Thursday, November 25, 2010

Culture Shock 11.25.10: Celebrate Thanksgiving with some cinematic turkey

Thanksgiving brings with it lots of traditions, mostly involving food, football and long-standing family grievances.

My favorite Thanksgiving tradition, however, began in the early 1990s, when Comedy Central aired its annual "Turkey Day" marathons of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Nothing went better with Turkey Day stuffing than generous helpings of cinematic turkeys, all lovingly riffed by Joel, Mike and their robot pals aboard the Satellite of Love.

It has been more than a decade since "Mystery Science Theater" left the airwaves, but with all the episodes available on DVD and streaming on Netflix, you can still program your own private MST3K Turkey Day marathon. And that sure beats taking a long trip over the river and through the woods just to put up with Uncle Buck having a drunken meltdown, while Aunt Sue and Aunt Evelyn argue about which of them most deserves to inherit Grandma's good silverware.

As it has for the past several years, Shout! Factory greets the holiday season with a new, four-disc MST3K DVD box set. And this year's set includes two bad-movie classics, as well as a gullet full of bonus features.

As with past releases from Shout! Factory, "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" features two episodes each from original host Joel Hodgson and his successor, Michael J. Nelson. Joel's episodes are "Robot Monster" from season 1 and director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson.

"Robot Monster" and "Bride of the Monster" have both, at various times, been saddled with the designation of "worst movie ever," making them prime candidates for the MST3K treatment.

While not as deliriously loopy as "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Bride of the Monster" is probably Ed Wood's best-made film, although that's not saying much. It's definitely entertaining, even without Joel, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo providing a running commentary on its shortcomings, from the inane dialog and the rubber octopus to the poorly integrated stock footage and Lugosi's unconvincing stand-in.

The "Bride of the Monster" disc also includes the set's best bonus feature, "Citizen Wood," an informative documentary featurette by Chattanooga-based filmmaker Daniel Griffith, which chronicles the making of Wood's second-most-infamous film. "Citizen Wood" is a must for anyone who knows Wood primarily from Tim Burton's Oscar-winning 1994 biopic.

"Robot Monster" is the timeless story of an alien robot named Ro-Man, who looks suspiciously like a guy wearing a gorilla suit and a cheap 1950s sci-fi space helmet. Ro-Man is all-powerful, and he succeeds in wiping out the entire human race except for six people living in the middle of nowhere.

It turns out killing a few billion people is easy, but killing six is really hard, especially if they include two annoying children you'd really like to see dead.

Rounding out the set are two Mike Nelson episodes, "Devil Doll," a 1964 horror movie about a sinister ventriloquist and a dummy with a will of its own; and "Devil Fish," a 1984 Italian-made shlocker — to coin a term — in which a shark/octopus hybrid terrorizes Italians pretending to be Americans off the Florida coast.

The only recognizable actor in either film is William Sylvester in "Devil Doll." He delivers exactly the same smug performance he does as Dr. Heywood Floyd in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"Devil Doll" is a bit bland, even with the riffing, but "Devil Fish" is one of MST3K's better Sci-Fi Channel-era episodes.

Other extras include a panel discussion with cast members Hodgson, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, and, for a limited time, a collectible Gypsy figurine to go along with the previously released Crow and Tom Servo.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" retails for $69.97. It's worth every penny, but you're a sucker if you pay full retail.

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