As Shout! Factory continues its quest to get every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s original run on home video, the new Volume XXXVIII may represent one of the harder sells for anyone but die-hard fans. At the same time, there are plenty of treasures to discover under the surface of some seemingly middling episodes mostly from the sixth season.
Experiment 602 – Invasion USA
Invasion USA sees new host Mike Nelson well-settled into performing riffs instead of just writing them. The film itself is a propaganda piece to encourage people and businesses to submit to the “universal draft” – a commitment of resources and labor in the event of another war. To illustrate the point, an illusionist played by the late great character actor Dan O’Herlihy (RoboCop) forces a handful of bar patrons to experience a communist invasion of the United States.
Curiously, the communist and the filmmakers want the same thing: control of the American industrial complex, a paradox Mike and Bots never focus on. But they get a lot of mileage from the thinly drawn characters — like a rancher desperate to get home to Arizona — a tepid love story and the wavering accents of the strangely unidentified communist enemy. The absurdity of the film and the speed of the riffing pair well and overcome the initial lack of momentum.
And even if the film leaves viewers cold, the episode features the best moral hygiene short MST3K ever took on: A Date with Your Family. The short stresses that “pleasant, unemotional conversation” is the key to a good dinner. They zero in on the repression suggested by the narrator. And in the sketch afterward, in the which the crew attempt to suppress their emotions, is a highlight.
Experiment 605 – Colossus and the Headhunters
If there is one dependable genre for MST3K, it’s the poorly dubbed Italian gladiator films of the 1960s. Colossus is no exception as Maciste – a traditional Italian hero in the vein of Hercules – helps a group of people escape the apocalyptic destruction of their island. Or it’s about Maciste settling a feud between warring factions of the next culture he encounters. Or it’s about Maciste romancing the Princess of said culture.
In fact, the imprecision of the plot leads to some of the best riffs as Mike and the Bots continue to be baffled by the shifting goal posts in the story, the disappearing characters, and the fact “Maciste” sound like “My Cheesesteak” whenever anyone utters the hero’s name. While the writing offers plenty of places to hang great jokes, the film is visualy interesting thanks to color photography and the wealth of resources Italian sword-and-sandal pictures had at the time. It may also be the episode you return to the most as it really is just that baffling.
The episode also features a running joke throughout the sketches about a genetically engineered ball of cute known as Nummy Muffin Coocol Butter. The dog-bunny creature sheds all over the Satellite of Love, driving Crow nuts, and leaves TV’s Frank so despondent that he sings a song about his loss.
Experiment 618 – High School Big Shot
Perhaps the most competent film in the collection, High School Big Shot aims to tell the tale of a smart, but disadvantaged high school senior plotting a robbery to win the hand of the class bad girl. Well shot, if modestly produced, the film looks legitimate. But the Satellite of Love crew finds plenty to riff on as the hero is a weird loner, his dad a stereotypical drunk and the film introduces two thieves halfway through who are far, far more interesting than the title character. Sadly, they never pick up on the film’s misogynistic undertone as all the women featured in the film only want money or riches.
This episode also features the bizarre industrial short Out of this World, in which a bread delivery route becomes a struggle between an angel and the Devil. Though the print is faded, the saturated colors pop off the screen even as grocery stores at the time appeared to all be painted a dull brown. Industrial shorts became a specialty for Mike, and the this one does not disappoint. Crow’s impression of the Devil is a delight.
Experiment 1007 – Track of the Moon Beast
While there is an immediate charm to the zany B-grade horror movies of the 1950s, extremely low budget horror films from the 1970s also offer their own Malaise Era giddiness. Provided, of course, one is ready to plow through the muddy photography of these pictures. Track of the Moon Beast is one such film and it is possibly the reason to get Volume XXXVIII.
Shot entirely in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the film combines werewolves and aliens for an unconvincing creature costume and one of the most non-committal romance subplots ever committed to screen. But Mike and the Bots excel with these sorts of slow, drab monster movies – particularly in the SciFi Channel era. Besides riffing on a recipe for stew and awful 70s fashions, one sketch points out the strange way characters in the film explain the entire concept of pranks to the protagonist.
Special features include the un-riffed version of High School Big Shot and an interesting documentary about Invasion USA producer Albert Zugsmith, who went from producing B-pictures to Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil and then back to B-pictures. Trailers for Invasion USA and Track of the Moon Beast are also included, as is an interview with actress Leigh Drake, who recalls her experiences on the set of Track of the Moon Beast and its later fame as a MST3K episode.
The highlight of the extras, though, is Mike, by Joel, a featurette on the Colossus disc featuring MST3K creator Joel Hodgson discussing how Mike Nelson first came to be head writer on the series, the go-to performer for guest characters, and eventually the show’s host. He points out the way Mike was more of an equal with the Bots, setting up a different dynamic. He also suggests everyone involved in the show could have handled the transition better, preventing decades of Joel vs. Mike debates.
While not the set to get someone hooked on the show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXVIII is still a must have for die-hard fans. Though none of these episodes are considered classics, they all offer great riffs, a number of funny sketches and one of the best shorts the series ever took on. It will definitely tide fans over until the new season debuts in mid-April.