DVD Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol XXVI
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 5 years since Shout Factory took over distribution of putting Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes on DVD. Starting with Volume XIII in the fall of 2008, we are now almost 5 years and 13 volumes into their continued efforts to keep circulating the tapes on DVD.
Volume XXVI continues the presentation of 4 more ‘cheesy movies’ to DVD with themed packaging, specially-created DVD menus, fancy DVD cases, and 4 DVD-sized prints of the case art done by Steve Vance. So, now that we begin our countdown to “Vol L,” let’s see what the latest release has to offer.
“You guys, I was just thinking, this isn’t bad for a Bert I Gordon movie” – Joel Robinson
Throughout the years on the Satellite of Love, several filmmakers would return again and again as ‘repeat offenders’ with their film repertoire. One of those directors was Mr Bert I Gordon. Throughout much of his career, Bert was known for films with really big things, such as The Amazing Colossal Man, and Village of the Giants. However, with The Magic Sword, Bert instead chose to focus on a more fairy tale-like storyline.
A mortal young man named George (Gary Lockwood) lives with his elder stepmom/sorceress, Sybil (Estelle Winwood). Though George is not yet 21, Estelle still has no qualms about treating him like a child. Even so, this doesn’t stop George from observing the kingdom’s Princess Helene (Anne Helm) in a magic pool. But as George watches, the Princess is kidnapped by the sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), with the promise that he intends to feed her to his dragon in seven days, as revenge on the Princess’ father for executing his sister.
It just so happens that Sybil has numerous enchanted objects that can help George, but she tells him he isn’t to have them until he turns 21. But as one can expect, George tricks Sybil, and gets his accoutrements. Joining up with the King’s most heroic knight Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), the quest begins, with the group having to make their way through Lodac’s seven curses.
Most of Gordon’s works have taken place in modern times, and this was his first attempt at a ‘sword and sorcery’ film. It’s not quite Sinbad, but it has a great flair for being a nice Saturday afternoon adventure, even causing Joel Robinson to quote the line at the beginning of this little mini-review. One fun little bit is Crow falling in love with Estelle Winwood in the film, to the point that he is even willing to throw away his obsession over Kim Cattrall from a previous film viewing.
Along with The Magic Sword, the disc also includes a brief 8-minute feature entitled Bert I Gordon: The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker. I must admit I was hoping for a more lengthy piece regarding Mr Gordon. This little feature mainly covers Bert’s musings about his early love of films, and his early work in the midwest before deciding to strike out for Hollywood. As for Bert’s films, they are largely confined to just a small smattering of images and summary about his making of films dealing with size-related people/creatures.
“I’d slap this movie if I could” – Tom Servo
Over the years, we’ve been told in school that ‘it’s what’s inside that counts,’ but when it comes to making films, it’s usually what’s outside that sells tickets. We’ve seen all manner of beautiful people that serve on magazine covers (known as ‘models’), be snatched up and thrown in a film on their looks alone.
This most definitely was the case when Kathy Ireland was cast in the Golan-Globus picture, Alien from LA. Though if thoughts of Kathy Ireland being a beautiful alien girl crash-landing in the land of sun-and-surf are on your mind from this title…IT’S A TRAP!!
Even though the film’s original poster showed Kathy in tight jeans and a belly-baring t-shirt, the majority of the film has her playing a squeaky-voiced, glasses-wearing shrinking violet who is even rebuked by her ex-boyfriend for being so afraid. Soon after she’s dumped, Kathy’s character receives a letter that her archaeologist father has disappeared, and she goes off to try and find him, only to find herself in a strange world deep beneath the surface of the Earth.
One can only wonder what words were used to convince Kathy that this film was a good career move. It plays almost like a (very) loose interpretation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is evident in the name of Kathy’s character, Wanda Saknassum. Her last name is similar to another character in Verne’s story, though one can’t also help but see a tinge of Alice in Wonderland in the film, given that Wanda falls down a hole into a strange world, and just wants to go home.
For the life of me, I can’t tell you what is going on the majority of the time with this film. Much of it is just Kathy’s character running into one situation after another in a strange, Mad Max-like society that includes everything from a woman with a tail, to a little person (Deep Roy) with 3-inch eyelashes.
Several DVD releases in the past have had interviews with cast and crew of a film, and this disc actually goes straight to the source for its interview: Alien From LA’s writer/director, Albert Pyun. Over the course of 8 1/2 minutes, Pyun tells of his making the film, casting Kathy Ireland, as well as his reaction finding out that his film had been chosen to be riffed on by the MST3K crew.
“Boy, this must be a massive organization to throw away a $1.50 helicopter” – Crow T Robot
They say ‘success breeds imitation,’ and that was certainly the case as the 60’s wore on. After the successful run of James Bond films in the early 1960’s, the “Eurospy” genre of films was born, with all sorts of European productions attempting to cash in. Some even went so far as to sneak in the numbers ‘007’ in their (non-James Bond) film titles, before United Artists put an end to it.
The guys on MST3K encountered several of these terrible films (including Secret Agent Super Dragon, and Operation Double 007, which starred Sean Connery’s younger brother!). With this DVD set, we have the more-exciting-than-it-sounds Danger!! Death Ray.
