Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy have been making fun of bad movies for over three decades as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now RiffTrax. This August, Mike, Kevin and the gang are taking to the stage for a live riffing of the 1975 regional sci-fi flick, THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION. Mike Vanderbilt chatted with the guys about giant spiders, the work of Don Dohler, and the great land of Wisconsin.
Daily Grindhouse: Is there a better film that didn’t shot in Wisconsin than the GIANT SPIDER INVASION?
Kevin Murphy: I’m very fond of AMERICAN MOVIE about the two filmmakers from Wisconsin who made a film called COVEN. Wisconsin has had its share of bad filmmakers and serial murderers, but probably more serial murderers than bad filmmakers.
DG: There’s nothing else to do with during those Midwestern winters.
Mike Nelson: I would say collectively, the evil that the filmmakers have done is worse than the evil cannibals.
DG: THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION features a bunch of old school celebrities in it and they certainly don’t waste any time in getting Alan Hale to stay “hey little buddy.”
MN: I think it’s first line. Yeah. They need to get it out of the way, but then surprisingly no jokes about the coconut radio or anything like that. It’s dropped pretty quickly. It feels so perfunctory.
DG: I’m sure the coconut radio was still in vogue in Wisconsin in 1975.
MN: The only thing you could use, yeah, there was no wire strung at that point.
DG: There’s also a lot of a weird perversity in this one between the older sister and the creepy, spanking father.
KM: It’s strange. I hate to say it’s from another time cause at any time that sort of behavior would have still been horrible and despicable, but we, you know, we’ve run into this in so many of the B to Z grade movies that we’ve done. It’s always shocking but it’s not surprising to encounter it. We do what we can to sort of lift it up and smack it around a little bit.
DG: You did this one before on Mystery Science Theater 3000. How do you decide which films you want to revisit from that show to do live with RiffTrax?
MN: I think a lot of it is just, “was it memorable?” and is the title itself going to be interesting to people. I think there’s a number of films that have come up that we had done before and they’ll be available for licensing or maybe some of them are public domain and you just kind of take a pass on them because you just don’t have any memory of the film. if I don’t remember anything about a movie and then I look it up and I’m like, “Oh, its is that one?” Yeah, just take a pass. It’s just those titles that seemed for whatever reason to really have a hook with people and with us. This is one of those.
DG: So THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION was a fan-favorite for MST3K fans?
KM: I would say yes, it is. Especially in the realm of really cheesy, locally made films; this was right up there with the Ray Dennis Steckler films that we did on Mystery Science Theater and as far as RiffTrax, I’d say it’s up there in popularity with the James Nguyen films.
DG: When you guys are reworking an old Mystery Science Theater episode. you probably sit together and write new jokes but if you recycle any of the old ones from the show, ones you know were favorites are that you know the audience are hoping to hear again?
MN: Not really. We, we pay it a little bit of mind. If there’s something that was a recurring theme or joke we might reference it. But generally, it’s written new from the ground up. I can’t remember the last movie we did. So the one that I did 20 years ago is probably not going to stick in my mind. It’s pretty much a rewrite from the ground up.
DG: THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION falls into that genre of regional filmmaking. Do you have any other favorite regional filmmakers particularly from that era that you either like personally or that you always appreciate riffing on?
KM: From that era, I don’t know, but that’s why I brought up James Nguyen earlier. I think he was the same sort of regional filmmaker doing stuff in the North Bay.
DG: He’s a trip.
KM: I think we’ve done three of his films, is that right, Mike? We did JULIE AND JACK, BIRDEMIC, and REPLICA.
MN: REPLICA was the first film he only released it to us, I believe. I don’t think it was available.
DG: THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION reminded me of the films of Don Dohler from Baltimore. You guys riffed on his film THE ALIEN FACTOR. Have you ever considered doing any of his other films, even though they’re all basically the same movie?
MN: I don’t know if we’ve ever come across anymore. What’s the name of the guy, Kevin, that we met at backstage and all he wanted to talk about was Don Dohler? He’s an actor, comedian. He thought we’d be super excited about the films of Don Dohler and I just felt so disappointed that I wasn’t able to share in that I didn’t have any knowledge of it. But because we had done that one movie, he assumed of course, that we had, you know, gone and done the deep dive and this was our favorite of his, of his films.
