Werner Herzog once dismissed Jean-Luc Godard as “intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” Though Mystery Science Theater 3000 never really riffed any good kung fu flicks (unless you count Master Ninja) this general trend of low-culture-made-high (eg. Todd Solondz, comics in art museums) was helpfully chugged along by MST3K’s weekly selections. And though any film’s inclusion on the program could be considered a dubious honor at best, MST3K plays to the basic joy of watching movies, even stinkers like Soultaker and Pumaman.
For those of you out of this particular loop (and disinclined to Google anything), Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a low-budget TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999. A working stiff named Joel is shot into space by his jerk bosses and forced to watch awful B-movies, but in a show of mankind’s resilience, he builds robot friends to help him make fun of these movies and keep his sanity. Joel later escapes and a temp named Mike is tortured in his place for the last five seasons. In case you forget, the theme song covers all of this. Minnesota is full of helpful people.
MST3K also spawned successor projects like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic; while the former has found success providing characteristic commentary tracks for mainstream features like The Dark Knight and Avatar, Cinematic Titanic more closely followed the MST3K formula of mocking low-budget cult movies like The Dynamite Brothers and “Blood Island” entries Brides of Blood and Brain of Blood before folding in February.
It’s not really considered as such, but MST3K is a cohesive body of work, lovingly (and derisively) curated with some effort (some films were actually rejected from riffing; Child Bride was infamously too awful to include); if anything, it’s the Bizarro analogue of the National Film Registry. These pictures should be archived for future generations to find unintentionally funny. For a long time (and to some extent, even now), much of this library was only available through the show (albeit with wiseassed witticisms dubbed over). Film lovers have this show to thank for reviving interest in schlockbusters like Mitchell and Manos: the Hands of Fate. And then there are people like me who never knew such a cesspool existed, let alone was so expansive. I can only pity the life I’d be living had I not been exposed to Mr. B Natural and The Beast of Yucca Flats at such a young age (maybe useful to society, or something). Regardless.
While the program certainly had a “type”—microbudgets, sloppy writing and wooden actors were a staple—the creators were much more culture-savvy than it first appeared. References to Sam Peckinpah and Spalding Gray demanded that their audience keep up with the writers’ film lexicon as well as their rapid-fire delivery. Between The Wild World of Batwoman and Eegah it’s easy to forget that these people won a Peabody.
The show is perhaps best known for their selection of science fiction films (which, after a move to the Sci-Fi Channel, was for a time mandatory). While much of these pictures were monster movies pulled from the Godzilla and Gamera franchises, other, even more ersatz movies like King Dinosaur and Gorgo were given the MST treatment (the latter in an episode guest-starring Leonard Maltin). Horror movies like The Brute Man were another obvious mainstay (including body horror classics The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and The Crawling Hand), as were good old unintentional comedies like Cold Warmonger Invasion U.S.A. and bikesploitation The Hellcats.
An unexpected classic came in the form of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Not their first movie with Martians or even their first with Santa (1959’s Santa Claus features a similarly psychotronic plot), Conquers quickly distinguished itself with its own incompetence. The film has Santa Claus and two kids kidnapped and taken to Mars to bring Christmas to the red planet, leading to mixed feelings among the natives. Think of how bad child actors could be in the sixties—think of how bad Pia Zadora was whenever—and realize that this movie has both. The baffling plot, coupled with quotable lines from Joel and the bots (“Pills for dinner!” “Ho ho ho! What are we, Judy Garland?”), made for a movie so terrible (even compared to the usual fare) that its appearance on the show catapulted it into the cult film canon.
Byron wrote “If I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep,” which would be a great line to describe the show if it weren’t so highfalutin. That Mystery Science Theater 3000 was literate without being pretentious and teasing without being condescending—so laidback and chummy that many audiences assumed Joel’s sleepy-eyed hosting was just him being stoned—was impressive; the show managed to keep its wit without falling into the easy flow of Gen-X irony. The show never strayed too far into introspection, but its general philosophy towards its subject matter slipped out halfway through the episode skewering The Slime People:
“Well, the thing is, you guys, the real beauty part of this movie is that it actually got made […] the guy who made it isn’t a fool, he just convinced some people that it was worth making […] whether [because he convinced them that] it was a good idea, or it could make money or it satisfied some bizarre urge in the viewing public.”
MSTies of the world are encouraged to refer to this page in the future, as I’ve been given the hard-won (nobody else wanted to) responsibility of keeping this page updated with films that, in the not-too-distant future, will be used as psychological torture. Dust off your silhouette decals (they probably still make those), invite your robot friends and get riffing.
(Update 9 May): You’re in luck, sports fan: today saw the addition of Radar Secret Service (directed by Sam Newfield, the auteur behind I Accuse My Parents) to the library. Enjoy?