OK, I’m no grouse. I’m grateful — grateful to have an entire featurette on Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIX devoted to some of my favorite characters: tiny talk-back titans the Nanites. But these small bio-engineered creatures deserve more than small screen time, and for me, four minutes wasn’t nearly enough.
Still, I’ll take it, along with the usual array of generous extras on Shout! Factory’s latest MST3K boxed set, due Tuesday, whose movies are The Pumaman (show #903), The Thing That Couldn’t Die (another favorite and from my personal favorite season, #805), Hercules and the Captive Women (#412) and Untamed Youth (a wayback machine oldie, #112).
Back to the Pumaman disc’s Nanite extra, which reveals that the helpful workaholics demanding red-tape work-orders were composed of scrap parts from VHS and cassette cartridges. (Isn’t that the essence of MST3K? Found parts.) They were moved from below via slits in their grid and voiced by the likes of Mary Jo Pehl.
Along with a Joel Hodgson intro (each movie has one), Pumaman’s disc also sports a revealing 25-minute interview with the film’s star, Walter G. Alton Jr. It turns out he was a New York med mal defense attorney who eased into acting and — poof! — he’s off to Rome and London to make a shaky superhero flick that he played straight.
So it’s no surprise he was offended by MST3K’s barbs — though he plays along with an interview-ending gag at the end. And btw, he’s now back to law.
Speaking of gags, the Thing disc has one of the best animated menus of these sets: the old head-in-the-microwave stunt. Not only that, but it’s a Gizmonic microwave. Yikes!
Along with a trailer, this disc also sports The Movie That Couldn’t Die, a customarily comprehensive look-back by Ballyhoo, with nine minutes of Hollywood lore. This one’s especially interesting, since the film came at Universal’s nadir in ’58 and was shot on a largely empty lot in just under two weeks.
First titled The Water Witch, it made money, being issued on a double bill with Hammer’s Horror of Dracula. (It’s not hard to guess which movie topped that bill.)
The Untamed disc has another strong interview, this time with a charmingly candid Mamie Van Doren, a fleeting platinum blonde bombshell who was ahead of her time when it came to rock ‘n’ roll — or what passed for it — in yet another ’50s bad-kids-learn-their-lesson exploitation flick. (The old guys running Hollywood loved to preach while they pandered.)
“Nobody knew what rock ‘n’ roll was,” Van Doren says. “I was the first female to do rock on the big screen. You have to really have a soul when you do rock. You can’t fake it.” Bravo!
She also reveals she smoked weed. Well, she was a rocker. And she was discovered by Howard Hughes.
What she doesn’t mention is that Untamed Youth was loudly condemned by “decency” groups at the time — which only served to spark interest in the movie and goose its box office. Way to go, prudes!
The disc also has a six-minute About Joel Hodgson’s ‘Riffing Myself,’ as he recounts the evolution of his one-man show — and MST itself. (Hodgson’s youthful infatuation with magic directly led to finding catch-terms such as “Best Brains.”)
The Hercules disc has a special treat for lovers of the boxed sets’ packaging: MST3K Artist in Residence: Steve Vance. The DVD cover artist is joined in his studio and interviewed by Dave Long, who handles the menus’ animation.
As is obvious, Vance styles his box art and mini-posters after sensationalistic old movie one-sheets. (He also concocts the “See!” blurbs on the back.) He reveals the golden rule of his inspiration: “The poster had to be more exciting than the actual movie.”
There’s also a two-per-screen slide-show gallery of his work, showing (at my count) 66 of his DVD box covers.
And there you have it: Another gift from the gods of MST lore.
Now where’s my Gizmonic microwave? I got me some brains to fry!
— Bruce Westbrook