Sunday, June 10, 2012

"He'll Have to Sit and Watch Them All and We'll Monitor His Mind"

And now we come to the final installment in the MST3K season 4 overview. 

Invariably during every season there are episodes which can mostly pass without comment -- "good" but not "great".  In the midst of these episodes though there may be a terrific host segment or a short film which outshines the feature film it is paired with.

So this post is where I highlight those things.

First up:

'The Rainy Day Holo-Clowns':  This one actually starts in the third host segment of episode 405 -- Being From Another Planet.  The gang would continue it in the opening to the following episode Attack of the Giant Leeches.  The second half -- in which it turns out the 'holo-clowns' have been up on the hexfield viewscreen for three weeks -- is the funnier bit as Joel frantically tries to finally shut the system down and the holo-clowns start to have their own nervous breakdowns.  And yes, that's Mike Nelson as one of the clowns -- the other is Paul Chaplin, a writer on the show.  This was Chaplin's first on-screen appearance.

Next: 'The bots try to convince Joel he's crazy' from episode 409 The Indestructible Man.  The movie and the short are a unremarkable and unmemorable but this opening host segment is a hoot.  It wasn't too often that the bots tried playing tricks on Joel but when the gang brought one out it was usually a good one.  On top of that, this segment does beg the question -- was Kevin Murphy pupeteering Crow instead of his usual Tom Servo?  And was Trace Beaulieu handling Tom Servo instead of Crow?

This next one is a short instead of a host segment.  Apparently a tourism film to promote the Canadian National Exposition or something Johnny at the Fair chronicles the exploits of young Johnny (who else?) as he runs around the expo meeting famous people and getting free rides and free food while his parents search for him frantically... well, as frantic as you can get in a 1950's film designed to convince people to come to the expo.  Wait...  was 'come to the expo and lose your kid and then have a lousy time while you freak out looking for him and imagining the worst' really the message they wanted to send?  Anyway, as you can imagine, Joel and the bots have an excellent time making fun of little Johnny's adventures and the riffing for this short is a lot more fun than the movie it's paired with -- episode 419's The Rebel Set.

We're back to host segments for 'Grumpy Hugh Beaumont'.  Back in season 2 the gang tackled the snoozer film The Lost Continent and the host segments for that one were livened up by a visit from Leave it to Beaver's dad Hugh Beaumont (Mike Nelson)... as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.  Well, in season 4 Hugh returns courtesy of episode 420 -- The Human Duplicators.  Hugh may no longer be a horseman of the apocalypse but he's decidedly older and grumpier... much to Joel and the bots' dismay and much to the delight of the viewer...  Sadly, I can't find an embeddable copy of this video so just check out the third host segment for the episode -- you'll be glad you did.

And here we have another short which was far funnier than the film it was paired with...  Circus on Ice is... well, I'm honestly still trying to figure out WHY this short film was created in the first place.  It doesn't seem to fill any tourism function and it's not really educational and it's past the days of the old newsreels when they would splat just about any odd thing onto film but no matter it's original purpose here it becomes comedy gold.  Joel and the bots indulge in quite a bit of dark humor and some risque riffing but it's hysterically funny -- far more funny than the weird and nearly incomprehensible Monster A-Go-Go it's paired with.

Finally, we come to kind of a tough one for me.  You see the short Hired! -- obviously a training film created by Chevrolet pre-WW II to train it's sales managers -- actually originally came in two parts and the riffing team did use both parts.  Part one was paired with episode 423 Bride of the Monster and part two was paired with the next movie in line -- Manos, The Hands of Fate.  The riffing on the first half of Hired! is pretty good really but the riffing on the second half is superior in my opinion.  Still, I almost included the first half of the short here as well if for no other reason than the second half makes slightly more sense in context when you've seen the first half.  Also, because one of the host segments for episode 423 also makes more sense when you've seen the first half of Hired!  In the end, I'll leave it up to you if you want to seek out Hired! part one or not.  It's pretty good stuff but the real gem here is actually the host segment...