After a scientist and his Death Ray (made purely for “peaceful purposes”) are kidnapped, an unnamed government organization puts its top agent named Bart Fargo (no, really, that’s his name!) on the case. Bart faces all manner of enemies at every turn, including one whom the MST3K group jokingly refer to as Abe Lincoln given his beard (“Abe Lincoln, IS, Time Cop!”). He also meets a young female artist, who becomes the obligatory love interest, and seemingly falls for Bart because she has little else to do.
Some films that are just plain stupid I can easily dismiss as fun (like the horrid Wild World of Batwoman), but Death Ray often gets me seething. Why? Well, I guess it has to do with that Death Ray. A scientist creates a death ray that he claims was made for “purely peaceful purposes,” so…WHY CALL IT A DEATH RAY THEN!? For that matter, very little about this weapon of mass destruction is hit on, except for a few moments at the beginning and the end of the film (“By now the death ray has been completely forgotten,” quips Crow at one point).
As well, Bart Fargo is so sickeningly suave and charming, that I was soon wishing for someone to take him down. There are also some lines that are just plain wrong. When Bart is called into his Superior’s office, where he attempts to interject that he’s on vacation, his boss just speeds through his lines, calling Bart “worse than an Arab.” It doesn’t help that the boss is another one of those ‘I hate your guts but you get the job done’ kind of bosses, and there’s even a secretary that just screams ‘Moneypenny’ given Bart’s ‘obligatory flirting scene’ with her.
It also doesn’t help that this film has some of the most annoying-yet-catchy music there is. There’s a small group of men and women singing a neverending rhythm of ‘bupa-dupa-dubba’ over and over, not to mention a jazzy song that sounds eerily like the song, “Watermelon Man.”
There are plenty of great riffs in this, and a few scenes cause the crew to start chuckling humorously at the film’s budget cuts when it comes to doing some major ‘effects’ work. As well, they can’t stop chuckling regarding the name of our secret agent. The film even causes Tom Servo to build his own ‘peace-loving’ death ray, and ends up using it on Crow during one of the interstitials.
This disc is the only one in the set that includes a small featurette that isn’t directly related to the film. In this case, we have Life After MST3K: Mike Nelson. Mike gives us a little overview of his time on MST3K (can you believe he was 25 when he started with them?), and what he did afterwards, from authoring several books, to helping co-found Rifftrax to riff on major film productions.
“Oh movie, I’m not a prayin’ man, but if you can hear me, please: kill John Agar!” – Crow T Robot
During the many seasons of MSt3K, there were several references to the Universal Pictures release, The Mole People. There were several instances where actors appeared in skits dressed in mole people masks, and in the film Wild World of Batwoman, the filmmakers of that production re-used footage from the film!
Strange then, that it took until Season 8 for the showrunners to even tackle this film.
As for myself, I had never seen The Mole People until I opened up this boxset.
Several men are working at am archaeological site in Asia (nowhere in particular in Asia, just “Asia”), when an Earthquake in the region reveals strange artifacts and ruins that seem to suggest a hidden race of people. After getting trapped below the earth, the men come across an albino-skinned race of people, whose eyes have adapted to the low light of the inner-world, and who have enslaved a race of strange creatures that can burrow under the ground. The archaeologists find that their flashlights make the ‘mole people’ see them as gods. However, the high priest of the people (Alan Napier) soon suspects that these men are not what they appear to be.
This was one of those films that took me awhile to get into, mainly because of the ‘humans wander into a strange world and are hailed as gods’ thing I’ve seen done many times over (anyone see Dreamworks‘ animated film The Road to El Dorado?). There’s nothing very likable or intriguing about our archaeological ‘heroes,’ other than one of them is played by Hugh Beaumont, a year before he’d become the television patriarch of the Cleaver family.
For this DVD release, a 17-minute documentary is included titled Of Mushrooms and Madmen: Making The Mole People. I actually found this little extra to be quite intriguing, in that it tells how the film became one of several that was made using Universal Pictures‘ plans to make films largely with stock footage to cut costs. There’s even several minutes dedicated to talking about some scenes and situations that flew in the face of 50’s censors. After you see this, you may not look at the film the same way again.
Finally, I thought I’d add a few words regarding Shout Factory’s presentation of this set. They continue to provide the same boxset design as their last 12 releases, and it’s nice to see this theme continued.
Over the course of their releases, the company has continued to make little strides in regards to the DVD menus for these releases. They did some great work on Vol XXI’s set featuring 5 Gamera films, and I must admit I am very impressed with what they have done with this set. The DVD menus for almost all these films have some great detail that seems to rival even some of Hollywood’s DVD menu work.
Most of the previous menu designs took place on a recreated version of the Satellite of Love set, while the last few have had menu designs themed to the film in general. Here is a screenshot from one of my favorite menu images from Alien From LA:
Each of the films even comes with a theatrical trailer, so you can see how the films were advertised when they were released in theaters. For example: Danger!!Death Ray’s trailer is over 2 1/2 minutes of almost every single action sequence in the film. It also contains the film’s only two songs, and gets so monotonous, that I started singing “watermelon man” like Tom Servo did during the film’s main riffing (proving how much they dulled the pain of that film with their work).
I will admit that when it comes to most MST3K DVD releases, most of them are kind of hit-and-miss for me. I’ve only bought a few sets that ever had all four DVD’s be entertaining, and not all of the releases from Shout are on my shelves.
Volume XXVI is definitely one of the more entertaining sets to be released, and gets high marks from me regarding the film choices, and the presentation of the set.