Sunday, July 10, 2016

Blunted Sporks - Mystery Science Theater 3000

I think it's hard to overstate how much of an influence Mystery Science Theater 3000 had on me.  I mean, it's a show that more or less invented, or at the very least popularized, the notion of "sporking" some bad media product, which this blog and so many others have imitated.  It certainly helped shape me into the sarcastic smart-ass I am today.

But let's backtrack a bit.  For those who've never heard of it (though I'm sure I've mentioned it before), MST3K was a low-budget TV show out of Minnesota about a human lead, Joel Hodgson and later Mike Neslon, watching terrible movies as part of a mad scientist's experiment.  Fortunately our hero had robot buddies Tom Servo and Crow to sit in the theater and snark with him, taking the sting off a bad flick with one-liners and sarcasm.  Aside from host segments at the start and end of the episode and after every other commercial break, the show consisted of some bad movie they could get the rights to displayed with the silhouettes of the cast sitting in theater seats along the bottom of the screen, and they'd talk over the film as they made fun of it.  So basically the parts of my posts where I'm alternating between a passage from a book and my responses to it, just in live-action and real-time.

It's one of those things that sounds weird when you try to explain it, but... I'm not sure how to finish that thought.  I mean, the show's overarching plot is absurd, a mad scientist and/or his mother trying to weaponize an awful film so they can take over the world.  Two of the main characters have a gumball machine for a head and a split bowling pin for a beak, respectively.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in fact pretty weird, but it's also hilarious.  It had a crack team of writers able to produce a near-continuous stream of riffs to hit back at the movie with, and the jokes ranged from toilet humor and cracks about an actor's weight, to dead-on questions about the movie's plot or characterization, to critiques about broader themes in cinema, or even obscure historical or literary references that only a minority of viewers would catch, but the sheer volume of references meant that somebody would get something.  It wasn't all vitriol, in other words, and certainly not like some critics who spend their blogs or vlogs cursing and ranting about how stupid something is.  MST3K was usually more playful than that, and reserved its sharpest verbal jabs for the very worst material, those aggressively bad or insulting films, or ones with objectionable content like misogyny or racism.

And man, it's a hell of a thing to come across when you're moving into middle school, becoming increasingly aware of the world around you and how disappointing it can be, and trying to find some way to deal with it all.  And here's this guy and two puppets showing you that you don't have to just accept something's badness, you can hit back against it, but in a way that's both therapeutic and productive instead of simply negative.  I used to stay up late on weekends watching MST3K until nearly midnight, and when the show moved to a morning time slot I'd diligently record episodes on VHS tapes until I had nearly episode of its Sci-Fi Channel run.  Which I suppose does a great job of dating me in the eyes of other MSTies - I only got in well after Mike took over, just in time to catch the show's last three seasons before its cancellation.  But I did start collecting VHS and later DVD releases, and got acquainted with the show's original cast then, even if I'll always prefer the later stuff.

If this has piqued your interest and you want to see what's so funny, here's a short highlight real from one of my favorite episodes listed below.  You can of course find many episodes of MST3K in their entirety on YouTube these days - the show's creators had a "keep circulating the tapes" attitude when it came to watching episodes where the rights to the movie had expired - but if you want a way to enjoy the show and contribute to its creators, many episodes have been released on DVD, either singly on in collections.  The problem of course is that eventually those go out of print, so it can be hard to track down specific episodes.  Prince of Space, one of my favorite movies riffed, looks to only be available if you can find a used copy of Volume 7 of the Rhino Home Video run, while right now the DVDs are being handled by Shout Factory and they're up to Volume XXVI, wow.

But it turns out that you can also rent or buy specific episodes on Amazon video, and it just so happens that some of my all-time favorites are up there too. Man - This is a movie so goofy that it almost seems self-aware of its own silliness.  The plot involves ancient Aztec aliens who dropped off a poorly-made gold-painted mask that can control minds, Donald Pleasance 's efforts to use said mask to take over the world with the help of poorly-made papier-mâché heads, and an unlikely superhero's attempts to stop him in a poorly-made costume.  The titular Puma Man has the usual superpowers associated with pumas - super strength, night vision, awkwardly-implemented flight, teleportation, etc. - but it's his American Indian "sidekick" who does most of the heavy lifting, something Mike and the 'bots quickly pick up on.

