The MST3K Journal: Season 4

Of all the seasons of MST3K, the fourth appears to have been the most stable. The relationship with Comedy Central was hunky dory and the show got plenty of on-air promotion. Also, at this point, there was no serious behind the scenes unpleasantness going on. One notable addition to the crew was the hiring of Mary Jo Pehl to the writing staff, who would also take over as Magic Voice starting in episode #415. This season also featured Paul Chaplin’s first time in front of the camera as one of the holoclowns.

As regards the movie selection, we got our first exposure to the Italian Sword & Sandal films, with no less than three Hercules movies. Well technically one of them was really Maciste, but we’ll get into that later. For those who believe all Soviet produced movies are grey and dreary, the first of the absolutely bonkers fantasy movies from that former nation is screened. We receive our first movie from the legendary incompetent filmmaker Ed Wood. And dare we say it, a Bert I. Gordon movie that is kind of sort of good? But for all this yang, we get a double dollop of yin with a generous side order of Deep Hurting.

First off, this season features what I personally consider the worst episode of the series. Note that I said episode, not movie. Granted the movie in question is utterly repulsive. But combined with substandard riffing and uninspired host segments, the overall experience was torturous. Though from what I’ve gathered, this is a relatively popular episode. So odds are many of you will disagree with my assessment. But more on that later. Our other instance of unmitigated pain is one that would become a legend.

Manos is the one MST3K movie that every fan of the show has an opinion about, much like Civil War buffs and Gettysburg, or gardeners and tomatoes, or baseball fans and the Yankees. The tale goes that the movie’s eventual auteur Hal Warren made a bet with Oscar-winning filmmaker Stirling Silliphant (who was doing some location scouting) concerning his ability to make a film. Though Warren may have technically won that bet, many of us would probably believe Silliphant had the moral victory. After its disastrous premiere, it quickly fell into obscurity, only spoken of in hushed whispers in the El Paso area. Then a copy was delivered to the premises of Best Brains.

Since its appearance on MST3K, Manos has left its mark on the public consciousness. There have been prequels, sequels, parodies, and even an 8-bit style video game.

But enough jawing, as those episodes aren’t going to watch themselves.

401: Space Travelers [Grade: C-]

At the end of the Season 2 screening of Rocketship X-M, Joel and the Bots were traumatized over how the crew of the title vessel died a fiery death on reentry and asked the Mads why not just screen Marooned. The Mads replied that they couldn’t get it. Well now they have gotten it, except it was repackaged by FVI with the new title Space Travelers. As well as the only film screened on MST3K to win an Oscar (for special effects), it had some big-name actors like Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman and was directed by John Sturges (known for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven).

The plot is remarkably like what happened with the Apollo 13 mission, with a glitch leaving the space crew stuck and running out of oxygen. Though being released in 1969 (with the novel it was based on being published in 1964) means that event hadn’t occurred yet. The only thing is that I don’t recall the Ron Howard dramatization of the Apollo 13 mission being this boring. Part of the problem is the comparison in how the respective dilemmas are approached. The real Apollo 13 mission had a Red Green spirit to it, as the mission control eggheads worked out how the issue could be fixed with random crap that could be found in the capsule. Space Travelers goes with a more prosaic launching of a rescue craft, complicated by the approach of a hurricane towards the launch site. There isn’t much for Joel and the Bots to latch onto in the film’s narrative, so the riffing is rather uninspired.

The host segments are a similarly mixed bag. The highlight is their space mission sketch which is done solely so Crow can do his Gregory Peck impression. Joel’s invention of the Dollaroid (a Polaroid that creates money with your picture on it) is worth a chuckle, as is their accompanying parody of those debit card commercials from the 1990s. The low point is the tiresome products of the space program sketch, which falls flat on its face and practically encourages you to press the skip chapter button on your DVD remote.

  • Favorite riff: Get out! Get out! The calls are coming from inside NASA!
  • Stinger: Lloyd contemplates his pill.
  • Alternate Stinger: “What the hell difference does it make?!?!? What’s going on down there?!?!?”
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. the wives are the only female characters with speaking parts, and they never converse among themselves.

402: The Giant Gila Monster [Grade: D]

Apparently back in the 1950s and 1960s, Texas oil tycoons invested their earnings in the making of locally produced B movies as a form of tax dodge. The Giant Gila Monster is the first of many of these sorts of films to be screened on MST3K. As is the case for any giant monster movie, there’s goings-on with the human characters. But what that might be is hard to say due to the horrible audio quality. The production’s boom mike was either defective or improperly assembled, assuming they even had one. As a result, the dialogue ranges from badly muffled to impossible to understand.

One recurring oddity involves the blocking, specifically the unnatural-looking poses such as propping up a foot on a table or chair and leaning forward. The possibility that so many of the actors had the same back problems as Jonathan Frakes seems unlikely. The title monster itself is not all that impressive. Aside from a few shots with some obvious models, there’s never any sense of scale. At least Bert I. Gordon had the ambition to have human characters be seen together with his giant creatures, however inept the end result. As a final insult, it isn’t really a Gila monster, but a Mexican beaded lizard. Sad, really.

Host segments are hit and miss. Joel’s malt shop sketch and the discussion on comical drunks fall flat. Though in my estimation, the last comical drunk in an American production was Corky in Tales of the Gold Monkey. More promising is Servo’s snooty cinephile presentation on the above-mentioned blocking oddities in the movie and the way Joel and Crow keep derailing it. Also noteworthy is that this is the episode where a letter writer mistakenly believes that Crow’s name is Art (stemming back from the final host segment in Jungle Goddess).

  • Favorite riff: I love the smell of lizard in the morning. Smells like chicken.
  • Stinger: The comical drunk gags on sody pop.
  • Alternate Stinger: The Gila monster has its “Here’s Johnny!” moment.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Lisa is asked by an unnamed girl why she was late, and she replies.

