Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (Episodes 1-7)

Posted: May 17, 2017 in Movie Review
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In August of 1999, millions of voices cried out in terror… and were suddenly silenced. What cataclysmic event could have possibly elicited such a response? It was the result of the cancellation of the long-running TV series, Mystery Science Theater 3000. Beloved by all who followed it through the years (and those who became fans following the show’s demise), the mission of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a simple, yet relatable one: Track down the worst movies you can find, and make them a bit more bearable by suffering through them with a group of friends. Do that, sit back, and let the hilarity ensue.

From its humble beginnings on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1988, to its run on Comedy Central (1989-’96, including a theatrical movie), to the final years on the Sci-Fi Channel, the brainchild of Joel Hodgson (show host from 1988-’93) has never ceased to be relevant. As long as bad movies keep being vomited into existence, there will always be a need for someone to poke fun at their flaws. This is why, in MST3K‘s absence, the spirit of the show had been kept alive, making the series more popular posthumously than it ever was in its original run.

This resulted in the creation of several similarly-themed TV series, the rise of countless YouTube stars, and quasi-spinoffs Cinematic Titanic (created by Hodgson) and RiffTrax (featuring former MST3K members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett). Not everything that MST3K riffed on was entirely horrible, and it’s actually a good thing that many of those films were unearthed. An important lesson brought up by MST3K is that all cinema is of value in one way or another, and none of it should ever be forgotten… no matter how terrible it might be.

For these reasons and others, MST3K has never been forgotten either, and that’s exactly why an online petition to resurrect the show. With a little luck and a lot of support, the idea became a reality when Netflix picked up the series, re-launching it in April 2017 for a belated 11th season as Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. Immediately, one can see that the formula is familiar, and the movies are still terrible, yet there are still some new things added just to spice things up a bit.

The only returning original cast member is Joel Hodgson (appearing only as supporting/tertiary characters). Robots Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy all have new voices and can do things that the old, much more limited budget prevented them from doing. Jonah Ray joins them as Gizmonic Institute employee Jonah Heston. Tormenting our lovable crew with bad movies are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester (daughter of Dr. Clayton Forrester and granddaughter of Pearl Forrester) and Patton Oswalt as Max. Season 11 (or Season 1, depending on your perspective) consists of 14 episodes. In the interest of brevity… and a desire to be thorough without going overboard, I’ve broken up my review of these episodes into two parts. So, without further delay, here are Episodes 1 through 7!

 

11.01 – Reptilicus (1961)

It makes sense that the new MST3K would kick things off with a lame-ass monster movie, since the original series also riffed on several bad movies of the same genre early in its run. The premise, the opening theme, and the set all seem comforting in their familiarity, but right away you’ll notice some things have changed in the last 18 years. For instance, Tom Servo and Crow can now both get up out of their seats and move about the theater when the joke calls for it. Gypsy also pokes her head in on occasion, something she never did (or was never capable of doing) before. This first episode also presents a sign of things to come as there are celebrity cameos, this time from Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray.

The movie itself is, as one would expect, run-of-the-mill at best. The tail section to an ancient creature is discovered by Danish miners. The historical find is transported to the Copenhagen Aquarium for further study. That is, of course, until one of the badly dubbed, dumbass scientists falls asleep on the job, allowing for the specimen to thaw. Instead of decaying, to everyone’s amazement, it regenerates! This results in a very large, very pissed off monster tearing through Copenhagen, puking up a corrosive green substance all over everything and everyone. The monster is eventually subdued, but not without a chunk of it surviving in the ocean, leaving room for the sequel that never happened.

For a show like MST3KReptilicus is easy cannon fodder. You need something like this to both reassure longtime fans and to help draw in first-time viewers. The introductions of all the new characters are handled effectively. It’s the new voices for the robots that take getting used to. It will not go down as one of the show’s all-time best episodes, but even an average episode like Reptilicus is enough to give everyone hope that Joel Hodgson’s baby still has plenty of life left in it.

 

11.02 – Cry Wilderness (1987)

MST3K: The Return gets over its growing pains pretty quick in this, its second episode. Featuring amusing guest appearances from Sci-Fi Channel era villains Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), Observer (Bill Corbett) and Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy), the main focus of this episode is a Bigfoot movie released in 1987. If it were Harry and the Hendersons, it wouldn’t make for a particularly interesting episode since that’s actually a decent family film. No, the object of our disdain this time is Cry Wilderness, and boy is it a doozy!

