In my lengthy review of Reptilicus, the premiere episode of Netflix’s new reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I ultimately came to the conclusion of an uneven though promising beginning to this new version of a cult comedy classic. Although that first episode’s riffing sometimes feels a little rushed, perhaps indicative of a cast and crew feeling immense pressure to please a rabid fan base that has been waiting 18 years for new MST3K, it also contained a spark of the divine. The Reptilicus riff hinted at at higher plateaus, which the show has immediately ascended to in its second episode, Cry Wilderness. Now this is an MST3K experiment to get excited about.
It all begins with the film. This is one goofy-ass movie, a “family-friendly” 1987 Bigfoot adventure obscure enough to be lacking even a Wikipedia entry, which is impressive. Nevertheless, it turns out I was actually familiar with director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen already, because the one other feature in his career was the similarly off-the-wall Night Train to Terror, a minor cult classic I’ve written about in detail at Paste. Like that film, Cry Wilderness is a head-spinning combination of magical earnesty and explosive incompetence. They didn’t even remember hands/gloves for their Bigfoot costume!
I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Cry Wilderness a superior film for the purposes of this show, when compared with Reptilicus. Although the giant Danish monster movie has MST3K in its DNA, and can easily draw comparisons to the Godzilla or Gamera series, Cry Wilderness is brimming with far more character and generally inexplicable WTF-ness, and that simply translates to riffing material in an organic way. It’s like a PG-rated Werewolf, if you added the kid from Pod People, with a touch of the mysticism you’d find in one of the Russo-Finnish fantasy movies like Jack Frost. Merge those all together and you get a story about Bigfoot, merciless hunters, magically resurrected native Americans and a boy who refuses to do what he’s told under any circumstances.
Our protagonist is Paul, a motherless dweeb who has been sent away by his park ranger father to St. Preppington’s School For Fancyboys in a fruitless effort to class him up. Oddly, we learn right away that this film isn’t about Paul’s initial meeting with Sasquatch/Bigfoot, because apparently they became good friends the previous summer, bonding over a shared taste for Coca Cola and rock ‘n roll (not a joke). This almost makes the film feel like some kind of sequel, although try as I might, I can’t seem to find any IMDB entry for Paul and the Cola-Loving Sasquatch.
The plot is thrown into motion in hilarious fashion when Bigfoot magically appears as a vision outside of Paul’s window at school, screaming the following at him in perfectly legible English: “PAUL! YOUR FATHER IS IN GREAT DANGER! HE NEEDS YOUR HELP!” To reiterate: Bigfoot appears in a vision and yells these things at the protagonist. Yeah. It’s all accompanied by a soft red light that elicits an excellent Seinfeld reference: “It’s the new Kenny Roger’s Roasters!”
Needless to say, Paul immediately runs away from school, hitchhiking with friendly long-haul truckers into the deepest wilderness, where he’s reunited with his bearded father and constantly (and inappropriately) cackling native American sidekick. They’re tasked by the Jaws-style corrupt mayor to find and capture the large animal in the area that has been killing wildlife, joined by a psychotic big game hunter who is introduced in the most absurd way possible: Waiting for them in their cabin, eating an entire rabbit whole, licking the delicious fat from his fingers. It’s such a disturbing sight that the crew couldn’t help but make it the post-credits stinger.
Most importantly, the delivery of the riffing has taken an immediate step forward from the premiere. The jokes are wonderfully diverse, from the observational (“I’m in an elite branch of special forces; they call us The Bowl Cuts.”) to the geeky (“I think this is where all those E.T. games are buried.”) There often seems to be slightly more time to breathe between jokes, which helps immensely, but more than anything this is simply a film that is begging to be mocked. It was an outstanding selection—kudos to whoever found it, because it seems to bring out the best in the new riffers.
But there’s one riff in particular I want to call out that completely affirmed my faith in this series, because it reminds one of the “I can’t believe they just made a joke about this” feeling you experience in any great episode of MST3K. It comes when young Paul examines the necklace pendant he wears throughout the film: “This albatross around my neck, it represents my guilt.” You would be forgiven for not getting the reference, given that this is a joke about Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s 1798 romantic epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But my god, what a reference that is! The faith that the writer has to make that joke, knowing that only the English literature geeks in the audience could possibly pick up on the significance of it is inspiring. That’s the kind of riff that would be at home in any great MST3K episode.
The host segments are likewise solid, highlighted by the Cry Wilderness diorama, which amusingly refers to the characters’ apparent laughing mania by its scientific name, “the pseudobulbar affect.” We also get our first major cameo from past MST3K stars: Pearl, Bobo and Brain Guy! They stop by briefly in Pearl’s good old flying Volkswagen van, having not missed a beat. One imagines that season 11 will likely be littered with these little cameos, which are fan service of the best kind, although I do sort of look forward to the point where the new MST3K is standing entirely on its own without needing the Force Awakens-style homages. Perhaps by season 12 (please, let there be a season 12) this will have come to pass.
Also worth noting is the fact that this episode gives us considerably more Kinga and Max, which is delightful. Patton Oswalt truly shines in pretty much every line he’s given, especially during the invention exchange when The Mads reveal their “Carvel Ice Cream Cake Clock,” which features such new ice cream cake designs as “laundry sack,” “lamprey” and “post-apocalyptic raider with mohawk.” Later, he sneakily gets in a line clearly targeted at every doubting fan and overcritical reviewer poring over these early episodes: “Some shows don’t get good until the fifth episode!” Touche, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank.
Thankfully, with Cry Wilderness, the new MST3k has “gotten good” well before episode five, and the sky seems to be the limit. Here’s hoping that it only continues its ascent toward legendary comic status from here.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident MST3K obsessive. You can follow him on Twitter for much more MST3K coverage.