The Films (4/5)
I have been a fan of MST3K since the first time I caught an episode on Comedy Central in the mid-90's. By that time the Mike Nelson era was in full swing, and while I always enjoyed the show when he was on, I always found myself laughing harder when I would catch the occasional rerun featuring the shows creator, and original host Joel Hodgson. Since Shout! Factory has started issuing DVD sets of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (around vol. XIV), they have done a pretty even job with splitting each 4 film box set between the shows 2 host, usually showcasing 2 episodes from Mike, and 2 episodes from Joel. However, with this latest Volume of MST3K that changes, and 2011 is already shaping up to be the year of Joel on DVD!
Mystery Science Theater Vol. XX as with prior MST3K editions includes 4 episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, however, with this set all 4 episodes feature original host Joel Hodgson. This will be followed up in a few months with MST3K vs. Gamera a box set, also featuring all Joel episodes, with the thematic tie-in that they are all of MST3K's Gamera episodes (it has not been said if it will include Comedy Central and KTMA versions of these eps). Getting back on track, volume XX features 4 films, including 2 made for TV Master Ninja films starring Lee Van Cleef, and Tim Van Patten, a Russo-Finish film the Magic Voyage of Sinbad, and Project Moonbase (featuring parts 7 and 8 of the Commando Cody serial Radar Men from the Moon).
The premise of MST3K (for the maybe 2 of you left in cult cinema fandom, who aren't in the know) basically follows the antics of a man (Joel in the early years, Mike in the later ones) who are trapped on the Satellite of Love by a couple of Mad Scientists, who subject them to cinematic experiences. Every week Joel or Mike get sent a movie, and their reactions are observed. Accompanying them on the satellite are a few robots that Joel created as not to go crazy from the solitude of being in deep space. There are 4 robots, which include the rarely seen Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. The latter 2 accompany Joel into the theater to help him poke fun at the movies the mads force on him.
Magic Voyage of Sinbad
The Magic Voyage of Sinbad is another Russo-Finnish co-production done in a fairy tale/myth style. Like the other Russo-Finnish films that MST3K riffed on (most recently Jack Frost from Vol. XVIII) are both beautiful and absolutely bonkers. The film started life as a straight forward fairy tale/musical adaptation of Sadko, a Russian folk tale, that would be converted to an opera, before this film version was made. The film was picked up by one of Roger Corman's companies in America, who saw a likeness to the tales of Sinbad, and decided to redub the film into English in order to reflect that connection.
As far as the episode, I will get this out of the way, it is not top-tier MST3K. That is not to say it is a bad episode, it just never quite finds it's footing. There are alot of funny moments, but like the KTMA episodes they are more spread out amongst the entire running time. In a way this movie is so bizarre that it sort of pokes fun at itself, you can sit there just floored by some of the basic silliness of the proceedings, and in a way it feels like Joel and the 'Bots are doing just that.
I have loved the work Shout! Factory have put into their MST3K sets. The A/V quality has been more consistent (with some very minor exceptions), and the extras have been much more elaborate since taking the license over from Rhino. The one thing that I don't seem to gel with are the inclusion of a KTMA episode in every set. For those unaware MST3K first started as a public access show on Minneapolis station KTMA, and as far as public access shows (I used to work in public access television), the first season of MST3K looked fantastic. However, the shows themselves are lacking, once again I won't say they are bad. This episode in particular is one of the better KTMA episodes I've seen, however, they are still strugging to find how they want to use the format to acheive their eventual goals, and as such these episodes end up being quite slow as far as riffs, and jokes go. Also, in these early episodes they only had access to public domain community access staple (hence the inclusion of multiple parts of the Commander Cody shorts in this, and other early episodes), and so their is little variation with the subject matter.
