MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – the goofy show about an astronaut and his robot friends, forced to watch bad movies aboard an orbiting satellite – was cancelled ten years ago, but thanks to the miracle of home video it lives on. For years, fans circulated home-made videotapes, which helped the cable show reach viewers in cities where the local cable service did not carry it (which included Los Angeles for far too long). Legitimate VHS tapes trickled onto the market place at a frustrating rate, slowed down by the necessity of securing not just the broadcasting rights but the home video rights as well. After the 1996 feature film version (a riff on the colorful 1950s sci-fi opus THIS ISLAND EARTH) made its way to both laserdisc and DVD, episodes of the television finally started showing up on disc in early 2000. The first two DVD releases featured EEGAH and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE. Although not necessarily the pinnacle of the show’s achievement, these episodes were representative of what MST3K could achieve, and the DVD presentation was solid if unspectacular, lacking much in the way of bonus features.
Rather conveniently, the two films break Mystery Science Theater 3000 down into its two eras: the first featuring the show’s original host, Joel Hodgson: the second featuring his replacement Mike Nelson, the head writer who stepped in when Joel moved on to develop other projects. Up first, Joel and the ‘bots take on a cheezy sci-fi stinker invovling an ape man.
Eegah stars Richard Kiel (known to Bond fans for his role as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) as a prehistoric man who has survived into the 20th century by…well, we don’t know how—it’s just a bald fact in the film that he’s running around out in the desert. There are ample opportunities for laughs, mostly at the expense of leading man Arch Hall, Jr., a sort of pudgy, would-be rock idol, and at least one of the sketches (involving an experiment to make Joel look like Hall) is a riot.
As always, the jokes run the gamut from the silly to the profound to the outright obscure. Under the later category, my personal favorite comes when a camera angle reveals the ceiling of one room in a long shot, and Joel remarks that the film looks as if it were photographed by Gregg Toland. (For those of you who didn’t sit through Film History 101, Toland photographed Citizen Kane, often (and incorrectly) identified as the first film to use low-camera angles that required ceilings to be built on top of the sets.)
The disc has not been re-edited to disguise the commercial breaks, but these brief fade-outs are hardly intrusive now that the commercials are gone. The image and sound are fine, although the source print of the actual film is not in great shape (does anyone really care?). The disc contains both the MST3K version and the original uncut film, in case you really want to judge for yourself how bad it was before the Satellite of Love crew began slinging barbs at it.
If you’re not that dedicated, the disc offers an option whereby you can watch the MST3K version and also access the scenes cut out in order to fit into the two-hour television slot. When a logo of Crow T. Robot appears in the lower left corner, you press “Enter” on your remote and view the missing footage; pressing “Enter” again takes you back to where you left off with the MST3K presentation.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for extras. The menus, backed by the show’s theme song, feature some nice graphics and computer-manipulated imagery, but the “Special Features” button takes you to a screen with nothing more than a button for the disc distributor’s website (Rhino.com) and a list of other MST3K titles available on tape and disc. Not very special, but the episode itself is special enough to compensate for any disappointment.
The second Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode released on DVD skewers The Brain That Wouldn’t Die -a perfect choice for the MST3K treatment, because much of it openly invites derision, which the SOL crew are more than happy to supply. As bad as it may be, the film is (in its own weird, perverse way) interesting to watch—it’s no good, but neither is it boring. There is a certain undeniable effectivenes. If the intention was to be horrifying, then the film certainly succeeds—although “appalling” might be the better word.
The plot is rife with absurdities, yet at the same time the script seems eager to say something about the ethics of science and experimentation, and the cast is more than eager to dig into the high-minded speeches they are given. For all the alleged seriousness, however, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die takes a right turn when the mad scientist rescues his girlfriend’s head from the burning wreckage of a car crash and sets about finding her a new body. The film almost endorses the character’s point of view, looking at the other female characters only as potential sources for a replacement, and the camera never grows tired of ogling the prospects.
“Sleazy and lurid” only begin to describe the effect, and the image of the revenge-crazed head (as ridiculous as it is) is certainly disgusting. Combined with some rather graphic (for ther time) moments (the thing in the closet rips off one character’s arm and bites a piece off the mad doctor’s neck), this imagery packs a punch. Not enough to redeem the film or even make it a guilty pleasure, but enough to hold your attention so that you’re not just sitting bored while waiting for the next joke from the on-screen peanut gallery.
And those jokes do fly, at a nice clip that makes this one of the show’s funnier outings (even more amusing than Eegah). There’s the inevitable football take off when the hapless fiancé races through the woods with the titular head wrapped in his jacket: “He’s at the twenty, the ten…nothing can stop him!” (Of course, real audiences at bad movie marathons have been using this joke for decades, but it always works, so why not let the MST3K preserve it on disc?)
Even more amusing is a running gag regarding the film’s sloppy use of insert close-ups, which are shot against a neutral, non-descript background illuminated by vague lighting patterns (presumably because they were filmed later, after the real sets had been struck). The actor’s expression never match up with the establishing shots, and the effect has a hazy, almost Twilight Zone quality to it, provoking the SOL crew to yell at every opportunity, “I’m in another dimension!”
This was Mike Nelson’s first time in charge of the Satellite of Love. For fans of Joel Hodgson, Nelson took some getting used to. He didn’t have that same laid-back persona that lent Joel his charm and kept him from sounding smug, but Nelson did a good job of delivering the acerbic one-liners. Of course, this particular episode offers an opportunity for humor based on his “new kid on the block status,” which is fully exploited.
As with the Eegah disc, this DVD offers both the MST3K version and the original version. Unlike Eegah, there is no function to access cut scenes while viewing the MST3K version, the entire film having apparently been squeezed into the two-hour television running time. Otherwise, the presentation almost exactly duplicates the other MST3K DVD: cool graphics for the menu (this time backed up by music from the film, rather than the show’s theme song), including film clips, but no added features despite a “Special Features” button. This just takes you to a screen with a button that gives you the distributor’s URL (Rhino.com) and another button that brings you to a display of other MST3K titles on tape and disc.
This makes the DVD a bit less of a valuable collector’s item than its companion piece, Eegah, which in a sense could be considered to contain “additional footage” from the complete version of the uncut film, which could be accessed while viewing the editing MST3K version. It’s a nice touch to include the complete version of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, in case there are any purists or completists out there who believe the movie should not be completely supplanted by the MST3K version. But if any more of these episodes find there way to DVD, it would be a nice idea to enhance them in some way.
Cast biographies (for both the film and TV show) would be nice. In the case of this particular episode, some background information would have been helpful for those casual fans who won’t understand that this is Mike’s first orbit on the Satellite of Love. Maybe some background information on the film would be nice or some notes on the writing teams reactions to their first screening of it.
And while we’re at it, why not an audio commentary? The whole gimmick of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is characters talking about a film unspooling before them. Why not take the concept to the next level, with the actors talking about their characters talking about the film unspooling before them?
Looking back on these two episodes over a decade after they originally aired, it is amazing to note how well they hold up. Back in the days when Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on Comedy Central (before the move to Sci Fi Channel), their batting average was amazingly high: they picked the right films to target, and they went after them with enthusiasm and flair – ruthlessly when warranted but also with a good-natured sense of fun. Consequently, the laugh-levels remain high, and the humor has not dated at all. Both of these DVDs can be enjoyed again and again, and any true fan of the show would be glad to have them in their collection.