403: City Limits [Grade: B-]

Featuring Kim Catrall in a role even more shameful than what she did in Mannequin and James Earl Jones in a role that is just shameful. The one scene in this movie that sticks to the mind occurs near the beginning when the protagonist goes skinny-dipping with a young woman in a water tower. Now this isn’t the first movie screened that had au natural aquatic activities (that would be Untamed Youth). But since it was released in 1985, less care went into obscuring naughty bits. This led to Joel showing off his umbrella in the theater, with it conveniently blocking the sights. Though his aim is briefly off at one point and we get a full moon from the above-mentioned woman. Not that I was going out of my way to look for that sort of thing. No, really.

It’s quite unfortunate that the rest of the movie isn’t as engaging as that one scene. Part of the problem is that the post-apocalyptic bikers come across as Designated Heroes who don’t do anything particularly worthy. Also, the “evil” corporation’s nominal purpose of restoring power and services in the derelict city where the movie is predominantly set doesn’t have all that fiendish a vibe. When they do commit overtly evil acts, they’re so over the top and out of left field as to give the impression that they were written in to make the bikers look good in comparison. As a result, it’s difficult to take seriously. It’s a shame that the Brains hadn’t yet developed the “happy” ending dissection over the lengthy end credits common to more recent movies (exemplified by what they would later do with Soultaker and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom). If there’s any movie that deserved such treatment, it’s this one.

The host segments are a lukewarm affair. The only one that stands out is Crow’s ode to Kim Catrall. Even then, he doesn’t sell this sort of obsessive infatuation as well as Servo can. I suppose the Brains were trying to avoid pigeon-holing Servo into these kinds of roles all the time, but Crow’s attempt lacks conviction.

  • Favorite riff: The illegal smuggling of mimes. Nobody talks about it.
  • Stinger: Bolo screams like a little girl just before the exploding RC plane goes off.
  • Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The only conversation between two women consists of Wickings and Yogi talking about Mick’s injuries.

404: Teenagers from Outer Space [Grade: C-]

No connection to the tongue in cheek role-playing game published by R. Talsorium Games, alas. Instead it’s another Teen Angst film where the alleged teens are at least in their mid-twenties. What’s more, it follows the example of Teenage Cave Man where it possesses all the tiresome whining common to movies in this genre without any campiness to make it somewhat palatable. Such a goofy title deserves a wackier premise than what we get here.

The plot involves aliens arriving to turn Earth into a ranch for giant lobsters, which incidentally is realized with the shadow of a puppet. One of them questions the morality of doing this to a planet with sentient life and is told to keep it to himself. He eventually goes AWOL and is chased by a trigger-happy goon who uses his skeletonizing death ray on practically everyone he meets. You may ask yourself how Earth could stand a chance against such weaponry. The answer is that it doesn’t and must be saved by a deus ex machina that relies on the crew of invading fleet being immensely gullible.

On the home segment front, the big winner is the duct tape fashion show, based on how the uniforms worn by the aliens are gas station attendant jumpsuits decorated the silvery sticky stuff. Dr. Forrester’s invention of the Resusci-Annie ventriloquism dummy is suitably in poor taste (though in a good way). While the visit by the skeleton ship ultimately falls flat, the ship model is itself quite well designed.

  • Favorite riff: “It’s Sparky’s dog tag. Where on earth did you find it?” Well, after caving in his head with a shovel, I, uh…
  • Stinger: “The high court may well sentence you to TOR-CHA!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The conversation between Betty and Alice is about Derrick, while the one between Betty and the secretary is about Professor Simpson.

405: Being from Another Planet [Grade: A]

MST3K has only screened a handful of what could be considered slasher flicks. This is just as well, since most examples of that genre are the wrong kind of bad for the show. Those they do feature tend to divert from the template. We’ve already seen Pod People, which awkwardly slapped on an E.T. subplot. This time around it’s a 1982 movie originally called Time Walker that got repackaged by FVI. The plot concerns a recently discovered mummy that is sent to a California university for study. An x-ray of the sarcophagus reveals what appear to be gemstones in a secret compartment. The student tasked with developing the x-rays swipes the stones and takes a replacement x-ray after the removal to conceal his theft and pawns them. Of course, it’s not a mummy but a comatose extraterrestrial that is slowly being revived thanks to the radiation from the x-ray machine. What’s more, those gemstones are really crystals which are components to a teleporter, so it clearly will be wanting them back. Rampage commences.

The entity recalls the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be”. In both, the entity is indifferent rather than malicious in intent regarding the death and destruction it leaves in its wake. This is particularly apparent in the scene (requisite in most every slasher flick) where it menaces a nude co-ed. Once the crystal is spotted on the sink, it gets claimed and the potential victim is left behind, sobbing but otherwise unharmed.

Of the host segments, the best was the one where they start off talking about how lame the “mummy” is before taking a sharp left turn into discussing Bill Mumy’s anemic acting career as an adult (this was before Babylon 5). While this isn’t the first instance of them having a conversation that goes off on a weird tangent, this time it actually works as comic material. The Mads’ invention of the Tragic Moments figurines is quite amusing in a very dark fashion.

  • Favorite riff: Dear Aunt Nefertiti, thanks for the socks?!?!?
  • Stinger: The heartbreak of extraterrestrial psoriasis.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the female characters audibly converse with one another.

406: Attack of the Giant Leeches (with Undersea Kingdom: Chapter 1) [Grade: D]

For whatever reason, the Brains took another crack at doing a serial. I can’t say I understand why, as by this point educational shorts had proven themselves to be a comedic gold mine. It features Three Mesquiteers and Range Busters regular Ray “Crash” Corrigan as a Naval Academy graduate who leads an expedition to Atlantis, where there are two warring factions. Other than that, I have no idea what’s going on. This is due to a combination of a poorly aged audio track and the random stuff happens method of plot advancement.

