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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
hino’s cool factor has certainly suffered during the company’s tenure as a cog in the Warner Bros. machine. At this point, it seems to be little more than a logo used for funneling WMG reissues into the marketplace, but every once in awhile, we’re reminded of what made the company great. A case in point: Rhino’s continued dedication to the dearly departed basic cable phenomenon known as “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the late-night snarkfest that brought untold hours of laughter to a generation of sarcastic kids. “MST3K” was cancelled in 1999, and has been off the air completely since the Sci-Fi Channel quit airing reruns in 2004. But for those with a little extra disposable income, anyway, Joel, Mike, Crow, Gypsy and Tom Servo live on, thanks to these terrific sets.
The show’s premise, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it all these years, is simple: A mad scientist shoots a hapless patsy into space, where he’s forced to watch horrible movies indefinitely. He builds robot companions to watch the movies with him, and we watch them watch the movies. It’s oh-so-very-meta, and the kind of show that could only have blossomed on a local-access station – but once you’ve put yourself through a crappy movie with those wisecracking silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, you’re never the same. Built on inside jokes, running gags, and obscure references, “MST3K” was a geek’s dream from start to finish.
Of course, with an audience of geeks comes fan controversy, and the argument at the core of “MST3K” is whether the show was better off with original host Joel Hodgson – whose gentle, sleepy-lidded stabs at the source material were often gentle enough to miss if you weren’t paying close enough attention – or his replacement, the more animated Mike Nelson, who presided over the show’s most commercially successful period. If you care about that sort of thing, “Volume 12” helpfully splits its four episodes down the middle, giving two to each host.
Of course, if you do care about that sort of thing, you’re probably sort of lame. Like most fanboy arguments, the back-and-forth regarding Hodgson versus Nelson misses the point, which is that “MST3K” was awesome, and both hosts had their up and down moments. The show never really suffered a decline in quality, not even when the Sci-Fi suits tried to force the writers to only cover science fiction movies. Really, it was sort of uneven all along, which is why “Volume 12,” uneven as it is, is perfect.
The worst episodes typically tended to be the ones that covered the best films – such as the Hodgson episode that covers “The Rebel Set,” a heist drama starring Edward Platt of “Get Smart.” It isn’t brilliant, but neither is it as hilariously awful as Joe Don Baker’s “Mitchell” (that episode, not bundled in here, should be included in every set), so the humor is sort of muted. Conversely, when Nelson handles “The Starfighters,” a thuddingly dull military propaganda film thinly disguised as a drama, it winds up being one of the show’s best episodes.
“Volume 12” is rounded out by Season Five’s “Secret Agent Super Dragon,” every bit the Bond ripoff it sounds like, and Season Eight’s classic “Parts: The Clonus Horror,” starring Dick Sargent and Peter Graves in a filmic turd whose odor will be sadly familiar to anyone who suffered through Michael Bay’s “The Island.” (It was certainly familiar to “Clonus” director Robert Fiveson, who sued Bay, and is graciously interviewed here.)
Fiveson’s segment is just one of the extras Rhino has stuffed into the box, along with an interview with Don Sullivan, star of “The Rebel Set,” the films’ original trailers, and other assorted “MST3K” ephemera – all of which will be of interest mainly to hardcore fans, but who else will want to sit through 400 minutes of movies-within-movies? The set’s main drawback is the same as every other “MST3K” collection: the price. The show was always the kind of thing best seen after hours, on a lark, with a group of bored buddies – in other words, not the kind of thing you’d want to drop $50 on. Having said that, if you’ve got an extra stack of simoleons lying around, you won’t be sorry if you spend them on this.