The MST3K Journal: Season 9

With a new season being produced, it might have appeared at a casual glance that Mystery Science Theater 3000 had gained some stability at their new home. Sadly, it was not really the case. SciFi handled the property with a much heavier hand than Comedy Central ever did, something at which the Brains chafed. There was also the fact that MST3K was at heart a comedy show that just happened to possess some science fiction trappings. So they were never really that comfortable a fit at SciFi. Add in the fact that only thirteen episodes were ordered, and there was a sense that the show was on life support.

The big change for this season involved Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy settling down at Castle Forrester. I’ve mostly enjoyed the adventures through time and space of Season 8 and find the hostility that some fans hold towards it as rather silly. But I acknowledge that it wasn’t something that could be sustained over multiple seasons. And it’s a very nice model.

A slightly less momentous adjustment saw the return of shorts, having finally uncovered a couple that could squeak under the science fiction qualifier. A more experimental turn occurs in the final episode when, bothered by how Mike shows no signs of mental trauma, Pearl takes a shot at riffing for one segment to determine if the theater is experiencing any pain leakage.

Enough of that. We’ve got Movie Sign!

901: The Projected Man [Grade: C-]

Essentially a mishmash of 4D Man and The Fly, this movie recalls the old chestnut about how feuds between academics are so vicious because so little is at stake. Though that sort of thing is more popularly associated with people who work in the humanities, it seems reasonable that those in the sciences are just as inclined to such pettiness.

And herein lies the primary issue with the film beyond its highly derivative plot. A significant portion of the action focuses on maintaining access to grants. While such things are important in scientific research, they also make for dull viewing. A similar problem is how, as vengeful mad scientists go, Dr. Steiner is perhaps a bit too low key. Mad science tends to work best when it’s hammy and over the top.

This blandness carries over to the host segments which, though not strictly bad, are all somewhat meh. Mostly it involves Pearl et al settling down in their new lair.

  • Favorite riff: So the lesson I get from this, Mike, is to never cut off someone’s research grant funding without a proper hearing. Reconvene the board and give it the time and respect it deserves.
  • Stinger: Lembach is staying.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Both conversations between Dr. Hill and Sheila are about Dr. Steiner.

902: The Phantom Planet [Grade: C]

You know how these old rocketship movies have their spacecraft perform atmospheric flight maneuvers like banked turns and other such nonsense in the airless void of space? One point in favor of this movie is that it shows the rockets using thrust vectoring.

And that’s about the only good thing I can say about it. It’s otherwise a bland space exploration film with little to distinguish itself from others in its genre of that time period. About the only memorable bits involve some ill-advised design choices. First off, the asteroid where most of the action takes place bears an unfortunate resemblance to a piece of fried chicken. Then there’s the hostile alien, which looks like a cartoonish and sad-eyed dog. Not very menacing.

Host segments continue to underwhelm. However, there’s a bit more design creativity this time around, such as Crow developing a third eye after being exposed to radiation.

  • Favorite riff: “You can’t make someone love you. It’s got to come naturally. You can’t force it; you can’t command it.”
    That’s what the judge told me.
  • Stinger: The good and the beautiful.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. None of the female characters converse with each other.

903: The Pumaman [Grade: A+]

Of all the chump protagonists to be featured in the movies screened on MST3K, Tony Farms is probably the least deserving of the scorn he receives from the fan base. First, we should consider his initial predicament. It starts with a total stranger pushing him out of a third-floor window. Later, said stranger approaches him, telling him to put on a magic belt because his surviving the fall proves that he’s descended from a Meso-American puma god from outer space. Think carefully. Would you have reacted any differently than Tony? If you intend to reply in the affirmative, remember that the saints cry whenever such filthy, bald-faced lies cross your lips.

Watching it again, Tony is nowhere near being the useless bumbler who needs Valdinho to handhold him throughout of popular imagination. That likely came about from fans mostly recalling the scenes just after he gets depowered and is at his most whiny.

But this should not be taken as an endorsement of quality. Far from it. Most notable is the unfortunate resemblance to the television series The Greatest American Hero (which came out at near the same time), especially in how similar their awkward flying sequences are. If you think flight is an odd power for a superhero with a puma theme, consider that he can also teleport and phase through walls.

Then there’s his costume. Though the one in the movie poster looks reasonably good, the realization fell short. Truth be told, it looks like something a particularly untalented cosplayer slapped together in a couple of minutes. Our hero isn’t the only one who falls short when it comes to costumes. His foe Kobras wears a leather jumpsuit, which proves to be quite unflattering for a bald dumpy man like Donald Pleasence. But after the aggressively bland movies in the previous two episodes, a bit of energetic stupidity is a welcome change of pace.