Not that the main feature is any better. As is all too common in these 1950s creature features, far too much time is spent on the dull travails of the human cast. So, unless you can squeeze out some entertainment value from the soap opera-like meanderings of a backwoods general store proprietor and his adulterous wife (the latter portrayed by Playboy centerfold Yvette Vickers), it’ll be a long slog. Most of the other characters are a collection of moronic inbred hicks. Possibly this is meant to make the pompous jackass “hero” and his shrill harpy girlfriend look good in comparison, but it doesn’t work. With such a repulsive sample of humanity, it’s rather surprising that Coleman Francis didn’t have a hand in this. Especially with the prominent role of coffee.

On the host segment front, it’s something of a bad sign when your best material is in the prologue. Mind you, Joel attempting to get rid of the clowns from the previous episode is hilarious. It’s just that what follows just doesn’t quite measure up. Though the only true dud is the song “A Danger to Myself and Others”, an opinion I realize puts me in a very tiny minority.

  • Favorite riff: “Here we are ten thousand feet below sea level.” And me without my rubbers.
  • Stinger: Billy gets into it.
  • Alternate Stinger: Liz displays her hatred of groceries.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Nan and Liz are the only female characters and they don’t even share scenes.

407: The Killer Shrews (with Junior Rodeo Daredevils) [Grade: C]

Our glorious return to educational shorts involves schoolkids organizing and participating in a rodeo. An individual’s reaction to this will largely depend on how much entertainment value can be obtained from watching kids being tossed from steers and a Wilford Brimley clone subjecting a pair of brats to a reenactment of The Ox-Bow Incident.

Concerning the main feature, you’ll pardon me for going on a brief though relevant tangent in which I’ll state what may be an unpopular opinion. I personally regard Night of the Living Dead as one of the most overrated horror “classics” in existence. As well as inspiring a deluge of hackish imitations, the borderline misanthropic undertones of the base film and its sequels make for an unpalatable cinematic swill. Romero’s childish response to the negative criticism it received on release also fails to elicit much sympathy from me. But even more damning is how it’s not even all that original, essentially being a remake of The Killer Shrews (itself not a very good film) but without the open bar. Both center around a gathering of people trapped in a house besieged by monsters which can effectively kill by inflicting a mere scratch, where they spend most of their time arguing. The only practical difference is that in this one the black guy dies first.

However, The Killer Shrews has one advantage over Night of the Living Dead in that it provokes some unintentional laughs. The most prominent is that the “shrews” are clearly dogs with fake oversized fangs and bits of carpet stuck to them. Though this won’t be the last time we’ll see an absurd monster which uses carpeting in its construction. Then there’s the third act escape to the boat to get off the island. To prevent themselves from getting mobbed by the shrews, a collection of metal barrels are stuck together and have eye slits cut in them so that they can see where they’re going as they creep along. You must watch it to appreciate how silly it looks.

The host segments are uneven this time around. Joel’s Will Rogers sketch is too random to be all that enjoyable. The Killer Shrews board game (where you can’t move the pieces because everyone is too busy arguing and drinking) is amusing, and Dr. Forrester’s proclamation as he’s about the split the Earth in two provokes several guffaws.

  • Favorite riff: You know, the big twist in this movie is that the shrews are good and they’re just trying to do an intervention on the humans.
  • Stinger: “Any unusual experiment can produce unusual results.”
  • Alternate Stinger: Griswold faces death without dignity.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Ann is the only female character.

408: Hercules Unchained [Grade: A]

Back in the 1960s, the Italian film industry was cranking out Sword & Sandal films like mad and cinema screens were replete with beefy, sweaty, oiled men clad in teeny tiny skirts. Of course, there was plenty of cheesecake served with the beefcake, featuring a plethora of scantily clad nymphs (with a statistically unlikely proportion of them being blondes and redheads). The bulk of these movies scavenged theirs plots from various Greco-Roman myths and stitched them together, often with Hercules as the protagonist (though the tragic elements would either be downplayed or excised).

The main plot in this one involves two brothers who are supposed to take turns ruling Thebes until one of them decides to not stand down. So Hercules is sent to knock some sense into them. However, much of the run time is devoted to the story of Hercules and Omphale.

Now classical mythology is full of tales of libidinous barbarian queens in the mood for some Herc lovin’. Sometimes it gets weird. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus recounted a tale of Hercules traveling through Scythia (modern day Ukraine) and one night his chariot horses got loose. While searching for them, he encounters a busty woman who below the waist has the body of a snake. She tells him that she has the horses and will gladly return them in exchange for him having sex with her until she’s been sated (and it’ll take a lot to sate her). I have no idea how that would work either. If you think I’m making it up, you can find it in Book 4, Chapters 8-9 of The Histories of Herodotus.

But back to Omphale. While details can vary in the different accounts, one common recurring incident involves Omphale making Hercules cross-dress and perform other femmy activities. Obviously, this doesn’t get depicted in the film. It’s probably just as well, since that sort of tomfoolery seems more in line with Hippolyta.

Host segments are reasonably strong this time around. The best of these involve Servo and Crow asking what Hercules and Omphale do after the scene fades out, with Joel awkwardly trying to evade the question.

  • Favorite riff: Frankie Avalon in Slave Ship Bingo.
  • Stinger: Omphale blinks deliberately into a mirror.
  • Alternate Stinger: Ulysses whoops like a ninny.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The only conversation between two females is between Iole and one of her handmaidens, which is about Hercules.

409: Indestructible Man (with Undersea Kingdom: Chapter 2) [Grade: C]

Another Undersea Kingdom chapter that primarily consists of recapping. Pretty much the only new plot development is that our heroes get captured by one of the Atlantean factions. Seeing as how it hasn’t made any sense so far and we won’t be seeing any more chapters, I don’t see any reason to care one way or the other.

