Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection

(Unrated, Best Brains, Inc./Shout! Factory, 480 mins., video release date: November 25, 2014)

I'm excited about the newly-revived Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well I should be. For you see, I'm not just a spectator...I'm also a donor! 

Joel Hodgson's record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to reintroduce his once cable-broadcasted cowtown puppet show to the Millenial generation reflects the goodwill MST3k has built up since the tapes were kept circulating. There has been the long-running RiffTrax for those weaned more on the Sci-Fi era iteration of the program, with Mike, Kevin & Bill. And there was Hodgson's own return to movie riffing with Cinematic Titanic, which reunited the original Mads Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Josh "Elvis" Weinstein alongside Pearl herself, Mary Jo Pehl.

But ever since the final axe fell on MST3k, the show's initial charms may have been diminished. Hodgson may have unwittingly rejuvenated the "creature feature" movie-hosting format which was once the domain of late-night local television. Not unlike what more glamorous personalities like Elvira or Vampira were up to, MST3k shone a sarcastic but sincere spotlight on arcane exploitation titles. It also worked on the level more sophisticated viewers must have felt at one point whenever they tuned into something so tacky and tedious they couldn't bear it no more. And holding it together was the handmade grandeur of the series' designs, from the wisecracking robot sidekicks to Hodgson's Gizmonic devices to the models used in the opening credits.

The series attracted such a critical and cult success that the Comedy Channel/Comedy Central would give the show its own day-long seasonal celebration, a tradition known fondly as the "Turkey Day Marathon." From 1991 to 1994, the network would host a day-long chain of reruns which, or at least starting its second year, led to the premiere of one new episode (and in ‘92, it was book-ended with two of them!). There were newly-filmed host segments and bumpers to transition each episode and provide a blast of funny during commercial breaks. In 1995, before the start of the seventh and final Comedy Central season, the 24-hours-plus feast was pared down, perhaps another sign of the show's cancellation. The Sci-Fi Channel even tried to do its own special Thanksgiving marathon, but it was a mere seven episodes deep, just like in ‘95, and even then they pre-empted it by airing a couple Star Wars movies.

But, to quote Crow T. Robot himself, "there's no tradition like a new tradition," and Shout! Factory revived Turkey Day in 2013 by streaming six selected episodes featuring Joel Hodgson himself as the host, alongside his robot friends. The Kickstarter campaign for the new MST3k coincided with Turkey Day 2015. And as I write this, the new season will be arriving on Netflix in nine days, and I confess this review is a roundabout way to honor this occasion by once again dipping into one of Shout! Factory's DVD sets.

The 31st official boxed set of episodes was dubbed The Turkey Day Collection, released on Thanksgiving Day 2014. Needless to say, the company has kept the compilations coming so that there are now 38 multi-disc (read: four or more) home video releases of the program, discounting a basketful of individually-released titles. At this rate, nearly the entire cable-sanctioned run of MST3k has been released, although one hopes for a boxed set containing Attack of the Eye Creatures (season 4), Girls Town (season 6), either The Deadly Bees or Quest of the Delta Knights (season 9), and Danger: Diabolik (the series' finale). At least I do.

But this "Turkey Day Collection," while a decent cross section of episodes from the Joel and Mike years, is not exactly a reflection of the worst or even the most flamboyantly cheesy movies ever mocked during those ten seasons. The 20 fan favorites which are streaming over on Netflix is its own Turkey Day marathon, spanning from earlier Joel-centric discoveries like The Sidehackers (a bikesploitation/vigilante flick which featured the tender ballad "Only Love (Pads the Film)"), Catalina Caper (a beach blanket zero with Little Richard and Carol Connors as musical guests, as well as Servo‘s beloved "Creepy Girl") and the immortal Pod People ("Trumpy, you can do stupid things!") to the schlockiest of the Sci-Fi seasons, namely Space Mutiny ("We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese!"), Werewolf ("This is absolutely fascinating") and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders ("Rock & Roll Martian!").

There's even Manos: The Hands of Fate for that extra, existential touch of Deep Hurting.

Volume 31's experiments, meanwhile, run the range from somnambulant (The Screaming Skull) to mediocre (Jungle Goddess, The Painted Hills) to actually entertaining (Squirm). The latter, of course, is Jeff (Blue Sunshine) Lieberman's nature-on-the-rampage cult favorite, shot on location in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which was given a new life thanks to an Atlanta Braves sportscaster Skip Caray. Unlike Laserblast, which was given the same three-star rating by Leonard Maltin as he awarded Squirm, or Boggy Creek II, this isn't another dull hicksploitation worthy of rousing "Sweet Home Alabama" references from Kevin Murphy, but a quirky little gem with some skin-crawling Rick Baker effects (many of which were edited for the MST3k airing), legit shock moments (that tree crashing the house is, to borrow one description from the movie, "a dilly") and a very unlikely but well-rounded hero in Don Scardino.

