Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MST3k Volume XXII

DVD: Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXII

(Unrated; 1991-1996; 540 minutes; Shout! Factory; street date: December 6, 2011; SRP: $59.97)

Previously on Mystery Science Theater 3000, or at least the prior Shout! Factory-distributed DVD anthology, Joel Robinson and his bratty bots enjoyed a five-piece tastes-like-chicken dinner when Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) subjected them to a quintet of Gamera vehicles. Their first fateful encounter with the fuel-injected tortoise introduced our heroes to a name they would never forget: Sandy Frank. Compounding the series’ innate child-friendly silliness with the addition of diabolically dumb dubbing, Frank had provided the perfect weapons of torture for demonstration on Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson), Servo (Kevin Murphy) & Crow (Beaulieu). The brutal goofiness of these films took their toll in the theater. Arms were severed, children were sacrificed and morale seemed as low-cut as the shorts on the films’ underage lead characters. But the three of them riffed harder than the line-up at Ozzfest, leaving Forrester and Frank to push the button in shame five times more.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume’s just a show, you should really just relax! Today’s episode: “Monkey See, Monkey Die!”

The origin of the Time of the Apes starts with when Planet of the Apes first aired to a whopping 75% ratings figure on Japanese television. (Eiji) Tsuburaya Productions, the company responsible for the beloved Ultraman, developed their own made-for-TV cash-in with a 26-episode serial called Saru no Gundan (Army of the Apes) in 1974. In the place of Chuck Heston’s throat-shot astronaut are a pair of children, mischievous butterball Johnny and mannered sister Caroline. Johnny defies his mother by going to visit his uncle’s laboratory during earthquake season and ends up enrolling himself, Caroline and lab assistant Catherine as human specimens for a cryogenics experiment. Once they awaken, the trio find themselves in an alternate civilization of unfriendly homo simians, whom they continually manage to evade capture from with the help of militant human Godo, sympathetic ape child Pepe (whose furry face looks like it was scarred from getting hit by a cream pie) and a flying saucer. Immobile monkey masks, schizophrenic directorial and musical compositions, an incoherent patchwork narrative, and Sandy Frank's trademark tacky voiceovers will further have you trying to scrub your damn filthy paws clean of this de-evolved debacle.

Like most of Frank’s imports, Time of the Apes was previously lampooned when MST3k was still in its UHF-broadcasted infancy and made a return engagement for the third season on Comedy Central. This time around, the riffs are more wall-to-wall and incorporate not just the easy running jokes (Johnny’s “I don’t care” mantra, crap hands), but references to the McDLT, Doctor Who, Steven Seagal, Sheena Easton, Miles Davis, Nick Lowe, and a show-stopping take-off on "Stayin' Alive." Somehow they restrain themselves from a few jokes at the expense of lead villain Gebar, whose name is pronounced "gay bar" (the less said about his bordering-on-bestiality obsession with snuffing Godo, the better), but the result is a wild assortment of slam-dunk sight gags and interjections ("Don’t dub with your mouth full!"). Aside from the immortal "Sandy Frank Song," host segments for this episode peak with a mock-fashion report from Crow and a frighteningly educational expose on Johnny’s mad monkey imagination produced for Bell Labs. The extra features on the Time of the Apes disc are limited to August Ragone’s self-effacingly informative introduction and Mike Nelson’s vintage Jack Perkins impression for the MST Hour wraparound segments.

Ragone returns to talk about the next MST3k episode, Mighty Jack, another case of the Japanese co-opting Western entertainment trends (in this case, the spy movie as popularized by James Bond). There were, apparently, two one-off TV series devoted to a crack team of espionage agents who travel in a customized subma-copter and protect the world from the machinations of a shadow organization known as Q (and no, it does not involve 007’s boss). The first was the original 13 hour-long run that eventually took a hard left turn into Sandy Land, whilst the other was a more kid-compatible adventure saga that was curiously left alone. The result is a direct shift from the colorful, dopey sci-fi of Time of the Apes into a more dour, deceptive realm of drama. Tonal shifts are the least of this movie’s problems as the hacked-up final product of Frank’s labor is so painful, I’m surprised the Japanese haven’t retaliated by trying to make a 90-minute movie out of an entire season of Breaking Bad.

