With nineteen boxed sets under its belt, Mystery Science Theater 3000 knows exactly what it’s doing. Like the show itself, the DVDs rely on an expected formula that the fans know by heart and that carries no nasty surprises. So it was when Rhino first released the sets, and so it is under Shout Factory. Give consumers the episodes they want, throw in a few bells and whistles, and deliver it all in a handsome package that looks snazzy on the shelf. The 19th collection makes good on that promise, while delivering an unexpectedly strong array of movies to boot. Hit the jump to read my full review.
As always, the box set contains four episodes of the beloved cult series, in which two mad scientists torture a hapless guinea pig and his robot pals by forcing them to watch the worst movies ever made. The subjects respond by mercilessly ridiculing said movies, appearing as silhouettes in front of the action and timing their jokes to go along with the dialogue. The first two films feature Joel Hodgson as host, including one from the show’s hard-to-find first season. The second two come from the later Mike Nelson era, which means an edgier and more cutting tone to the jokes.
The Hodgson films constitute the set’s biggest treat. Though amiable and fun, his gentler tone usually translates to fewer laughs than episodes featuring Nelson. The boxed set counters that by giving him two infamously awful movies. The renowned Robot Monster features a creature cobbled together from a gorilla suit and diving helmet: so ridiculously bad that it’s become a pop culture icon (look for a riff on it in the upcoming Megamind). The second film, Bride of the Monster, comes from the mind of the notorious Ed Wood, and attains a strange perfection in its thorough, unbelievable badness. The pair make excellent introductions to MST for the uninitiated, while long-time fans used to more obscure movies can revel in Joel and the bots taking down some big-league turkeys. (As with other first-season entries, Robot Monster features J. Elvis Weinstein voicing Tom Servo, which can be a littler jarring for viewers used to Kevin Murphy in the part.)
Nelson’s two films follow a more business-as-usual pattern: lesser known stinkers that benefit from the host’s sharper wit. Devil Doll revisits the classic chestnut of a possessed ventriloquist dummy, playing just like that old episode of The Twilight Zone except that, you know, it sucks. The last film, Devil Fish, relies on MST’s typical diet of rubber monsters, featuring a squid-like creature that terrorizes a bunch of Floridians with suspiciously Italian names. Mike and the bots allow no cinematic sin to pass unpunished, and while they lack the novelty value of Joel’s entries, his efforts remain the funniest of the quartet.
The discs contain a surprisingly muscular series of extras: short, but very insightful. The best arrives on the Bride of the Monster disc, a documentary covering the legacy of Wood from the people who knew him, a discussion of Bela Lugosi and a lovely rumination on the immortal Tor Johnson from George “The Animal” Steele (who played Johnson in Ed Wood). Other featurettes discuss such elements as MST’s invention exchange and the initial reluctance to riff on a “classic” like Robot Monster. As with other boxed sets in the series, a set of mini posters is included, along with a plastic statuette of Gypsy to match the earlier Crow and Servo statues.
It makes for a sexy collection: exactly what fans of the series expect, with just a little bit extra included this time around. While not necessarily surprising, it doesn’t need to be. Shout Factory and Best Brains have this down to a (*ahem*) science by now, and the fans neither expect nor desire anything more. MST remains as funny and insightful as ever and the four films here exemplify its one-of-a-kind charms. The box set has more than the movies to offer, but truth be told, it really doesn’t need them.