"You can't goof on something that's already a goof," Lieberman has once said in his defense about the MST3k treatment of his film. That's not completely true, since self-deprecation wouldn't exist without it, and then I'd never have changed my Twitter profile name to Niltsson Pickett. Besides, if Leiberman was that miffed by Best Brains, I can only imagine the aneurysm he'd get if ever watched the Nostalgia Critic's episode on The NeverEnding Story III...which he wrote!

But even though the gang gives Squirm an honorable quota of hits for their penultimate performance, the humor which misses is decidedly more mean-spirited than I'd imagine Joel-era MST3k would stoop to, especially the knocks against both Geri and Alma Sanders (Patricia Pearcy, Fran Higgins). Pearcy is likened to that venerable Virginian character actor Brad Dourif early on, but that's nothing compared to a trinity of grossly unflattering likenesses ("A moldy Slim Jim!") she's barraged with in the dark. The worst of the jibes at Alma, whose platform shoes and patched pants are ripe targets, simply deem her mannish. At these moments, Mike, Kevin and Bill simply sound like, for lack of a better term, dickweeds.

The best of the host segments revolving around Squirm isn't so much Servo's coming down with a case of Southern Belle's Disease (cf: the Sanders sisters' dotty mom), but a joke on the implausible nature of the worm's homicidal tendencies which is like a passage from a certain Thomas Rockwell book. The best of the in-theater riffs involve the character of Roger (R.A. Dow), a whipping boy yokel who betrays his sympathetic side by making a creepy pass at Geri on a fishing expedition and whose petty nastiness blooms once he's attacked by the ravenous worms. Why did they do it? "Well, he's got a layer of topsoil, honey. You can't blame them." A couple of well-placed Hamlet allusions, a memorably blue twist on motherly concern and a patented end-credits roundabout (always a reason to make it through any MST3k experiment, especially during the Mike years) are also hilarious.

Without a doubt, what makes the episode truly memorable isn't so much Squirm itself as the short film preceding it, the immortal A Case of Spring Fever. From the producer of Hired! comes this frightening, Faustian nightmare in which a golf-happy schlub named Gilbert curses the existence of sofa springs and is paid a visit by Coily, a single-toothed imp who removes all traces of spring from Gilbert's life. Thus, the phone doesn't work, his watch stops, all doors refuse to close, and there's no brakes on his car. All the while, Coily cackles: "NO SPRINGS!" Can you bet on how insufferable Gilbert will become once he realizes the folly of his wish? Squirm is Ravadem Patel compared to Coily, who along with Mr. B Natural, Joe Doakes and Johnny At The Fair are the Brains' own Glengarry leads.

The Painted Hills, flashing all the way back to season five, also leads off with a classic 10-minute attack, this time on Body Care and Grooming. This instructional short from 1947 has all the hallmarks ripe for dismantling: squeaky-clean conformity, scolding narrator, bright-smiling extras, even a Carnival of Souls-style camera trick or two. Easily the most pretentious of all the films on this set, Joel and friends go to town on the latent sexism, repression and OCD beneath the life lessons on display: "We just took your libido and starched and pressed it!"

The movie itself is a feature-length vehicle for Lassie, the last of seven produced by MGM starting with Lassie Come Home (1943). Though played once again by canine star Pal, with Rudd Weatherwax giving the cues, the collie in The Painted Hills is named Shep, I guess because the notion of Lassie becoming a snarling vigilante needed sugarcoating. Yes, Roddy McDowall's former best friend enacts vengeance when her aged owner Jonathan (Paul Kelly) is murdered over a gold claim by partner Taylor (Bruce Cowling), who for me can be summed with "Phil Hartman is Fred Dobbs." Shep convinces boy sidekick Tommy (Gary Gray) of Taylor's guilt, but when nobody believes him, it's up to Shep and him alone to avenge Jonathan's death.

One can imagine Joe Camp was severely influenced by The Painted Hills more than any other Lassie film when he conceived Benji, what with his Candy Snatcher villains and traumatic dog abuse. Here, Lassie is quite literally flung by the unscrupulous Taylor and poisoned, too, which leads to some black comedy when Tom Servo pushes Crow's animal-loving buttons: "Two paws in the grave...She will make an attractive rug." The notion that Lassie's an alcoholic and a serial killer ("Life is pain, Tommy!") also get bandied about. But the jokes here fly by thick and fast compared to Squirm, which increases the batting average and also nets tons more belly laughs: "First thing I'm gonna do is buy me a montage!" Also, the series' best mondegreen in the presence of one "Pile-On Pete."