Moving effortlessly from the capture of a Japanese mole, Harold Hatari, in Paris to the discovery of a super-weapon involving hot ice, Mighty Jack feels simultaneously cramped and underdeveloped as a movie. The second half moves from one development to the next and introduces so many transparently duplicitous characters that you question the integrity of Mighty Jack’s organization more than you anticipate the next round of "Find the Traitor." Where's Gamera when you really need him?

Those who stick it out to the episode’s finale will once again be rewarded with a cathartic musical number a la "The Sandy Frank Song," in this case the mocking shanty "Slow the Plot Down." The host segments are uniformly funny seeing as how the Mighty Jack moniker easily lends itself to a name brand of dog food and both the blinding light torture chambers and underwater attacks of the film proper prompt some charming live action send-ups. Luckily, the spirited theater banter doesn’t disappoint either: "They're going to return that Japanese car to the wild!" Crow jests early on when Hatari's convertible is ensnared by a net and lifted 2000 feet above the ground. As per disc-specific extras, Ragone's introduction is joined by a making-of featurette on the DVD menus of the series, which shines a deserved spotlight on Dave Long’s unique computer animated mini-storylines and even reaches back to the work on the older Rhino Home Video volumes. In this case, I would've loved to have seen a highlight reel of riffs from the old KTMA-era presentation of Mighty Jack, which had plenty of fun with Hatari’s name resemblance to an certain video game console.

The Violent Years, the last of the famed Ed Wood-related episodes following the previously-released Bride of the Monster and The Sinister Urge, shifts the chronology from season three all the way to number six. Forrester and Frank now set their wicked, attention-starved sights on the torment of temp worker Mike Nelson, and he in turn joins Crow and Servo for the set’s most hilarious installment. The Mads attempt to break into the mainstream with a bubbly theme song, “Living in Deep 13” (“Looking for love, hoping for evil/Alls I got was chicken cordon bleu”) and their own country AND western radio station (“Turn your crank to Frank!”). The siren’s call of Garth, Reba and Wynonna proves easy to resist, leaving Mike and the bots to deal with the squishy, bacon-crazed heroine of the technocratic short film Young Man’s Fancy (produced by none other than the fine folks at Jam Handy) and the top-heavy juvenile delinquettes of the Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years.

Handy’s appetizer centers around Judy, an overly perky teenage girl who may as well have grown up to become Mr. B Natural. Her brother Bob returns home with his supposedly woman-hating best friend Alexander Phipps, which makes the hormone-drunk Judy even more pugnacious. But a little DIY domesticity and a kitchen full of handy modern conveniences go a long way in warming Bob’s serious-minded heart. Should Judy ever tire of her electronic dress and the various other privileges afforded to her by the gods of marketing, watch out! She could end up following the same dark path of Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead: The Amazing Colossal Man), the spoiled princess whose lack of nurture feeds her sociopathic nature in The Violent Years. With Paula as the leader of an all-girl gang of criminals, Wood portrays a wild life of right turns, gas station stick-ups (“Society owes me a Kit Kat bar!”), woman-on-man rape, unplanned pregnancy, and modest pajama parties that spirals into communist terrorism and classroom vandalism. And when the final globe has been tossed out the window and the blood of young women has stopped spilling, listen to the moralistic monologues of the judge (Isaac Stanford Jolley: The Rebel Set) and try not to scream, in self-righteous passion, “I accuse her parents!”