KM: Yeah, thanks for reminding us. We will definitely look into Don’s library now.
DG: The reason I discovered Don Dohler is because one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater episodes was POD PEOPLE and the opening credits use footage from THE GALAXY INVADER. I went back and found all this stuff and it kind of funny that if you look at all of like the five movies in that period, he just kept remaking the same movie with the exact same cast.
MN: Yeah. When you find the winning formula, you stick with it.
DG: THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION is a film that’s full of confounding moments. Are there any favorites moments of that still tickle you when you watch it again or just baffle you as to why the filmmaker made that decision?
MN: I was pleased to note that a lot of times when we watch a film and you watch it over and over, something becomes a catchphrase within the writing room that we may not have time or it may not stick out enough to really hammer on with a sketch or with anything. But, Barbara Hale, the woman’s shrieking Vance all the time, we used to do that to each other in the morning or whatever, coming in for a cup of coffee and just scream in someone’s face, “Vaaance.” I thought we were exaggerating that, and if anything, we went a little light on the impression, I think. She really, she really gets up there and you just can’t understand why the director didn’t say, “you know what, that was an 11. Let’s just take it down to six and that’ll be fine.”
KM: I was delighted by the fact that we really did do the script brand new from top to bottom. And our younger writers are the ones who went back and checked against the Mystery Science Theater script to see if we were overlapping at all and one of the things I think everyone enjoyed, especially when we rehearse it, was the fact that the two scientists who are the two leads of the film, if you close your eyes, they sound exactly the same. They both have draggy cigarette-y voices, that sound like a Simpsons character. It was Lots of fun to impersonate him with them because you can’t tell which person we’re impersonating.
DG: How did you guys track down THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION?
KM: At the time we did this for Mystery Science Theater, Comedy Central sent us tons and tons of tons, of tons, of screeners. I’m guessing that it just came with one of those big giant boxes of screeners from the network and Frank Conniff was during the first pass at auditioning the films and if it’s a met his approvals and it was, you know, a good bet it was going to be in the show.
DG: Looking ahead to the future. I, last time I talked to you guys we talked about Neil Breen. Has there been any progress on getting a Neil Breen film in the hopper?
MN: Sadly, the Neil Breen library has not been opened up yet. But we have teams of people working on it. They are very persuasive and I don’t know. Someday. As of this interview, Breen is, off-limits sadly.
KM: I just look at a picture of that guy sitting at his desk with about 11 laptop computers around him speaking out against social injustice and my heart just flutters.
DG: Are there any filmmakers working in that Neil Breen style that has piqued your interest to get onto RiffTrax?
MN: I occasionally hear from my pal Rich Kyanka—Lowtax as he is known—he keeps his fingers on the pulse. I think there are periods where we go, “man, are we hitting the bottom, are scraping up against it” and then all of a sudden just one library opens up and there’s like a thousand movies that you’d never seen before. And it just, at this point, I’m like, how are we still finding these? I know there’s somebody out there and we’ll, we’ll track them down.
DG: Every year more bad movies are made, right?
KM: Absolutely, arguably more bad than good. Our future is secure in that respect.
DG: Did you guys hear about Glenn Danzig’s movie VEROTIKA that premiered here in Chicago. It might be something you guys might want to look into. I think
KM: I remember seeing that, you know, I saw Glen and his band back when I worked at a punk club in Madison and they were really fun. Maybe he’s just decided to go the Rob Zombie direction. I have a hard time watching a Rob Zombie film, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a hard time watching a Glenn Danzig film.
DG: What punk club did you work at in Madison?
KM: Merlins on State Street, right in the State Street Mall. You know, I’m, I’m very old now, so you know, this is back in the late seventies/early eighties, when I worked there and it was great. It was fantastic. I saw all the local punk bands and most of the national punk bands and I’m pretty sure Danzig was in that mix at that time.
DG: A Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, Godzilla hit the big screen when it’s summer. Did either you guys see the new movie?
MN: I didn’t, I didn’t, I haven’t seen any of the new Godzillas Is this like the third, like recent reboot? I’m losing track of the Godzillas.