Host segments continue their gradual improvement, with the highlight being Mike getting proclaimed as the superhero Coatimundi Man.

  • Favorite riff: Theology contained within this picture may not be wholly accurate. Consult your doctor before embarking on a theology program.
  • Stinger: Tony gets defenestrated.
  • Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Jane is the only female character with a speaking part.

904: Werewolf [Grade: B+]

Of the three werewolf movies screened on MST3K (with the others being The Mad Monster and I Was a Teenage Werewolf), this one hews closest to the Hollywood clichés. We have the uncontrolled transformations, the curse passing on through infection, the emphasis on the full moon, the mopey attitude of the affected protagonist, and on and on. So, when Noel goes on during his exposition dump about how the skinwalker of Navajo folklore is nothing like the Hollywood werewolf, it all rings hollow. Then again, Hollywood werewolves bear only scant resemblance to European werewolf folklore.

One way it differs from more typical movie portrayals is that these werewolves aren’t very menacing. The first two just kind of blunder about before getting killed off in some ignominious fashion. Even as Paul manages to chase down some human prey in his transformed state, it requires a level of victim cooperation not seen since The Creeping Terror. What’s more, after transforming in a bar and then charging out to rampage, almost immediately a random passerby casually decks him. It’s pretty sad. Then there are the continuity errors, which further emphasize the slapdash nature of the production. What I’m saying is that it’s perfect for being featured on MST3K.

Host segments start off a bit slow, with proposals on werewolf movies that star fictional siblings of famous people (playing on how Martin Sheen’s not as famous brother Joe Estevez appears in the film) is a touch underwhelming. It picks up considerably with the song “Where O Werewolf” and caps off beautifully with a two-segment sketch where Mike transforms into a were-Crow (involving a hilarious costume).

  • Favorite riff: Not a good sign when the action in your movie is upstaged by a mural.
  • Stinger: “This is absolutely fascinating.”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. There is no instance of two female characters interacting.

905: The Deadly Bees [Grade: B]

One of the more prominent names in the credits is Robert Bloch of Psycho fame, where he’s listed as a co-writer. According to him, his original script hewed relatively close to the source novel (which was more of an old school detective story). But the director had Anthony Marriott apply some “improvements” that resulted in the end product. I’m usually skeptical when such claims are made (especially if we don’t hear the other person’s side of the story), as it reeks of casting one’s own ineptitude onto a scapegoat. However, Mr. Bloch’s explanation lacks the shrillness common to such accounts, so I only take it with a grain of salt instead of the whole shaker. He also says that he had written the parts of Hargrove and Manfred for Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff respectively but casting them was well out of the film’s budget. This would certainly explain why Doris is so keen about getting into Hargrove’s pants.

Another thing the budget couldn’t cover was decent effects, as the bees in the shots of people being swarmed are obviously superimposed. As for the plot, it’s reminiscent of a murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie. The problem comes about from how stories like that only work if you have a decent pool of suspects. Hargrove and Manfred are the only viable culprits, with the former being such a blatant red herring that the reveal of the latter as the perpetrator falls flat. Manfred’s long-winded villain monologue only serves to add some tedium.

Host segments are erratic. The prologue that parodies those TV drama “Previously!” montages is hilarious, while the return of the other Observers is a bit underwhelming. Though it caps nicely with Brain Guy defeating them and turning them into Cheeseheads (Packers!!!!!). Mike’s communicating like a bee is odd, but in a good way.

  • Favorite riff: “I’m sure we wish them the very best on their forthcoming tour of America.” Should they ever get one.
  • Stinger: “The dog’s meat! Have you seen it?”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. There are multiple non-male conversations between Vicki, Doris, and Mrs. Hargrove. Also, Vicki talks with the P.A. about the stress she’s under.

906: The Space Children (with Century 21 Calling) [Grade: B-]

It’s been a while since we’ve had a short, likely because how, outside serials, there weren’t many that could be classified under even the loosest definition of science fiction. But seeing as how this one features the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 and its wonders of the future, it manages to justify itself. Since Ma Bell is the sponsor here, the future of phone technology gets the largest share of attention. Unfortunately, a lot of the inaner functions that were touted are coming (or have come) to pass.

As for the feature, it’s one of those productions that desperately wants to be profound but falls short. Part of this is due to how cloying the line concerning the innocence of children is. The casting of certain roles is curious in retrospect, as those particular actors had yet to appear in their most famous roles. Abusive stepfather Joe Gamble is instantly recognizable as Russell Johnson, best known as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island (and inspiring quite a few riffs). Not so visually familiar is Raymond Bailey as Dr. Wahrman. Without his toupee, it’s not immediately apparent that he’s Mr. Drysdale of The Beverly Hillbillies.

