With the Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival dropping this Friday on Netflix, the Daily Grindhouse staffers and various writers and film critics from the world wide web, gathered at Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, all the while trying to avoid the murderous parables of Ernest Borgnine, and discussed their favorite episodes and riffs.
Zack Long: My favorite episode is Horror at Party Beach. The moment they see a sign that says “Look Polish” on a lamp post and they just get so utterly confused as to the meaning of it just breaks me. My favorite riff has to be the running gag of calling people Steve from Night of the Blood Beast. Me and my buddy called each other Steve for months; when we passed someone on the highway we “Steve’d” by them. It was a whole thing.
Nathan Smith: I was definitely a latecomer to the show, catching the odd Mike rerun on Sci-Fi, (I remember Squirm being an episode I watched, maybe the first one), but now I came back to via uploads on YouTube and started watching many, many episodes of it. I even hooked my daughter. She calls it Robot Pals and loves Joel.
For my favorite episode, it’s hard to choose just one … so I won’t. I picked two episodes from each host – For Joel, it’s Manos: The Hands OF Fate, simply because I feel it’s the best gateway episode. The movie’s not all that bad, but that make it so infinitely watchable. Plus Tom’s motor mouth rambling at the episode’s end is a delight.The Giant Gila Monster with the gag of everyone putting their legs up on stuff or Joel providing the voice for the titular beast, imagining the beast as a leering, tongue-waggling creep.
As for Mike, this one is tougher. I love the Coleman Francis episodes simply because they ARE the worst films they may have done. But I choose Zombie Nightmare because there’s so much goddamn humor in that episode that I’ve watched it repeatedly. “Stiv Bator is PISSED!” And of course, The Incredible Melting Man. It’s a decent film, has some shocking deaths and has the funniest Crow line about the villain. I own the Blu-ray of the actual film, but no the episode. Truly, I am shame.
My favorite Joel era riff is “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph,” from Manos. It’s simple but tells you everything you need to know, plus it’s a really helpful descriptor. I also like “O Little Town of Death-lehem” from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
Mike era riff? Easy. It’s Crow saying, “Oh, so Canada has a South, too!” in Zombie Nightmare. Or “Whoa! Not Ted Nelson! No relation to Ted Nelson here!” from The Incredible Melting Man (which I’d argue is my favorite, non-MST’d movie, and might be the bloodiest one they’ve ever done).
Rob Dean: Joel – Pod People: I just love the attempt to pull together all the disparate plot threads into something that makes sense. Also of note is the terrible musical interlude (“It stinks!”), and the recurring joke of screaming out people’s names before ending with “McCloud!” It’s just a great job of elevating a nonsensical movie that attempts to horror up an E.T. ripoff.
Mike – The Final Sacrifice: The various Canadian jokes get a bit tiresome, but I love the weirdness that comes along with any film that has a main character named “Zap Rowsdower” in it. The jokes about how unfortunate the lead young actor is works every time, and the episode has so many great tangents due to the various awkward insertions of characters and ambition far exceeding the budget and abilities.
On a personal note, MST3K (and later Rifftrax) really helped inform my love of unfortunate films (THE APPLE, A TALKING CAT?!?!, etc.). And I think the rise of appreciation of new cult films (from auteurs such as Wiseau, Breen, and Nguyen) matches up with the legacy of MST3K, with people finding enjoyment and ditching the “guilty pleasure” label for the films that give them pleasure no matter their intent.
Brian Collins (Birth.Movies.Death, author of Horror Movie a Day: the Book, Cathy’s Curse): Growing up, my cable service never had Comedy Central, so except for the movie I never really got to experience the world of Mystery Science Theater 3000 until the summer of 1997, when we finally got Sci-Fi Channel (and CC, which was now USELESS!) and I was able to see what an actual episode of the show was like. My first one was Giant Spider Invasion, but that episode nor the next few have left as much as a permanent impression as Riding with Death, which premiered in July of that summer. Since this is 2017, that means in a few months I will be celebrating a full twenty years of thinking about Ben Murphy and his good pal Buffalo pretty much on a weekly basis (and it also means the next few lines won’t make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn’t seen/memorized the episode). Whenever I find myself going a bit too fast down an incline: “170, is that a problem?” Whenever someone mentions turkey: “Were they Butterball?” Whenever I clean my glasses: “STILL DIRTY!” And so on.
But the riff(s) that has (have) tickled me to no end for these past two decades (Jesus Christ…) is anything pertaining to Bob Denby, the film’s villain. Well, the second half’s villain, as the “movie” Riding With Death is just two non-consecutive episodes of a failed TV series jammed together, so while Denby is a big threat in the second half of the film, he’s never even mentioned in the first, until that segment’s plotline is being wrapped up and our hero’s boss, Driscoll, shouts “You’re as elusive as Robert Denby!” via clumsy overdub, much to our heroes’ confusion (“WHO???”) and my continued delight. Not only would they refer to this out of nowhere character throughout the episode (“I seek Robert Denby. I need to know why I’m considered as elusive as he.”), but they’d bring it back in future episodes, whenever actor William Sylvester (who played Driscoll in the film’s second half; he’s played by Richard Dysart in the first) showed up in another movie. So during the totally unrelated Devil Doll, Servo shouted “We have to find Robert Denby!” over a shot of the actor, and I’d laugh my ass off all over again.
