“WATCH OUT FOR SNAKES!”
If you are a fan of Mystery Science Theater…as I indeed am…the past few days have been a godsend. Between the trio of Michael Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy skewering the bizarre, hallucinogenic Samurai Cop during the first Rifftrax Live event of 2017 (two more are slated for later this year!), AND the premiere of season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 300 just one day later. As a geek traipsing around the streets of New York City, this was one of the better ways to ring in the new, warmer weather, and hopefully a mere preview of the continued presence of Mystery Science…and the Rifftrax crew…for the foreseeable future.
Back in 1999, I watched what was presumably the series finale for the original Mystery Science Theater 3000. The episode — the Italian spy caper “Danger Diabolik!” — would eventually become one of my personal favorites, despite it being tinged with an appropriate melancholy. Twelve years later I’d rewatch the episode with a friend of mine, and afterwards he’d remarked, “It’s sad. That’s it. There’s no more.” And yet…six years almost to the day after that viewing 18 years after the initial cancellation, following one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, and after I had the surreal chance to interview incoming host Jonah Ray…here we are. And here I am, giddily reviewing season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And after 18 years I can say it was worth the wait.
The initial 12-episode run was expanding to 14 episodes (including a Christmas episode) due to the Kickstarter success, and we are all the better for it. Of the fourteen, I’ve gotten exactly halfway through, and already this season ranks as one of the best in the entire series run, not just due to the quality of the jokes, but also the improved production design and actually expanding on what worked on the classic run. Series creator, and producer, Joel Hodgson (who seems to be playing it very close to the chest and applying a deft guiding presence throughout, combined the best elements of his tenure as host, as well as that of Michael J. Nelson, whose sensibilities ran a tad cruder and bluer (not that either of those qualities are bad, so don’t think I’m bashing him!), while adding an energetic, lively verve that the series had been missing in its later seasons. Jonah is clearly enjoying himself and couldn’t be happier to be interacting with the bots — Tom Servo and Crow — and ripping apart such bizarre gems as the Dutch kaiju film Reptilicus, meandering Bigfoot film Cry Wilderness, or the absolutely hysterical Rock Hudson vehicle Avalanche (which might be one of the single funniest episodes of the entire series. It ranks up there with The Final Sacrifice or Hobgoblins with how laser-focused and fast-paced the riffs come).
While the new episodes are a bit sleeker to look at (and welcome the HD, widescreen streaming quality Netflix delivers), the home-spun, DIY feel of the sets and props remain. Sure, Crow is more articulate and Tom has working arms now, but they still remain physical puppets, and the ships and space scenes are charmingly low-key, if not a bit more detailed. The increased budget (and lack of true restrictions that comes with being on Netflix) allows the show to run a bit bluer than it has in the past, and for the bots and Jonah to interact with the screen more (a great bit comes in Avalanche where Tom and Crow walk to the empty far-left of the screen and control two drones which fly into frame and cover-up the more revealing parts during a nude scene.) Tom, in fact, is the more active participant with the screen, often hovering up and performing a few sight-gags.
As for the human cast, it is obvious that they are enjoying every moment on-set. Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt (as Kinga Forrester and Max, aka TV’s Son of TV’s Frank) make the most of their roles, with Oswalt in particular underplaying the part much as former “Mad” Frank Conniff had during his run. Being an avowed fan of crappy movies himself, I imagine Oswalt was a blast on-set. Felicia Day might not have quite the comedic talents as her predecessors, but having so many other talented performers off whom to bounce, she is a delight. And when the guest stars appear, the show’s “host segments” actually improve the episodes (in the first…and then the later…seasons of the initial run, the host segments could bog the energy down a bit, actually bringing the quality of some episodes down a bit). Here, the host segments are nearly flawlessly entertaining: during The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Jonah walks in to find Tom and Crow chanting a native song and wearing creepy masks, for absolutely no reason, which freaks all the human actors out; Cry Wilderness features a bit in which Jonah and the bots try to map out the geography of the film; but the host segment in Reptilicus is actually worth mentioning on its own (as well as embed below):
This moment is where Jonah, and the whole purpose of the revival itself, sold itself to me. While Joel was always the prop comic with the astute observation and deadpan delivery, and where Mike provided a more topical, playful yet sarcastic demeanor, I was worried Jonah would alternate between pastiches of both. But with that single sequence above, he made it clear we’re not here for nostalgia’s sake (Christ, that would have genuinely doomed the show), but to grow from and beyond what came before. He has an energy and keen wit to make a rap song about kaiju and monsters from different countries, while selling the idea he’s talking to two robot characters, throwing in visual humor (that actually teaches the viewer something about other cultures), and doing it all in one take and one shot, with a slightly accelerating tempo. With either Joel or Mike, such a scene would not have had the same charming air (truth be told, it would have been a bit sad, given both their ages, to see them try to connect to the new audiences and sensibilities watching this iteration).
