It may give some indication of the glamorous life of a movie reviewer if I tell you that one of my favorite pastimes is, and has been since high school, watching Z-grade sci-fi, horror and other sorts of exploitation movies. Watching them by oneself is fun; watching them with like-minded friends more so, because it allows you to share the inanities and riff on them, spinning out elaborate subtexts for the amateurish acting, stilted dialogue and cheesy visuals.
In spite of my, at times, near-obsessive enthusiasm for this activity--or maybe because of it--I was resistant to the concept of the cable-TV fave Mystery Science Theater 3000 when first told about it.
Known to its fans as MST3K, the program shows slightly condensed versions of schlock films. Three friends--seen in silhouette in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, as if they're in the front row of a movie theatre--mock the film in progress, commenting on the action with one-liners.
About five years ago, when a friend glowingly told me about the show, it sounded dreadful for several reasons. The first and most obvious was the smugness--the tone I imagined to be something like the easy and utterly unearned implication of superiority found in the Golden Turkey Awards books of the brothers Medved. It seemed unlikely that all the subtle nuances that can be found by a devoted schlock junkie in even a truly wretched movie would get their due in this format (I had this same gripe with the ritualized japery aimed at that very good musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Perhaps most infuriating of all, though, was the audience passivity it seemed to suggest. It was as if TV, having taken over every other aspect of our lives, was now co-opting the very watching of TV--the simple, balance-maintaining act of cracking wise to the crap on the tube here had all the spontaneity and personal commitment drained out of it.
Or so it seemed to me, in concept. Then I was coaxed into watching several episodes: the MST3K treatments of Bert I. Gordon's The Magic Sword; of the Italian sword-and-sandal epic Hercules Against the Moon Men; of the rock-bottom adventure programmer Jungle Goddess; and of a holiday episode featuring the notorious kiddy musical Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, with a young Pia Zadora.
My prejudices were wrong. The show is a delight, and so is the fiscally inexplicable big-screen version, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Through a number of most ingenious strategies, MST3K is able to pilot itself around virtually every trap of snottiness or sophomoric flippancy into which it could easily fall.
First of all, the premise of the show--created by a group of young wise guys for a local Minneapolis TV station in 1988--is brilliantly disarming. Sometime in the future, a young man (Joel Hodgson, originally, and Michael J. Nelson for the last few seasons and in the film) has been marooned on an orbital space station by the mad Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). The Doc is bent, needless to say, on world conquest, and his plan has something to do with sapping human will through overexposure to "cheesy movies." His space captive is this project's guinea pig.
The spaceman, however, is a resourceful young fellow and manages, a la Bruce Dern in Silent Running, to build robots to provide him with companionship and help him maintain sanity. Gypsy (voiced by director Jim Mallon) pilots the ship while our hero watches films with Crow (also played by Beaulieu), who resembles Mr. Moose in Mongolian armor, and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), whose transparent, spherical noggin and tiny beak are formed by a gumball dispenser.
Through this conceit, the quipping at the films seems less like idle snideness and more like what schlock junkies know it to be--an existential, compulsory fate. The MST3K gang razzes movies because it has to. The fate of the world depends on it.
Moreover, most of the films sent up on the show are such completely abysmal public-domain junk that--with possibly one or two exceptions--they couldn't be enjoyed by themselves, even as funny bad movies. No risk was run that the audience might side with the movie and prefer that the yappy little puppets shut up and let us watch it.
Instead, it's sort of heartening that a decent use was found for this all-but-unwatchable, sub-Ed Wood dreck--serving as fodder for good jokes. And the jokes, which range from silly Bullwinkle-style puns to sly, subtle cultural allusions to downright bizarre non sequiturs, are genuinely first-rate. Like Dennis Miller, MST3K's creators don't assume that we won't get the obscure ones, or that if, on one occasion or another, we indeed don't get them, we'll be offended or upset.
Clearly, MST3K: The Movie is not for everyone; even if you're sympathetic to its obsessions, it may come across as gratingly to you as it did not to me. But it's an obvious must for devotees of the show, and other scavengers of the pop-culture margins may also find in it that mixture of exhilaration and relief that comes with recognizing that one is not alone in one's obsessions.
Apart from a bigger-scale movie-within-the-movie, MST3K: The Movie is, wisely, no more ambitious than an episode of the series. The screening that the characters are watching is interrupted from time to time with small episodes involving Mike (the marooned spaceman), Crow, Tom Servo and Dr. Forrester. There's a small homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a brief midmovie crisis involving a collision with the Hubble telescope, which includes a reference to the notorious Z-movie Manos, the Hands of Fate, an MST favorite.
The "victim" film selected for MST3K's big-screen debut is an abridgement of Universal/International's 1954 This Island Earth, a sci-fi melodrama with, for the time, sincere intentions and state-of-the-art special effects. Released just two years before MGM's glorious Forbidden Planet would make the decade's other attempts at serious, lush-budgeted sci-fi seem creatively anemic, This Island proves a splendidly felicitous choice for MST3K treatment.
This yarn about a desperate effort by denizens of the planet Metaluna to recruit Earth scientists to help them rescue their own war-ravaged world is dramatically naive, stiff and stodgy, with plenty of risable elements--the square-jawed, somewhat dim hero (Rex Reason), the cool, sexy heroine (Faith Domergue), the stentorian alien bigwig (Jeff Morrow) with the shock of white hair customary to inhabitants of his planet, the gratuitous bug-eyed, bulgy-brained mutant-drone monster.
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Also exploitable is the presence in the cast of Russell Johnson, the actor who later became indelible as the Professor on Gilligan's Island. Within seconds of Johnson's first appearance in This Island Earth, a front-row wiseacre intones, "What's this 'and the rest' stuff?" on his behalf.
Yet, as dated and corny as This Island Earth now plays, it still looks great. Clifford Stine's special effects, shot in occasionally stunning three-strip Technicolor, have a real utopian-'50s grandeur. Unlike most of the films zapped by MST3K, this one deserves to be back up on a big screen.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie:
Directed by Jim Mallon; with Trace Beaulieu, Michael J. Nelson, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy and John Brady.