But back to the movie. It presents the Holy Blob (as it gets referred to by Mike and the Bots) as a benevolent entity acting in humanity’s best interests which uses the children at the facility as agents. But is it because of their innocence or because they’re more mentally pliable? Some of its actions are less than defensible, such as having the kids go onto the launch pad to sabotage the warhead just as the launch was imminent. The violence inflicted on the adults aren’t quite as bad, as the effects are nonlethal. It can even be reasonably argued that Joe Gamble’s death was an accident, and that his alcohol-weakened constitution couldn’t handle a stunning attack. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether the Holy Blob has a cookbook at the ready.

Host segments are a mixed bag. The weakest one involves Mike imitating the spazzy guy from the short, which is just meh. My personal favorite was Crow’s Jackie Coogan Fashion Show, inspired by some ill-advised wardrobe choices for Mr. Coogan in the film (including a very femmy bathrobe and a pair of shorts that were quite unflattering for a man of his build).

  • Favorite riff: “A man of science is like a deep-sea diver. He mustn’t be afraid to walk down where it’s dark and frightening in the hopes of scooping up a handful of truth.” I think I just got the bends from that analogy.
  • Stinger: Joe Gamble’s death stare.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Mrs. Brewster and Mrs. Johnson exchange general pleasantries. Also, Mrs. Johnson begs Eadie to reject the Holy Blob’s commands, who in turn refuses to comply.

907: Hobgoblins [Grade: B+]

One of the great things about the MST3K DVD releases switching from Rhino to Shout! Factory is that Shout includes these wonderful documentaries produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. Their rerelease of Volume VIII (on which Hobgoblins is featured) adds an interview with writer/director Rick Sloane, in which he recounts the production of the movie, as well as revisiting some of the locations.

Much like The Creeping Terror, the story behind the making of the film is more interesting than the actual film. Even the early concepts had some potential. The original premise had the hobgoblins as something more nebulous, at most seeing just a pair of glowing eyes. Unfortunately, Gremlins came out and influenced Sloane into giving them a more physical presence. As a result, we end up with some of the most sad-sack puppets ever recorded on film. And just how bad is their design? Let’s just say that they’re not worthy to reside in the back-alley dumpster behind the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. They’re not even fit to appear in a Sid and Marty Krofft production.

The wardrobe can also provoke Oedipal reactions, featuring many of the more ill-advised fashions of the 1980s. To top it off, the characters are a repulsive lot whose actions are dictated by the needs of the script rather than any natural human behavior. It’s not surprising that much of the cast has a sparse filmography.

One interesting exception to that is Daran Norris, who portrays the MC at the sleazy nightclub. Unless you’re a fan of Veronica Mars (on which he portrays Cliff McCormack), his face might not be familiar. That’s because he mostly works behind a sound booth mike, providing voices in a wide variety of American and Japanese animated productions. One of his more memorable roles was as Andy in the Cowboy Bebop episode “Cowboy Funk”.

Host segments are a laugh riot, with the greatest hilarity coming from Crow’s documentary on women. Servo’s time travel shenanigans to prevent Rick Sloane from making Hobgoblins are also worth a few chuckles.

  • Favorite riff: Can you catch a venereal disease from a movie?
  • Stinger: The hobgoblins enjoy a ride.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. The conversations between Amy and Daphne are about Nick.

908: The Touch of Satan [Grade: C+]

Religious-themed horror is one of the trickier subgenres to pull off. I suspect that the reason why it’s seldom done well is on account of how most of the writers who take a crack at it are at best spiritually indifferent. As a result, they rarely have a strong understanding of the subject matter. A common issue in such works is that they feature the Devil or some similar entity but no benevolent opposite. A theologically problematic set up to say the least. I would argue that the reason why The Exorcist is often seen as the epitome of religious horror is because William Peter Blatty was a believer.

But even if you’re fine with the maltheistic overtones present in this movie, there are other issues. First and foremost is the romance between Melissa and Jodie, which has some of the most clunky and awkward dialogue imaginable. Compared to this, the romance between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones is worthy subject matter for a Shakespearean sonnet. The idea of Melissa being freed from the Devil by having Jodie divest her of her virginity is kind of silly.

