Mystery Science Theater 3000 is back for a new generation of smart alecks to learn about camp.
The one aspect of the MST3K revival that was kept secret was also the most important thing for the show — which films the creators would choose to be relentlessly torn apart on the Satellite of Love.
In an interview with The Nerdist, series creator Joel Hodgson said he wanted to use the same sort of movies that made the first version of the show so successful — films that are old and weird. But a modern audience needs more. MST3K was once the only way to see long forgotten camp classics of the past. Now it’s easy to find any number of YouTube streams, podcasts, books, and articles discussing the worst things ever put to celluloid.
Everyone knows what makes a film ”bad.” It can be bad acting, poor writing that makes people question a character’s actions, or cheap sets that fail to convey the world the filmmaker wants to build. But there are four things a movie has to have to work on MST3K:
- The film is absolutely serious in its outdated understanding of the world — Some of the funniest moments on the show came from the shorts that would occasionally precede the main feature. The shorts were the perfect Margaret Dumont to the Grouchos at the bottom of the screen. They captured all of the outdated themes that a modern audience would laugh at on their own, with women stuck in the kitchen and minorities barely mentioned at all. And that’s what MST3K needs — old values being presented like they’re brand new. Joel has stated that his favorite episode was I Accuse My Parents, a film with a childlike understanding of crime in society. The more outdated a film’s social values are, the better the episode.
- It is not deliberately campy. Even when a director or a producer had to cut corners, no one thought they were crafting an unintentional comedy. The filmmakers thought that, even if they weren’t going to win Oscars, they would at least get attention and go on to greater things. The Crawling Hand would be a stepping stone to one day running Hollywood. It’s not funny to deliberately do something terribly. The crew of the Satellite of Love unearthed a legion of would be auteurs who wanted to use their work to live on forever. What’s great is that they succeeded, which brings me to my next point.
- The film has been forgotten by all but the greatest film fanatics. Manos: The Hands of Fate was literally a film that was found as part of a public domain package designed to fill time late at night on local TV stations. The Final Sacrifice was made by a film student in Canada and was released direct to video. Hobgoblins was offered to the show by the director. MST3K did riff more well known films in their original one, like the Lassie vehicle The Painted Hills or virtually the entire Gamera franchise. But MST3K gives the creators a chance to bring an unheralded work to light.
- The film needs some breakout moment, be it an unforgettable character, a catchphrase that can be used as a callback, a bad musical number, or a special effect that went wrong. Some of the films on MST3K had their characters introduced into the show’s universe. Torgo showed up as a pizza delivery man, Krankor visited the Satellite of Love to cheer everyone up, and every single ”OK” sign was followed by ”it stinks!” from one of the characters. They need something to draw people in — be it a breakout character whose terrible quips become endlessly quoted, a recognizable celebrity in an early, forgettable role, or a nonsensical idea that audiences cannot help but ignore.
With those qualifications in mind and now that the show is back, I’d like to suggest the following films to be featured in future episodes.
- Mazes and Monsters — It’s been a running gag in Hollywood to bring up the old, embarrassing early entries in a superstar’s filmography. It’s a way to keep them humble.
Fans of Tom Hanks knew he got his start in sitcoms. But his first feature film was the dreadful Mazes and Monsters, made at a time when people thought table top games would lead children straight to Satan. Hanks plays a gamer who, in a psychotic break with reality, believes himself to be the fantasy character he’s playing as in the game.There is already enough without Jonah and the bots that would have the geek audience of MST3K rolling with laughter. From the bizarre way plays of the game describe it (”Isn’t it fun to create your own scenarios?”) to the scenes of people playing the least engaging game imaginable, the film is a camp joy.An MST3K episode surrounding Mazes and Monsters wouldn’t just be Tom Hanks jokes.The film is full of moments that can be turned into running gags, from the mynah bird repeating yelling Bridgette Bardot’s name to parents making their kids promise not to play Mazes and Monsters. Above all, the film is perfect straight man to Jonah and the bots. It’s absolutely sincere in its conviction that table top gaming will destroy the youth of America.
- Wild Women of Wongo — Wild Women of Wongo is terrible, but with its female characters looking to kidnap handsome men, it’s almost progressive for its time. The film is about a fictional island nation with two tribes. One is made up of beautiful women and ugly men, and the other is made up of ugly women and handsome men. They eventually discover each other and the ”hijinks” ensue.The jokes practically write themselves. From the stock footage of the ”crocodile god” (literally just nature footage of a crocodile) to the labeling characters as ugly or beautiful, Wild Women of Wongo is a complete farce. But it’s special. Wild Women of Wongo thought it was being subversive with its dominant female characters who are more interesting and engaging than their male counterparts. But this confidence was misplaced. The women are still treated as than sex objects waiting for the right men to pair with them. If there’s one thing that MST3K has succeeded at, it’s been pointing out the foolishness of people who thought they had a point but were mistaken.I’m also cheating a little with this one. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett recorded a riff of it for their Film Crew project. But I think that could lead to an interesting comparison. If we want to see how much the show has changed and how much the new cast is building on their predecessors, then we should see how two teams approach the same material.
