Although only a limited number of viewers were able to witness it, this past weekend was notable for the fact that it contained the return of an indomitable comedy icon: Mystery Science Theater 3000. The beloved cult movie riffing show hosted a livestream of the first episode of its 13th season, Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, which was available exclusively to most of the roughly 36,000 Kickstarter backers who donated more than $6.5 million to make the show’s first independent season a possibility. Now free from the oversight of Netflix, which hosted Season 11 and the truncated Season 12, MST3K is venturing into bold, if bug-ridden new territory by building their own platform for the series. Dubbed the Gizmoplex, it’s a streaming media player that merges both the kayfabe of the series and a whimsical vision of its future.
Being a Kickstarter backer myself, I was able to watch the first episode of season 13 this weekend along with the other MST3K faithful, and after digesting some of the audience reactions and creator interviews also included in the livestream, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
— On a technical level, the Gizmoplex is a fairly confusing work in progress, but one that is currently only really visible to Kickstarter backers. The show is using the next three months or so as what is effectively an open beta, refining both the design and functionality of the Gizmoplex as a service. There are many features—most notably the “virtual theater” that fans will use to watch episodes—that are not yet functional or live, and the whole experience can be a bit dizzying and perhaps overcomplicated to those who expect to simply be able to queue up an episode on their app in a few clicks. Suffice to say, MST3K is going for a more immersive, novel and engrossing experience here, and it remains to be seen how well it will actually work when all is said and done. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of work still being done on the Gizmoplex, and we’ll have to withhold a more permanent judgement until it opens to non-Kickstarter backers, possibly in early May.
— The good news is that once you get past technical issues with the livestream or the interruption of sponsored content in the broadcast, the actual episode shows a promising and comfortably familiar start for Season 13. Santo in the Treasure of Dracula is a delight of a feature, and it receives an even-handed riffing from Jonah and the Bots. This is of course the most important aspect in the survival of MST3K at any moment—the meat of the show has to remain compelling. What follows is our review of the actual episode, which we will eventually add to our master list that ranks every single episode in MST3K history.
1968’s Santo in the Treasure of Dracula is a classic luchador superhero film in the Mexican tradition, starring the one and only El Santo, one of the most famous pop cultural figures in Mexican history. The man starred in dozens of films over the course of decades, pitting the wrestler against everything from international terrorist to Universal monsters—this is by far the only time he tangled with a vampire. Santo should be familiar to MST3K fans already, in fact, as he tackled vampires previously in episode 624, Samson vs. the Vampire Women.
Santo in a turtleneck is immediately hilarious, with no need for any kind of commentary.
Treasure of Dracula, though, is far more engagingly silly a film in its own right than Vampire Women ever dreamt of being, and that’s a great thing for this episode. The nigh-incomprehensible plot sees Santo—wrestler, vigilante and super-scientist all at once—inventing a particularly absurd looking time machine (it looks incredibly similar to the device from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), which functions by throwing people from the present into the past lives of their ancestors. The silver-masked luchador (described by the riffers as “a Hershey Kiss in a suit”) then looks on as his female assistant lives out her past life in the 1800s … which just so happens to have been plagued by the vampire king Dracula. Oh, and there’s a treasure as well.
In my experience, these luchador films often sound more hilarious in description than they are in practice, but Treasure of Dracula is a gem. It actually benefits from a relative lack of action scenes, because the biggest laughs are in the plot and stilted deliveries of the English dub, rather than the chaotic “punch, fall and roll around” sequences that are common in these films, which are lacking any semblance of professional fight choreography. The picture, likewise, is very crisp and legible, with great colors, while the audio is better than many older MST3K features. Swings in volume and legibility do crop up from time to time when the riffers speak over the film’s audio, but I’m hoping these inconsistencies can be cleaned up by the time “final” copies of each episode are made available. All in all, the film is more entertainingly bad than any other Santo feature I’ve seen in the past, and it’s easy to appreciate its “bargain bin Hammer Horror” aesthetic.
The riffing, meanwhile, continues the momentum of season 12 in refining the individual voices of Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn (Tom Servo) and Hampton Yount (Crow T. Robot), while also reflecting fan feedback when it comes to the pace and energy of the riffing. If the frenetic pace of riffing from season 11 was toned down a bit in season 12, it is dramatically reenvisioned here, and the experience is more relaxed and tranquil as a result. Jokes are given a much greater chance to breathe throughout Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, and there’s far less a sense of the riffers feeling pressure to constantly fill any moment of open air with quip after quip. This absolutely feels like the proper choice to me—MST3K is not a show that needs to be at 110% intensity every moment it’s on screen, but one that feels most organic when it has peaks and valleys in the patter of its riffing. There’s a reason why so many fans fall asleep to episodes of this series—the MST3K vibe is predominantly calm rather than frantic.