Host segments are a mostly fun lot. Particularly memorable is how Pearl has left Bobo and Brain Guy with a babysitter, who treats them like an ill-behaved dog and a petulant child respectively. Scenes on the Satellite are a bit more uneven, though Servo’s homicidal grandma is good for some chuckles. The one where Crow attempts to sell his soul to Satan but instead sells it to a guy named Stan for me recalls the tongue in cheek post-post-post-post-apocalypse RPG Low Life. One of the religions of the setting is Stanism, of which the following is declared about their patron deity: “Stan is the granddaddy of lies and deceit. He’s the great granddaddy of greed and avarice and the second cousin twice removed of apathy, gluttony, and villainy.”

  • Favorite riff: A killer grandma, locked in a barn. Something’s not right here.
  • Stinger: “This is where the fish lives.”
  • Alternate Stinger: “ZOT!!!!!”
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Molly offers more coffee and Melissa declines.

909: Gorgo [Grade: C]

King Kong is the plot formula that keeps on giving. Though this time around, there’s none of the unfortunate monkey love implications found in the original and many of the imitators (largely due to all female characters being consigned to the background). Also, the monster doesn’t die. But otherwise, all the major plot beats are observed. In place of the size and species incompatibility-based lust, we get an Irish Kenny named Sean (though the child actor in question is originally from Scotland).

Incidentally, this came out four years before Gamera for what it’s worth. In many respects, Sean is worse than Kenny, who was merely deluded in believing that Gamera was good. Sean appears to revel in the destruction caused by Gorgo, seeing it as something the people who captured it brought on themselves. Even considering that the captors had been motivated by greed, that’s a rather misanthropic attitude when you consider all the Londoners who get killed in the rampage.

Host segments are a mixed affair. The low point is the one where Mike tries to get the Bots to play the William Sylvester Edition of Trivial Pursuit, which is just forced. Far better was the hilarious Nanite circus, even though the punchline was a bit obvious. But most notable was the guest appearance by Entertainment Tonight film critic Leonard Maltin, who you may recall gave highish ratings for Laserblast and The Undead, which provoked some ire from Mike and the Bots. At least he seems to have taken it in good humor.

  • Favorite riff: Maybe Mary Poppins flies in and kicks his arse.
  • Stinger: “Cad a dhéanfaimid anois!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. There is no instance of two females conversing, with almost no speaking female characters at all.

910: The Final Sacrifice [Grade: B-]

Why am I not surprised that this was a film school project that somehow got a direct-to-video release? There’s a kernel of a good idea in there, with a sinister cult attempting to locate a lost city in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. But the production gets undermined by a host of flaws. First and foremost are the unappealing leads in the person of mulleted drifter Zap Rowsdower (who doesn’t have the panache to pull off being named Zap) and noodly teen wimp Troy MacGreggor. The antagonists aren’t any better, with the faceless cultists clad in ski masks and wifebeaters not being all that menacing. The cult leader (referred to by Mike and the Bots as Garth Vader) had this weird distortion effect applied to his voice in post. Perhaps it was meant to signify him having been tainted by otherworldly forces, but it’s just distracting.

Even considering the student film origins, some of the props are really sad, especially an idol that looks like Porky Pig with an overbite. One good thing to come out of this is that the Call of Cthulhu blog Delta Green posted BRP stats for Zap Rowsdower, which are worth a chuckle or two.

Host segments are pretty disappointing. The Canada Song is the weakest song of the season, and perhaps even of the entire SciFi era. It’s not the mean tone per se (some of their best sketches could be quite mean), it’s that there’s nothing to complement the meanness. The rest are similarly lacking in creativity, aside from a sketch played over the movie’s end credits where Crow pitches The Final Sacrifice as a television show.

  • Favorite riff: I sensed that with my hair. My hair is an elaborate network of nerves, constantly processing information.
  • Stinger: “Rowdowser?”
  • Alternate Stinger: “Wow!”
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. Aunt Betty is the only female character, and she’s barely in it.

911: Devil Fish [Grade: B+]

Released in 1984, this one was a bit late in the game to cash in on the hostile marine life craze started by Jaws. But it makes up for its tardiness by employing sheer inanity. First and foremost is how an evil corporation creates a prehistoric shark/octopus mashup with no obvious profit potential. The villain makes some vague proclamation on the future being in the oceans or something like that, but nothing concrete. I suppose it could be used as a ransom scheme against the shipping industry. But at that point, they would be acting more like a crime syndicate than a traditional corporation. Then there’s the revelation of how it reproduces asexually, a trait not commonly associated with either sharks or octopoodles. (Note: This is a deliberate unconventional plural of octopus.)

It gets even better, though. To destroy the hellbeast, it’s determined that it must be set on fire. Not easy to accomplish with an underwater critter. So, they figure they can draw it to the surface using the same method from Beginning of the End wherein they electronically simulate the critter’s mating call. The mating call of a gengineered abomination which reproduces asexually. I apologize for brain cells that needlessly died while processing that statement. It’s a tough call to determine whether this or the future Carbon-14 dating of Terror from the Year 5000 is more idiotic.