As for the feature, it stars horror legend Lon Chaney Jr., whose career was in serious decline at that point. While never quite as hard up as Bela Lugosi, he did have similar experiences with substance abuse. There are some who argue that his alcoholism has been exaggerated in the retelling. Perhaps that is the case. But there’s no question that he looks like crap in this movie. Though he was about 50 at the time it was shot, his appearance is of a man at least ten years older.

Going off on a tangent, it’s surprising that the Brains didn’t try to score a Universal Classic Monsters hat trick by tackling a movie starring Boris Karloff. After all, he’s had his share of riffworthy stinkers (Die, Monster, Die! and The Crimson Cult come to mind). Perhaps it’s because Karloff’s career never fell to the same depths as those of Lugosi and Chaney.

But back to the feature. Chaney’s character is robber/murderer “Butcher” Benton, who has an appointment with the San Quentin gas chamber thanks to his partners squealing on him on the advice of a crooked lawyer and vows that he’ll make them pay. His corpse is dubiously acquired by a mad scientist testing his theories of using electrification to treat cancer or something like that. One of the more notable aspects of this scene is that the lackey is portrayed by Joe Flynn, best known as Captain Binghamton on McHale’s Navy (and whom Joel and the Bots immediately recognize). Of course, the electricity revives him and makes him super strong and resilient to most forms of damage. After whacking his benefactors, he goes down to L.A. to fulfill his vow.

The best way to describe the movie is if you crossed a 1950s police procedural with a slasher flick. This means there are a lot of cop and donut jokes in the riffing, mostly from Joel. As a result, in the concluding host segment, the Bots have him sign a legal document forbidding any more cop and donut jokes ever. Others host segments of note include the discussion of what you would do if you were indestructible and the cereal novel invention. They overlooked a couple of possibilities there, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions on Wheaties and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on Raisin Bran.

  • Favorite riff: No one will be seated during the frightening Letter Folding Scene.
  • Stinger: Indestructible Man struggles with a manhole cover.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Eva converses with a couple of her fellow burlesque performers about the show.

410: Hercules Against the Moon Men [Grade: B-]

While the title may proclaim this as a Hercules movie, the protagonist is as much Hercules as Sadko is Sinbad. The truth is that it’s a guy called Maciste, a popular recurring character in Italian cinema who is largely unfamiliar in the States. A possible analogous concept would be if The Lone Ranger television series were repackaged in foreign markets with the protagonist referred to as Jesse James.

Though Maciste here is a beefy fellow in a tiny skirt who does Hercules type stuff, the setting doesn’t have a particularly strong Ancient Greece vibe to it. Further muddling the situation is how the antagonists are implied to be aliens from outer space or something who demand human sacrifices from a kingdom. A dissenting advisor of the collaborating evil queen sends for Hercules/Maciste to deal with the situation. What follows is typical Hercules movie stuff. Though compared to Hercules Unchained, there’s a lot more action and less of the evil queen’s out of control libido on display.

Prior to the screening, the Mads make a big deal about the sandstorm scene and try to convince us that it’s equal to the rock climbing from Lost Continent in inflicting mental pain. At most, it’s a minor irritant that comes nowhere close to the soul-crushing tedium of rock climbing. The attempts by Joel and the Bots to sell it as such is unconvincing and, truth be told, a bit pathetic.

In the host segments, the clear high point is the song that pays tribute to pants in response to all the men in the film wearing tiny skirts. Though the ancient Greeks would likely disagree. Consider an incident recounted by our old friend Herodotus, where a guy named Aristagoras tried to convince the Spartans to go to war with the Persians to drive them out of Ionia. As part of his spiel, he essentially claims that the Persians will be lightweights. From Book 5 Chapter 49 I quote: “They wear trousers when they go into battle, and funny caps on their heads. So you can see how easy they will be to beat!” While modern observers may take issue with the first claim, both sides can agree that the Smurf hats the Persians wore are kind of silly looking.

  • Favorite riff: War comes to the Land of Dairy Queen.
  • Stinger: The old guy gets skewered.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Samara and Arga talk about what the latter has been getting up to. Also, when Billus talks to the handmaiden about meeting Samara.

411: The Magic Sword [Grade: A+]

Basil Rathbone goes back to being a sneering villain. Only this time, his heroic rival is portrayed not by Errol Flynn but a pre-2001 Gary Lockwood. It also features Estelle Winwood as a witch, which naturally recalls her appearance on Bewitched as Aunt Enchantra.

The story is a very loose interpretation of the St. George and the Dragon legend as done by our old pal Bert I. Gordon. Despite that, it’s actually watchable. Even the special effects are a cut above his usual efforts. Normally when a good-ish movie is screened, the riffing winds up being tepid as they end up not having much to latch onto. But thanks to plenty of goofy moments, Joel and the Bots are in top form.

One troubling aspect of the film is how our hero George’s infatuation with the princess is such that he uses a scrying pool to watch her go skinny-dipping. Not exactly the basis for a healthy relationship. Though to his credit, George is suspicious upon first encountering the fake princess when she refers to him by his name, even though the two had never met. This is not the sort of detail your typical deluded stalker would pick up on.

Of the host segments, the truly memorable one occurs when Crow gives up being smitten with Kim Catrall in favor of Estelle Winwood. While I still maintain that Servo is better at doing these weird infatuations, the choice of Estelle Winwood is so absurd that it manages to work. It helps that the song featured here is much better than the one from City Limits. I personally got a chuckle out of the Big Gulp Beret invention, which takes those beer caddy things you see guys wear at sporting events and reimagine them for use by pretentious Bohemian types.

  • Favorite riff: They’re not dead, they’re just metaphysically challenged.
  • Stinger: The witch’s two-headed assistant looks on in confusion.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Helene and her maid talk about the social limitations of being a princess. Also, Helene and her fellow prisoners discuss their predicament.

