DVD Review: MST XV is a KTMA treat, has-been horror

Sure, I’d love to see more Sci-Fi Channel shows, especially from the beloved Season Eight. But at this point, why quibble over which Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes make their DVD debuts in Shout! Factory’s fine four-disc sets, the latest of which, volume XV, is due Tuesday?

The fact is, many fans love all MST; available episodes are finite (even more so when rights are tangled); and with dozens of shows already on DVD, getting four more is (1) gravy (2) icing on the cake or (3) a gravy-covered cake. (Yech!)

No, the real treats and variables of each new MST DVD aren’t the choice of episodes so much as the addition of special features. And this latest one has extras on each disc.

The best involve rare looks at the show’s original incarnation on Minnesota UHF station KTMA — TV23 — in 1988 and ’89. An at-first shaggy Joel Hodgson has at-first awkward sidekick ‘bots who evolve into our beloved Tom Servo, Gypsy and Crow (Cybernetic Remotely Operated Woman?), and it’s fun to see how quickly the show morphs and gains its footing.

I even dig the yellow jumpsuits and cluttered look of the initial Satellite of Love (whose bare-bones approach on the Comedy Channel was less than what viewers got on el cheapo TV). And it’s nice to see the oft-overlooked J. (Josh) Elvis Weinstein team with Trace Beaulieu in Deep 13, before TV’s Frank took over.

Such bits emerge in a 15-minute Glimpses of KTMA — MST3K Scrapbook on the Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy disc. An eight-minute Scraps II on the Girl in Lover’s Lane DVD jumps to the early network days, with enticing looks at Joel and company writing their riffs, in effect, as they spout off while sitting on couches at Best Brains studios in Eden Prairie, Minn., watching bad movies on a TV in the corner while a typist scarfs up their comments on a keyboard. (I once visited this room — the honor still stays with me.) We also get a backstage look at the guys shooting the show while director Jim Mallon (who’s never ID’d, I believe) looks on. Thanks, Shout! Factory — love this stuff!

The Racket Girls disc has the oddest extra: a five-minute sneak peek from Hamlet ADD, whatever that is. (Satellite News guys, can you help me?) Yes, it’s intriguing, but a bit more explanation would benefit the average consumer. Suffice it to say it’s as trippy as those new commercials where seas of trees and flowers have human arms and faces. It also has an audience within the presentation, and reacting to it. (Now, where have I seen that before . . . ?) It’s also oddly haunting, bizarre, jolting and filled with deliberately cheesy and, thus, lovable robots. (Robot Monster, how I miss thee!) Voice actors include Trace, Kevin Murphy and the widow of the Great Bird of the Galaxy herself, Majel Barrett Roddenberry.

There’s also a bad ad (orignal trailer) for the lousy and almost unwatchable Racket Girls, first titled Blonde Pickup, but easily worth the name Cheap, Drab Sleaze. This was from an era when seeing a woman in a slip was the ultimate in raciness — and anything beyond that — well, as the MST guys would marvel, “Sayyyyyy . . . ”

Speaking of bad movies (aren’t they all, though it’s relative), that brings us to the last disc, for Zombie Nightmare, a film whose title is aptly descriptive. Indeed, this ’80s tripe with a cameo by good ol’ Adam West is like a bad dream for anyone who values fine– or even halfway competent — filmmaking.

Of course, that utter ineptitude means some will adore it, which is why it’s considered to have “stars,” two of whom appear here in recent interviews: Frank Dietz and John Mikl Thor.

These go pretty much like most such interviews with aging film folks whose big claim to fame was a movie worth savaging on a cowtown puppet show. They cringe momentarily, paying lip-service to shame, but mostly take delight that anyone would showcase their little movie at all, and how this, in a weird way, turns their nothing of a movie into something.

Each man also seems to have an inflated sense of worth, especially Mr. Thor, who rants and rambles (while hiding behind dark glasses) about his endless array of irons in the show biz fire, none of which are familiar to me, but hey, I haven’t circulated in the same crowd as a Thor since I stopped reading Journey Into Mystery and The Avengers.

Just once, I’d love it if one of these guys readily acknowledged how bad their film was and agreed that it deserved every MST3K-hurled zinger it got. Instead, they try to spin it into being a lost or underrated classic with which many people are obsessed — as long as they don’t charge too much for autographs at fan cons hosting has-beens.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I covered entertainment as a professional journalist for many years, I know a lot of actors, and I have a natural fondness for those intrepid souls who make a true go at it. It’s a tough business, and far more talented people that these two (Dan O’Bannon, anyone?) also fail to carve out lasting, successful careers, so there’s no shame in not being another John Carpenter, Tom Savini, Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi.

But along with this soft spot in my heart is a hard-nosed attitude in my head toward keeping it real. I get enough lies — er, spin — from politicians and publicists, not to mention virtually any entertainment “news” show on TV. Just once, I’d love to hear a faded star of a tiny film admit that there wasn’t much “there” there, but hey, we’re still talking about it, so at least there’s that, and, hey, whatev, but yeah — it sucked.

If you disagree and would rather enable such delusions, then imagine if someone launched a cheap TV show on a little-seen UHF station and, after one episode, it folded its tents, yet many years later, they still rhapsodized about the great job they did and the fun time they had and what a lost classic it is.

Then think about your high regard for Joel, Mike Nelson and company, who really DID achieve something lasting. Then imagine yourself, in Bentsen-speak, saying, “Sir, I know fringe TV trailblazers like Mike Nelson, and you sir, are no Mike Nelson.”  That’s all I’m doing here–trying to keep it real in honor of those who truly deserve our ongoing respect if not our adulation. Forcing such regard on the undeserving only cheapens it, and we live in an era of too many cheap “celebrities” already.

Hey, if you made a movie — any movie — that got lambasted on MST3K, that’s worth something, and you’ve got it. But let’s not liken Zombie Nightmare or Soultaker to unsung exploitation classics that really do deserve salutes and flame fannings. (Dark Star or Tourist Trap, anyone?) Instead, let’s keep our heads on straight while laughing with our merry SOL crew, and let’s thank them, more than anyone, for bringing a little extra light into our day.

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