Affectionately known under the alternate title "Penthouse Forum: The Motion Picture" for one memorable scene ("Eleven dollars went a long way back then!"), The Violent Years is watermark of bipolar 1950s melodrama that brings out the best in the writing staff. The free association abandon of the Joel episodes gives way to a more precise but still eclectic array of references ("We like milk, and it shows") and one-liners ("Mother..." "Is space curved?"). The classroom destruction scene alone gets me doubling over time ("Look at 'em jump, just like rabbits!" "Rabbits with big guns…and good...aim!"). The resulting episode, give or take the less thematically united host segments (easy, out-of-nowhere digs at Barbra Streisand and Keanu Reeves), is one of the more serendipitously funny in the MST3k canon. Extras are naturally focused on the personal life of Ed Wood, as recounted via archival interviews with the currently deceased actress and one-time girlfriend Dolores Fuller and his wife Kathy Wood. The former discussion with the Glen or Glenda star provides the most human overview of not just Ed Wood, who “functioned as all man” despite the angora sweaters and missing undies, but also of Bela Lugosi, for whom she cooked Hungarian goulash. I’m rather surprised, though, that the theatrical trailer for The Violent Years is MIA.

The best DVD extra of this package instead chronicles disfigured horror icon Rondo Hatton, whose final performance in 1946’s The Brute Man is resurrected by the inclusion of the season seven MST3k episode spotlighting it. A newly-produced 30-minute documentary called Trail of the Creeper: Making The Brute Man follows Hatton’s path from sports enthusiast to unlikely and prolific Hollywood star due to a pituitary gland disorder known as acromegaly which distorted his face and hands. Archivist Bob Burns (who owns the Rick Baker-designed Rondo mask used in Disney’s The Rocketeer) and exploitation veterans Fred Olen Ray and C. Courtney Joyner among others provide the back story and context, leading all the way from his family profession in Tampa to his contract with Universal Pictures and the full development of his Creeper persona in the earlier film House of Horrors. What’s most intriguing about this feature are the biographical details which carried over into the script for The Brute Man, the fictional account of collegiate athlete Hal Moffat (played by Fred Coby from Jungle Goddess beforehand), who suffers a freak accident in a chemistry lab and wreaks back-breaking vengeance on the students who wronged him.

Elsewhere, MST3k writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl talks about the episode in particular and also shares her thoughts on Rondo’s legacy. Looking back on the dark, gruesome aspects of the film as well as the “Oedipal overtones” of Pearl Forrester’s attachment to her scheming son in the lime lab coat, Pehl is very straightforward about what hinders the episode in her opinion. The Brute Man is a bleak movie, with Rondo’s intimidating physicality and untrained acting prowess pushing the film into a very discomfiting realm, one hardly leavened by the inclusion of a blind lady pianist (Jane Adams, who played Vicki Vale in the 1949 Batman and Robin serials) who sympathizes with the fugitive Creeper until she ends up baited by the police. This false sense of security is heightened by the sudden murders of a delivery boy and a pawnbroker. Director Jean Yarbrough’s black-and-white cinematography is grimy and stylistic in the type of film noir aesthetic that came to become the post-WWII B-movie standard once horror fell out of fashion.

The jokes are light-hearted, occasionally surreal and often entertaining enough to compensate for these elements. Rondo’s real-life deformities are ribbed as the result of his character having gone "bobbing for anvils." When Crow notes that he looks like an “Easter Island statue,” it’s not delivered mean-spiritedly. There’s another peak joke involving Servo’s confusion over whether Moffat is supposed to be a creeper, a peeper, a stalker, a walker, or a back-breaker. And watch closely for when Mike Nelson breaks down when faced with the over-the-top surliness of a grocery store owner. The preceding educational short about free-range poultry breeding, The Chicken of Tomorrow, is unrelentingly amusing from conception to carving ("Their immediate destination after leaving the incubator..." "Broadway!").

The Brute Man disc rounds out with a 1997 Sci-Fi Channel promotional special called The Making of MST3k (at 23 minutes), which boils down the production elements such as writing and set design to a satisfying and entertaining degree. Once again, though, no trailer is included for The Brute Man. Steve Vance's typically splashy artwork for each episode and, of course, the animated DVD menus so such a nice job of incorporating Crow and Servo into the cinematic action that one can’t resist the thought of a full-length movie starring those two rascally robots. Let’s push the button on that invention.

Movie grade: 4/5.
Video grade: 3/5.
Audio grade: 3.5/5.
Extras grade: 4/5.
Final grade: 4/5.

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