412: Hercules and the Captive Women [Grade: A]

I think when this movie was edited to fit into the show’s time slot, some critical exposition must have been lost in the process. Because it’s not all that clear how the bulk of these scenes link together. Near as I can tell, Hercules goes to Atlantis for undisclosed reasons, at least in this cut. Of course, it’s ruled by an evil queen and they have the misfortune of having Uranus as their patron deity. Obviously, this would have been a non-issue in the original Italian but gets very unfortunate in English. Especially when the high priest starts talking about the blood of Uranus. Perhaps if the English dub actors had pronounced it with a short A. This also features a somewhat nebbish Hylas, who in mythology is a companion of Hercules but here is presented as his son.

The host segments are mostly winners, with them testing the concept of good-natured brawling and the lame Hercules action figure that emphasizes how oddly lethargic the character tends to be in these films. The best of the lot is when Crow recites some dubious “facts” about Hercules and his fraught relationship with Hylas (which he keeps pronouncing Hinus).

  • Favorite riff: “If my father finds me here with a girl…” He’d be surprised.
  • Stinger: “Hercules!”, followed by Herc’s freaky expression.
  • Alternate Stinger: Timoteo is hauled off to be sacrificed.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Queen Antinea and Ismene discuss the latter’s impending sacrifice.

413: Manhunt in Space (with General Hospital 1) [Grade: B]

I suspect most MST3K fans at the time wouldn’t have believed that the show would use vintage episodes of General Hospital as shorts, but here we are. The primary focus of this one involves a patient diagnosed as having a hiatal hernia, which her doctor husband had dismissed as indigestion. So, in typical soap opera pettiness, he’s sure to take this knock on his medical competence personally.

The main feature is another television series with multiple episodes strung into a “movie”. But since Rocky Jones, Space Ranger typically featured serialized storylines much like what would later be seen on Doctor Who, it avoids the awkward transitions common to these pseudo-movies. It could be regarded as the Battlestar Galactica (the 1970s one with Dirk Benedict) of its day in that, despite being popular with the viewing public, the ruinous overhead meant the show was not going to be sustainable in the long term. This set of episodes involves Rocky and his partner Winky (no, really) attempting to thwart a gang of pirates who have been raiding supply shipments for a recently established outpost. As was typical for science fiction shows in the early days of television, the science part is at best cursory. It’s never all that clear if the space travel depicted is interstellar or all within one system, with exposition on the subject often contradictory. There’s also the matter of Bobby. He’s one of the earlier examples of the snot-nosed punk whose obnoxiousness is taken in stride rather than resulting in him being shoved in a cramped locker. After five minutes of Bobby, Wesley Crusher will be tolerable in comparison.

Of the host segments, the best by far is the one where the Bots play soap opera and Joel refuses to go along. The space modifier discussion is rather bland, though I got a chuckle from when they derisively laugh at how unconvincing the sets are in the feature, which then trails off as they take stock of their own surroundings. The sketch where Winky contacts them on the Hexfield comes across as needlessly mean-spirited, especially considering how badly actor Scott Beckett’s life had gone. A former regular in the Our Gang shorts, Beckett was a textbook example of the Child Star Gone Wrong, succumbing to substance abuse, petty crime, and eventual suicide. Truth be told, Bobby was more deserving of scathing treatment that they heaped on Winky.

  • Favorite riff: “It’s like Paris in spring.” But Paris was destroyed in the Apocalypse, Winky.
  • Stinger: Ken tosses a chair.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Vena and Cleolanta are the only female characters and they don’t even share scenes.

414: Tormented [Grade: B+]

The credits may list Bert I. Gordon as the director, but it’s more like something you’d expect from William Castle. Alleged jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to marry a New England blueblood when his old flame Vi pops out of the woodwork and threatens to ruin his upcoming marital bliss. During their meeting at an old lighthouse, Vi leans against a railing which gives way. She dangles for a few moments crying for help, but Tom hesitates, and she plummets to her death. Now her ghost is apparently haunting him, though no one else can perceive her (at least not directly).

All that’s needed to make it an episode of Inner Sanctum Mysteries is to throw in a couple of pitches for Lipton products and have Raymond Johnson deliver some tasteless puns. The most troubling aspect of the film involves Sandy, the little sister of the bride-to-be. Just about all of her interactions with Tom come across as creepy. The fact that she’s portrayed by the director’s ten year old daughter somehow makes it worse.

Of the host segments, the one where they have various pop singers plummet from the top of a lighthouse is uninspired and tedious, ultimately falling flat. Considerably better is the one where Joel is hanging by his fingernails from a ventilation shaft and Servo and Crow refuse to help without some ridiculous incentives. Another memorable one has Servo and Crow mimicking the ghostly disembodied head from the movie which annoys Joel, who takes away their bodies and leaves them alone in the dark.

  • Favorite riff: “But you wouldn’t want to make an innocent person suffer, would you?” Well sure. That’s the most fun.
  • Stinger: “Tom Stewart killed me!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Meg, Sandy, and Mrs. Hubbard talk about the unexpected perfume scent. Sandy and Mrs. Ellis about the wedding rehearsal.

415: The Beatniks (with General Hospital 2) [Grade: C+]

First another installment of General Hospital. This one centers around an intensely awkward engagement party. Thanks to the shoddy audio, I otherwise have no idea what’s going on and don’t particularly care.

The main feature is written and directed by renowned voice actor Paul Frees, best known for doing Boris Badenov and many others on Rocky and Bullwinkle. He was also Bombur in the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit. Why he went with the title he used is beyond me. The characters are conventional hoodlums, with nary a goatee or a beret among them. Not even a single recitation of pretentious free verse. The beatniks in the Mr. Know-It-All segment “How to be a Beatnik” were more beatniks than these guys.

The plot involves the gang leader Eddie, whose singing is overheard by a talent agent who offers to make him a star. His rise to fame could be regarded as implausibly fast, as he gets all sorts of offers after a single performance on a variety show. Of course, with his new respectability, his old gang is proving troublesome, especially his dim-witted co-dependent girlfriend Iris and the psychotic Moon (portrayed in an over the top fashion by a pre-Big Valley Peter Breck).