Joel and the bots take the events and characters from the short and turn them into a really great parody song medley.  'Hired! The Musical' is one of the best parody musical bits the gang has done in a good while as far as I'm concerned.  Mike Nelson outdid himself on the songs and Joel Hodgson manages to pretty well control his often wayward voice to turn in an acceptable singing performance.  Kevin Murphy's tenor is, of course, the scene stealer.  The gang manages to do a perfect parody/satire of a musical in less than four minutes -- that takes serious talent!

So, that's season 4 wrapped.  Onward from here!

Friday, June 8, 2012

"We'll Send Him Cheesy Movies; The Worst We Can Find"

And now it's time for my favorite MST3K episodes of the fourth season...

In broadcast order....

Teenagers from Outer Space: This is one goofy film and it is smack in the MST3K wheelhouse.  A cheesy, sci-fi movie made on half-a-shoestring budget with actors who fall into one of three categories: Can't act, don't act, or overact.  I have to admit that within the first few minutes of sitting down to watch this episode I thought I was going to be in for one of those mediocre slogs but the movie quickly picked up in absurdity and as it did Joel, Trace, and Kevin's riffing also picked up exponentially.  The movie -- the story of a group of aliens who come to Earth to find grazing land for their food source (basically a poor lobster probably bought at the local grocery store) only to have one of their number rebel to try to warn the human population that their planet is about to be turned into pasture land -- is unintentionally hilarious in its' own right but when you add the riffing it immediately reaches the level of comedy gold.  The riffing team are fast with the jokes and far more of them hit the mark than fall flat.  On top of all of that, the host segments are pretty good here -- the third one is a particular favorite of mine as the Satellite of Love is visited by an alien hot rod...

The Magic Sword: To be honest, this movie is almost mediocre.  It falls juuuussst under the line.  With a little more effort it would have probably missed being a riffing target.  As it is though Joel and the bots do a bang-up job tearing apart this story which rips off at least half-a-dozen fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.  The host segments for this one are also pretty good but the second one, where Tom Servo gives a mini-lecture on what life in the Middle Ages was really like warms my historian heart.  It's pretty spot-on, historically speaking, if a bit superficial.  What's even funnier, though, is Joel and Crow's reaction to having their light fantasy ruined by a dose of reality.  Check this one out.

Manhunt in Space (with a General Hospital short): *Sigh* in my previous post I covered why I didn't like the addition of chopped up General Hospital episodes as shorts.  Despite it's presence here I really dug Manhunt in Space.  Little bit of background -- the "movie" is actually several episodes of early sci-fi TV series Rocky Jones: Space Ranger mashed together to form a movie.  Unlike the clunky Master Ninja movies of last season though Rocky Jones, like Doctor Who was done serial style -- or story arc style -- with several episodes of the show being pieces of the larger story and often ending on a cliffhanger.  Because of this the Rocky Jones episodes actually work pretty well in movie format.  Also, this is another one that probably wasn't too fair to riff in all honesty.  The show came from the 1950's when almost all TV writing was pretty cheesy and clunky and on top of that the show was made for kids.  The worst crime this movie really commits is simply not aging well.  Despite my defense of the movie I still love the episode.  There are some really funny jokes here that had me laughing out loud and I really get a sense from the riffing team that there was also a certain amount of fondness involved even as they do tear into the film.  The host segments really aren't anything to write home about here though -- the feature film is the real... uh.... feature.

