During late 1995 and 1996, the morale at Best Brains was at its nadir. Their spirit had taken quite a beating with the unhappy experience of dealing with the Hollywood mindset during the production of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. And the situation became less rosy when only six episodes were ordered for Season 7, making it clear that their relationship with Comedy Central was going up in flames.
One of the issues was that, at this point, South Park was emerging as Comedy Central’s flagship show. As a result, MST3K didn’t fit their brand so well anymore. There was also the matter of how, when it was first added to the then Comedy Channel lineup, MST3K’s two-hour time slot requirement was a selling point for the fledgling content-starved network. But as time went on, this became a liability. Quite simply, shows that take up a half-hour slot are the most efficient at generating revenue. And it’s a frustrating reality that without revenue, a network can’t fund programming or keep the lights on. Hardcore fans may sneer at such laissez faire driven motives. To them, I suggest trying out this tabletop game called The Networks. Fifteen minutes in and you’ll find yourself behaving like the heartless television executives you would otherwise deplore.
While not quite on the same level as the Joel/Mike brouhaha from Season 5, Pearl replacing Frank prompted its own controversy. Though the character would come into her own during the SciFi years, at this juncture she had a ways to go. Quite simply, her interactions with Dr. Forrester were painful. It may be true that you can’t spell dysfunction without fun, but Pearl’s belittling treatment of her son was something that alienated a significant chunk of the fan base.
Going off on a tangent of baseless speculation, I once came across this could-have-been alternative for handling the replacement of Frank. The idea is that Dr. Forrester would contact a minion temp agency, and each week he’d try out a new lackey and possibly keep the one best received by the fans. We could have then had an assistant portrayed by Kevin, Bill, Paul, or maybe even the new prop maker Beez McKeever, who made her first of several appearances in front of the camera during this season (the blonde in the front row).
But now we should return to our own timeline, where the short run was in retrospect a blessing in disguise.
701: Night of the Blood Beast (with Once Upon a Honeymoon) [Grade: B for Turkey Day version, C- for regular version]
I’ve been told that the short has something to do with phones, much as A Young Man’s Fancy pushes the wonders of electrical appliances. If so, it’s being oblique about it. Instead, it appears to be an odd playlet about a songwriter who is about to go consummate with his wife after having gotten married a year ago. That’s when he gets a call informing him that a show’s prima donna wants him to have a song rewritten by tomorrow. So, an angel named Wilbur is sent to aid him. This is the source of my primary gripe with the short. I’ve always despised the Celestial Bureaucracy trope (C.S. Lewis has made it clear that bureaucracy is a better fit in Hell’s portfolio), and here it gets cranked up to eleven. What’s more, it’s a musical in the fashion of Design for Dreaming, only more grating.
As for the feature, it’s pretty much a rehash of It Conquered the World, but with a smaller cast and a more compact setting. Also following the Roger Corman creed of cinematic reduce reuse recycle, the monster costume had previously been seen in Teenage Cave Man and is even being worn by the same guy. While It Conquered the World is one of Corman’s stronger efforts, this (which he technically only produced) is an inferior product on every level. The primary blame rests with the underwhelming performances by the cast. In particular, the actress portraying Donna is incredibly lifeless. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she only has two other credits in her filmography.
This episode is noteworthy in how it has two sets of host segments. The first set is Thanksgiving themed as part of its initial run in the 1995 Turkey Day Marathon, while the latter are a more conventional lot. Personally, I prefer the former, which contain some truly brilliant material. The Stuffing vs. Potatoes is hilarious, though the claim of stuffing being a superior vehicle for gravy is one I regard as dubious. However, one thing that is incontrovertible is that mincemeat is nasty. Meanwhile the standard host segments fall flat. As I noted in the introduction, Dr. Forrester and Pearl don’t mesh well. With a couple of exceptions, their interactions are pure Deep Hurting and the ones in this episode are the worst of the lot.
- Favorite riff: This is a stupid space program. I’m gonna work for my uncle’s space program
- Stinger: “Wounded animal that large isn’t good.”
- Alternate Stinger: The parrot monster snatches Donna.
- Bechdel Test: Fail. Julie and Donna never converse with one another.
702: The Brute Man (with The Chicken of Tomorrow) [Grade: B+]
In what will be our last short for quite a while, The Chicken of Tomorrow proves to be an informative but bland documentary on chicken farming. About the only thing that stands out is that it was sponsored by Texaco and as a result has some blatant product placement as well as plenty of emphasis on the importance of the motortruck in the process.
