Old Movies Mystery Theater

March 20, 2012 by staff 

Old Movies Mystery Theater, At the end of Castle of Fu Manchu, a particularly terrible movie that makes up one of four episodes in the new box set Mystery Science Theater 3000 XXIII, a pained Joel (Joel Hogdson) issues a challenge to the “Mads” who force him and his robots to watch this dreck: “You should try to watch a movie sometime!” They take him up on the challenge, and their subsequent lame riffing–TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) blasts, “Here’s a car that… you could say something about!” to which Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) retorts “It’s old!”–proves that this stuff isn’t as easy as it looks. (It’s also a bit of a fake-out, since Dr. F and Frank prove themselves able riffers elsewhere in the box.) I sometimes think of that show’s ending when trapped in a movie theater with a would-be wit who thinks himself capable of MST-style wisec3acks; like NASCAR or the flying trapeze, this kind of thing looks fun but should really be left to the professionals.

This new set (the eleventh since Shout Factory took over the releases from Rhino) is a strong sampling from the show, offering a two-Joel, two-Mike mix, with episodes from the second, third, and sixth seasons. Shout spent several sets insisting on including episodes from the inferior first season, before the show had hit its stride; they’ve backed off of that over the last few releases. The earliest episode here, the second season effort King Dinosaur, finds the show doing what it does best: destroying a grade-Z sci-fi clunker, with a dopey educational short decimated for good measure.

The show starts with “X Marks the Spot,” presented by (no kidding) the State of New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. In it, a comically bad driver is nearly killed in a car wreck, whereupon he is hauled in front of a judge by his guardian angel for a Defending Your LifeĀ¬-style review of all of his poor roadwork. The location of origination gets skewered, of course (Judge: “You were born in New Jersey, eh?” Crow: “I thought I smelled something”), as does the ’50s period (Judge: “Was the car regularly inspected?” Joel: “Hey, I’m no commie!”). At the end, the judge turns to the camera, insisting that the audience acts as “jury” to Joe, and Joel and the ‘bots oblige (“Oh, guilty!” “Hang him!” “Stranded in space, and we’ve still got to pull jury duty!”)

The name of King Dinosaur producer Robert Lippert causes crying and screaming from Joel and the ‘bots, and for good reason; he was already responsible for three previous movies in season two (and one in season one). King Dinosaur is a typical Lippert cheapie, in which a pair of male and female scientist couples go on an expedition to “Planet Nova,” which looks suspiciously like some empty land owned by someone Lippert knew (Servo c3acks, “Guys, I think they landed in Wisconsin”). While there, the encounter exotic animals, and even dinosaurs–all in stock footage, of course (when one character says he saw a lake, Crow replies “I think you mean you saw a clip of a lake”). In a host segment, Joel introduces the secondary character of “Joey the Lemur,” prompting a maddeningly catchy song and plenty of jokes during the movie itself (“Well, we’re getting a lot of mileage out of that lemur bit”)–which is helpful, since it is so glacially paced that the riffing goes in some particularly odd (and entertaining) directions. Overall, it’s a first-rate episode–this is the kind of film that the show always ripped well, particularly in earlier seasons–with some especially good bits for Crow, who amusingly stays behind at the end of the short to listen to the judge’s big speech (murmuring in agreement throughout), before coming out for a very funny host segment about how to be a better citizen (“Crush someone with an emotional word or enigmatic look”).

The Castle of Fu Manchu, though frequently funny, is probably the weakest episode of the box; I had seen it before but had forgotten most of it, simply because the movie itself is so incomprehensible that the guys, at times, don’t seem sure what the hell to do with it. They’re well aware of how awful it is; in the introduction, Dr. Forrester says it “makes The Unearthly look like Citizen Kane.” And there’s plenty of good lines, most of them about the picture’s incompetence. Crow, at one point, despairs, “Wouldn’t it be great if we knew who they were, where they are, what they’re doing…”; when the title character (Christopher Lee) purrs “I need him conscious and coherent,” Servo snaps, “I WISH THIS MOVIE WAS CONSCIOUS AND COHERANT.” Their best joke, ultimately, is about how close the picture comes to breaking them, and while that’s a good gag, it can only go so far. Still, it’s by no means a bad episode.

Shout has continued to do right by Mystery Science Theater 3000 with this new set; MST3K XXIII is a well-curated collection of episodes, bolstered by a batch of new and outstanding bonus features. With nary a weak episode in the bunch, this is one of the best MST box sets to date.

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