Monday, December 12, 2011

MST3k Vs. Gamera (Volume XXI)


[Unrated; 1991; 540 minutes; Shout! Factory; street dates: August 2, 2011 (deluxe edition) and November 8, 2011 (standard edition); SRP: $59.97 (standard edition)] 

The evolution of Mystery Science Theater 3000 from a local phenomenon spawned by a Minneapolis-based prop comic to one of the definitive cult TV series of the 1990s is owed to large degree by the business practices of one Sandy Frank. The American distributor and producer of Name That Tune fame acquired the rights to the Gamera franchise for the home By 1991, after making the transition to cable TV, MST3k was hitting its earliest stride. The third season’s highlights included the late Juan Piquer Simon’s Pod People (an E.T. knock-off made on the heels of the Spaniard’s infamous chainsaw slasher movie Pieces), the first appearance of Tor Johnson in The Unearthly (“Time for go to bed!”), Mr. B Natural (“MOOOOOMMMM!!!”), and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, wherein lies the definitive tribute to the Patrick Swayze epic Road House in the form of an ultraviolent Christmas carol. Most significantly, Joel Hodgson (aka "Joel Robinson") and company found time to return to their roots by revisiting the Sandy Frank library with a vengeance.

God only knows if Shout! Factory ever gets the green light to release the likes of Fugitive Alien 1 & 2 (“He tried to kill me with a forklift! Ole!”) or Time of the Apes, the episode which featured the mercilessly melodic hatchet job known as “The Sandy Frank Song.” Luckily, their long-running string of Mystery Science Theater 3000 boxed sets as well as their recent DVD run of the complete Showa series of Gamera films have shared an intimate evening of sweet boot-knocking and spawned the 5-piece tastes-like-chicken dinner that is MST3k Vs. Gamera. You can break out the fine china bowls, because tonight, we finally dine on turtle soup.

Gamera was the fire-eating, jet-propelled tortoise born of atomic folly and the Daiei film company’s competitive need to rival the success of Godzilla, the daikaiju king owned by Toho, who were otherwise respectably known for producing the Kurosawa canon. In his 1965 screen debut, the crash landing of a Russian jet carrying atomic cargo over the Arctic Circle interrupts the prehistoric creature’s beauty sleep. Tired and hungry, Gamera demolishes power plants, lighthouses and a huge swath of metropolitan Tokyo as an international coalition of armed forces attempt to stop the infernal beast. Unlike Godzilla, Gamera has invaluable PR support in the form of Kenny, a boy who already cherishes his pet turtle Tibby above the whole of mankind and eventually develops a bond with the monster akin to a really disturbing case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Seriously, Patty Hearst has nothing on Kenny. Not only is the boy placed in mortal danger just to prove his undying loyalty to Gamera, but the authorities treat him with the same easy access afforded to top scientists and generals. And despite all the mayhem and damage the primordial Gamera wreaks upon an unsuspecting populace, Kenny truly believes that Gamera is unimpeachably innocent. The government therefore resorts to “Plan Z,” a non-violent method of disposal which involves trapping Gamera inside a rocket and blasting his child-loving ass off to Mars.

The first Gamera movie, aka Gamera: The Invincible or Gamera: The Giant Monster, was filmed in monochrome, which conceals the model designs and rubber suit seams more successfully than splashy color, as the later movies prove. Unfortunately, it’s also cluttered with really nutty characters, such as the Devil-fearing Eskimo played by Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei from Seven Samurai), Kenny or the persistent reporter Alex whose crush on the female lead is no less frightening than the attitude Kenny shows towards Gamera. They all get in the way of the meat-and-potatoes monster movie Gamera: The Giant Monster really should’ve been had it really wanted to deserve the same credit as the original Godzilla. The Sandy Frank version only makes it worse with typically awful dubbing that even makes the most dignified military official sound like Curly Joe DeRita.

"TV's Frank" Conniff provides an anecdote in the DVD extras telling that Joel found the volume of dark jokes aimed at Kenny’s subservience to Gamera too much and too harsh, but these are some of the highlights of Episode #302. Not only that, but his relationship with the bots is surprisingly antagonistic. Mr. Robinson gets carried away with an impression that grates on Servo and Crow’s nerves, prompting the latter to threaten “You can be replaced by Leno, you know?” When Crow makes twice the unfortunate mistake of tossing off some particularly cheap jabs, Joel retaliates by tearing his arm off and throwing it across the theater. The incident will reoccur in a couple other Gamera-related episodes, although by the time we reach Gamera Vs. Guiron, Joel only struggles briefly to disassemble that pesky limb.