So, Bigfoot (i.e. a big guy in a really cheap Sasquatch costume) warns a young schoolboy named Kevin that his father is in danger. Kevin does what any kid would do when presented with such cryptic information would do, go to the nearest adult and tell them what he’s heard and who/what he heard it from. Probably should have left out the last part, since most everyone beyond a certain age believes Bigfoot to be a myth. Still, somehow Kevin manages to weasel his way into accompanying his father, a park ranger, on a hunt for a runaway tiger. Danger lurks in the form of a poacher who… now, get this… actually believes in Bigfoot (not unlike the David Souchet character from Harry and the Hendersons).

Things get even weirder when it turns out that, not only does Kevin know for a fact that Bigfoot exists, he’s even been protecting the big guy and kept him fed for a year (including an entire truck’s worth of Coca-Colas). The movie teases you with the idea that Kevin might wind up unsuccessful in protecting his father from danger on several occasions, but never actually pulls the trigger. Oh, also the poacher never has that moment where he has a change of heart. He does eat like a pig, though. Really bad movie, really funny episode. Some of the season’s funniest one-liners can be found here. If Cry Wilderness isn’t the best of the first half of Season 11, it’s very close.

 

11.03 – The Time Travelers (1964)

Ib Melchior strikes again! The same man responsible for writing the screenplay for Reptilicus also wrote AND directed this putrescent project. I would hate to think that the creators of the original Planet of the Apes film series might have mined this particular pile of dookie when crafting the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes… But after seeing this episode, I have to wonder.

A group of scientist have developed a device that is quite literally a window through time. The idiot power plant technician among them notices that it’s more than just a window, and decides to step through. Because of the device’s instability, it’s very likely that the guy is going to get lost on the other side if he doesn’t wander back soon. So, of course the others decide to go in after him. The woman among them isn’t pleased about being left behind… even though she’s supposed to monitor things until they return. She goes in after them, and the portal closes. They’re screwed. Stuck in a post-apocalyptic future, they elude the primitives by hiding underground.

There, the scientists discover a somewhat more sophisticated group who are building a rocket on which they plan to leave this lousy planet and all its cheap film sets behind. Our stranded scientists plead their case, but that doesn’t buy them a ticket on board the rocket. You’re probably asking why they don’t just rebuild their time portal. In fact, that’s what they are encouraged to do. But then the question comes to why the others would rather time travel than face a long, dangerous space journey. Time travel doesn’t interest them until the moment when the primitives destroy the rocket, leaving them no other alternative.

They arrive at the precise moment they originally left, but they are experiencing time at a faster rate and must do something or they’ll die quickly from old age. They jump through the portal, which had been set to 100,000 years in the future, but with the screen blank there’s no way to tell what they’re getting themselves into. Once they get there, everything looks okay, but we’ll never know for sure because that’s how we leave things… open-ended. I understand the regular cut of the movie includes some time-loop stuff at the end, but the MST3K version skips over all that.

As with ReptilicusThe Time Travelers is a chore to slog through. Only a superficial resemblance to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which is a far more nihilistic movie than this, but enough similarities that it’s possible some influence exists. Not as complete of an episode as Cry Wilderness, and not as amusing as Reptilicus. The boys have fun with it though, and that does make this one worth the watch.

 

11.04 – Avalanche (1978)

There’s a good reason why disaster movie marathons NEVER include this one. Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and an assorted cast of characters sit around and talk for about an hour before anything interesting actually happens. This would be the point where Avalanche finally lives up to the promise of its title, where loads of snow finally break off the mountain, covering everything in its path and smothering its victims to death.

The problem is that this one interesting part of the movie is doomed before it even starts. You’ll probably be fast asleep when it does. You wouldn’t even miss much if you managed to stay awake.  None of the characters are built up enough for us to care whether they’ll survive or not. Even the movie’s headliners, Hudson and Farrow, are extremely vanilla. There’s really not much more that can be said beyond all that.