Fire Maidens of Outer Space: Oh man, this one... this one is solid gold.  Not gold leaf, not gold plated , solid.  Gold.  The riffing is top notch and in fact is the *only* thing that makes this movie watchable (more on that later) and the host segments are a rarity on a number of levels.  Up until close to the end of the show's run the gang rarely did linked host segments which, all together, told a whole story.  This is one of those rare occasions.  Not only that but the host segments are all genuinely funny and they all work together to present a perfect satire of, of all things, Aliens.  Even more rare, the host segment action even spills over into the theatre riffing!  All of this is terrific because the movie is epic fail on every level.  There are wide swaths of stuff which is not explained and makes no sense, the plot doesn't go anywhere, and worst of all NOTHING HAPPENS!  This movie is lethally dull.  And I mean that.  It should come with biohazard stickers and a Surgeon General's warning.  Unriffed this movie could put a person down so hard it would make Sleeping Beauty's 100 year rest look like a nap.  It is a testament to the writing and riffing talents of the whole team that they can pull this movie up and shove it over the top.  I've seen the host segments alone available on YouTube strung together so you can see the whole 'story' but I'm not linking to it nor embedding it here because everyone should go watch the whole thing and not just the host segments.

Attack of the (the) Eye Creatures: This one is almost too, too, easy.  There are movies made on the cheap and then there's THIS thing.  Ye gods...  Almost the entire film is shot day-for-night -- because it's cheaper.  The sets are whatever they could find locally -- with a presumed military base looking like a grade school -- because it was cheaper.  The alien costumes are just cheap with industrial zippers clearly visible in the back and wobbly heads and then they're so cheap they don't actually have enough alien costumes to go around and in one scene one of the "aliens" consists of a black turtleneck, black pants, and sneakers.  This is yet another one that simply makes fun of itself.  Why should we, however, expend the effort since Joel and the bots do such a good job of it?  Again, the riffing is great -- but the guys would have had to have been dead to not do a good job when the movie practically gives them the jokes.  They still manage to get creative and go places with the riffing that I never would have expected and that makes this one fun.  The host segments are... not real great here.  In fact, there's only one a truly like -- Tom Servo wants to know what it would be like to "make out".  You can zone out during most of the host segments but don't miss the riffing on this movie.

Manos, The Hands of Fate: Yeah, you all just KNEW this one had to be in here, didn't you?  This one often is called the best episode of the Joel era and some claim it the best episode of the show period.  Others consider it wholly distasteful.  It is... well... one for the books.  As much as I called Fire Maidens of Outer Space epic fail filmmaking this one is even more so.  The difference is that Fire Maidens was made by people who should have known better while Manos was made on a bet (not kidding) by people who had no real clue.  In some ways it maybe isn't fair to riff it -- Joel and the gang have long said and still say today that they won't riff on amateur films or student films basically because they're done by people who are still learning or who don't know any better and Manos is pretty much an amateur film.  It did have some theatrical release though and did end up in a video syndication package so... yeah... it barely makes it fair game.  It's just so completely... bizarre a film -- badly shot, badly edited, badly lit (check out all the moths which swarm around the obvious spotlights), bad dialogue badly delivered, weird characters and a plot that makes little sense -- that it actually might make difficult riffing fodder rather than easy fodder.  There are some moments in the film which seem to leave Joel and the bots nearly speechless or else their only reaction is simply to laugh.  Despite the movie, maybe because of it, the gang do a great job at the riffing and produce genuinely entertaining host segments and along the way turn Torgo into a star.  If you've got the fortitude definitely check this one out -- this time I think the Master would approve...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"But His Bosses Didn't Like Him So They Shot Him Into Space"

That's right, I'm back with more MST3K! I know, I know, I've been slacking on the blog but... stuff. It happens.

Anyway, we're going to do this way the same way as my previous MST3K post(s) -- this post will cover my overview of season 4 and the two subsequent posts will cover my favorite episodes from the season and why and my favorite host segments.

So... on with Season 4!

Really, I don't know where to begin... mostly because the creative team had reached a kind of plateau. The cast and crew were mostly stable (we'll get to the "mostly" in a minute) and they had been working together for such a long time that they operated like a well-oiled machine. They churned out 24 episodes which filled a two-hour programming block without a visible hitch and while not every episode might be a laugh riot there wasn't a clunker in the bunch this season and at their weakest they were still entertaining. They had reached a point of consistency that few shows could boast.