In terms of riffage, the first installment in the Gamera “quintology” is as dutifully hilarious as one might expect given that the prior episode, devoted to the Miles O’Keefe gem Cave Dwellers, was itself a proverbial hoot. When they get in-character as Gamera and make ominous suggestions to Kenny, I laughed wildly (Crow: "Those kids at school -- they tease you, Kenny. Because they've never tasted hell. Today, we turn the tables!"). The opposite is also true, as Joel is particularly fond of giving Kenny an eerie presence akin to one of the children of the damned (“Gamera demands your death,” “Your passing will be painless, doctor”). The interstitials are even better thanks to Kevin Murphy’s work as Servo, whether singing the tender ballad “Tibby, Oh Tibby” (“He runs like the wind/A couple of inches/And then back again”) or paying tribute to Orson Welles’ philosophy of how a good cast deserves another mention.

The 1966 sequel Gamera Vs. Barugon easily fixes the pesky problem of stranding Gamera in space by having the Mars Rocket conveniently collide with a meteor. But what should’ve been a sign of hope in that the film is wholly devoid of scary kids obsessed with temperamental turtles turns out to be tedious enough in other ways. The main plot is another one of those Sierra Madre morality plays involving yet another indigenous island with another troubled foreign doctor with another foxy native as his associate and another sacred treasure that is really another monster egg which hatches and results in another spate of grief for the citizens of Japan. Gamera himself is given little room to maneuver through a highly melodramatic string of double-crosses and hokey attempts to take down Barugon, a humongous dog with a protruding tusk, a combination battering ram/fire extinguisher for a tongue and a scaly backside that can produce a destructive rainbow.

There are two instances where the film overcomes its lethargic pacing, distinct lack of monster wrestling and abundantly clichéd story to become something hilarious. At one point during the movie, someone will deliver the line “Barugon will be made to die by his own rainbow.” Later on, the exotic native associate will tend to her love interest’s wound, following a drawn-out brawl involving him and the greedy bastard who had left him for dead back in the cave, by sucking blood from it, like he just got bitten by a snake or as if her tongue excretes bactine instead of saliva (Crow: “Is her name Annie Septic?”). Cherish those moments as you find yourself, like Servo, wondering “Whatever happened to Gamera?”

By the way, we’re no longer watching Gamera in B&W, which disappoints Crow: “Funny, in color, I expected Gamera to be more of a strawberry blonde.” Tom Servo’s hearty huckster voice shines once again when he translates a mating dance (“How about dinner and a movie?” “Okay, but I’ve seen Mannequin already”), but he's at his side-splitting best during the first host segment, a fast-talking mock-commercial for a comprehensive 5000-piece action figure play set (“Flame on with Gamera! Torso not included”). Joel suggests that Gamera was responsible for directing this film himself considering how much time he’s kept off-camera. Bonus points for a couple of ace music-themed gags involving George Harrison (“My Sweet Warlord”) and Prefab Sprout (“Welcome to Ellis Island, your name is Bob Smith...I think I’ll name you Appetite”).

Gamera Vs. Gaos came along in 1967 to restore order to the universe. This time, Gamera is ready to rumble and he finds another formidable challenger in a giant laser-vomiting bat. There’s also an heir apparent to the first film’s Kenny in tubby Eiichi (or “Itchy”), dopey Abbott and Costello surrogates and a wholly superfluous bit of drama involving farmers unwilling to sell their land when construction workers barge in to build an interstate. The plans to stall Gyaos are more elaborate than what was attempted on Gamera and Barugon, with one particularly bizarre miscalculation involving a fountain of blood on top of a Lazy Susan. The in-theater jests run the gamut once again of poking fun at the know-it-all tot given more privilege than he deserves (Joel: “Mom, if the U.N. calls, I’m playing with my slot cars”), the crazy schemes that fail spectacularly (Joel: “I know it’s a last resort, but send up the Peel & Eat Humans”) and the titular monster mashes (Servo: “Isn’t this how Escalus died? A pelican dropped a turtle on his head”). The host segments include ill-fated attempts at both simple cut-and-paste arts and crafts projects (the bots sabotage Joel’s guide to creating a homemade Gyaos head) and Kraut theatricality (the “Gameradammerung”), but Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank bag themselves a winner with the “Self-Image Printer” during the opening invention exchange.