The host segments include another debate, a la Mr. B Natural's sexuality, over whether sloppy or neat is more attractive, as well as Crow's riotous history lesson on president Rutherford B. Hayes ("he was admitted to the bar, although he did not drink lustfully from it"), whom the doomed prospector in The Painted Hills resembles. Since Joel is on board, we also get the requisite invention exchange, including Dr. Clayton Forrester's unorthodox new energy source, at the expense of TV's Frank.

Continuing the theme of memorable MST3k shorts, season nine's The Screaming Skull starts off with a half of a Gumby cartoon, 1956's Robot Rumpus. Art Closkey's anatomically-incorrect claymation is perfectly harmless ("Mom threatened to make me into a bowl!") until Servo and Crow are scarred by the image of a wily android snatched up by the jaws of death, his head mounted like a trophy above the garage door. Alas, the feature itself is a tough sit, the story of an already mentally-distraught newlywed (Peggy Webber) convinced that her husband's late former wife isn't ready to move on, an attitude shared by menial-working manchild Mickey (cf: Roger from Squirm, or even the dread Torgo). Director Alex Nicol plays the "wide-awake nightmare" himself, and while he does generate creeping atmosphere in mundane isolation, if only to stretch it out like the rubber band from Are You Ready for Marriage?, the script falls apart in the all-important third act.

The film's producers gimmicked up the works by offering to pay funeral expenses for anyone who dies of shock watching The Screaming Skull. In between the film, Servo half-heartedly prank calls the studio to receive his own casket. A lot of practical jokes occur between Mike, the Bots and his captors in the interim, from bogus costume parties to Crow's head being painted up like a skeleton. But Nicol's dragging, dreary spook show is best summed up by this particular quip: "The movie that dares to graphically depict sometimes seeing peacocks and sometimes not seeing peacocks."

Lastly, the "Turkey Day Collection" returns to the second season of MST3k from 1990 with Jungle Goddess, preceded by the first in a Bela Lugosi-flanked serial called The Phantom Creeps. Ralph Byrd and George Reeves, the one-time Dick Tracy and the soon-to-be Superman, set out to locate a missing heiress who has been adopted by an indigenous tribe of African natives as "Mata Greta" (Wanda McKay), "white goddess." Byrd's Bob is the knavish, trigger-happy heel who threatens to undo the escape plan cooked up by Reeves' Mike and Greta, who is easily wooed back to civilization by the promise of a nice hamburger sandwich and some French-fried potatoes. Oh, and hats. 

Jungle Goddess contains copious amounts of wildlife stock footage, provocative scenes of tribesman doing the "dance of death" and plenty of "Oh, brother!" moments like when Greta twists her ankle on the run, not to mention Bob and Mike's constant fights over who gets to carry the revolver. In other words, it's a perfect fit for the Joel Robinson days of MST3k. Take Greta‘s flashback to how she got shanghaied in the jungle: "There I was, surrounded by salad fixings for miles," Crow mock-narrates, "and no Mandarin orange vinaigrette in sight." Host segments include a sitcom version of an imperialist fantasy, Joel demonstrating various camera scopes (such as the "Scopes Monkey Trial Scope, or Inherit the Wind-owrama") and an infomercial for the detonating spider Bela deploys in The Phantom Creeps. 

Jungle Goddess was the third episode broadcast for the inaugural Turkey Day ‘91, and among the extras on this 31st volume set are wry but gracious interviews with Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Joel Hodgson reflecting on their own Thanksgiving traditions as well as the legacy of the Turkey Day marathon. The Painted Hills disc collects the various host segments and bumpers from three years' worth of Dr. Forrester's attempted holiday takeovers. All four movies come complete with new Hodgson introductions, and alongside theatrical trailers, The Screaming Skull gets its own making-of featurette and there are interviews with Squirm star Don Scardino and Joe Closkey, son of Art.

If the bonus features aren't as exhaustive as the best MST3k releases, that's because the combined effect of these four episodes is tryptophan for the soul. But Shout! Factory have done Turkey Day right by simulating an experience at the dinner table with this compilation. Treat yourself to some dark meat carved from the collie, generous helpings of candied worms and French-fried sweet potatoes and a slice of Pokey Pie before you fall asleep in front of the Screaming Skull parade float, with visions of Coily the Spring Sprite bouncing in your head.


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