Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cry Reptilicus: The Return of MST3k, Part 1

The 'boooots aaaaare baaaack iiiin town!

In December 2015, Joel Hodgson closed out the most successful video-based Kickstarter campaign to date with $5.7 million in fan donations to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show he created for Minneapolis UHF station KTMA back in 1988. The runaway success cannot be overstated. Hodgson originally thought he'd hit a three-episode goal of two mil, but the excitement of a fresh take on the beloved series enticed tons of MSTies, myself included.

Put it this way: the closing credits of episode 1101 include a Revival League list hasn't gotten past the people whose first names start with A. The list of contributors is 48,270 strong. It's going to be a long wait to get to the Js, which is especially poignant since Joel has passed on the Gizmonic-brand jumpsuit to a man named Jonah.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3k for short) survived multiple shifts in personnel and two cancellations from cable stations to reach the massive cult it has developed. There has also been a crate-load of digital video releases from Rhino! and Shout Factory devoted to the original series' ten-season run. There's a lot of passionate devotion to specific episodes, specific hosts, specific Mads, and specific personalities. But series creator Hodgson, who left the series in the fifth season and made a return to shadowrama with Cinematic Titanic, has given his blessings to the new staff living in Deep 13:

The 14 episodes of the eleventh official season open as well they should, with the invitation to "Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)." The premiere even harkens back to the original's model exterior of "the big G," before taking us where no MST3k has gone before: into Gizmonic Institute's very own ground control room. There we are briefed on the hotshot back-jack sky pilot known as Jonah Heston, who is hauling a valuable supply of meteors to help Gizmonic through financial jeopardy. Little does Jonah know that the distress call he just answered will take him on the dark side of the moon, where the descendant of Gizmonic's greatest enemy awaits to carry on her father's legacy of Deep Hurting.

Enter Kinga Forrester of the Moon 13 research station, who has successfully space-napped Jonah with intent to profit off the cinematic torture she will inflict on him. Although she has stars in her eyes, Kinga and her assistant Max, who tries in vain to be called "TV's Son of TV's Frank," download via liquid media one Reptilicus, whose biggest name is Dirch Passer, a legend of his native Copenhagen and the most prolific Danish actor in history. It doesn't get any more esteemed than that.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, though, does possess an array of nerd-friendly casting choices as well as some choice cameos which I refuse to ruin for you. Podcaster extraordinaire Jonah Ray Rodrigues fills out the yellow jumpsuit with amiable glee, whilst Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) and Patton Oswalt (Reno 911!) were sure things the moment the news broke that they were the new Mads.

The real trick is the casting of the robots, as Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett lasted long enough in their tenures to leave indelible marks. Murphy established Tom Servo early on via a deep, TV pitchman tone and rapacious self-confidence, whilst Beaulieu was a sharp vocal impersonator (of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, especially) and always the most audibly puckish of the in-theater gang. The Mike Nelson years showed Murphy, Beaulieu and Corbett more or less speaking in their natural tones, but even those had their distinct personalities.

Baron Vaughn (as Servo) and Hampton Yount (as Crow) don't stand out as much as their predecessors (which also includes Josh Weinstein's original voice of Servo), although Crow's flair for mischief does give Yount an advantage at times. Vaughn's Servo still has that "Hey, world, look at me!" charm, but without Murphy's down-from-the-mountaintop authority. Whereas Jonah Ray shows a disarming ease filling in for Hodgson and Nelson, the real surprise is Gypsy's newly-modified voice, an actual female for once in the presence of Rebecca Hanson (who also appears on-camera as helper clone Synthia). No longer the dim Richard Basehart obsessive of yore, she actually drops by in-theater with "the payload" and gets in a honest belly laugh as opposed to the confused maintenance bot who couldn't hack it during Hercules and the Captive Women.

These are mostly just general impressions based on the handful of episodes I watched thus far. I really want to get a deeper look at the entire fan-funded inaugural season and pull my weight as a reviewer and a fan, even of many of the actors whose names may not ring bells for modern audiences. Besides, Caroline Munro is featured in two of these experiments, and my heart's a-fluttering. Let's begin with a breakdown of the first two installments of MST3k: Moon 13: The Return.


Flimsy plot synopsis: The fossils of a mysterious creature are discovered on a mining excavation and regenerated in a laboratory. Unfortunately, the creature comes alive and wreaks havoc on nearby Copenhagen, leaving men of both science and military uncertain how to stop this "Reptilicus."

