DVD Review: MST3K Vs. Gamera: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI

DVD Reviews, Reviews

You can’t keep a good mutant turtle down.

Recently there have been plenty of films and TV shows arriving on DVD after people swore they’d be tangled up in rights issues forever. El Topo, Skidoo and The Six Million Dollar Man have miraculously appeared for legal purchase. None of them compare to the shock of a roasted reptile getting a legit release. During the third season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel, Crow and Tom Servo were tortured with five of the legendary Gamera movies. It was an epic battle with 10 hours of focus on a gigantic mutant turtle with rocket jets in his shell. The bigger fight came later when powerful people were upset at Gamera getting the MST3K treatment. Daiei, the Japanese studio, were unnerved that their sacred monster had been mocked. American distributor Sandy Frank was in a tizzy also. He didn’t appreciate Joel and Bots poking fun at him. He couldn’t understand the attention allowed him to become a beloved figure in the MST3K geekaverse. When it came time to renew the rights of the Gamera films, Sandy Frank let his displeasure be known by putting a premium price on his films. Comedy Central had to pass. It seemed that these five episodes would remain only on decaying hometaped VHS tapes. Most fans swore MST3K Vs. Gamera: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI couldn’t exist. Thankfully we were wrong.

Gamera was Daiei’s attempt to get into the giant monster market controlled by Toho’s Godzilla. While other studios missed the mark with their one-shot rubber suited critters, Gamera lasted for seven films from 1965-’71. The series found a home on UHF station’s Creature Double Feature slots with Godzilla. Kids got a kick out of hearing a few familiar voices from Speed Racer talking about the monster battles. After it’s original TV run in the ‘70s, Sandy Frank bought the rights and re-dubbed the movies. He made them sound even more cheesier. On top of it, he snipped the opening titles and replaced them with scrawled credits over a picture of the sea. It is Frank’s remixes that were sent to the Satellite of Love.

Gamera is a truncated version of the original. Gamera rises from his Arctic ice resting place when a downed Soviet jet’s nuclear payload explodes. He’s not happy being woken up. Joel and the Bots can’t get enough of the weirdness with man vs. turtle. The highlight is Tom Servo singing to Tibby the turtle. It’s such a tender ballad until Crow takes a turn. Gamera Vs Barugon is noted for being the only entry in the series that didn’t feature a kid in a baseball cap. Instead it’s about cutthroats stealing a giant opal from an island. Funny story; it’s a monster egg. The monster hatches and destroys Japan with rainbow power. Man’s only hope is Gamera. He’s a good guy now. The robots promote a 5,000 piece toy set that recreates the army versus the monsters. I want one. There is also a visit to T.G.I.Toyko with its monsterlicious deserts. True geeks will chuckle with Joel mentioning the Amiga computer. Gamera Vs. Gaos brings back the baseball capped kid that swears Gamera is a friend to all children. The big sketch involves crew presenting their version of the “Gameradamerung.” It’s Wagner with robots. A tribute to the Ed Sullivan show features turtle plate spinning.

Gamera Vs. Guiron unsheathes a monster with a knife nose that fires throwing stars from his nostrils. How can Gamera beat that much coolness? How about with Joel and the Bots singing their translation of the Gamera theme song? He is full of turtle meat. Many people will complain at the lack of Mike Nelson in this boxset, but he’s here. The finale features Mike dressed up as Michael Feinstein. He tickles the ivory to the Gamera song for the mad scientists. This is my favorite non-host Mike Nelson moment. You’ll be singing along with him. Gamera Vs. Zigra is the finale of this marathon of torture. Joel and the Bots are excited that things are winding down. They celebrate with dioramas, interpretations of the theme song and a model exposing the inner workings of Gamera. Mike Nelson returns as Kenny, the kid with the baseball cap. It’s a fitting end to this part of the experiment.

The Gamera episodes proved that MST3K had the inner comedy strength to take on a humongous monster and not make it seem like an endurance event. They don’t feel sapped when riffing on Zygra. They had the skills to mock the bills. They also proceeded to make Gamera a beloved monster on par with Godzilla. Thanks to their fine work, Gamera made a comeback last year with a guest shot on Mad Men. It’s only a shame Sandy Frank didn’t enjoy the roasting as much as the turtle. At least in the battle of MST3K Vs. Gamera, the viewers are the winners.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers are from video masters. While Gamera was shot in 35mm, MST3K was produced on videotape. The masters look fine. You’ll be able to relish Gamera’s guts. The audio is mono. The mix is good so you can hear the Bots cracking over Sandy Frank’s laughable English dub. If you want to hear these films “straight,” Shout! Factory has released the original cuts on DVD.

So Happy Together: A Look Back at MST3K and Gamera (23:11) lets the crew remember the season the turtle dominated their schedule. Joel, Trace, Frank, J. Elvis Weinstein and Jim Mallon do their best to give perspective. They first used the Gamera films back at KTMA. Trace never saw the films until they were selected for the show. Joel feels MST3K solidified during the Gamera films at KTMA. There’s a little discussion of their goofing on Sandy Frank.

Gamera Vs. The Might Chiodo Brothers (23:35) let the guys behind Killer Klowns from Outer Space discuss the monster suit effects. The brothers like the black and white Gamera. They give a great run down of other great movie monsters that involve rubber suits. Watch out for the shaking during the talk.

Gamera Obscura: A Brief History By August Ragone (30:03) lets the author give the story behind the turtle. This is a fine way to learn enough to sound dangerous in a geek out battle.

MST Hour Wraps has Mike Nelson dressed up as Jack Perkins. He introduces two part versions of Gamera (5:09) and Gamera Vs. Guiron (5:14). He shows off a Guiron steak knife.

Original Japanese Trailers for Gamera (1:56), Gamera Vs. Barugon (1:11), Gamera Vs. Gaos (2:29), Gamera Vs. Guiron (5:14) and Gamera Vs. Zigra (2:21)

If you only buy one Mystery Science Theater 3000 boxset, let it be MST3K Vs. Gamera: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI. It’s a glory to behold when man, robot and turtle are in perfect sync. The five films are monster battling gold. There is a limited edition tin box to give your DVDs a protective shell. You might want to buy a copy quick before Sandy Frank hordes them.

Shout! Factory presents MST3K Vs. Gamera: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI. Starring: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson. Boxset Contents: Five films on 5 DVDs. Released on DVD: August 2, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.

Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.