This is typical crime drama slop, which I find to be a trial to sit through. Fortunately, the host segments are up to the task of skewering the movie. The “you might not be a beatnik” parody of Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” shtick works well, as it occurred before the mass of hackish imitators ran the format into the ground. Even better is the parody of Eddie’s rise to fame, which consists of Servo getting fame thanks to the Leather Coat song. That is until he stars in Daddy-O and can’t perform the apple slapping scene due to his inoperative arms and is reduced to drunkenly performing in hotel lounges.

  • Favorite riff: “My friends go where I go.” Now where’s the bathroom?
  • Stinger: A crazed Moon throws his gun.
  • Alternate Stinger: “I killed that fat barkeep!”
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Iris and her mom talk about where the former has been.

416: Fire Maidens of Outer Space [Grade: A-]

Back in 1950s, there were a considerable number of movies with the same basic plot. A team of men would travel to another planet or some isolated corner of the Earth and uncover a civilization consisting entirely of nubile young women. Any males that might already be there are either geezers or wusses. Whether proud and intolerant Amazons or hapless damsels that make you wonder how they survived up to that point, the end result would always have them become submissive to the collective libido of the visitors.

As you can imagine, these films have not aged well. Though they did inspire science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold to write Ethan of Athos. Fire Maidens of Outer Space is a typical example of the genre. The distant location is a newly discovered moon of Jupiter, which happens to have an Earth-like environment. The women are the descendants of the survivors of Atlantis and are of the damsel variety. Even by the standards of these sort of films, the male characters are a collection of smarmy cretins who seem to have been recruited from a particularly disreputable frat house. But the worst crime the movie commits is that it’s dull and lethargic. There are also several instances of lifeless and inept dancing sequences that misuse Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances.

The host segments feature a multi-segment narrative (the first since the Isaac Asimov Doomsday Device in Women of the Prehistoric Planet), where Crow’s evil shadow self Timmy manifests. The Big Checkbook invention is also a great prop that is amazingly detailed. Though if the zip code listed for Deep 13 is accurate, it means they’re located in Montana. Which would be odd, considering all the Minneapolis-centered references that they make.

Favorite riff: Please remain seated until the movie grinds to a complete halt.

Stinger: Blair discovers a secret passage

Alternate Stinger: Panic ensues when the monster makes it grand entrance.

Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the conversations between female characters are audible.

417: Crash of Moons (with General Hospital 3) [Grade: B-]

Our final trip to General Hospital, and this one is the colonoscopy. The engagement party had ended as a bust due to the male guest of honor having been called to the hospital. So the female guest of honor is offered a ride back by the host. He uses this as an opportunity to profess his unrequited love and proclaim her fiancé as a loser. He then gets to work jamming his tongue down her throat, with the issue of consent being rather murky. You know, typical soap opera stuff. That’s the last we’ll be seeing of it, and good riddance.

The main feature is another serialized storyline from Rocky Jones, Space Ranger repackaged as a movie, and it has one of the inanest science fiction concepts I’ve ever seen (and I’ve encountered some real doozies). Now rogue planets are a real thing, as are binary planets. The two combined are maybe a bit of a stretch. But the idea that they could host human life is implausible to say the least. Anyway, their shared orbit is starting to become erratic and are in danger of crashing into each other. Evacuating the two planets is complicated by the fact that one of them is ruled by an evil queen of the temperamental and untrusting variety and is convinced that it’s all a plot to undermine her. This is easily the weaker of the two Rocky Jones, Space Ranger features screened on MST3K. Not only are the attempts at science embarrassingly inept, but the scenes are just so talky. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger is more in its element when it does two-fisted action.

In the host segments, easily the best is the dueling serenade Servo and Crow perform for Gypsy, based on how the rogue binary planets are referred to in the movie as gypsy moons.

  • Favorite riff: I’m alone with Winky and Bobby. Get me out of here!
  • Stinger: “Booby!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Cleolanta grills Trinka about her subversive activities.

418: Attack of the The Eye Creatures [Grade: F————-]

The double “the” in title is mere a hint as to what sort of pain will be coming. The apparent intention is to combine the oily loathsomeness of Incredibly Strange Creatures (to be seen later be seen in Season 8) with the tedious komedy of Catalina Caper. Where to start? There are these two Air Force enlisted tasked with using a high-tech surveillance gadget to watch the skies for flying saucers, but instead use it to peek in on a nearby lovers’ lane. Then we have the carnies. One of them is obsessed with finding evidence of alien life, while his partner just wants to sleep. The latter is notable for wearing this hideous nightshirt that looks like a striped sweater dress. Most women would have trouble looking good in such a garment, and he can make viewers want to go Oedipal on their eye sockets. About the only sympathetic character is the farmer who ineffectually chases people with his shotgun. Not only are teens using his property as a lovers’ lane, but they feel free to break into his house to use the phone without permission. As for the Eye Creatures, they’re not very impressive and have their credibility further damaged by how some of the performers don’t bother to fully kit up in their costumes.

Unfortunately, the Brains appear to have been stymied and the riffing is very poor quality for this period of the show’s run. Most telling is how they yell at the characters to shut up with a frequency not seen since the first season. Only instead of the dismissive tone of those earlier occurrences, these are fueled with rage. Host segments aren’t much better. The Earl Holliman tribute comes across as a halfhearted attempt to capture the magic of the Richard Burton pageant from Gamera vs Guiron. It doesn’t help that Holliman didn’t really have as memorable a career as Burton. As for the Rip Taylor Trio sketch, it reeks of a desperation that’s kind of pathetic.

Now some episodes have movies that are actively repulsive. Some episodes have riffing that isn’t up to snuff. Some episodes feature host segments that make the lamest comedy club open mike night seem brilliant in comparison. But this episode is unique in that it’s all three, making it an amazing colossal failure.