KM: I think we all tend to shy away from the big blockbusters a little bit just because of the work we do. And it’s a sort of a busman’s holiday sometimes too, to go to the movie theater. I saw the two, you know, the two most recent AVENGERS movies and we’re probably obligated to do them, but the fact that there are each 16 hours long, it makes it really sort of discouraging for me to even think about doing those things. Why can’t people make big overblown bad films that are short?
MN: I guess one of the ones that I thought might make a good, what’s the John Krasinski horror movie where they have to be quiet?
DG: A QUIET PLACE.
MN: That might be kind of fun as an experiment to try to fill all of that dead space. People like the movie obviously, but it does seem like it would be a fun challenge to riff.
DG: Yeah, it’s basically a silent film. Have you ever riffed a silent movie before?
KM: In fact, we riffed the Georges Méliés film A TRIP TO THE MOON. That was fun. If we were gonna go that Hollywood route, something that I would enjoy is doing one of the several hundred Gerard Butler films that have come out recently. The guy keeps on making films and I saw b and I was drooling a little bit. But see, the problem is nobody wants to rent GEOSTORM, so we wouldn’t make any money if we riffed GEOSTORM. It just wouldn’t work. It’s a zero-sum exercise.
MN: Now is GEOSTORM SKYSCRAPER or is SKYSCRAPER GEOSTORM? These giant movies that spend $8 trillion and then they go away and nobody sees them again. I get them mixed up.
KM: SKYSCRAPER was the Rock and GEOSTORM was about a worldwide storm, and Gerard Butler is a scientist—an action scientist—and he’s the only guy who can save the world.
DG: You mentioned the younger writers on the show, are you all based out of Minnesota?
MN: No, we have a staff. We like to spread our staff over the globe and so far, no foreign writers, although I guess Vermont is pretty foreign, you know, with the Bernie Sanders crowd up there and then we have the west coast covered and then we have the Midwest. We’re, we’re spread all over the place.
DG: Do you guys watch the movie together via Skype or is everybody watching it on their own and then meeting up and delivering the jokes?
MN: Well, we do a lot of Skype and Zoom so we’ve become pretty adept at those video meetings.
KM: But it’s always fun to get together, especially for the live shows, to do the rehearsal because we’re all in the same room because you get sort of giddy because at that time the scripts are so nicely polished that it’s just enjoyable to rehearse them and end up having to stop because we were laughing too much.
DG: Is it, it’s difficult until I get your footing back when you’re doing these live shows if you go into a laughing jag.
MN: Um, yeah. I mean I think that those, those moments happen and if you see them on stage, I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re genuine. It tends to be when something from the movie surprises us or the audience reaction to something in the movie surprises us. That always amuses the heck out of me cause it’s like, how did we miss this being the last moment when we’ve seen it 400 times? But it just happens. They, each thing takes on a life of its own and each audience is at different so they’re going to laugh at different things and discover different things together. And those are the things that always kind of delight us.
DG: Mike, what’s happening with your podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back?
MN: We’re on season eight, our eighth book. We’re, we’re reading a self-published book called Truckin’ Through Time about an 18 wheeler OTR trucker who goes back to the early centuries of America and he and his partner meet up with Native Americans and it’s all very sensitive and wonderful.
DG: How did you track that one down?
MN: We get a lot of suggestions. We’ve done some high profile books and then we try to alternate that with lower profile books. People have been sending us suggestions and now our Amazon feed is to starting to just give us stuff. “If you liked this, then you’ll certainly like this.”
DG: Kevin, do you have any side projects going on right now?
KM: You know, I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a podcast. I believe my dog has a podcast. Um, but, but I Maybe fishing lures, you know, cause I’ve got a lot of fishing lures, so maybe I’ll start a podcast on fishing. Actually, my sideline actually has been RiffTrax related, I’ve had a really fun opportunity to create the songs that we play over the credits at the end of the live shows. I think we have a real, a real show stopper for THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, which means once the song has played, the show is definitely going to grind to a halt.
DG: How would you sell THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION to somebody?
MN: Well, I would just say that while there are silly elements, the science is hard science because the spiders come through a black hole. A black hole opens up in a small town in Wisconsin and what do you get? Of course, you get spiders. We’ve checked it with Neil DeGrasse Tyson: this is 100% accurate. So if you want to see that play out on the big screen, you gotta come see this.
The RiffTrax gang takes on THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION on August 15th! Tickets are available here!