Reptilicus is actually a fascinating case in the annals of B-cinema, an attempt by the Great Danes to replicate the "atomic monster movie" formula which worked well in both the U.S. (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and Japan (Godzilla). Danish studio Saga co-produced with American International Pictures and went so far as to film two separate versions of the film that could play to their respective native tongues. However, co-writer/director Sidney W. Pink, who produced the trend-setting 3-D smash Bwana Devil, turned over to AIP head Sam Arkoff a disaster, with comically pronounced Danish accents and equally rickety special effects. Pink filed suit to prevent Arkoff and co-writer Ib Melchior from tampering with Pink's cut of the film, but after many testimonies from others in the industry, the case was dropped and Arkoff's alterations were made.

This producer's cut of Reptilicus is the version screened for Jonah and the returning tag team of Tom Servo & Crow T. Robot, and the riffing here is as exquisite as ever. With a newly-assembled writing team headed by bad movie specialist (hear: The Flop House!) and Daily Show staffer Elliot Kalan, the pitch of the riffs is a return to the awestruck sarcasm of Hodgson's glory days rather than the meaner edge of the Sci-Fi years. The difference is notable in the way the trio tackle the comic relief of Dirch Passer as Petersen, the Danish Andy Griffith (also "Al Capp's Lil' Abner"). No doubt added to provide some slapstick respite in the early stages of the movie, Passer isn't as over-the-top as Droppo or as insufferable as the guys from Attack of the Eye Creatures, but his tomfoolery sticks out like Gypsy's freshly-Midwesternized voice.

Fooling around with a telescope while eating a sandwich, the security-tasked bumbler Petersen prompts this jest from Servo: "And Jethro discovers he is the half-brother of a piece of cheese."

One of Arkoff's major additions to Pink's film was the use of animation for Reptilicus' acid attacks, with green slime trailing down the screen to add unconvincing menace. Its resemblance to Nickelodeon gak is seized upon, as is the realization that Monster Energy may as well be brewed in Reptilicus' stomach (what, no Slurm jokes?). By the time this trick is repeated thrice, Jonah realizes that "The slime doesn't hurt anybody. It just transitions into another scene."

Indeed, it does. We never see the aftermaths or anybody writhing in pain from being doused in Reptilicus' biological weapon. Indeed, the most gruesome sight in the film is a cow's decapitated head to give the impression that the giant reptile has massacred a farm's worth of livestock: "That cow had a month to go before retirement, too!"

Bent Mejding plays the strapping young hero Svend, who initially unearths the remains of Reptilicus whilst mining copper and basically spends the rest of the movie as the resident chick magnet: "Even his collar has a collar!" Dr. Dalby, who devises the means of regenerating Reptilicus through nutrient-supplemented bathwater, invents "Reptiliberry Cherrysaurus" and sleeps on the job at the wrong time, thawing out the creature. The central figure of scientific authority, though, is Professor Martens (Asbjorn Andersen), who has two perky daughters and a heart condition. One of the girls, Lise, chances upon the dried-out monster carcass: "What did you to my [birthday] pony?"

And then there's Gen. Grayson, an American army official played by the very Danish Carl Ottosen. Whether reading his own biography in the paper or proving too numbly masculine to comfort Lise when her father is hospitalized, the zingers that follow him are uproarious.

One of the highlights of the in-theater riffing is Tom Servo's hover skirt, which allows him to fly towards the screen when the opportunity arrives for a close visual laugh, like when he is drawn towards Grayson's slicked-up hair and recoils with disgust: "Did you make a vow not to wash your hair until Reptilicus was dead?" Crow gets his own prop-based humdinger during Reptilicus' attack on Copenhagen, the trio intervene on a possible argument between Gen. Grayson and Prof. Martens and, as mentioned earlier, the feminine Gypsy finally becomes one of the boys ("Now, you're Mr. Filing Cabinet!").

The pop culture references are plentiful, with special nods to Tom Carvel, Blazing Saddles and Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and the music-based riffs diverse and giddy, from Glenn Miller to Prince (saluted twice), Frank Sinatra to Olivia Newton-John, Bobby "Boris" Pickett to the Village People. Even better, the revived series' first original song in the first between-movie host segment is a riotous rap number tracing monsters of all nations. Although there are a couple of noticeable lulls where one would expect an obvious joke, this sit-through of Reptilicus packs plenty of easygoing laughs.

It should be noted that Shout! Factory, who have licensed not just MST3k but a few of the titles featured, Reptilicus included, offered their HD-friendly widescreen transfer of the movie for the show. This is another breakthrough for MST3k, as previous seasons simulated the channel-surfing appeal of these off-guard B-movie riffs by retaining full-frame images suitable for vintage TV sets. In our LCD age, this time we return to This Island Earth grandeur for this entire season. We don't exactly get 2.35:1 Cinemascope (maybe in the future with luck), but here we get real compositions and remastered visuals.