Host segments are vastly improved compared to the last episode, with much hilarity provided by Pearl’s cruise line scam and Mike offending a highly advanced yet quite touchy dolphin civilization. The real gut buster though is the Italian stereotype filter.

  • Favorite riff: Of course I am American and not Italian. I drive a truck.
  • Stinger: “It’s right underneath us!” “I knowwwww!”
  • Alternate Stinger: Perfect!
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. Stella and Sonja briefly talk about tracking down the Devil Fish.

912: The Screaming Skull (with Robot Rumpus) [Grade: A+++]

This Gumby short presumably slipped through the SF filter thanks to its plot involving Gumby using robots to do yard work. Not much to say except that the reaction of the Bots when they see the end title card (featuring the head of a robot mounted over the garage door) is hilarious.

Concerning the feature, there’s a movie called Gaslight to which The Screaming Skull shares some plot elements. Mostly in how a man manipulates his psychologically frail new wife into believing that she’s losing her grip on reality. But I have to say in this regard, The Screaming Skull pulls it off much better. I’m sure this is a minority opinion, seeing as how Gaslight has a bunch of Oscar nominations and big-name stars associated with it. But Charles Boyer’s character is clumsy in his technique, particularly in how he goes out of his way to publicly humiliate Ingrid Bergman’s character. Compare this to what happens in The Screaming Skull, where Eric feigns concerns over Jenny’s deteriorating mental condition. It’s no contest who is the more convincing threat.

That having been said, it may have been better served as a Night Gallery segment. There’s a mostly decent story to be found here. But even at minimum feature length, it’s stretched out a bit too thin.

The only host segments that bomb are the interactions between the Satellite and the Castle. This involves a “Who’s the greater fool?” situation that fizzles out quickly and then wears out its welcome further by continuing in the final host segment. Everything else is hilarious, from the Bots working out their trauma over the short to them trying to scam themselves a free coffin (the film’s prologue having a William Castle style offer for free funerary services for anyone who dies of fright while watching the movie).

  • Favorite riff: Remember folks, if you die of boredom, you do not get a free coffin.
  • Stinger: Eric flings his stool.
  • Alternate Stinger: Agree.
  • Bechdel Test: Pass. When they first meet, Jenny and Mrs. Snow exchange general pleasantries.

913: Quest of the Delta Knights [Grade: A]

Long before the acknowledgement in the end credits confirmed it, it was a safe guess that this was shot at a Renaissance festival. I can only imagine that a sizable chunk of the budget went into securing the services of David Warner and Olivia Hussey. It certainly didn’t go into much else, and the whole production is riddled with anachronisms. This would be relatively acceptable if it took place in some generic fantasy setting. However, references are made to real world locations such as England.

Then there’s the presence of one who is supposed to be Leonardo da Vinci. Though the depiction is about as flattering as the one for H.G. Wells in the Doctor Who serial “Timelash” and is considerably less deserved. Even more horrific is the comic relief. Dear Gawd, the comic relief. What little menace the antagonists possessed was severely undercut by these ill-advised attempts at humor.

One of the more memorable aspects of this episode is that Pearl replaces Mike in the theater for the first movie segment, which is an odd situation to say the least. The host segments are quite memorable, featuring a bunch of Servos singing a madrigal about the Delta Knights and a visit from Leonardo da Vinci, who is understandably miffed about how he’s portrayed in the movie.

  • Favorite riff: Sir, are we Saxons or Vikings? So what are we? Let’s settle on that.
  • Stinger: Even his co-star is embarrassed by Mr. “I’m Comeeeng!!”
  • Alternate Stinger: The slaver gets a splash of wizard whizz.
  • Bechdel Test: Fail. At no point do two females converse with each other.

Bechdel Test totals as of Season 9: 84 Pass, 78 Fail, 1 Ambiguous

And that’s all we have for now. Though the original run is coming close to the end, there’s no need to get stressed over it.

3 comments

  1. Oh jeez! You forgot to remove the notes I made to you in the entries for The Final Sacrifice and Devil Fish.

      • For the record, it comes from the George MacDonald Fraser novel The Pyrates, a hilarious spoof of Golden Age of Piracy fiction. At one point, the roguish scoundrel character is getting the hero up to speed on the situation where the villain has taken several supporting characters captive. One of these captives is being held in a cage dangling over a man-eating octopus pool, because of course there’s a man-eating octopus pool. They then detour into an argument over what the correct plural for octopus is.

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