Any description of this film would be remiss without acknowledging that this guy, “Perico,” is one of the most outstandingly nebbish comic relief wimps in the history of the genre.
Highlights of individual riffs include some sharp filmmaking observations, ‘ala “Dracula, Prince of day for night,” as well as a bevy of eclectic and obscure references, namechecking lyrics from the B52s, episodes of The Little Rascals and Death Bed: The Bed That Eats in equal measure. There’s a playful sense of both earnestness and morbidity throughout, akin to some of MST3K’s past highs, as evidenced when Dracula eyes a sleeping child and Jonah quips “I’m usually not a veal guy, but …” Absolutely a line that I could envision coming out of the mouth of Mike Nelson or Bill Corbett, and I mean that as a compliment.
Host segments for Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, meanwhile, are solid but unambitious, with some good dialog in the skit going through Jonah’s “embarrassing” high school yearbook, or parodying “overly nice” WWE-style wrestling promos in a bit that evoked Key & Peele’s parody of homoerotic boxing press conferences. The aesthetic of these “bridge” scenes on the Satellite of Love and Moon One, however, feels quite embryonic and a bit unattractive, owing to the reliance upon CGI backgrounds rather than more detailed practical sets. Frankly, I was glad that the host segments have always been a relatively minor part of my enjoyment of MST3K, as the lack of resources (and challenges of shooting during COVID) have likely impacted these sequences more than the theater work in season 13.
With all that said, the episode as it exists on the Gizmoplex today is still not quite a “finished product” as it were, lacking ending credits and a stinger, which will obviously be added whenever it becomes the “final cut” of the episode. The inclusion of sponsored ads delivered by the bots themselves (for Kickstarter backing companies) is also a bit of an oddity, but these are short, and in actual episodes one would hope that they’ll come off as pretty seamless. Here, they’re dragged out a bit more by livestream explanations of what the audience is about to see. These livestream bits included a somewhat tedious “intermission” combining both advertisements and prop comedy, but once again, by the time the wider world sees Santo in the Treasure of Dracula it will likely be a smoother affair. The broadcast ended, meanwhile, with a long Q&A featuring Joel Hodgson, writer-producer Matt McGinnis, episode director Tim Ryder, performer Rebecca Hanson and “manager of community engagement” Lesley Kinzell, who answered fan questions and led a preview of the upcoming “virtual theater” feature of the Gizmoplex. A few stray observations here of note:
— Kickstarter backers will begin receiving invites to beta test the Gizmoplex Virtual Theater within the next 4-6 weeks. This virtual theater is difficult to describe and still incomplete, but it feels somewhere between an interactive DVD menu or a point-and-click LucasArts adventure game, technically putting the user in control of a Cambot as they navigate the virtual theater to access screening rooms, a store for buying/renting episodes, or the “Kingadome” where live event streams will be held.
— Users can likely expect new content of some kind to hit the Gizmoplex every two weeks or so, with a new episode each month over the course of the next year, as well as a dozen special “live events” such as the upcoming tribute to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Likewise, the six-pack of classic episodes that are freely available will rotate on a monthly basis, each being tailored to a specific monthly theme.
— One does sort of wonder what the impetus was to make the first episode of season 13 available NOW specifically, rather than waiting until various aspects of the Gizmoplex were complete and fully operational. It feels as if the show was under some kind of deadline that was unable to be altered, but we don’t know why that would be the case, given that MST3K is finally “independent.” If every bit of functionality in the Gizmoplex is intended to be working two months from now, why not just push back the premiere for Kickstarter backers by a few months? It’s hard to say without knowing the whole story, but it’s sure to irk at least some of the fans of the series.
— Speaking of those fans, I went to browse through the MST3K subreddit immediately following the premiere of Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, curious what the collective assessment might be of the start of Season 13. In short, although there was much exasperated complaining about aspects such as the audio mix, Gizmoplex bugs, the new version of the theme song, the new “doors” sequence, and the CGI-based hots segments, the fandom overall seemed quite pleased with the actual quality of the film and its riffing. Which is to say, although Season 13 of MST3K clearly has some significant growing pains ahead of it, its heart and soul thankfully remains intact. Although there’s still much we don’t know (like what happens with the Gizmoplex after season 13 ends), I look forward to seeing how this latest expression of MST3K grows to fill in its new home.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.