CULT FILM FANDOM AND ‘MST3K’: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE ‘BOTS

 

 

“I hate the “Golden Turkey” mentality . . . utterly and completely repulsive. It doesn’t take a brain to sit around and make fun of a film. I don’t appreciate Mystery Science Theater 3000, either; I can make my own jokes. I don’t need some smartass to tell me what’s funny. I don’t think that’s real fandom; it’s mass marketing.” BASKET CASE director Frank Henenlotter

 

 

In 1988, a group of Minnesota comedy writers and peformers got together to create a TV show with a simple premise – using old movies as a launching point for gags. There wasn’t anything particularly new about the format, as horror hosts had been doing something similar for decades, and the very similar “The Canned Film Festival” had done the same thing with similar movies in syndication a couple of years earlier.

 

But unlike most of its forefathers in comedic cultural appropriation, Mystery Science Theater 3000 stuck. The series itself jumped to cable the following year and continued until 1999, producing 197 episodes and a feature film. Those associated with MST3K have continued to produce entertainment very similar to the show they worked on for years, as “RiffTrax,” “Cinematic Titanic” or the short-lived “Film Crew.” (2nd Crow Bill Corbett also co-wrote MEET DAVE, but shut the hell up.) While the show itself may have been gone for over a decade and a half, its legacy lives on, in an immense fandom with enough in-jokes and controversy to rank with, if not STAR WARS, at least Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of devotion.

 

But you probably know all of this. (And if you don’t, you’ve picked a strange corner of the internet to start reading. How the hell did you get here? Were you looking for MEET DAVE fanfic?  Don’t look for MEET DAVE fanfic.)

 

Since its inception, the relationship between MST3K and cult movie fandom has always been a little bit of an odd one, and it’s pretty easy to see why – on a surface level, MST3K was making fun of the movies that cult movie fans sought out! In the days before easy availability of oddball films in decent looking prints, that HUMANOID WOMAN, THE CRAWLING EYE, or THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU were airing on television was an incredible fluke, and here’s a bunch of puppets talking over the damn thing!

 

 

ktmaAs evidenced by this phone call referenced in the sixth episode of the original KTMA season, there’s been a faction to whom the central conceit was too offensive to bear, even at the show’s inception. It was, at the time, an attitude echoed in the annals of cult film fandom.  In the Psychotronic Video Guide review for MITCHELL, Michael Weldon remarks that “It’s only available on tape in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, with robot viewers making jokes.” (At least he’s consistent, as he doesn’t care much for Elvira’s schtick either.) Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas railed against the show in GoreZone, shaming them for talking through Eddie Cochran’s song in UNTAMED YOUTH. Shock Cinema’s Steve Puchalski suggested its influence in an editorial with “now we have an entire generation who depends on [MST3K] to appreciate a crappy movie.” “Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!” author Stuart Galbraith IV wrote a scathing piece for the Ann Arbor News in 1993 in which he attacks the show as unfunny and blames it for the rowdy audience at a Science Fiction film festival he attends.  “Creature Features” movie guide author John Stanley was even more merciless, calling MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE “even worse than the Comedy Central series that spawned it,” an “unwatchable travesty,” an “utter fiasco with not a single funny moment in it” and railed against the production values.

 

(More recently, you can Galbraith’s attitude towards the show in his hilariously stuffy dismissal of the mere idea of mocking a film in this review of the Cinematic Titanic release of THE WASP WOMANin which he calls the performers “could-be comics,” brings up the show’s “ethical problems” without mentioning what those problems might be and calls the disc “sheer agony, utterly mirthless.” He then uses the footnotes to describe a HI-LARIOUS joke someone made about Sophia Loren at a party once. It may be the most amazingly pretentious, pearl-clutching review ever published.)

 

mitchell

 

Even now, you’ll find the subject of MST3K in general a controversial one on cult movie message boards. The subject is undeniably divisive, with defenders claiming it had “good writing, good characters, great design work that took kit-bashing to a whole new level, and a fun premise,“ and detractors calling it “an extension of the Medved ‘so bad it’s good’ philosophy and probably more damaging,” and citing the show as the reason older genre films aren’t taken seriously by modern audiences.