- Death Bed: The Bed That Eats — Current TV’s Son of TV’s Frank Patton Oswalt had a brilliant comedy bit about Death Bed on his Werewolves and Lollipops Oswalt marveled at the fact that someone, somewhere, took pride in crafting a movie called Death Bed. He viewed it as a personal failure that he could not finish a script while Death Bed was completed and released.
Now is the perfect time for Oswalt to get some revenge. Death Bed deserves to be in the cannon of great MSTie movies. It’s so amateurish that it almost works as a piece of film folk art. The film — about a bed that literally dissolves people in its mattress — is a sort of milestone of surrealism. The film is punctuated by Lynchian sound effects of the bed literally snoring as it sleeps and a crunching sound as the bed ”eats.” There’s a man trapped in a painting who narrates the story of the titular bed and how it came to start eating people. And the film is full of bad choices. From the silent film stock footage to illustrate a ”city” to an ending made of a barrage of colors are shown in an attempt to be ominous, Death Bed is no better than a student film from someone barely passing the class.If the premise doesn’t convince you that Death Bed belongs on MST3K, just think of the invention exchanges that may come from it. I can picture Kinga Forrester building ”the hutch that maims” or ”the blender that doesn’t blend.”
- Omega Cop — Omega Cop is a film that is crying out to be rediscovered. There are no publications taking a second look and the film only has eight customer reviews on its Amazon page. (One of them was written by director Paul Kiriyazi and even he only gave it four stars.)The film has so much to offer MSTies. It’s another Mad Max knock off that takes place in world where global warming has made it too dangerous to go outside. Those who are trapped during solar flares are left to fend for themselves. One cop named John Travis breaks up a gang who vows revenge. But his boss Adam West (an MST3K veteran) refuses to let him back into the police station to avoid the solar flares. What follows is a terrible action film, a la Warriors of the Lost World. It has some great lines that could be milked for entire seasons (like the gang members changing, ”Travis’ blood!”) and a hero who could become the next ”Blast Hardcheese.”But above all, Omega Cop has the potential to finally get its deserved recognition as a must watch for connoisseurs of bad action.
- Crippled Masters — One thing that MST3K has avoided in the past is kung-fu films. Well, not completely avoided — they riffed the Master Ninja pilot and the Sonny Chiba vehicle Invasion of the Neptune Men. But they’ve sat down to skewer a proper kung-fu romp.
This is a surprising decision considering how bad kung-fu films were the primary diet of MST3K’s audience. The poor dubbing, terrible plots, bad special effects, and dumb gimmicks to help the film stand out made any bad kung-fu movie a must watch for the pre-hipster generations.And it doesn’t get much worse than this. The Crippled Masters is indistinguishable from its counterparts. Two kung-fu warriors are trained to take revenge on their old master, who is also ruling ancient China with an iron fist. The difference is that these kung-fu masters have been maimed in a way that would normally make them incapable of fighting. One, Lee Ho, has had their arms sliced off for betraying his master. The other person — Tang, the man who helped punish the now armless Lee Ho — has acid poured on his legs. Both are trained by an old man who seemingly materializes out of nothingness and seek their revenge.The film is so bizarre that it almost can be seen as a Jodorowski-esque religious allegory. But the film is so sincere and everyone involved feels like they’re exploring new themes.It’s perfect cannon fodder for Jonah and the bots as they tackle the clichÁ©d ideas combined with the outlandish choreography. Can’t you just picture Tom Servo and Crow re-enacting some of the fight scenes as you imagine a legless man on the back of an armless man?
- Ninja III: The Domination — Cannon Films are designed to be featured on MST3K. Schlockmeisters Golan and Globus ran their studio like twelve-year-olds playing Hollywood mogul. Their films seem like they were written by adolescent boys. They feature poorly choreographed ninja action, women in skimpy clothes, and an obsession with the pop culture and fads of the day. Yet only one Cannon Film (Alien from LA) was ever featured on MST3K. It’s a shame, because that episode is a classic that produced the ”dull surprise” trope.Now that MST3K is back, Cannon is a rich, untapped vein for them to drill. Ninja III: The Domination is a perfect target. It’s a martial arts film featuring a personal trainer possessed by the spirit of a dead ninja. The plot is barely existent. It’s only there so we can see scenes of women in workout gear and fight scenes where no one lands a punch.Jonah and the bots would have no problem picking apart the stilted acting and the clichÁ©d, sexist treatment of a female heroine. Plus, that work out scene is begging to be recreated as a host segment.
What do you think, sirs? Do you have a movie you’d like to see Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff? Let us know in the comments. And be sure to check out Dan Wiencek and Tony Redman’s conversation on Season 11.