NOTE: This story was first published on Pop Matters and is featured as a news item on The Collectors Show which can be heard at http://www.webtalkradio.net.
There was a time when the funniest show on television was a little show based solely around making fun of bad movies. Much like any number of thousands of late night TV shows since Vampira took to the airwaves, this public access-cum-basic cable movie show featured host segments with elaborate, colorful and weird characters quipping about the featured films. Mystery Science Theater 3000 carried this trend three steps further with the space-borne human host and two of his robot friends actually apparently sitting in the theater watching the movie with the at-home audience and making fun of the film even as it unspools.
Fans circulated tapes of the show and kept its legend growing for 11 full years and even spawned a feature film. But throughout all of those years, the best day out of all 365 was Thanksgiving, or “Turkey Day”, when Comedy Central
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Turkey Day Collection (XXXI)
Cast: Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Josh Weinstein, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Patrick Brantseg, Jim Mallon, Don Scardino, Gumby, Pokey, Joe Clokey
(Best Brains; US DVD: 25 Nov 2014; UK DVD: Import)
(formerly The Comedy Channel) would air episodes as day-long marathons packed with some of the best laughs the network ever achieved. Since the advent of DVD, the “Best Brains” have been releasing multiple feature length episodes in four pack collections. The most recent is this Turkey Day Collection, the 31st installment, which celebrates none other than Turkey Day itself just in time for Thanksgiving 2014.
There was no specific or unique set of episodes chosen for each Turkey Day. Although generally the funniest programs were chosen, any and all were applicable, so while this set of four films surely pays tribute to the annual celebration, in fact these four wouldn’t constitute a quarter of a Turkey Day marathon. In short, this collection of Jungle Goddess (1948), The Painted Hills (1951), The Screaming Skull (1958) and Squirm (1976), though all funny, are no more or less representative of the Turkey Days on the whole than any number of other episodes out there. While both Jungle Goddess and The Painted Hills (both “Joel” episodes) might have aired during the Turkey Day marathons, The Screaming Skull and Squirm were culled from the last two seasons, both of which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. In short, in spite of the subtitle, this 31st collection isn’t really about Turkey Day until you get into some of the extras.
What makes this set worth having for Thanksgiving (and beyond Thanksgiving) is the plethora of extras found on each disc. Once again, the set comes in a handsome collector’s tin with four mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. On the discs themselves we get new introductions by creator Joel Hodgson along with robot friends Tom Servo and Crow. These introductions give a bit more background into the films being skewered while continuing to be funny (as one might hope and respect from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys).
Some of the best (and most nostalgic) inclusions are the old bumpers shown during commercial breaks on each Turkey Day. These evolved through the years from simple one-off jokes to evolving stories that fit perfectly into the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. This is, after all, a fictional science fiction TV show with its own story arcs and continuity, all wrapped around the films they happen to be mocking each week. However, purists will point out that not every bumper segment is actually included in the lot called “Bumper to Bumper: Turkey Day Through the Years”. This collection includes only those filmed by the cast and not those featuring Adam West and other actors. The well-done documentary “Inside the Turkey Day Marathon” does briefly mention these additional bumpers with no small amount of disdain, so their exclusion does make some sense. That same documentary does live up to its name as it traces the show’s Thanksgiving marathons throughout the years with interviews with the cast and crew and copious clips from the past. So, yeah, it’s safe to say that it’s pretty damned funny.
As for the films themselves, they range from the “poorly done” to the pretty damned terrible. The one exception to this rule is the Gumby and Pokey short Robot Rumpus (1957) which is featured within the same episode as The Screaming Skull. While this may not exactly be a miracle of storytelling, it is a skillfully stop-motion animated adventure for kids that is not exactly ruined by the riffing of Mike Nelson and the ‘bots—enhanced might be a better word. Further enhancing the short is a documentary called “Gumby and Clokey”, featuring Joe Clokey discussing the creation of Gumby and Pokey, focusing on Robot Rumpus and beyond. The Screaming Skull also gets its own documentary called “This Film May Kill You: Making The Screaming Skull”.
The latter documentary comes off as an apologist’s reversal of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mockery to give a more balanced look at this admitted B-Movie (designed as a tool for scaring kids and teenagers). However, this documentary is sometimes just as ironically funny as the film itself, especially when The Screaming Skull is identified as an unofficial remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
The Painted Hills is a Lassie vehicle that stars the original animal actor (Pal) who played Lassie, although in this film the dog’s name is “Shep”. Go figure. The Painted Hils is standard ‘50s “all ages” fare and still manages to give Joel, Crow and Tom Servo plenty of material for laughter. This one is preceded by another short, the painfully ridiculous “educational film Body Care and Grooming (1947), which almost seemed to be made for the trio to make fun of.
Squirm is not a great film, but it is more entertaining on its own than many of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 choices. This feature is accompanied by an interview with star Don Scardino as well as yet another short, the 1940 joke called A Case of Spring Fever. The short centers around a man who is frustrated by springs and then must face a world with no springs whatsoever. Once he’s learned his lesson, he simply will not stop talking about springs, much to the delight of the animated imp who granted his backhanded wish. While Squirm is hilarious on many levels, A Case of Spring Fever gives Mike and the ‘bots plenty of material for their own sketches.
Jungle Goddess is a hilariously oblivious, vaguely racist — okay, more than vaguely — adventure film about two great white hunters invading the “Heart of Darkness” in Africa to find a tribe ruled over by a blonde haired American woman whom they worship. In that one of the Great White Hunters happens to be played by George Reeves, you can be sure there are lots of Superman jokes to be made.
Then there’s the first chapter of the not great Bela Lugosi serial known as The Phantom Creeps. This episode is marred by its almost too much amount of black and white. Is the “Shadowrama” a contributing factor to the better (and more endurable) episodes being in color? Perhaps. Then again, maybe black and white enhances great movies, but makes bad movies even worse.
Regardless, each of the four episodes included in this 31st collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a winner; or, at least, is made so by the glorious filmicide performed by first Joel and the bots, then Mike and the bots. Packed with extras, “The Turkey Day Collection” is a mighty fine entry into a collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but still isn’t sequential within the saga of the show, skipping from season to season. Not all four of these were even possible to feature in the actual Turkey Day Marathons, but these are four funny episodes and that’s something to be thankful for.