Back in the Joel Hodgson days, they'd lampoon drive-in concession ads by jettisoning hot dogs and popcorn into space. As this new iteration of MST3k now proves, there's no new tradition like an old tradition.


Flimsy plot synopsis: Private school moppet Paul Cooper believes in Bigfoot after befriending him last summer over a dozen cans of Coca-Cola and a transistor radio, but he's naturally the only one. So when Sasquatch sounds a distress call one night, warning Paul that his ranger dad is in mortal danger, the boy runs away and meets up with not just his pappy, but also a way-too-jovial Indian companion and a mercenary big game hunter who also realizes Sasquatch might just be real...real killable.

Boutique label Vinegar Syndrome has anted up this film for the new MST3k as opposed to Shout! Factory. The invention exchanges have been carried over from the original series, and if you are familiar with Patton Oswalt's stand-up, Kinga and Max's latest get-rich-fast scheme is going to be even more of a treat. Jonah comes up with a new Turkey Day device that turns carving the bird into murdering Janet Leigh in the shower. I am also happy to report that I am getting more familiar with Vaughn & Yount's vocal tics as Servo & Crow, although there is a three-headed cameo for those who fancy MST3k's later years.

But the movie is once again the kind of rubbernecking schlock which is where the action is. If Reptilicus brought back memories of Sandy Frank's Gamera and the lower-tier Universal monster movies which were routinely roasted on the Satellite of Love, Cry Wilderness is the successor to J.P. Simon's Pod People. Somehow, Cry Wilderness director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen was given special thanks in the credits to Sleepless in Seattle; if his career is any indication, maybe Nora Ephron was able to make an entire movie out of unused footage from Joe Vs. the Volcano.

Schlossberg was a savvy cinematic recycler whose 1985 omnibus film Night Train to Terror was pieced together from three existing movies: the Cameron Mitchell vehicle Cataclysm (The Nightmare Never Ends), the Schlossberg-produced Dark Side to Love and an unfinished project called "Scream Your Head Off" starring Richard Moll. Cry Wilderness, meanwhile, seems to consist mostly of original 35mm footage shot for one particular movie, but is padded with library-sourced inserts of various wildlife to nudge it closer towards feature length ("At some point in your life, you might have to resort to YouTube to finish your film").

Making Cry Wilderness even more interminable are the stereotyped characters, from the annoying adolescent lead on down to three random bikers who show up apropos of nothing. There's even a swishy-looking mayor who keeps a swimsuit-clad blonde around for show. The saddest case is John Tallman as Jim, the mystical Native American who also doubles as a laugh track. Maybe watching Powwow Highway beforehand kind of kills this goofy characterization for me, as Gary Farmer seemed a lot more natural and humorous playing the spiritually-aware yet childlike Cheyenne in the Buick "pony." That was a really joyful experience, as Cry Wilderness tries desperately to drum up interest between travelogue montages of various critters.

Once you get beyond the footage of antelopes, lemurs and skunks in their natural habitat, there's the little issue of Sasquatch, or "Homo-erectus Galifanakis," to deal with. You will believe the friendship between Paul and his mythical caretaker...until you realize Bigfoot has basically sent the kid to a death trap, himself. Then it stops being whimsical completely. Mr. Cooper's certain doom is a letdown when it finally arrives, and could've easily been avoided had Paul simply stayed away.

Take it from Servo: "Watching this movie is cinematic puberty. Nothing makes sense, and it never goes the way you'd expect."

The riffs come at you at a faster clip in this second episode, such is the incomprehensible nature of this particular slab of nature (even Patton Oswalt is thrown for a loop 45 minutes in). The opening scenes in the boys' school are ripe for Hogwarts call-outs. Paul hitches a ride from a trucker whose nondescript country song of northwest pride makes Jonah feel like he's "living upstairs from Rascal Flatts." A recurring joke stems from one commenter observing that Paul's dad may have to wing him with his rifle for the boy's own good ("Bang!"). The mean hunter in the mesh shirt, Hicks, researches Bigfoot after discovering a suspicious set of footprint: "Embrace the prophecy of Time Life books!" A Werner Herzog impression, some Purple Kush-flavored dope humor and the apparent lovechild of Louis C.K. and Chris Elliot are thrown in also whenever the commentary threatens to lag.

There's even a Rowsdower allusion, although Bigfoot's vocal resemblance to "warwilf" goes unnoticed.

Reptilicus and Cry Wilderness are a great one-two punch to start off MST3k: The Return. The former feels comfortably cheesy and jovial, setting the bar for later episodes to match, whilst the latter takes on a more idiosyncratic B-movie and reaps major dividends. The next installment of this complete series rundown marks the revenge of Ib Melchior and also includes some of the biggest names ever to appear in a MST3k feature since Gene Hackman. Join me again, won't you?

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