As for the feature, about the only thing that keeps it from being a slasher flick is the lack of a fantastical element and how the victims are not predominantly teens and/or college students. It even comes with the common slasher trope where most of the major characters aren’t all that likeable. The backstory for our vengeful killer Hal Moffat has him being exposed to certain chemicals from an accident that had occurred during extra work assigned after flunking a college chemistry test. This causes him to develop acromegaly and, after falling off the radar for several years, comes back to kill those he holds responsible for his condition (as well as couple of random chumps he encounters who annoy him).
A major plot point involves Moffat’s relationship with a blind pianist reminiscent of what in later years would be done with Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters in The Fantastic Four. It doesn’t really work on account of how Moffat is a misanthrope, and even before the change he was kind of a jerk.
The controversy attached to this film is how Moffat is portrayed by Rondo Hatton, who suffered from acromegaly in real life. As a result, there has been much sanctimonious handwringing over claims of how the studio exploited him. One valid concern is how Hatton supposedly developed his acromegaly as a result of being exposed to mustard gas during his World War One service. In that light, it can be seen as having some uncomfortable loose parallels to the character’s backstory, which in turn can be regarded as being in poor taste. Otherwise, it insinuates in a rather insulting fashion that Hatton was a Charlie Gordon type simpleton. By all accounts this was not the case, and Hatton was simply taking the bad hand in life he was dealt and making something good of it.
The host segments are mostly underwhelming. Though the only truly bad one is the Tom Dewey sketch, which drags on without much point and ends up being awkward. The one bright spot occurs when Pearl goes for a night out and leaves Crow in charge, which provides some good laughs from his bossy older sibling behavior.
- Favorite riff: Honey, my face is as big as ever and someone shot my sizzler off.
- Stinger: “Creeper, Creeper, Creeper! YOU give me the creeps!”
- Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
- Bechdel Test: Pass. Joan and one of the socialites make a lunch date as they leave the party near the beginning. Also, Helen and Dorothy discuss piano playing.
703: Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell [Grade: C-]
This movie has one of the more deceptive posters I’ve encountered. It looks a bit like something done by Boris Vallejo (for all I know, it is one of his works), with a well-muscled barbarian warrior clad in a loincloth and a lithe fighter chick in a chainmail bikini where the design of the top half serves more as a nipple cover than providing any support. There’s also a butch orc who looks very menacing. Needless to say, these people are nowhere to be seen in the movie. Our protagonist Deathstalker has a wirier build in the vein of Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser. Marinda is the closest thing to a warrior woman and is rather scruffy. While hardly an eyesore, neither is she the Playboy centerfold in the poster. Of course, there are no orcs, as the budget wouldn’t allow for it. The best we get are some undead warriors, so at least the title has some accuracy.
The plot is typical of the Pecs & Pulchritude fantasy films of the 1980s, involving a race to gain all the bits of a fractured magic McGuffin. The above mentioned Deathstalker is what could most tactfully be described as an antihero. A more forthright assessment would be a jerkwad who blunders into doing the right thing. The villain is a wizard portrayed by Thom Christopher, whom some might remember as Hawk from Buck Rogers. An oddity at the conclusion of the film involves the villain’s mistress. While shown as being compliant in his schemes, she somehow gets off scot-free following his defeat.
Contrary to what the poster would have you believe, there is virtually no cake of either the beef or cheese variety. What it does have plenty of is hammy acting, unconvincing props, and some truly horrible fight choreography that’s at the same level as what can be seen in the Doctor Who serial “Battlefield”. This makes for prime riffing material, and Mike and the Bots are in top form.
A good thing too, because the host segments continue the trend of mediocrity that occurs in this season. Much of the blame can be placed on Pearl, who characterization during this period is just so repulsive. The extended Renaissance Festival sketch is also rather tiresome.
- Favorite riff: “Even if he is, that’s not the way love’s supposed to happen.” It should be secret and shameful and leathery and dirty.
- Stinger: “Potatoes are what we eat!”
- Alternate Stinger: Agree.
- Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the female characters converse with each other.
704: The Incredible Melting Man [Grade: D-]
Was this ever a slog. A major reason for this is the vomit-inducing design of the title monster. I can’t recall the last time something non-snake related caused me to avert my eyes from the screen the way this movie did. Then there’s the despair-laden narrative that could have only occurred during the 1970s. The murderous rampage of the Melting Man has a certain pointlessness to it, capped off with its final deterioration before being indifferently scooped up and disposed of by a janitor. In its own way, this is even worse than the nihilistic malice found in your typical slasher flick.
