‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXVII’ - DVD Review

As Shout! Factory’s periodic releases of Mystery Science Theater 3000 get closer to creating a complete library of the show’s original run, some of the more esoteric episodes are finally making their way onto DVD, and the newly released Vol. XXXVII showcases four of the more impenetrable movies Joel, Mike, and the bots ever faced.

Opening the set is the Joel-era episode in which the gang watched The Human Duplicators, a hybrid of a spy flick and a sci-fi film featuring large actor Richard Kiel as an alien attempting to replace leading US government figures with android duplicates for his masters’ eventual plan to annex Earth into their Galaxy Empire. The movie is oddly stiff – so is Kiel for that matter – but by this point in the Joel years, the riffing is confident and makes up for long stretches of nothing happening. Tom Servo’s imitation of the Batman TV show narrator whenever a silly music sting occurs is a highlight. Also offering material to riff on is Kiel’s strange accent, the apparent protagonist’s name, Steve Martin, and the fact that an inordinate amount of scenes take place in a single over-decorated sitting room. The episode is something a slow-burn, but rewarding for the fan willing to give it time to breathe.

The second episode in the set features the most watchable film, as Mike and the bots take on Escape 2000. A weird hybrid of Escape from New York and The Road Warrior, the film sees nominal protagonist Trash sub-contract his hero role to a third party as a loose coalition of Bronx warriors resist a developer’s plan to build a shining new city over the deserted remains of the Bronx. The film’s dizzy goofiness is a treat in its own right, but it is coupled with the powerhouse riffing of the Season Seven writers and performers. Producing only seven episodes that year, the team created gems with each rough lump of coal. But Escape 2000 also offered them a character called Dablone, quickly renamed Toblerone, a memorable character who made his way into one of the episode’s host segments.

Terror at Party Beach, a Season Eight entry, may be the weakest of the set, as the film gets lost in itself and the episode continues the on-going storyline edict handed down by the Sci-Fi Channel. While Pearl and Brain Guy navigate Roman Times, Mike and the Bots watch a film that is equal parts beach movie and cheesy monster flick. With a baritone-voiced scientist, a truly terrible alien costume, and mid-century gender politics, the film should be perfect for riffing. But it is paced so languidly that the gang never quite finds the right speed. The key special feature on the disc, a featurette about Party Beach director Del Tenney, is a fascinating look at the filmmaker and his modest aims to get his work into New York area drive-in theaters. He also managed to get wider distribution via 20th Century Fox. The featurette makes Party Beach worthy of a second look, with or without Mike and the Bots.

The final episode in the set features the infamous Invasion of the Neptune Men, a baffling and poorly dubbed Japanese superhero flick that would appear to be cobbled together from a much longer TV series starring Sonny Chiba. Strangely, Chiba is missing from large portions of the film as a gang of orphans become the first responders to an invasion of poorly designed space men. Honestly, I’ve tried to watch this episode five times over the last week and keep losing the plot shortly after Chiba makes his first appearance as Space Chief. There’s a weather control plot that goes nowhere, something about a radiation shield, and at one point, the Neptune Men blow up a building with Hitler painted on the side of it. As Japanese cinema expert August Ragone explains on the featurette, the film was actually extended in its American form for television syndication, making it slightly more inscrutable. But the punishingly awful Americanization leads to one of the best episodes of the Sci-fi Channel era. Mike and the Bots pull out all the stops, even as they use one of the host segments to reveal their despair in watching something so awful. Perhaps not as classic as Manos’ The Hands of Fate, but Invasion of the Neptune Men ends up becoming one of the great additions to the series.

Special features include “Mystery Science Theater Hour” wraps for The Human Duplicators, the previously mentioned featurettes, and introductions from series writer and performer Mary Jo Pehl on Escape 2000, Horror at Party Beach, and Invasion of the Neptune Men. On the later two, she recalls the days of shooting the network-enforced storyline host segments and a handful of riffs. On Escape 2000, she recalls the strange sight of co-worker Mike Nelson as their in-house version of Toblerone.

Escape 2000 also comes with a featurette about the making of the film, which is actually a sequel to 1990: The Bronx Warriors. Both films benefited from the urban blight in the Bronx at the time and become accidental documentaries of cities in decay. As film historian Chris Poggiali mentions in the featurette, Escape 2000 was part of a wave of Italian knock-off cinema which produced gems like Warrior of the Lost World and Warriors of the Wasteland. Like the other featurettes on the set, it’s jam-packed with information about the filmmakers and the intended audience.

While one of the odder collections, Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXVII is certainly worth the time and money with a couple of episodes which certainly earn “classic” status and a pair of mid-list curiosities. As always, Shout! Factory provides interesting featurettes and new context for the often-puzzling films featured on the series. All and all, a must-have for fans of the series.

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