  • Favorite riff: None. It’s that bad. Seriously.
  • Stinger: The oily carnie in a sweater dress hangs up the phone.
  • Alternate Stinger: “Blasted smoochers on my property!”
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the female characters converse among themselves.

419: The Rebel Set (with Johnny at the Fair) [Grade: C+]

The short gives us a tour of the 1947 Canadian National Exhibition through the eyes of the titular five year old and is narrated by Lorne Greene. Not caring for the idea of being dragged to the Art Gallery by his parents, Johnny strikes off on his own. No one seems to find this troubling. Different times, folks.

A curious aspect of the main feature is how it’s more deserving of the title The Beatniks than the film The Beatniks. Much of the first act takes place at a coffeehouse with plenty of bongo playing and truly horrible free verse recitations in the background. The coffeehouse proprietor Mr. Tucker hires three talentless poseurs who are regulars to travel on the Los Angeles to Newark train to rob an armored car during the four-hour layover in Chicago. The reason he hires these chumps rather than professionals is that they’ll be easier to dispose of, so he can keep the entire haul for himself.

It’s a reasonably tolerable if unremarkable heist film. The only aspect that stands out is that Mr. Tucker is portrayed by Edward Platt, better known as the Chief on Get Smart. As you can imagine, there were plenty of riffs that alluded to that role. Some chuckles were also provoked when Tucker is making his escape while disguised as a priest and the riffing has him singing hymns as he does so. Though considering that the film came out before Vatican II, one of them being “A Mighty Fortress” was a rather odd choice.

Of the host segments, the clear winner was the final one where Servo does a Poirot style presentation on the identity of actor Merritt Stone, whom the others had been confusing with Gene Roth.

  • Favorite riff: Please ma’am. I’m just trying to mow down your husband in cold blood.
  • Stinger: “I am bugged!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The only conversation between two females is between Karen and Mrs. Leland and is about Mr. Tucker.

420: The Human Duplicators [Grade: D]

Another low-key alien invasion. In this case, the plan is to build the army of androids on-site using the private facilities of a suborned eccentric genius. Truth be told, these androids aren’t very impressive. The most obvious flaw being that their shells appear to be made of cheap ceramics, judging from the way they shatter whenever they hit the ground. This genius also has a blind “niece” living at his residence. Possibly her condition is meant to explain some of her more unfortunate choices in garb.

Her presence actually recalls Robot Monster, which is doubly curious when you consider how male lead George Nader was also the male lead in that film as well. Specifically, I’m thinking of how the sole alien tasked with the conquest of Earth begins to lust after the female lead, to the point where he disobeys orders from his superiors (in this case, not making an android duplicate of her and then disposing of the original) and is ultimately destroyed for his insubordination. However, The Human Duplicators is underwhelming in comparison. One has a guy in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet voiced by veteran radio actor John Brown, while the other is Richard Kiel. Really, it’s no contest as to which is more memorable.

In the host segments, the one that stands out is where Servo has created a multitude of duplicates of himself. The logistics of creating so many Servo heads and making the whole scene work is mind boggling.

  • Favorite riff: Oh George Nader. He’s untalented at any speed.
  • Stinger: Duplicates cracking up as they choke each other.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. One of the lab assistants tells Lisa that she’s to come with them and she refuses.

421: Monster A-Go Go (with Circus on Ice) [Grade: D-]

The short appears to be from a newsreel and brings back memories of the more obnoxious excesses of exhibition figure skating. This includes an interpretive performance of a fawn being gunned down by a hunter. Sadly, no Torvill and Dean riff was made.

The main feature is nominally about an irradiated astronaut who goes on a rampage. Except that it’s not. In a twist so idiotic even M. Night Shyamalan wouldn’t dare try it, it’s revealed by the intrusive narrator that there was no monster and never had been. It goes on a bit more, but that’s the basic gist. So what was even the point? Apparently, the film’s original director Bill Rebane ran out of money and shelved it. Then splatter shlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis bought it and shot the half-baked ending so he could pair it with Moonshine Mountain on a double bill.

The movie’s huge plot void appears to have stymied the creativity of the Brains, as the host segments are completely random and forgettable. This includes a discussion of the Rupert Holmes song “Escape” (AKA “The Piña Colada Song”). Truth be told, the only memorable sketch was the Invention Exchange where they came up with action figure designs.

  • Favorite riff: Any moment now, unspeakable horror. Stay with me.
  • Stinger: Monster on the go-go.
  • Alternate Stinger: The fawn artistically dies.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Ruth asks Laura if she wants coffee, who declines.

422: The Day the Earth Froze (with Here Comes the Circus) [Grade: A]

The short is a promotional piece for the Clyde Beatty circus which spends way too much time on the clowns. Dear Gawd, why did people ever regard clowns as being funny?

The main feature is a Soviet/Finnish adaptation of the Sampo tale from the Kalevala. It possesses many typical folk tale elements, such as a wicked witch kidnapping a fair maiden for nefarious purposes. In this case, the witch wants the maiden’s mystical blacksmith brother to make her a Sampo. So, what is a Sampo? As depicted in the film, it’s a mill that cranks out gold and salt and grain. However, earlier accounts define it a bit more vaguely as an artifact that bestows riches and good fortune on its possessor. Later, the witch steals the sun, hence the rather campy title.

Overall, this is a rather atypical movie for MST3K. While the print that is screened shows some wear and tear, it’s still plain the crew that shot it possessed far more competence than we’re used to seeing. The most memorable performance comes from the witch Louhi. Though much of the hamminess can be attributed to the English voice acting, I can’t help but think that there was a similar lack of restraint in the original Finnish.

Host segments are similarly fun, such as the sketch where they speculate what exactly a Sampo is. Dr. Forrester’s Unhappy Meal invention also possesses a delightful form of maliciousness. The one clunker is Gypsy’s one woman show, which is a painful and tedious drag. Well, that what the chapter skip button exists for.