 

And I was certainly an early naysayer. A regular reader of Fangoria, Psychotronic Video, and whatever oddball film-related zine I could get my hands on, I was vaguely aware of the show that aired monster movies while some guy made fun of them thanks to channel surfing that would cause me to dwell on Tor Johnson’s image for a few minutes before the wisecracking and shadow puppetry got to me. I was just plain annoyed, like the writers of the magazines I read and the filmmakers I loved, and just didn’t care for the concept so much that I steadfastly refused to be entertained. I was, essentially, being a stubborn jerk who wanted the show to be something it wasn’t.

 

The first time I ever watched MST3K in full, wasn’t because I wanted to see something funny. I’d wanted to see the movie THE SIDE HACKERS – not because it was a dingy motorcycle action pic with Ross Hagen and Michael Pataki, but because it had the word “hackers” in it, and I assumed it was about computers. (I was 16.) I was determined to stick it through, even with the talking puppets and finding out it was nothing like the movie I had expected to see. I’d started the movie, so I’d have to finish it and be able to mark another movie down on my list. (Like I said, I was 16. And stubborn, though that’s implied by the “16.”)

 

side hackers

 

By the end of the episode, I was hooked. I’d finally gotten into the groove of the show. I was no longer watching for the movie they were featuring, but rather for what they were creating out of it.

 

The thing with MST3K that’s often lost on those who are devoted cult movie fans is that it’s not just about “making fun of bad movies,” a description it’s often given even from the show’s official FAQ. “Making fun of bad movies” is a premise that could have lasted a season and garnered a little half-hearted fandom that wouldn’t have jumped beyond some regional convention panels. MST3K uses movies as the springboard to a well-structured comedy show, utilizing aspects of the film to inspire jokes, sketches, and music through their own talents. You can certainly argue that MST3K isn’t funny, but you can’t say its sole reason for existence is pure mockery.

 

And the fact that the writers quickly had no problems with throwing in cultural references with no regard as to how obscure they may be (Heironymous Bosch? Frank Zappa? The Milwaukee County Zoo?) marks them as people that aren’t just embracing “bad movies” to have something to mock – the genuinely love the stuff they’re riffing off of. Joel Hodgson, in Wired’s great oral history of the show, said, “Our riffs were never too negative. We were the audience’s companions, and people don’t want to spend time with assholes. If you’re negative, it may be funny, but it’s not sustainable. So we had a lot of respect for the movies, because we had to work with them. Trace once said a really clever thing: ‘The movies are Margaret Dumont, and we’re the Marx Brothers.’” MST3K is best viewed as a comedy equivalent of Andy Warhol’s “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans,” with the movies as Best Brains’ pop culture inspiration. And you can, in fact, love both the art and the soup that inspired it.

 

There’s certainly moments on the show that hit a sour note to the cult movie fan part of me. MST3K occasionally doesn’t play by its own set of rules, like editing out a scene in MITCHELL in which John Saxon’s character dies – and then making fun of the fact that he seems to have vanished from the movie! And certainly, “bad” is in the eye of the beholder – few who genuinely respect film would consider DIABOLIK or THIS ISLAND EARTH “bad” films, so the very idea of the show’s premise makes for a questionable judgment call.

 

mst3k this island

 

But the movies were never the point. They didn’t have to be “bad,” it’s just that entertainingly bizarre films like THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES provided so much more possibility for comic potential. They could have just as well done CITIZEN KANE or RASHOMON, but who the heck wants to turn great films into comic potential?

 

And by dredging into the depths of the genre film wells, MST3K created a new appreciation for the works that they were thought to be purely mocking. While MST3K may have never intended to court the audiences of the movies they utilized, they created a brand new audience for them, exposing them to the likes of MOON ZERO TWO, CITY LIMITS, TORMENTED and EEGAH. As the shows were watched and re-watched, audiences members started the genuinely love the movies themselves, appreciating them for the charms they had as unintentional as those charms may have been.   Naysayers be damned, you can’t possibly argue that there would be a remastered version of MANOS, HANDS OF FATE due out if it weren’t for Joel and the ‘bots.

