Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santo in the Treasure of Dracula

And just as mysteriously as they arrived, the passport requirements vanished. I was actually able to go see a movie, sans mask, sans documents, with the only downside being it was the Norwegian contender for best international picture, The Worst Person in the World. I kid (somewhat) but it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser. While y’all are reading this I will be seeing a Korean double-feature (the political thriller Kingmaker and In Our Prime, which appears to be a Korean Good Will Hunting) and tomorrow I’ve got The Quiet Man. Could things be returning to normal?

Well, at least until they figure out how to screw them up again, anyway.

Instant classic: The robot wrestler sketch.

Last Friday, on the other hand, was the premiere/beta of season 13 of the ever abiding “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and the “Gizmoplex” which is a sort of streaming service/virtual theater concept. For those unfamiliar with the show, it took the concept of movie “riffing”, where an existing filmed entertainment is played and humorous comments are made over the film’s original soundtrack and mainstreamed it by setting up a flimsy but vital framing story: That of a man shot into space by mad scientists and forced to watch these movies as part of their evil experiment.

Over the series’ initial 11-year-run it had many homes—starting with a copyright-law-dubious season 0 on a local Minneapolis UHF channel, leading to the Comedy Channel which was absorbed by Comedy Central, and finally to the SciFi channel—and many cast changes. When it was canceled after season ten, many attempts were made to revive the general format with and without a framing story.

The three main riffers of the last MST3K seasons, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett went on to do “Film Crew” and then found success with “Rifftrax”, which provides pure riffs both integrated with movies and—through an ingenious app—allows you to play the commentary over films you already own unriffed. (This also gets around the prohibitive licensing issues for many movies.) Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff have been touring and recording as “The Mads are Back” since 2015. MST3K creator Joel Hodgson himself refurbished the concept in 2007 with  the fairly successful “Cinematic Titanic”, reuniting himself, Beaulieu and Conniff, and MST alumni Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein (who started with season 0 of the show at age 17!).

(L-to-R) Hodgson, Weinstein, Pehl, Beaulieu and Conniff

In 2015, 16 1/2 years after the show’s “final” cancellation, creator Joel Hodgson—having spent half a decade acquiring rights and clearing a path—announced a Kickstarter to bring back MST3K. This would raise a record $5.76M to create new episodes with a new cast for Netflix. Setting aside all the differences that a couple decades will make, season 11 must not have been what Netflix wanted, since season 12 was streamlined for binge watching: Six movies released all at once, for back-to-back viewing in a gimmick called “The Gauntlet”. Exeunt Netflix.

Last year, Joel launched another Kickstarter, racked up another $6.5M and started on season 13: 13 episodes plus a concept called the Gizmoplex, which most people look at and say “Oh, it’s a streaming service,” but there’s a distinct emphasis on community experience. More on that in a bit. Unencumbered by Netflix, but encumbered by lockdowns, Hogdson & Co. nonetheless managed to film all 13 episodes in under a year, and made the first episode available on March 4th, 2022—

A riff based on the Mexican wrestling “classic” Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, wherein the titular Santo invents time-travel, sends a girl back to her past life to discover she was romantically involved with a Dracula and that said Dracula had a treasure they try to retrieve in current day 1969 “to help the children”.

I set that apart because I don’t want anyone to think I’m making it up. It’s pure MST3K glory, taking an insane movie and just running with the various concepts and cultural oddities therein. It’s made all the more wonderful by the fact that El Santo was a kind of Mexican legend and a decent fellow, and the only quality print remaining is “the European cut” which features a lot of nudity El Santo did not approve of. (He was a friend to all the children!)

Santo never took off the mask, even for Bridge Night at the Kiwanis Club.

With all the different riffing ventures, there is of course some overlap in movie choices but Santo is just very MST3K. Rifftrax, by contrast, does a lot of popular films. It is, for example, the only way I would (and have) watched the Twilight series. Rifftrax also does a lot of infamous cult movies (recently, for example, they took on the Canadian microbudget/wth-is-this flick Feeders). I don’t see the main three rifffers doing Mexican wrestling pictures. (MSTie alumni Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson get a lot of mileage out of old Sherlock Holmes and teen-sploitation films under the Rifftrax banner so I could see them doing it.)

The Netflix years got mixed reviews from fans of the old show and while I liked them, this felt like real MST3K. This episode paces jokes more like the original run. That’s important, I think. The movie has to have enough room to breathe on its own; this makes the riffs funnier when they come. It feels less frenetic. The new riffers (Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn) are fairly seasoned by this point and much more comfortable. This season will also feature episodes with the latest “experiment” subject played by the charming Emily Marsh, as well as new voices for the robots, who I believe all worked together on the live tour.

(L-to-R) Crow, Hampton, Jonah, Baron, Tom Servo

The Netflix era had one fewer host sketch, which season 13 has restored. This also helps the pace. One serious flaw with Rifftrax, for my taste, is that sometimes you really, really need a break from the film. It’s hard to watch Manos: The Hands of Fate straight through with no interruptions! Also, the sketches allow the crew to develop both the show universe and the in-movie gags. This episode featured an instant classic: a sketch where Crow (Yount) and Tom Servo (Vaughn) are being “interviewed” by ’80s era wrestling announcer (Ray) and say increasingly nice things about each other in an increasingly belligerent manner.

Due to the lockdowns, the visuals are hampered by having everyone in front of a green screen: A critical part of the charm of MST3K has always been a reliance on low-budget models and sets reminiscent of the movies being riffed. Nonetheless, the joy over having a new episode and the episode being such a high quality, generally overrides the misgivings over details like this.

Now, the Gizmoplex? That’s another story. Historically, it’s the sort of thing that has never worked. That is to say, it is in part an attempt to create an experience out of what people commonly view as interface elements. The idea that you can browse in the lobby hang on in the lobby or have an avatar in the theater has not been one that has caught on much in the past although the emphasis here is very much on “a place you can bring your friends to share experiences with”, and this might be the definitive factor. It reminded me a whole lot of what Joe Bob Briggs aims for on “The Last Drive-In”, with the show airing on Friday night and not being available for streaming right away, and during which Joe Bob and Darcy—mostly Darcy—interact with the viewers.

In this context—that of a cult following that can throw together 7 figures for a new season—community building in a virtual space could work. We shall see if it does here. Indeed, the only thing that would concern me, were I Hodgson, would be that even though the latest campaign raised more money, the original “Bring Back” campaign in 2015 had a third more backers. Ultimately the idea is for the Gizmoplex to fund future MST3K seasons—something that seems somewhat unlikely to me to occur by the summer (where they’d have to have enough money to start making season 14), but I’m hopeful and curious.

The new season should be available to the public in May. The Gizmoplex itself I suspect will roll out piecemeal over the next year.

A real cineplex on the moon would charge you $40 for a bucket of oxygen.

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