Two trailers, two Frank Conniff intros running three minutes total and one Ballyhoo featurette? That’s all the extras for Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV, new Tuesday from Shout! Factory?
Yes, that’s all. But it turns out that’s a lot.
The four-disc set’s sole featurette — on the history of American International Pictures — runs 92 minutes, or longer than many of AIP’s own movies. That makes it the most ambitious documentary of Ballyhoo’s many look-backs at films, filmmakers and film studios for MST’s box sets, and given its many films used on MST, AIP was well worth it.
Playing off the absurdly long title of one of the four AIP films in this set (The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), the retrospective is named It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The AIP Story.
Laced with vintage clips and recent interviews of film historians and filmmakers — including Roger Corman — the story is classic Hollywood stuff, putting AIP’s birth and growth in historical perspective: Baby Boom teens with wheels and rock music wanted rebellious film fare made for them. You could say AIP pandered, but didn’t any studio trying to make a buck?
Besides, unlike the majors, AIP existed to serve the youth market and took teens’ side. It also provided an early proving ground for directors like Corman and Fancis Coppola, and it filled a lurid pop-cultural youth-market void left by the demise of EC Comics with the censoring of the Comics Code Authority.
But essentially Teenage Movie Machine is the story of AIP’s ying and yang founders: James Nicholson (the creative genius) and Sam Arkoff (the legal and deal-making genius). From I Was a Teenage Werewolf (not in this collection) and the Beach Party flicks to Corman’s artful Poe adaptations and the Wild Angels biker flicks, AIP tapped an under-served audience and began turning the theatrical exhibition business into what it is today: youth-driven.
Yet though a fascinating and extremely well told tale, it ends abruptly, with Nicholson’s sudden death in 1972 from a brain tumor after a falling out with Arkoff over his messy divorce to marry actress Susan Hart. The story then wraps up in seconds, skipping past AIP’s ventures into A-list work such as The Island of Dr. Moreau and A Matter of Time in the later ’70s, before Arkoff sold the company in ’79. In other words, it’s less geared to Arkoff than to Nicholson, whose son-in-law provides much of the narrative.
I also must point out a painful misspelling in an onscreen graphic showing AIP’s original name: American Releasing Corporation. Oops. It came out “Corperation.” Oh well. And for a 92-minute ride which not everyone will always watch at one sitting, some chapter stops would have helped.
But I quibble. AIP was great indie or mini-major, however you want to look at it, even if The Undead, The She-Creature, War of the Colossal Beast and Viking Women, on this set, aren’t the best of its bunch.
Then again, they made great MST fodder, didn’t they?
— Bruce Westbrook