G. Alton, Jr. How Alton became Pumaman is an odd story — he was a New York attorney who, when his firm refused to make him partner, decided to take a break and try acting. After “Pumaman,” he wisely went back to the law.

Alton also continues a run of MST3K “stars” who clearly bristle at the idea of the show making fun of their work. To quote from the opening theme song, they should really just relax. The show and the disc sets have brought a whole new audience to films that would have otherwise been forgotten. The Shout! Factory disc even includes an “Un-MSTied” version of “Pumaman” in its original form, although anyone who could sit through that would really be some kind of superhero.

One more Turkey Day with “Mystery Science Theater 3000″

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Happy Turkey Day!

To the general populace, Turkey Day is just another way of saying Thanksgiving. But to a select few, the phrase conjures more than just images of turkey, cranberries and your Uncle Dan talking with his mouth full. For “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ fans, Turkey Day was truly something to celebrate.

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The anti-cynical tonic of Cinematic Titanic

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Did anybody ever deliberately start watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ on purpose? It feels like every fan I run across (myself included) has an origin story with the cult ’90s TV series that sounds like this: “There was this show on, and I didn’t know what was going on! But it was just so funny, and I just kept watching more and more and more . . .”

That was from the woman sitting next to me at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee for “Cinematic Titanic,” which features five of the creators/performers of the series, including the trio that begun it back in its Minneapolis public-access days — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein, along with Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. (The trio who ended the series on Syfy in 1999 — Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett — went on to start the equally worthy Rifftrax.)

Rifftrax has focused on doing new commentaries for famous and recent films that can be synced up to your DVD, as well as live nationwide broadcasts. Cinematic Titanic has kept its focus on old movies, mixing DVD releases with live shows like the Pabst Theatre two-night stand.

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Blu-ray review: “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie”

drforrester

It could be the plot to some cheesy sci-fi movie that Mike and the ‘bots would make fun of on “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ — two identical alternate universe, one where everything is happy and cheery, the other where we see those exact same events through a much darker and more sinister lens.

Those two universes, as it happens, are the two “making-of” featurettes that appear on the Shout! Factory DVD/Blu-ray release of “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” which just came out this week after a long, long wait from fans. Taken together, the extras provide an instructive lesson in dabbling with potent forces of evil — in this case, a major motion picture studio.

The movie came out in 1996, somewhat bridging the gap between the cult TV show’s Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel years. Universal Pictures thought they could turn the TV show into a cheap but profitable franchise for themselves, while the creators of the show thought that successful live “riffs” of the show before audiences proved that it could work in a group theater setting.

The first featurette, released at the time of the film’s release, shows a Satellite of Love crew happily working on the film. The second, made for this Blu-ray release, delves into the constant struggle that the MSTies had with Universal executives to make the film. Having signed onto the film, Universal insisted on having input into seemingly every decision, including approving or vetoing individual jokes (a Bootsy Collins reference was changed, bizarrely, to a Leona Helmsley reference) and test-screening rough drafts of the film to death. (It’s grimly ironic that the movie trailer touts that the MST3K crew “can make jokes without a censor” in the film, since the meddling from Universal was much more pervasive than anything the show had gotten from Comedy Central or Sci-Fi.)

Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy, along with showrunner (and UW-Madison grad)  Jim Mallon, complain openly about the arduous process, and it’s clear that they regard the finished product as a compromised thing. “The joy of doing this was strained terribly through this odd, arbitrary process.” Mallon said.

That said, the movie itself comes off, as Murphy puts it, as a “better-than-average” episode of the TV show, with significantly better production values given to the host segments, which were shot on a much bigger studio space. The movie that the guys riff on, “This Island Earth,” is actually a pretty good scifi movie, and overall the image pops on Blu-ray in a way most episodes of the TV show just wouldn’t. The release also includes deleted scenes (axed by the studio, naturally) and you get a taste of the cover version of the MST3K theme song done for the movie by Dave Alvin.

In the end, I’ll bet the experience of making the movie was so painful for Mike and the gang that I doubt they’ll ever pop in a copy of the Blu-ray release. But for fans, its an essential part of the collection, and a surprisingly revealing look at the hazards of letting outsiders into your strange little world in the hopes of achieving mainstream success. Better to stay on your own Satellite of Love, unreachable by the mad scientists down below, doing it on your own terms.

DVD review: “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXVI”

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In their day, the snarky ‘bots of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ took their fair share of hits from respectable movie lovers, who didn’t like the idea of somebody making a living making fun of the works of others. If you were a film purist who couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a movie presented in the wrong aspect ratio or, heavens, colorized, the notion of having the screen image partially obscured by three silhouettes pointing out how the leading man looks like Jeff Conaway would be unbearable.

But now that the show’s long gone, and Shout! Factory has been putting out four-DVD boxed sets like the current “Vol. XXVI” with regularity, it strikes me. Suddenly, a series that made fun of bad movies has now become the primary source of preserving them.

Think about it. Is there any way, without the “MST3K” stamp of disapproval, that anyone would have released the cheesy ’80s flick “Alien from L.A.,” starring a squeaky-voiced Kathy Ireland, on DVD? Or the  ’50s sci-fi film “The Mole People,” assembled from meaty chunks of stock footage? Or the wan Italian James Bond ripoff “Danger!! Death Ray” Or the Bert I. Gordon not-bad swords-and-spells epic “The Magic Sword”?

Nope. But they’re all here in this collection, affectionately riffed upon by Joel, Mike and his bots. The fact that the show set such an amiable tone from the get-go, rarely getting mean as they cheerfully skewered one lame special effect or bad performance after another, has added to its longevity. You can appreciate these films for what they were, even if you wouldn’t dare try and sit through them without a “MSt3k” commentary track. Of the four, “The Magic Sword” is my favorite, just classic Joel (“Must . . . get . . . to . . . crappy . . . special . . . effect!”) “Alien From L.A.” is initially fun but the movie is just so bad it becomes a slog to get through, even with the jokes.

“Shout! Factory” has been beefing up the extras on these discs as well. “Alien From L.A.’ includes a rather sheepish and apologetic interview with director Albert Pyun, who laments that he didn’t have CGI at his disposal back in the ’80s, and that the film was apparently used to help launder money out of the country. Well, at least somebody made money off of it. “Magic Sword” has a rather flat interview with Gordon; the opportunity to really do something fun and interesting with Gordon’s entire B-movie oeuvre, from “The Amazing Colossal Man” to “The Giant Spider Invasion,” seems to have been missed.

However, I did enjoy the 15-minute documentary on the “Mole People,” which told the backstory on how the film was slapped together, including the insight that censors of the era wouldn’t allow mixed-race couples to live happily ever after, even if the races were human and alien! The “Death Ray” disc also includes an interview with Mike Nelson, who tells how he went from “MST3k” to the new Rifftrax, with side forays into movie reviews and novel-writing. Nelson said the only job he’s coveted but never had was when he worked at TGIF’s and was never promoted to line cook.