Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIX

Studio: Shout! Factory

Nov 20, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For the better part of the last decade, MSTies have been fortunate to have the beloved cult show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the loving hands of home video label Shout! Factory. With consistent packaging, fun bonus materials, and an informative documentary (or two) from Ballyhoo Pictures, their 26 volumes of MST3K proved well worth the purchase for fans of the show who’d been holding on to grainy, multi-generational VHS dubs since the 1990s. That's what makes this review so bittersweet: due to complicated licensing issues, Shout! Factory has announced that Volume XXXIX will (quite possibly, almost certainly) be the final boxed set of unreleased MST3K episodes they’ll put out.

When the show was still in production, film licenses were usually only obtained for over-the-air broadcasts of the movies being riffed. No one could have anticipated the TV-on-DVD boom coming in the near future, as MST3K went off the air before DVDs were widely adopted in the United States. As licenses expired, episodes would simply disappear from the rerun schedule, leaving fans with the only option to swap tapes for the ones no longer in circulation. Eventually, though, DVDs took over the home video market, with their high capacity opening up new possibilities for TV shows to be sold directly to consumers at a reasonable price point (not to mention, no longer requiring an entire shelf’s worth of storage space for a single season.) The first Mystery Science Theater 3000 boxed set landed in 2002, resonating well enough with MSTies to spawn 39 volumes plus a handful of one-offs, first by Rhino and then from the show’s current label, Shout! Factory.

Each time a new box was assembled, the labels would often need to negotiate new licenses for the films they wanted to feature. (This didn’t always go smoothly, which is why so many of the early box sets went out of print shortly after release.) In many cases, you have to imagine the films’ owners were happy to accept the DVD labels’ licensing fee. There are almost a dozen episodes, however, that for whatever reason the rights holder simply said ‘no.’ These include a number of films where the fee is presumed to be exorbitantly high; a couple movies already under license to another DVD label; and a few with owners who hold them so dear that it’s somewhat amazing the film ever appeared on MST3K in the first place.

Shout!’s done an incredible job of negotiating rights to episodes fans never thought they’d see on DVD, but the announcement of Volume XXXIX appears to indicate they’ve hit a point where the remaining episodes may prove too tricky to obtain. That may not always remain the case – rights could change hands, or attitudes shift – but in the meantime, if you’re in possession of those missing episodes, you know what they say: keep circulating those tapes. (Or, re-uploading them to YouTube.)

And with that, on to the episodes include in Volume XXXIX:

Girls Town – This late-50s juvenile delinquency flick hails from MGM, so the production values are higher than what you might from a movie built entirely around a single drag race, a few Paul Anka songs, and numerous catfights. A young Mamie Van Doren plays Silver, a troubled teen who hangs around with a gang of no-good street racers. When one boy from a rival racing crew is found dead at the bottom of a cliff after his scheduled date with Silver, the girl has no concrete alibi. Rather than prison, she’s sent to “Girls Town,” a home for wayward young ladies run by a squad of no-nonsense nuns. From here, it’s a very light, pseudo-women in prison flick, complete with power struggles and defiance of authority; all the while, Silver maintains her innocence. Teenage Paul Anka plays a lounge singer with a laughably “dark” past, and 35-year-old jazz vocalist Mel Torme plays an extremely unconvincing teenager. The movie itself is pretty entertaining, and Mike and the ‘bots riffing is on point. (A long, running gag about one Girls Town resident’s obsession with Anka’s character is an absolute hoot, and the moment when Silver’s innocence is finally confirmed to her is tear-inducingly funny.) Overall a fantastic episode, and a great one to be included in what might (possibly? maybe?) be the classic series’ final DVD release. Bonus features include an interview with musician Chuck Love, composer of the series’ theme song, which contains some wonderful early, KTMA-era footage of the show.