Ineffectual chump protagonist Ted Nelson doesn’t help, as he tries to rationalize the Melting Man’s behavior in the least convincing argument since Kenny claimed that Gamera was good as he smashed Tokyo into rubble. To bother all you NASA geeks, there’s the prologue in which a manned mission goes to Saturn and returns to Earth in a brief time frame with 1970s space travel technology. The kindest descriptor that comes to mind is preposterous. All of this is made tolerable by the reasonably competent riffing.
Though it’s a cold comfort, as the host segments are the worst of the season, which took some doing. The problem is that the Brains are indulging in therapeutic writing over their unhappy experience from making the movie, specifically regarding their toxic relationship with Gramercy Pictures. This sort of thing rarely produces quality entertainment. The fact that such writing is often infused with bile and resentment is even more deadly for comedy, as these are poor ingredients for humor (though I imagine some would disagree with me on that point). The only therapeutic writing I’ve encountered which was enjoyable comes from Robert Holmes, specifically the Doctor Who serials “Terror of the Autons” and “The Sun Makers”. As a result, the only good segment is where they’re shooting Crow’s Earth vs. Soup script.
- Favorite riff: How much did you guys like Jupiter? I think we just blew it up. Sorry.
- Stinger: “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
- Alternate Stinger: “Oh Gawd, it’s his ear.”
- Bechdel Test: Fail. The only conversation between two females is when Carol and her mom talk about the former’s encounter with Steve.
705: Escape 2000 [Grade: B]
One of those dystopic near future Hells, where the crime-ridden Bronx is scheduled to be demolished to make way for gentrified neighborhoods. As is typical for these sorts of films, there’s never a good reason offered to root for the Designated Heroes. Granted, the construction company isn’t presented in a favorable light thanks to the security forces they contracted evicting the residents at gunpoint. However, the gangs aren’t exactly that great an alternative. It would be one thing if they had some sort of warped civic spirit in the vein of the more romanticized depictions of the Yakuza. But they’re shown to be little more than common marauders. It’s kind of hard to determine who is the lesser evil here.
Their case might have been palatable had bombastic gang leader Dablone been the lead protagonist. Instead, that role goes to lone biker Trash, who has all the personality and charisma of a pile of damp leaves. The presence of the shrill reporter woman who could be best described as Shelley Duvall as Nosferatu doesn’t help. It ends in a gun battle with massive casualties and no clear victor. So really, what was the point?
Host segments are a step up from last time, though that’s not a high bar to clear. However, you get the sense the Brains are prepping for cancellation. But then, lighting sets and props aflame will do that.
- Favorite riff: Apparently, some of you do not want to leave the Bronx. As a first step, we urge you to try to think outside the Bronx.
- Stinger: Dablone spits and laughs.
- Alternate Stinger: Agree.
- Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the female characters converse with each other.
706: Laserblast [Grade: A+]
Apparently, Leonard Maltin gave this movie two and a half stars out of four. My guess is that it’s due to David Allen’s stop motion aliens, which are a cut above the special effects typical of the movies screened on MST3K. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the film’s budget went to that, with a considerable chunk of the other half being used to hire Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynn for relatively minor roles.
Those two and a half stars certainly aren’t representative of things like plot or character. What passes for these involve chump protagonist Billy, who is constantly harassed by the local bully and his sycophant toady (with the latter portrayed by a typecast Eddie Deezan), as well as a couple of buffoonish deputies. Though he doesn’t elicit much sympathy on account of him being kind of a jerk. In a hugely contrived manner, he uncovers an alien energy weapon out in the desert and sporadically uses it on those he sees as having wronged him. For some reason, it occasionally transforms him into what can be best described as an emaciated Incredible Hulk. There’s also some government agent who just kind of trails around not really adding anything to what passes for the narrative. Which boils down to random death and destruction without point, much like the previous two movies.
Unlike the hit and miss nature of the host segments of the previous episodes, this time around the Brains are firing on all cylinders. It seems that whenever there’s a major shake-up, it encourages them to bring their creative A game. These includes parodies of the Star Trek episode “The Changeling” (which was quite silly in its original form when you think about it) and the incomprehensible ending to 2001. The one that really sticks to mind though is where they travel through a field of star babies. Probably because the first time I saw it, I misheard the line where it was announced that one of them had the ship. Let’s just say that the diaper-changing aspect (featuring some creative puppetry) helped reinforce my misperception.
- Favorite riff: They thought the spent plutonium rods would be fine in the trunk.
- Stinger: “Faaar oooout!”
- Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
- Bechdel Test: Pass. Cathy and Fanny talk about how crappy the birthday party is.
Bechdel Test totals as of Season 7: 66 Pass, 61 Fail, 1 Ambiguous
And so the series appeared to end. Fans were likely afraid and wondering what was going to happen. The answer was, “Something wonderful.”