The episode kicks off with parts 7 and 8 of the Sci-Fi serial Commander Cody and the Radar Men from the Moon. This is a public domain sci-fi staple, and can be seen in cheapo sci-fi video releases, and on public access stations nationwide. The material is laughably bad which makes it excellent fodder for an MST3K episode, and here it does work, and some of the best laughs of the episode can be found during this initial segment. We then get into the main feature, which is typical low budget 50's sci fi fare, and as typical for sci-fi films of any era, this one directly reflects the look of the 50's more than any future we can envision now (sort of like in a Tomorrowland-Disney sort of way). The riffs are as I've stated earlier come at a slower pace than they would in later seasons of the show, but the ones here are pretty damn funny, making this one of the more watchable KTMA episodes Shout! has released thus far.
Master Ninja I and II
Now we come to the absolute highlight of the set, and home to the funniest riffs you are going to find anywhere in this particular collection. We have the Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly/Escape from N.Y.) and Timothy Van Patten (White Shadow/St. Elsewhere) vehicle Master Ninja I and II. The Master Ninja films compromise the first 4 episodes of the short-lived 80's action show the Master, re-edited to somewhat resembled an actual movie. The movies star Tim Van Patten as Max Keller, a drifter who travels the country in a Chevy Van with his pet gerbil, that is until he meets Ex-Pat Master Ninja, John Peter McAllister played by Lee Van Cleef, who takes him under his wing, and decides to show him the way of the Ninja.
The films are very bad, with technical mistakes, bad editing, and bad acting throughout. It does have to be said, that Lee Van Cleef is simply one of those actors that is always fun to watch, whenever he is on screen, and thus makes this all the more watchable. The riffs in this film fly pretty fast and furious, as there is a lot of material to work with. Not only are they at a more fast pace in these episodes, but they are continually funny, there were very few moments during these 2 films where I wasn't in stiches. This was definitely the best in the set, and probably the best episodes realeased by Shout! in recent memory.
Shout! Factory have presented Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XX in it's original 1:33:1 aspect ratio. If you have been keeping up with the sets Shout! has been releasing the quality is consistent with the rest.
The shows themselves look quite good, and the movies typically do not. Most of the films featured on the show are quite low budget affairs, and so the conditions fare from good to passable. The audio is presented in a 2.0 stereo mix, and is quite good for the most part. The host segments and riffs come through quite clearly. The movies less so, but considering the structure of this show, it is to be expected.
Shout! Factory have done a wonderful job with these sets all around, and one area where they have greatly improved upon Rhino is the inclusion of extra features with these releases, and while some of these extra features don't exactly relate to the features offered here, they are definitely a treat for fans of the show. Project Moonbase features an interview with MST3K director of photography Jeff Stonehouse, it's 9 minutes long and is quite interesting if you're interested in the more technical side of the show. The second disc has an interview with Bill McKinney, the character actor who plays the sheriff in the first Master Ninja, the interview is short at 6 minutes, and is more of a fun, breezy watch than something informative. The Master Ninja II disc is also home to the best single extra on this set entitled Tom Servo vs. Tom Servo Panel at Dragon-Con 2010. This is a roughly 45 minutes appearance at Dragon Con featuring both J. Elvis Weinstein and Kevin Murphy, the 2 voices of Tom Servo, as they discuss their parts on the show. It's both entertaining and informative, Kevin Murphy really brings a lot to the table, including the infamous banner that was sent to him after taking over for J. Elvis that states "I Hate Servo's New Voice." The set is rounded off with an introduction to the Magic Voyage of Sinbad by Trace Beaulieu, and 5 minutes of MST3K Hour Wraps.
While not the best MST3K set, overall, that Shout! has released this is a damn fine collection of MST3K episodes. The Master Ninja's may be some of the funniest episodes of the entire Joel-era, and quite possibly the entire shows history. The A/V maintains the consistent quality standard of the other Shout! releases, and the extras are both fun and (at times) informative. Even with the weaker episodes included, this box set comes Highly Recommended for all MST-ies, and to potential newcomers to the fold.