I’ve reviewed every “Mystery Science Theater 3000” set released by Shout! Factory so far, and since baseball season is now underway (go Phils!), I’ll use a this handy metaphor to divvy them up: they’re all doubles or home runs. The home runs include the 20th Anniversary set, with its excellent retrospective documentary, and the Gamera collection. The doubles include Volume 23, which should excite the fans but not necessarily drive them into a frenzy.
Of course, we can’t expect every “MST3K” set to be a home run, just like not every episode of the series was on par with “‘Manos’: Hands of Fate” or “Mitchell.” In this case, we have four solid episodes accompanied by a smattering of bonus features that give us a little more insight into the series’ place in the Hollywood ecosystem, where many people set out to make the best films and TV series they can but sometimes fall far short of what they were hoping to accomplish.
For example, look at the distinguished career of Christopher Lee, star of “The Castle of Fu Manchu,” which Joel and the ‘bots riffed on during season three. As Frank Coniff points out in the introduction on that disc, Lee was like many actors in the sense that he had to keep booking gigs and bringing home a paycheck, so sometimes he signed up for sub-par movies like this one.
Interestingly, Coniff says “Manchu” was one of the harder films for the writing crew to work on, because the story was so incomprehensible it made it harder to create a rhythm to the riffs. When I think about the “MST3K” episodes that are considered classics, that makes sense because those films had recurring elements that allowed the writers to build on their jokes. “Manchu” doesn’t have much of that. However, it’s still a funny episode; even the least memorable “MST3K” episodes aren’t strike-outs.
The “Manchu” disc also includes the film’s original trailer and a featurette about “Darkstar,” a computer game that nearly all of the “MST3K” cast appeared in. It has nothing to do with “Manchu,” but it’s an interesting look at a project that was very different from “MST3K.” (Trace Beaulieu notes that the game’s director had to keep asking him to tone down his performance, since he was so used to being over the top.)
The world beyond the TV series is also the subject of “Life After ‘MST3K’: Kevin Murphy,” which appears on the “Code Name: Diamond Head” disc. Murphy talks about the time he spent after the show ended, which included writing a book about a year spent going to a different movie every day. That DVD also offers the 6.5-minute “Code Name: Quinn Martin,” which briefly sketches the prolific TV producer’s career, during which the failed TV pilot “Code Name: Diamond Head” was an anomaly.
A much more in-depth career retrospective appears on the “King Dinosaur” disc, which features a 30-minute look at film producer Robert L. Lippert, who, unlike Martin, made one stinker after another but didn’t really care as long as he made some money along the way. He was the kind of guy who would give away dish sets to movie attendees just to get butts in the seats. If the ticket buyers had to endure the idiotic “King Dinosaur” after getting their freebies, well, too bad for them.
A second Lippert film, “Last of the Wild Horses,” rounds out this set. It showcases the producer’s early years spent churning out one low-budget western after another. (As the back of the case, says, it stars a character named “Duke” — “no, not ‘The Duke’ — you should be so lucky.”) A series of vintage “MST3K” promos is the lone bonus feature.