This premise combined with laughable special effects makes Puma Man perfect riffing material, from running gags involving hero Tony Farm's name and Donald Pleasance's baldness, to moments like the guys adding the appropriate sound effects when the hero is pacing back and forth on a roof like a stuck cat.  And then there's the host segment where Mike gets to become Coatimundi Man, complete with ridiculous costume and cheerful leitmotif.  Without a doubt one of MST3K's most popular episodes, and for good reason - you can even watch it on their official YouTube channel if you can't spare the cash to buy it and don't mind ads and having to load the thing.

The Final Sacrifice - A low-budget Canadian flick in which a kid tries to solve the mystery of his father's murder, only to draw the attention of a cult trying to obtain the power of a lost civilization.  Luckily he also runs into one of the greatest names in Canadian action heroes, the one and only Zap Rowsdower, a drunk with a mullet who gets to repeatedly rescue the kid when he gets in over his head.  There's thrilling bicycle chases, a grizzled outdoorsman who sounds like Yosemite Sam, and nonsense about super-advanced ancient Indians... huh, between that and Puma Man, could that be the key to a good bad movie?

Anyway, Mike and the 'bots are obviously having a lot of fun watching this one, from the simple pleasure of saying the name "Rowsdower" to playing up the kid hero's nerdiness or Rowsdower's drinking problem.  Plus the fact that the film was made and set in Canada leads to quite a few jokes, as well as an unforgettable "homage" in song form performed during one of the host segments.  

Space Mutiny - The weirdest thing about this episode is that nobody on MST3K's writing staff recognized and pointed out the fact that all the exterior shots of spaceships used in this movie were stolen from the original run of Battlestar Galactica.  The interior shots, meanwhile, seem to have been filmed in some South African industrial complex, leading to a "futuristic spaceship" with concrete floors and bright windows.  The story's plot concerns mutineers in space, go figure, which leads to a bunch of people in lame "space clothes" getting pitched over railings, and occasional low-speed chases on what look to be converted floor-waxing equipment, intercut with the aforementioned footage of dogfighting Vipers.

It's all so badly-executed that it's a movie that would be enjoyable even without a man and his puppets laughing at it, so with Mike and the 'bots it becomes a treasure.  They seize on the fact that the ship's captain looks like Santa Claus, notice that an actress is killed in once scene and shows up again a few minutes later, start calling out the Railing Kills, snark that the female love interest looks closer in age to Captain Santa than the hero, and of course come up with a staggering number of names for the generic action hero lead ("We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese!").  And then there's the host segments where the 'bots have a thrilling space battle, a safety-minded Servo installs railings all over the set, and Crow has an existential breakdown after dressing up as one of the minor characters in the film.

This is just a sampling of the movies covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000, of course - after ten seasons, there's quite a few to choose from.  But these three would definitely be in my top ten list, and unlike some from that list are easily (and legally) available.  The only caveat would be that these are so good that they might set unrealistic expectations for anyone who uses them as a gateway to get into the show.  All the movies covered by MST3K are bad to some extent, but these are all charmingly bad.  Others are bad bad, plodding and dull attempts at entertainment that are only made bearable with the help of the show's characters, and while those episodes certainly aren't unenjoyable, they're not as easily-enjoyable as these.

Anyway, I'll stop now.  Which isn't to say that there aren't other episodes of my favorite show that I can recommend, but these three are a good start.  If you'd never heard of MST3K before, I hope this post got you interested, and maybe you can see what I loved about it.  The good news is that while the show was canceled, I hear there's recently been an attempted revival, and even before that Mike and his two co-hosts went on to create Rifftrax, riffing on big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.  And of course there's a host of spiritual successors out there, which I guess might include this very blog.

Hopefully I'll living up to their example.  And if not, well, maybe I need a robot co-host or two.

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