One area where improvement could be seen was with some of the tougher movies. The gang tackled some of the arguably worst bad movies. You see, bad movies can basically be broken down into two categories -- ones which are so ridiculously bad they are actually entertaining in their badness and ones which are so bad they are boring and/or incomprehensible. In season 4 the writing and riffing team handled some real snooze-fest films. Titles like Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Monster A-Go-Go, and the infamous Manos, the Hands of Fate just to name a few. In season 3 the gang had struggled with the more boring and/or incomprehensible films like Castle of Fu Manchu (where they used crying and complaining to try to cover the fact that they just failed to come up with some witty one-liners) and the two Master Ninja movies (using that word loosely) but in season 4 the worst of the worst are considered by many to be some of their best, most inspired, riffing jobs. Not only that but Manos had a strong showing despite coming at the end of the grueling season when the team had to have been feeling the burn-out.

One thing which probably helped defeat the burn-out was the addition of two regular writers for the series. Colleen Henjum and Mary Jo Pehl were added to the writing staff -- hence why I say the cast and crew were "mostly" stable.

There was only one departure this season -- that of Production Manager Alexandra "Alex" Carr. While Carr worked behind the scenes apparently she also had one role in front of the cameras... sort of...that of the uncredited "Magic Voice" -- the dulcet tones of the Satellite of Love's computer A.I... or something -- it was never properly explained WHAT Magic Voice was. Either way, with Carr's departure there was a change in Magic Voice's... uh... voice and fans of the show will recognize that Mary Jo Pehl took over the role -- still uncredited.

There wasn't a lot of innovation this season but we do see the gang say goodbye to the movie serial installments. For the first three seasons on cable the gang had often padded out their episode run times by pairing a shorter movie with either a film short or else an episode from a movie serial. With this season they did a couple of movie serials and experimented with a couple of episodes of a soap opera (General Hospital) to fill out episodes before finally and fully settling on the shorts from here on when they needed to pad out a run time.

While your actual miles may vary I found that the gang did seem to take a while to find their feet in season 4. While, as I said, none of the episodes are bad, the first three were just not extremely funny to me and it took until the fourth episode in before I felt like they really started getting inspired. Once they got past that point, though, they turned in some really terrific episodes.

The gang also had a really nice variety in their film choices this season. They balanced traditional sci-fi with some fantasy/myth movies and peppered in some wanna-be noir pieces, 'dangerous youth' films, and even a 'post-apocalyptic' style flick. It was a cornucopia of styles of bad filmmaking and it gave the season a nice diversity to keep the riffing fresh and different.

The one thing I didn't like and was quite happy to see go was the General Hospital experiment. The show's focus had always been on the "movie experience" so throwing in episodes of a TV series just felt wrong to me. In addition, it seemed like it was a little unfair picking on a soap opera. Movies tend to have long gestation periods and layers of people involved where one would think that someone, somewhere along the chain might say "You know what? This isn't very good" and fix the things that were going wrong -- doctor the script, get a new director, get new actors... something! A soap opera on the other hand, had to be written quickly and shot even faster since it went out on the air five days a week. Also, the very nature of soap operas are built on ideas of very little character development and mostly an illusion of change without there being much actual change. Soap operas also are completely built on the kind of overblown plots that the guys tended to make fun of in movies. And on top of all of that... I just didn't find the riffing that funny. It felt like the guys were always kind of struggling for inspiration with them and there were only a few gems of humor in the installments so I was glad to see them go.

So, in the final summation -- season 4 merely continued the same good work the gang had already been doing. Plenty of funny work and a relaxed ease that really shone through on camera. There are several points in the host segments where you can see things happen which were more than likely accidents or ad-libs but the gang has reached such a level of competency that they often take it and run with it -- incorporating the accident into the episode seamlessly.

Next up -- some of my favorite episodes... and why.