krpalmer: (mst3k)
[personal profile] krpalmer
Moving to the ninth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I've returned to "The Screaming Skull." It happened to be the last episode of the series re-run on the "Sci-Fi Channel," some years after the production itself was cancelled, and having heard about that ahead of time I managed to synchronise my first viewing of the episode with its last cable airing. It's also distinguished in a small way by a happier note than that, though, which is that it includes one of the handful of shorts shown during that era of the show.

"Robot Rumpus" features the iconic "claymation" (if some decades before the late-1980s boom I tend to associate that term with) character Gumby, in this short an apparent child who decides to take care of his yardwork chores through the simple expedient of deploying robots. With that taken care of, he's free to enjoy milk and crackers ("Crackers? Wow! Maybe we can have some white rice later!") with his talking horse companion Pokey. As is all too familiar, though, the robots get out of hand ("Hey, don't! That's Wallace and Gromitt's yard!"), and Gumby's reddish father Gumbo must race to the rescue just before Gumby, Pokey, and Gumby's unnamed mother are squashed into an undifferentiated ball of plasticene. Everybody pitches in to reduce the robots to their component parts, and as you might imagine Crow and Tom Servo don't take that very well.

As for the movie itself, it starts with the promise of "shocking horror" and the suggestion that those who die of fright will get a free coffin from the moviemakers. With that, the widowed but recently remarried Eric and his new wife Jenni arrive in style in a gullwing Mercedes at a Southern mansion without electricity or much in the way of furniture, its grounds kept up by the shambling, shaggy-haired, blotchy-jacketed gardener Mickey; much perhaps somewhat edgy fun is had in the "riffing" with his mental state. Before long, we learn (via conversations with the local minister and his wife) that Jenni was wealthy before her marriage but also a little "unstable." ("I'm pleasant but I have issues.") What with peacocks wandering the grounds and screaming at night and a somewhat disturbing self-portrait of Eric's late wife (who died slipping on a garden path, smashing her head on a stone bench, and falling into a decorative lily pond), Jenni starts to crack as a skull begins to feature. After quite a while ("It's like they have two servings of tension they're trying to stretch out to seven people.") and some dubious help from Eric, we learn there's either a genuine ghost or he has psychological issues of his own. I'm reminded a little bit of "Tormented."

It's easy enough to make proclamations about what "a better movie" might do with the potentials of the premise, but Mystery Science Theater itself is soon able to do quite a lot with even the stretched-out qualities of this one. The "host segments" begin with Tom Servo's transformation into a butterfly ("and a glorious one at that!"), then have Pearl Forrester and her assistants setting up a prank of sorts at incredible length. Traumatised by the Gumby short, Tom and Crow try to work through it with their own, less well-shaped clay figures "Bolus and Horsefly" and two tiny yet charming replicas of themselves, Tom does his best to scam a free coffin out of the moviemakers, and Crow becomes a "screaming skull" with great if somewhat impactful effect on Mike. By the end of the episode this time around, I was enjoying it well enough to not reflect on its own "end of an era" qualifications.

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