The Amazing Transparent Man – Ace safe-cracker Joey Faust is sprung from prison by a mysterious criminal benefactor. After evading the police, he meets this evil mastermind: the mad “Major,” an ex-Army officer who’s kidnapped a German scientist and is forcing him to carry out radiation experiments in the attic of his Texas farmhouse. The scientist – a genius who had previously been forced to carry out research for the Nazis – has developed a method of turning people invisible. The Major wants to use it to build himself an invisible army; he needs Faust’s help stealing radioactive materials from military safehouses to carry out his scheme. Once he’s invisible, though, Faust realizes that it’s impossible for his new boss to keep an eye on him, and goes on a spree of bank robberies. This 1960 cheapie was shot entirely in Texas under the production house Miller Consolidated Pictures, an independent studio founded by oil barons looking to use low-budget movies as tax shelters. There’s far too much plot to unpack in the movie’s 57-minute runtime (uncut!), and it’s painfully slow-moving and expository until we finally get to the point where our anti-hero actually turns invisible, leading to action scenes where security guards pantomime getting beat up by an invisible assailant, and sacks of money float out of a bank vault on the end of a fishing line. These scenes are silly with or without Mike and the ‘bots commentary. The episode is greatly helped along by the inclusion of “Days of Our Years,” an unintentionally creepy short feature about workplace safety that precedes the main film. (The disc includes a 13-minute Ballyhoo documentary about Transparent Man's production history, which is wonderfully enlightening.)

Diabolik – Diabolik is sort of Italy’s take on James Bond, except if – rather than a spy – Bond was a master thief who stole huge amounts of money from the government and spent it pimping out his batcave-like bachelor pad. (Seriously – how is he the hero of this movie?) There’s a lot of far-fetched heists, high-tech gadgets, and ’60s style; imagine a sexier version of the old Batman TV show, but without the self-aware sense of humor.  Riff-wise, it’s a middleweight episode, with some funny jabs at the movie’s suffocating grooviness. What makes it notable for MSTies, though, is that it was the final episode of the show’s original run, depicting Mike and the ‘bots return to Earth, which makes it an essential part of the series’ mythology. Fortunately the MST3K crew had the good foresight to appreciate that what they were doing should be documented, and shot a ton of behind-the-scenes footage on their final days of production. Some of this was combined with recent interviews and turned into the mini-documentary Showdown in Eden Prairie: Their Final Experiment, about the making of this last episode and the final days of MST3K. Also included is The Last Dance, the raw footage shot on handheld camcorder over the last day of taping, captured in grainy, VHS-quality glory. Together, these two bonus features offer the best fly-on-the-wall view of how an episode of the show was made, and – with great footage of rarely-seen areas, such as the workshop where puppet and props were built – they’re absolutely fascinating to watch.

In lieu of a fourth episode,  the final disc in the set is essentially bonus content. Titled “Satellite Dishes,” the disc assembles all of the host segments from the remaining episodes that have never been released on DVD. It’s a great inclusion for fans and completionists, and there are some classic sketches to be found in there. (Although it can be a bit weird to watch the skits removed from the film they’re referencing, it was a smart move for Shout! Factory to include these.) Finally, in a rather meta bit of decision-making, there’s a documentary about Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, the company that produced all of the fantastic docs that have appeared on Shout!’s MST3K releases over the years. Run by Daniel Griffith, Ballyhoo consistently approached its subjects with a level of respect and reverence that’s rarely shown to b-movies and their authors; not only were these documentaries enlightening and educational, but they often paid tribute to their subject matter in fun ways. (I wound up looking forward to these features as much as the episodes contained in each MST3K box set.) We’ll hope that Shout! keeps funneling work Ballyhoo’s way on their non-MST releases, and look forward to Griffith’s upcoming, feature-length doc, Celluloid Wizards in the Video Wasteland, on ‘80s b-movie factory Empire Pictures.

For casual fans who may only own a few of these box sets, we’d probably steer you towards one of the earlier installments. (XXXI is a favorite, as is XXXIV.) If you’re a diehard MST3K fan – and if you’re reading a review of the series’ 39th DVD volume, we’re guessing you might be – then this final set is a no-brainer. It’s extremely bittersweet, but a really great note for them to go out on. 


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