Mystery Science Theater 3000: Stand-Alone DVDs: The Beginning of the End, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Hamlet, Gunslinger, The Unearthly, Red Zone Cuba, and Manos the Hands of Fate


Actors: Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Run Time: 90 minutes




The Mystery Science Theater series is so reliable as DVDs that the producers rarely deign to deviate from formula. Each episode makes its own gravy, and while they sometimes embellish it with behind-the-scenes features and the odd trailer or two, they really don’t need to. Like Rhino before it, Shout Factory has made its bread and butter by releasing the series in four-episode sets . . . allowing completionists to pick up hard-to-find (and sometimes subpar) episodes along with some truly choice cuts. But the $50 price tag can be a bit daunting, especially for newbies or people who want a smaller fix for their snarking.

Accordingly, Shout Factory has started releasing individual MST3K episodes on DVD at a much friendly price: one movie, no garnishes, no waiting. The first two – The Beginning of the End and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies – were released way back in February. Two more – Hamlet and Gunslinger – hit shelves back in June and another pair – Red Zone Cuba and The Unearthly – are scheduled to hit this week. The big prize is a special edition of the beloved Manos, The Hands of Fate, due for release on September 13.

With the exception of that last one, they’re all stripped down and priced to sell. With one exception, each disc contains the movie itself and absolutely nothing else. The good news is that they’re all gems. The Beginning of the End represents MST3K at its purest, featuring giant praying mantises on the loose and show favorite Peter Graves poised to stop them. Strange Creatures basically uses its title as a gimmick, covering up for an otherwise ridiculous effort about carnival freaks and fortune tellers.

Gunslinger is a Roger Corman joint about a female sheriff in an Old West town; though as awful as any of the others, it’s notable for presenting a strong, assertive heroine in an era (1956) that frowned on such positive role models. Hamlet is a true find: a German TV adaptation of the Shakespeare play translated into English and proving that even the greatest play in human history can suck if you get the wrong production. The Unearthly features another MST favorite – Tor Johnson – in a story of a mad scientist whose experiments go wrong (is there any other kind?). Finally, Red Zone Cuba depicts a one-of-a-kind take on the Bay of Pigs Invasion; like many of these DVDs, it’s been out of print for a while, making its re-release a welcome occasion.

All of them are extremely funny: palpable high points of the series that range from off-handed goofiness to vicious satire. The affection for these cinematic abominations shine through in each one, and while the arguments continue over whether Joel Hodgson or Mike Nelson is the best host, both know their jobs far too well to let the audience down. (Joel hosts Gunslinger, The Unearthly and Manos; Mike hosts the rest.)

The only exception to the “no special features” formula is Manos, a justifiably obscure film that now holds a place alongside Plan 9 from Outer Space as one of the worst movies ever made (it currently sits at #3 on IMDB’s Bottom 100 list). MST deserves a great deal of credit for “elevating” it to such status and the disc gives due diligence to that fact. In addition to the MST episode itself, it contains a lengthy reminiscence from four members of the MST crew and bookends from the Mystery Science Theater Hour (featuring Nelson as a befuddled PBS-esque host). A second disc contains the original cut of Manos (without the silhouettes or commentary), a documentary on the making of the film, a short called “Jam Handy to the Rescue!” and both parts of the “Hired!” short (the second part of which is included as part of the MST episode). It’s definitely for diehard fans – the film really doesn’t deserve so much attention – but you can’t accuse it of not being thorough.

No matter which disc you purchase, however, they all deliver the signature snark for which Mystery Science Theater has become famous. There’s nothing unpredictable here and MSTies collecting the various episodes know exactly what to expect. With material this fun, you don’t need anything else.

WORTH IT? The purchase price is a little high, but still worth it for MST lovers. Newbies may want to pick up a single disc to get a sense of what this show was all about.

RECOMMENDATION: If you have an earlier Rhino DVD of the film in question, hold onto it; you don’t need to make a buy here. If you have searched for said earlier edition in vain, however, your prayers have been answered.

- Rob Vaux



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