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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' V XXVI: The Fantastic Four

Although the typically awesome Shout Factory DVD release of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST 3K) Volume XXVI occurred roughly a month ago, even a delayed review of this set of some of the funniest riffing on four of the worst films ever made is very apt for this site's new focus on "unreal" TV.

A "very special" announcement regarding a particularly awesome upcoming Shout release of one of the best sitcoms that many of you never watched follows this review. The hint is that this hilarious series from the early '60s makes "I'm going to kill that boy" and variations of that statement just as funny as "The Honeymooners'" "To the moon, Alice." It also makes me renew my request for the powers-that-be at Shout to adopt me.

The happier coincidence regarding the "MST 3K" release was that a story that aired on the Boston National Public Radio station on Saturday discussed the "two-percent rule" that writers on shows such as the NBC sitcom "Community" follow. This referred to these scribes including obscure references in scripts that are designed to make an elite few viewers feel special.

MSTies know that the two-percent rule is a big part of why "MST 3K" is so special. The overall premise is that a hapless human who has been imprisoned on a spaceship named the Satellite of Love  (SOL) is forced to watch truly horrible films for the purpose of seeing how much of that torture that he can withstand without going insane. Series creator Joel Hodgson was the first victim; head writer Mike Nelson replaced Joel midway through the series' run.

As the addictive original theme song to this '90s long-running cable series states, the prisoner on the SOL  tries to keep "his sanity "with the help of his robot friends." The technique of the man and his two fabricated American (Google it millenials) companions consists of hilarious riffs on the films.

The two-percent rule applied to roughly 50-percent of the hilarious comments by the main characters. A joke about "The Mole People," which Volume XXVI includes, star Hugh Beuamont's role as Ward Cleaver on "Leave it to Beaver" might be followed by a reference to an obscure scientist or a little-known 18th century novel.

The less happy coincidence regarding this review related to the less happy motivation for changing this site's name from "Shout Factory for Joy" to "Unreal TV." Recognizing that these are tough times prompted a desire to promote DVD sets of vintage "unreal" shows that are just as effective for making us feel better as they did during the challenging times in which they first aired.

I had watched, and loved, three of the four 90-minute "MST 3K" episodes in preparation for this review during the weekend. I planned to watch "Danger!! Death Ray," which was a wonderfully campy 1967 James Bond homage with Bret Fargo as the super spy, after seeing what I anticipated to be undue coverage of the Boston Marathon results on the evening news broadcast by Boston's WBZ.

Far more than two-percent of you know that I found images of smoking sidewalks, limping runners, and general chaos. There were many ways that that bombing hit close to home, but I was at the Starbucks in my mid-sized seaside community 45 minutes north of Boston when the event occurred. I also know that close friends who lived near Copley Square were fine.

Although "Danger!! Death Ray" will find itself into my Blu-ray player in the next few days, a "The Beverly Hillbillies" episode in which "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction" regular character Sam Drucker visited the Clampetts was all that I was up for last night. An appearance by series regular the Rock Hudsonesque Dash Riprock made the episode even more special.

Returning to the business at hand, the genuinely good folks at Shout did their usual awesome job picking the four films for Volume XXVI.

Of the three episodes that were watched for this review, the dungeons and dragonsesque "The Magic Sword" wins the award for best film and funniest riffing on a film. This "epic" had an evil wizard, played by the truly well-respected actor Basil Rathbone, kidnapping a princess out of a desire for revenge against her father the king.

Saving the princess from becoming dragon chow required that a stalwart young knight who loved her use enchanted objects that he stole  from his sorceress foster mother, who resembled both the character Endora from the sitcom "Bewitched" and Endora's portrayor in the film version of that show well-respected actress Shirley MacLaine, on his quest.

A scene in which a monkey and a two-headed creature played chess alone made the movie worth watching.

References to the cult comedy film "The Princess Bride" likely followed the "twenty-five percent rule."

This episode also had one of the funniest offerings regarding the skits that the "MST 3K" cast performed throughout the show. This one was a commercial for "Basil Rathbone" dog treats. Seeing the robots in dog costumes was very cute.

Another good skit, which I believe was also in the "Sword" episode, involved the ongoing "Invention Exchange" in which the evil scientists who had imprisoned the good guys and the SOL folks presented the utility of products that they had created. The "mads'" idea for a vending machine for replacement organs, such as hearts and livers, was hilariously dark.

The aforementioned "The Mole People" was a 1950s low-budget sci-fi flick that was very typical of "MST 3K" episodes. This one had Beaumont and other B-movie actors playing scientists who journeyed to the center of the earth in search of an ancient civilization. Scenes in which the savage creatures who the mole people enslaved tunneled up through what appeared to be mounds of ground coffee inspired some of the funniest riffs.

The similarities to the '70s live-action kids' show "The Land of the Lost" prompted my friend and I to comment on the creatures' resemblance to the reptilian sleestak from that series.

A very entertaining "making of" special that was paired with this episode provided interesting insight into the film's effects and why movies of its caliber came to rely heavily on stock footage.

"Alien from L.A." was similar to "The Mole People" in that it was a typical low-budget sci-fi film from the '80s that the "MST 3K" writers loved as much as those films' counterparts from the '50s. Readers should be advised that Shout made a very rare error in stating that Joel hosted this truly funny episode. This was a Mike one.

"Alien" had a squeaky voiced outcast teen, played by super-model Kathy Ireland, journeying to the center of the earth in search of her archaeologist father who was seeking the lost city of Atlantis, which any good fan boy knows was far-off in space until it splashed down in San Francisco Bay a few years ago.

Mike et al did a great job commenting on Ireland's highly annoying persona and the "Mad Max" elements of the production. Additionally, the movie itself was very entertaining.

It was slightly disappointing that the scenes in which Ireland's character lost her glasses did not inspire references to the same schtick involving near-sighted Velma on "Scooby-Doo" and that co-star William R. "Cole" Moses did not inspire "Falcon Crest" jokes beyond a reference to that series' Lorenzo Lamas.

Wanting to end on a truly happy note given the Boston Marathon bombing coinciding with this review, I would like to announce that Shout is releasing a complete series DVD set of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" on July 2, 2013. I genuinely believe that the American bias against black-and-white series is the only reason that this incredible series did not receive the regard that it deserved.

"Dobie" tells the tales of girl-crazy and relatively lazy and scheming high school boy, turned peace-time soldier, turned junior college student Dobie Gillis. The charm and energy of series star Dwayne Hickman and a pre-Gilligan Bob Denver as Dobie's beatnik best bud Maynard G. Krebs make this show a must-have. I really look forward to seeing Shout's awesome production of this set.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "MST 3K" or "Dobie Gillis is encouraged to email me.