  • Favorite riff: Are you with the bride or the failure?
  • Stinger: “What’s going to become of us now?”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The only conversation between two females comes when Leminkeinin’s mom is told that her son has perished.

423: Bride of the Monster (with Hired! Part 1) [Grade: A+++]

Hired! is the first of several shorts produced by the Jam Handy Organization and was a training film for their biggest client General Motors. It’s something of a window to the past, as I (and likely many others) had no idea that cars used to be sold door-to-door. For whatever reason, the Brains decided to split the short in half rather than wait to pair it with a minimal length feature. Though it works as a natural stopping point for someone screening it for salesmen in training to discuss what rookie salesman Jimmy Hill is doing wrong and what doughy manager Mr. Warren can do to fix it.

But the real draw here is the feature, directed by the infamous Ed Wood. Much has been said of the man, with the most favorable recounting being the Tim Burton biopic. In that, he’s portrayed as a dreamer who is constantly beset by unfeeling Philistines who would compromise his vision. Then there are those like Stephen King who, in Danse Macabre, denounced Wood as an unscrupulous con man taking advantage of a broken-down Bela Lugosi. Certainly, the trio of Wood films featuring Lugosi are of lesser quality than anything he did for Universal, Monogram, or even PRC. Still, it’s better than scraping by on meager unemployment checks. I hold to the middle ground and see Wood as a mediocre talent whose true foe was not meddling investors shoehorning either themselves or their half-wit relatives into the lead cast, but his own tendency towards alcoholism.

At the risk of damning him with faint praise, Bride of the Monster is his least incompetent production. Unlike many of his other works, this one has a storyline that’s comprehensible, albeit rather stupid. It’s old hat for Bela, as he portrays yet another mad scientist creating an unstoppable army to Rule the World and Show Them All while he’s at it. Though this being the 1950s, his catalyst is atomic energy. Tor Johnson is his much-abused lackey who inevitably turns on him. Opposing him is a spunky girl reporter (whose actress is a bit long in the tooth for this type of role, having been in her late thirties at the time) and her ineffectual cop boyfriend. There’s also an octopus for some reason.

There are just so many issues, from the clunky dialogue to Bela’s stunt double in the climax being as unconvincing as Tom Mason would prove to be in Plan 9 from Outer Space. This makes for prime riffing material, and Joel and the Bots are firing on all cylinders.

Host segments are similarly exemplary, with the musical version of Hired! being the best song of the season and in the Top Ten of the entire series. Other standouts include the monitoring of Crow’s dreams (and the unpleasant discoveries made) and a discussion about featuring an octopus as a monster which goes off on a tangent about gastronomic abominations like olive loaf.

  • Favorite riff: “There’s one nice thing about birds. They never cause anybody any trouble.” Yeah, tell that to Tippie Hedron.
  • Stinger: Bela’s not looking his best.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Janet and Tillie discuss the ownership of the Old Willow Place. Plus, Janet and Margie talk about Janet’s news story.

424: “Manos” The Hands of Fate (with Hired! Part 2) [Grade: B-]

Hired! continues with Mr. Warren coming to the realization that his sink or swim training method has dire consequences and resolves to take a more hands on approach. But as amusing as that is, it’s a mere appetizer to the indy film that would become a legend.

Prior to the airing of this episode, about the only information about Manos came from a mostly accurate entry in Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. The plot is a rather common one, in which a family on vacation takes a wrong turn and ends up stranded at a creepy old house. Even back in the 1960s, this was a tired premise. There’s a slimy veneer of repulsiveness (particularly in the reveal about the new wives), as if we’re watching a snuff film or an amateur porn. But that in itself isn’t all that unique. I think most will agree that the defining element is Torgo and his actor John Reynolds. Reynolds reportedly had a history of substance abuse and was alleged to be taking more than usual to handle the discomfort of wearing the satyr legs (aka the big knees). Watching his performance, it’s easy to believe that he’s as high as a kite on set. The fact that he committed suicide shortly before the movie’s disastrous premiere was quite inauspicious.

The host segments for this episode are unique in that Dr. Forrester and Frank separately apologize for the movie. I can’t recall them doing that with any other movie, which seems to indicate that the Brains at least suspected they had something “special” on their hands. Of course, the highlight comes at the end when Torgo makes his debut as a recurring character, delivering a rather unappetizing pizza. I’m surprised Dr. Forrester and Frank didn’t hurl earlier than they did.

  • Favorite riff: You know, there are certain flaws in this film.
  • Stinger: “Why don’t you guys leave us alone?”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. The wives discuss what should be done about Margaret and Debbie.

Bechdel Test totals as of Season 4: 41 Pass, 33 Fail

And that’s all for now. But we’ll be approaching stormy waters in the near future. So batten down the hatches, and maybe belt out a morale boosting shanty.

One comment

  1. This is the season I first started watching, though Comedy Central was mixing in Season 2 and 3 episodes in their rotation, and I didn’t really distinguish between seasons at that time. Still, these episodes feel like “home” to me. There is a lot of B&W sci-fi filler in Season 4, but it introduced us to the iconic lout Hercules, gave us our first Finno-Russian epic, and the season ends on a high note.

    My ranking, from least to most awesome:

    401 Space Travelers
    405 Being from Another Planet
    407 The Killer Shrews
    418 Attack of the The Eye Creatures
    410 Hercules Against the Moon Men
    420 The Human Duplicators
    415 The Beatniks
    413 Manhunt in Space
    409 The Indestructible Man
    403 City Limits
    412 Hercules and the Captive Women
    417 Crash of the Moons
    416 Fire Maidens of Outer Space
    404 Teenagers from Outer Space
    411 The Magic Sword
    408 Hercules Unchained
    419 The Rebel Set
    406 Attack of the Giant Leeches
    402 Giant Gila Monster
    414 Tormented
    421 Monster A-Go Go
    423 Bride of the Monster
    422 The Day the Earth Froze
    424 “Manos,” the Hands of Fate

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