One of the episode’s features (beyond the staggeringly stupid movie) is the guest appearance of Neil Patrick Harris. The filler segments of the original show were something I generally used to fast forward past, as all I was really interested in was the riffing on the bad movie. I lke NPH, but his segment is no exception, particularly because it drags on far longer than it should. Everything about this episode is slow-moving. Overall, Avalanche is the least of the first seven episodes.

 

11.05 – The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

I came dangerously close to labeling this episode as the least so far, before realizing the brilliance of it. As with AvalancheThe Beast of Hollow Mountain moves at a snail’s pace. So much so that it will test the patience of most Netflix viewers. In fact, it takes so long to get to the point that you start wondering where either the Beast or the Hollow Mountain are!

Set in Mexico in the 1900’s, we’re treated to a boring, uninspired love triangle. The main selling point of the flick doesn’t even show up until the last half-hour. The “Hollow Mountain” makes a brief on-screen appearance about ten minutes later. Until then, it’s all about the lovers’ quarrel. There’s a chubby comic relief character whom the MST3K boys seem to get a kick out of. Naturally, when the Beast arrives, Fat Boy is the first to go.

The stop-motion creature effects are done by the legendary Willis O’Brien (who also co-wrote the story). Nowhere close to his best work in either regard… The T-Rex from King Kong (1933) comes to mind when considering his best stop-motion work. Still, a movie that almost forgets what it sets out to be about is sheer brilliance, and the episode riffing on it makes sure to drive that point home.

 

11.06 – Starcrash (1978)

Among the things which one can count on from Italian cinema are classic Westerns, bewildering indie films, gory horror movies, and Z-grade imitations of immensely popular American films. Starcrash, owing its entire existence to Star Wars, occupies the latter category. The above image ought to give you a good idea as to this movie’s true selling point. It was the only one of the fourteen films included in this season which I had previously seen, so naturally it’s also the episode I looked forward to the most. It does not disappoint.

Stella Star (played by a scantily-clad Caroline Munro) is a space smuggler who, after a brief prison term, is tasked with saving the galaxy. But, you know, no pressure. Along for the ride are her partner Akton (a wise, excitable young man whose powers are meant to mimic the Force and who uses a weapon which is clearly a lightsaber), and former captors Thor (who is not related to the Greek God/Marvel Comics superhero) and Elle (a robot who sounds like a southern preacher). Their mission, assigned by the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) is to thwart the plans of Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) by finding the Count’s ultimate weapon… and if at all possible, saving the life of the Emperor’s son, Simon (David Hasselhoff).

An accompaniment to all the cheesy goodness of Starcrash is the score composed by John Barry, which consists of tracks similar to stuff he came up with for Moonraker and The Black Hole. Can’t go wrong with John Barry. You can’t go wrong with Caroline Munro either, even when she’s forced to overact with amusing facial expressions and her voice has been unnecessarily dubbed. It’s pretty clear that director Luigi Cozzi had no real plan going into making this movie, and was betrayed by the limits of his special effects budget (note the Christmas tree lights which stand in for stars). That’s a shame too, because it meant that his planned sequels were never going to happen. This is one bad movie which is so much fun that it deserved to spawn more bad movies. The best! The absolute best! The only real downgrade is another drawn-out celebrity cameo, this one from Jerry Seinfeld.

 

11.07 – The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

You might suppose that a movie based on a cherished Edgar Rice Burroughs novel would automatically give the film an advantage. But then you’d remember all the bad Tarzan movies mixed in with the good ones. The Land Before Time shows the signs of a good story fighting to rip its way out of the plottings of a terrible film. A bigger budget and more polished actors might have saved it. Hang on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!

Set during World War I, the surviving passengers of a British merchant vessel are taken prisoner aboard a German U-boat. Eventually, the captives turn the tide and take over the ship, but not before being knocked off-course. So much so that they come across Caprona, a land heard of but fabled to exist. This is because the inhabitant human and animal life is so primitive that it is said to be stuck in time.

Speaking of time, budget limitations dictate that the film take its precious time in actually getting us to the island. Once there, the action is rushed, and we’ve barely enough time to learn that evolution on Caprona is based on migration, not natural selection before the movie ends on a rather bleak note. As an episode, the gags are good, and the little dance number performed by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt is as cute as it is funny. A bit of a letdown after the last two brilliant episodes, but otherwise pretty good.

What will Episodes 8 through 14 have in store (beside hilariously awful movies)? Stay tuned for Part 2…

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