 

mst3k manos

 

Now, this type of fandom doesn’t exactly produce the same type of love as the film devotee who will dig through microfiche archives in an effort to find a two-line mention of Joi Lansing. There is a conceit of “film fandom hipsterism” that suggests that it’s wrong for someone to like the same movie for different reasons. But there’s a difference between the “Golden Turkey” mentality that the Medved brothers celebrated and that Frank Henenlotter abhors — the Medveds and their ilk genuinely seemed to detest the movies they wrote about, trashing them to the point where you’d wonder if the films’ producers had done something very illicit to them in their childhood. The MST3K fan who has made the leap to cult film fandom isn’t watching movies because they want to tear them apart like some sort of cultural psychopath on a rampage, they’re watching them because they enjoy the bizarre new worlds they create, however accidentally, and the way those worlds are conveyed. Sure, they still call themselves fans of “bad” movies, but that’s more a problem in the way “bad” is defined than an actual disrespect for the films themselves.

 

Being disrespectful to older genre films comes across in the idea of “bad movie nights,” in which friends gather together to openly mock a movie, though, while MST3K takes the blame, it’s hardly a new idea. And, it should be pointed out, MST3K is a professional production in which writers have worked countless hours in order to set up jokes with the proper timing and precision – a set-up that “bad movie nights” don’t even try to replicate, resulting in your increasingly drunken pal just saying “BOOOOOBS” whenever a buxom woman appears on screen. It’s like the home game version of “Jeopardy” – a chintzy re-rendering of the real thing in which you don’t really gain anything other than having some good times with your friends. It doesn’t make the original any less worthwhile.

 

(That said, playing the “bad movie night” game in a public space is cause for immediate dismissal of friendship, unless you’re at an event that encourages it, like Evanston’s B-Fest. You may think you are funny. You may be funny. You may even be funny to your friends. But you are not funny to strangers who are trying to watch the movie. You are an annoying asshole by whom your friends are quietly embarrassed. MST3K is not responsible for creating annoying assholes, as they have always, and will always, exist.)

 

diabolik

 

Tim Lucas has mellowed to the idea of MST3K in recent years, mentioning in reference to the idea of Maria Bava’s DIABOLIK bookending the show that “I would only find it disconcerting if the MST3K episode predisposed them to not respect Bava’s work or to take no serious interest in it.” It’s a fair enough point, and I’d like to think that those serious enough to consider themselves MST3K fans are serious enough film fans as well, as to have an understanding that the show and the films they utilize are two very different beasts. For the most part, this seems to be the case, though there will always be exceptions, like the unsalvageable works that are better off having their MST3K reputation rather than the even more dismal reputation they’d otherwise have (I’m looking at you, MONSTER A GO-GO), or those whose episodes are so iconic that the movies wouldn’t have a reputation at all were it not for their airing as part of the show (MANOS).

 

Now, I’m certainly not trying to sell anyone on loving MST3K.  Tastes, and tastes in comedy especially, are a very subjective thing, and I wouldn’t attempt to convince someone that the show is “good” any more than I’d want to be convinced that certain movies are just “bad.”  But cult film fandom and MST3K fandom aren’t diametrically opposed factions.  Their end goal is the same — the celebration of the bizarre worlds created by offbeat genre films — even if their methods of celebration may vary.

 

MST3K is generally well-regarded amongst the cult film community now, in part because the films it uses are now more easily available – if you can have the choice of seeing the film in the original format, or turned into the zany sci-fi equivalent of a chicken soup painting, you’re liable to be a lot more open to the show’s existence. Still, there will always be those out there bothered by the show’s assaults on the purity of RED ZONE CUBA, and to them I say, “Repeat to yourself, it’s just a…”

 

Ah, hell, you know the rest.

 

 

@PAUL FREITAG-FEY

Paul Freitag-Fey

Chicago-based, cinepheliac, mostly harmless writer for Daily Grindhouse. Sole enemy: Lorraine Bracco in MEDICINE MAN.

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