I never put a lot of thought about why this particular gag delighted me so much, but I think it’s because it perfectly encapsulates the show’s approach to humor, which often mirrors my own — which is not to entertain some people all of the time or all people some of the time, but some people some of the time. In any given episode there are tons of jokes I simply don’t get, because they’re referencing episodes I haven’t seen, or movies/songs/tv shows that I have no familiarity with, but it’s never bothered me — I don’t feel the need to get every joke I hear any more than I feel the need to make sure my own gags are understood by everyone who might hear/read them. I often tweet things in reference to older events (or even other tweets) without bothering to add the context, and as long as one person follows the train of thought and gets the joke, I’m satisfied. The Denby stuff worked the same way; anyone who missed Riding with Death (or even just simply pay didn’t much attention to each line) would be at a total loss during Devil Doll (or Gorgo, another episode featuring Sylvester) when they made a callback to the gag that was kind of obscure in the first place. And to this day whenever I make a Denby reference and someone gets it, I know I’ve found a kindred spirit. And there have been a lot — turns out, we’re far less elusive than Denby himself.
Libby Cudmore (author, “The Big Rewind,” which you can purchase here:): I have a handful of albums I would run into a burning building to save. My mint-condition Japanese pressing of Airplay’s eponymous debut album. The paper-sleeve CD of Sinister Yu’s Vampires, Literally, the greatest band Binghamton University ever produced. And my copy of the Hobgoblins soundtrack, signed by director Rick Sloane himself and, in all likelihood, burned from his home computer. I think I paid $5 for it on eBay. Worth every penny.
Hobgoblins is my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a perfect storm; a grade-Z ripoff of GREMLINS, filmed and costumed and draped in migraine-inducing 80s glory, plus it’s funny as hell. Every single joke poor Mike and the ‘Bots make hits the mark, making for an instantly quotable episode. (The one I use the most often is “If I run out of vomit, can I borrow some of yours?” while my husband is a big fan of “Sentence fragments! Just phrases!”). And despite the cheap production values, schlocky acting, I have to disagree with MST3K writer Paul Chaplin’s declaration that the movie “shoots to the top of the worst movies we’ve ever done.” Hobgoblins has a comprehensive, albeit cheesy, plot (unlike, say, Monster a Go-Go), identifiable characters and a script that attempts–an occasionally succeeds!–in actually being clever on its own (Daphne gets all the best zingers; she’s easily my favorite character, sexually liberated in a dizzy, careless, pre-AIDS-crisis kinda way.) It’s the sort of late-night B-movie that Quentin Tarantino spends a boatload of money attempting to replicate, but the truth is that bad movies cannot be made, they have to spring forth organically, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It’s the difference between the bizarro charm of Hobgoblins and the awkward bore that is Hobgoblins 2.
But what really makes this movie for me is the music. From the yellow vinyl playing as Daphne gets smothered by puppets to references to Adam Ant, A-Ha and Wang Chung to the Fontanelles playing “Kiss Kicker 99” in Club Scum the music is a fabulous new-wave hellscape. I used to watch the episode just to hear their music, in between snippets of robot snark. I was just starting to embrace goth as my preferred method of teenage moping when this episode aired, and the Fontantelles were a part of that, right alongside Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Smiths. It was a sound I had been looking for, a sound that made sense.
The Fonatelles were a well-known punk band on the LA underground music scene, made up of former Outer Circle and Sofa Musik vocalist Spit Spingola, guitarist Pat Bostram and Cole Coonce, bass player Mark Hodson and drummer Tony Cisero, they’ve got a distinctly Cure-like sound; their five-song EP packed with narcotic fairy tales and velvet melodies over grinding leather punk guitars. “Love Me Nots” (played Kevin and his crew head into Club Scum) is my favorite track, and frankly, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have been able to break out of the underground scene alongside contemporaries The Cramps and X.
But alas, in MST3K, no one is spared the riffing, and the Fontanelles get it hard. “This is one of those movies that’s just as famous for its soundtrack,” jokes Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy). “Oh who am I kidding, no it’s not.” As “Kiss Kicker 99” is played in full, Mike and the ‘Bots riff on the lyrics, (“Kid Snickers?” “Pig Licker?”) Spingola’s chicken-esque dancing, and the band’s look (“Jean-Paul Satre and the Heartbreakers”). Although Sloane gave the episode his blessing, Spingola was reportedly not amused.
Hobgoblins is not the first musical MST3K has done. There’s “Yipe Stripes” in Teenage Strangler, “The Engines Roar” in Pod People and a whole bunch of Paul Anka numbers in Girl’s Town. But there’s something wholly accessible about the Fontanelles. It’s a sound most fans of the show will recognize from other bands of the era; it’s extremely ’80s, like something you might find on a mix tape made by your older sister. The Fontanelles are clearly a real band, not just a group assembled for the movie and stuck up on a stage to lip-synch someone else’s backing track. And as the punk scene faded from LA, Coonce went on to become a sound mixer for Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Bostrom became a indie movie producer under the name Patrick Dean, and Spingola played with 4 Non Blondes guitarist Shaunna Hall in her band, The Alcohol of Fame.
As a baby goth, I even copied Spignola’s look for awhile; oversized thrift-store cardigan over a tank top, necklaces and bangles, skinny black jeans and killer boots. He taught me to re-embrace the beret, a hat I had to abandon in sixth grade after its unfortunate association with the blow job heard ’round the world.
MST3K has mocked and riffed on many of the bands I’ve loved over the years. There’s Mike Nelson as Morrissey in City Limits, the countless “Werewolves of London” riffs in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a Steely Dan shoutout in “Progress Island USA” and a dozen growly Tom Waits lines. But with Hobgoblins, they gave me something new to listen to. And 18 years after I first saw Hobgoblins, I paid tribute to the Fontanelles when I included “Love Me Nots” as a chapter title in my debut novel, “The Big Rewind,” making their 7″ a McGuffin for rock star Cassie Brennen. I wanted to do my part to share their awesome music with the world, just as Sloane had done for his audience, way back in 1988.