But it works with Jonah Ray, who continues the tradition of not thinking the audience wouldn’t keep up with the references. He has a clear, obvious chemistry with his robot costars (played by Hampton Yount as Crow and Baron Vaughn as Tom, both of whom were hand-picked by Jonah himself), an infectious energy, and he’s clearly having loads of fun. The only possible complaint I can think of is the voices of Crow and Tom. While Crow sounds like the amalgam of Bill Corbett and Trace Beaulieu, Tom sounds too similar to them as well. Unless they were both clearly on-screen, or we could see the mouth silhouettes moving, it was hard to know which of them was talking (and when the jokes start flying at increasingly fast rates, it becomes much more confusing). Hopefully (if there’s another season) their voices are made more distinct in the future. But even confusion aside, the show is loads of fun.
I keep saying that word: fun. Because that is the whole point of MST3K. Look, there are shitty movies out there. Plenty of them. I love the hell out of them myself; but if they’re to exist, let’s make some use of them. If you loved the original, you’ll absolutely love the revival. I was cautiously optimistic, but worry not: you’ll have a blast and quickly love the return of the Satellite of Love. 4.5/5 Gypsy Deliveries.
One night prior to the new season’s premiere, the trusted cast of Rifftrax Live skewered the 1991 DTV cult movie Samurai Cop. As with all of their live events, the Rifftrax crew (consisting of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett), song parodies and fake cinema facts cards preceded the main event, which was itself preceded by a short 1950s film about the importance of manners, featuring a creepy animated stick figure instructing a delinquent student on how to not be an insufferable bastard. Short and to the point, this short whets the audience’s appetite for a truly bizarre, Dangerous Men-esque journey into insanity.
Matt Hannon “stars” as titular Samurai Cop Joe Marshall, and living chin Robert Z’Dar as Yamashita, henchman to yakuza…er, KATANA gang leader Fuj Fujiyama (Cranston Komuro). The what-can-only-be-laughingly-described-as-the-plot involved the aforementioned Katana gang trying to corner the cocaine market in Los Angeles. In order to counter the incoming violence, the San Diego Police Department send over the whitest of white guys, JOE MARSHALL! The cop with the samurai code of honor!
There’s a bizarre car chase, there are no scenes set at night at all (apparently director Amir Shervan couldn’t afford movie lights), and at one point Matt Hannon is wearing what is clearly a wig (having cut his hair near what he believed was the end of filming), leading one of our esteemed riffers to lead with, “I think maybe Joe just walked to work wearing a wig and everybody just went with it”. There’s revolting early-90’s bikini sex, nonsensical “action” scenes, and a beautiful incompetence in regards to spatial relations and production design.
The high points (aside from the crew’s on-point riffs) are Mark Frazier as Frank Washington, playing Joe’s “streetwise” partner, and played by an actor who seemed wildly unimpressed with everything occurring around him, and didn’t give half a crap whether anyone on set knew it. He seemed to play the part as if he viewed himself as the new Billy Dee Williams, but can’t even convincingly sell us on his fear of getting his “black gift” (yes. That is what the villains call his junk) cut off. Seriously, aside from the joke of trying to make Mark Hannon a likable (or even interesting…or GOOD) lead star, Frazier’s performance is so bizarre it has to be seen to be believed.
This was the opening salvo of a near-nonstop barrage of great riffs and jokes from the crew that does it best, and if you can catch the encore of Rifftrax Live’s screening of Samurai Cop (tickets here), you’re in for a great time.