The next installment, which is actually the fifth film in the continuity of the series (the SOL misses out on Gamera Vs. Viras), turns out to be the most beloved of the entire MST3k Vs. Gamera run, 1969’s Gamera Vs. Guiron. The opening credits, which had heretofore been projected over images of water, now resembles the still gallery chintziness of Time of the Apes, and the dubbing is even more unbelievable than it was in that movie. This feels more like a bright live-action cartoon, as two precocious boys of mixed race (one’s Japanese, the other’s German) hijack a spaceship bound to a mysterious planet (referred to ludicrously and often as a “star”) where a couple of alien women co-exist with a wide variety of rubber-suited specimens. These seemingly friendly beings turn out to be literal man-eaters, so Gamera is called upon to rescue them as well as defeat Guiron, whose knife-shaped head proves lethal early on when he slices and dices his way through Gyaos (his head also doubles as a handy shuriken storage shed.

Sandy Frank literally spared no expense on providing top quality English language dubs to his acquisitions, but this one is a particular standout. There is hardly any continuity between the translated words and the lip movements of the actors, so much so that lines are even added when people have their mouths shut. Not only that, the people he secured have clearly little experience in voice acting, with dialects peering through and most of the dialogue sounding particularly flat even when they’re not clipping the sentences to synch with the actors on-screen. The movie itself is unpretentiously goofy and more of an adventure yarn than the prior films, a nice enough change of pace especially for the young audiences the series is aimed at.

Gamera Vs. Guiron is also responsible for exposing MSTies to the classic Gamera theme song, where a choir of excitable children scream “Come on, monsters! Bring it on!” In proper MST3k fashion, the translation they come up with is entertainingly absurd: “Gamera is really neat! Gamera is full of meat! We’ve been eating Ga-me-ra!” Michael J. Nelson provides one of his best pre-host appearances on the show doing an impression of standards singer Michael Feinstein, breaking down the song’s delicate composition in between sharing anecdotes about Cole Porter and George Gershwin. The wraparounds also include a magic trick assisted by a Guiron-shaped handsaw, Racy Rorschach blots and a staged biography on Richard Burton, whose appearance is mirrored by one of the boys.

At one point, the German boy’s mother pledges to give her meddling son 30 spankings, and Servo jumps up with excitement: “I’m Tom, spank me!” The children are greeted within the spaceship, and Crow gets a chance to provide the alien dames’ introduction: “You’re in Vidal Sassoon London, and if you don’t look good, we…dress funny.” Joel sees massive smoke from the giant turtle’s shell as he burns rubber in the cosmos and dryly declares “Gamera’s gonna need an emissions test, pronto!” Donuts, gray water, traffic accidents, Yoko Ono, Eat My Dust, Pink Lady, prom dates, and more quick-witted associations await you, resulting in a fast-paced, confident and all-around essential early episode.

All good things move toward their end, and after yet another jump in the timeline (no Gamera Vs. Jiger), it’s time for Gamera Vs. Zigra, no doubt the final installment in the series at the time due to Daiei filing for bankruptcy when this film was released in 1971. The action takes place in an oriental version of Sea World where dolphins go hungry, fish are dying from pollution-centric paralysis and two more bratty tykes run afoul of a nefarious foreign menace only to rely on their shell-encased protector to rescue them. The threat is from planet Zigra, where a sentient spaceship with a delicious candy center seeks to create the mother of all earthquakes with the aid of a hypnotized female astronaut. When the children, Helen and Kenny (NOOOO!!!!), outsmart her and escape back to civilization, she chases after them whilst trying to blend in by stealing a bikini and a red miniskirt from random girls. In other words, this is a monster movie Benny (or Benihana) Hill would love.

