The end of July has brought another box set’s worth of Mystery Science Theater 3000 from its current home video overlords, Shout! Factory. The latest batch is Vol. 24 and it offers a bevy of fare that is unusually colorful, even for MST3K. Everything presented here is from another country – one from Russia, one from Mexico, two from Japan – and they are all packed to gills with the kind of bizarre fantasy themes and cut-rate spectacle that make them perfect source material for the crew at the Satellite Of Love.
Let’s start with The Sword And The Dragon, an episode from the Mike Nelson era. This one takes its basis from a Russian film about the Russian folklore character Ilya Muromets (amusingly, the Satellite crew identify it as Finnish and tailor several riffs around that nationality). It’s a pretty wacky fantasy adventure that mixes some impressive sets and large crowd scenes with a few dime-store special effects (namely the titular dragon). It’s a thoroughly eccentric piece whose effect is enhanced by the haphazard dubbing and thus ideal riff-material for the MST3K crew.
The gags run fast and free here, bouncing nicely off all the weird sights and sounds the movie provides. Get prepared for a lot of western movie references and nods to musicians (various riffs namecheck everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Wang Chung). The wraparound is also fun stuff, including a swell Ingmar Bergman parody skit and a recurring bit involving Dr. Forrester and Frank becoming reduced to total geeks when they meet their new female neighbors.
The Fugitive Alien episode offers a detour to outer space, building itself around a film that was edited down from a Japanese t.v. show by distributor Sandy Frank (perhaps the most infamous schlock mogul in the MST3K rogues’ gallery). The show in question was called Star Wolf, it cashed in on the success of Star Wars and it ran about 26 episodes. Thus, the 80-minutes-or-so version presented here is an incoherent mish-mash of pulp sci-fi story hooks, corny melodrama and cheap optical and model effects.
Thus, it is perfect MST3K material and Joel and the bots go to town on it, riffing away at a machine gun pace as they try to figure out the pile-up of a plot, get tons of mileage out of the film’s odd use of the name “Ken” and make references to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. There’s also a lot of bits where Tom Servo adds lyrics to the aggressive soundtrack music that are frequently hilarious. Best of all, the wraparound bits include a great recurring gag where Frank and Dr Forrester use torture methods to silent the ever-loquacious A&E channel host Jack Perkins, played by Mike Nelson (he would later reuse this character for the wraparound segments on The MST3K Hour).
And if that’s not enough interstellar incoherence for you, you get a second helping in Star Force: Fugitive Alien II. This comes from later in that show’s run, which became more action oriented so its even more incoherent when whittled down to a short-ish feature film. However, it’s never dull. There are plenty of fisticuffs and chases in addition to the expected low-budget spaceship dogfights and laser zaps. As with the prior Fugitive Alien, there’s a lot of over-the-top melodrama that makes the end result all the more suitable for this show’s purposes.
Since the writers were already familiar with the Fugitive Alien formula, they’re free to riff away in a baroque style while playing with themes they already developed in the prior episode. References here cover everything from Mr. Magoo to Gene Simmons and the crew gets a lot of comedic material out of the ship captain’s presumed alcoholism (not to mention the puffy cheeks of the actor, Joe Shishido). Be sure to also listen for a bit where Crow torments Joel to the point of distraction with a certain Rocky & Bullwinkle reference. Best of all, the wraparound bits are really great in this episode, particularly a segment where Joel and the bots perform an elaborate medley of all the songs they’ve improvised to fit Star Force‘s musical score. It’s amongst the best wraparound bits from MST3K and a fine showcase for Kevin Murphy’s impressive vocal skills.
The final episode in this set is another Mike-era, Samson Vs. The Vampire Women. The title is a misnomer as this is a Santo movie that was presented by K. Gordon Murray via American International’s t.v. division. This Mexican-produced effort really piles on the Universal monster-flick atmospherics as a squad of vampire women rise from a long rest to secure a bride for their evil master. Thankfully, the intended target’s father is friends with Santo, the famous masked wrestler, and calls him in to bodyslam the undead baddies.
The bizarre (yet totally played straight) combo of wrestling and horror ensures this flick would be entertaining to b-movie buffs on its own but Mike and the bots do a fine job with this film. The riffing is fast and amusingly eclectic: one shot summons gags about Toblerone candy bars and the Mandrell Sisters! The crew also has a lot of fun with the weatherbeaten skin of the vampires and the wrestling scenes (“They’re making the monster with two butts!”). The wraparound is pretty inspired too, involving a character from the wraparound of a previous fan favorite MST3K episode coming back to wreak supernatural havoc on the relationship between Dr. Forrester and Frank. Forrester even gets his own song! This was the final episode for Frank Conniff so this gives the between-film segments a certain bittersweet quality.
All in all, this is a fine set of MST3K episodes that capture the playfully eccentric tone of the show, both in choice of movies and in the savvy riffing. It’s well worth the time for MSTies.