Joel, Crow and Servo kick things off with a celebratory root beer kegger after someone (ahem, FRANK!) lets it slip that this is their last experiment involving Gamera. The result is less business as usual and more take no prisoners, as Joel provides grief counseling for his bots in the form of dioramas, the robots provide a tour inside the shell of Gamera (plenty of rec rooms and even Apartment 4B, where the lonely cat man lives) and the grown-up Kenny and Helen swing by Rocket #9. It all closes with stylistic variations on the Gamera theme, including a rapping Crow T. Robot and Servo doing an impressive take on 1970s-era Tom Waits.

When two of the early barbs reference Olympic controversies involving Ben Johnson and the “black power salute” from 1968, you know the staff hasn’t exhausted their faculties even after watching what amounts to the same movie four times before. Luckily, there are as many quirks here to latch onto as there were in the prior two flicks, from the female child’s continual squalling for Coke to the Zigra spaceship itself (“it looks like something a Shriner would wear if he was drunk,” Joel quips). Crow is giddily aroused by the Zigra slave girl’s wardrobe (“Sister, that dress is heading for trouble and it’s taking you with it!”). Throw in unexpected diversions involving a fish argument and Gamera showing off his vibraphone skills, and MST3k Vs. Gamera concludes on the jovial revelation that life, indeed, is a minogame, served a la flambé.


Fans can happily retire their circulated VHS copies of these five episodes, as Shout! Factory presents them in their original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio and with dual-channel Dolby stereo mixes. A few minor tracking issues in the first Gamera episode’s host segments as well as a fleeting bit during the end of Gamera vs. Gaos aside, both the Satellite of Love and Deep 13 sets look as colorful and crisp as can be (the quality of the movies themselves look just as lackluster as they did in 1991). And the balance between the film audio and the commentary is handled with ease. Subtitles and closed caption options have been mournfully vanquished.

A trio of featurettes are spread out across the first three discs. The Gamera disc includes a new 23-minute retrospective, “So Happy Together,” with comments by series personnel Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein (who helped riff the Gamera movies during the show’s embryonic years at KTMA), and producer Jim Mallon (missed inexplicably are Rifftrax compatriots Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy). Each of the participants provide humorous yet endearing comments on how Gamera made it to KTMA originally, the decision to refine those early episodes after a few years (born out of nostalgia and efficiency) and what amused them in particular in regards to the goofiness of the films. They break down the appeal of these films in tandem with how it represented the show and admit to being a little too harsh on Sandy Frank after enduring all of his syndicated delights.

On Gamera Vs. Barugon, the 24-minute “Gamera Vs. The Mighty Chiodo Brothers” focuses more on the influence the rubber suit shenanigans of Godzilla and his ilk had over the career of Ed, Stephen and Charles Chiodo, the makers of Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The resulting discussion between the brothers jumps topics frequently but the unflappable trio giddily recall the nostalgic high of movies like Unknown Island, Creature from the Black Lagoon and the British daikaiju variant Gorgo (which was later featured on MST3k in a very limited broadcast). They reveal work-related parallels to Japanese schlock via war stories from some of their other projects, including Critters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. The discussion is also presented in a mockumentary style replete with a Japanese crew and ominous tremors (to quote Crow as Swamp Thing: “Do not bring your evil here“).

August Ragone, author of the definitive biography on Toho Studios’ visual FX master Eiji Tsuburaya, provides a 30-minute interview for “Gamera Obscura” on the Gamera Vs. Gaos disc. Ragone covers basically everything you need to know about the mythological underpinnings of Gamera, the various releases both native and overseas and even his successfully edgier revival in the 1990s. Rathbone debunks the rumor involving a serendipitous airplane trip creating the origins of Godzilla by reminding us that Daiei distributed Hitchcock’s The Birds in Japan and that the studio considered a giant killer rat premise that attracted negative attention from the health department.

The MST hour wraps with Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins are included for both the original Gamera and Gamera Vs. Guiron, and the original Japanese theatrical trailers for the five Gamera films (all wonderfully odd and preserved in their original widescreen aspect ratio) can be found on their respective discs. Steve Vance’s vividly kitschy original artwork incorporating Crow and Servo into the fire-spewing festivities (they even take a ride on Gamera’s mighty shell on the Gamera Vs. Gaos cover) is always welcome, as is Shout Factory’s menu design, which features Gamera stalking through the numbered doorway which normally leads to and from the feature presentation.

Movie grade: 4.5/5.
Video grade: 3/5.
Audio grade: 3.5/5.
Extras grade: 3.5/5.
Final grade: 4.5/5.

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