For better or worse, the snark-meisters at “Mystery Science Theater 3000“ are responsible for blowing the dust off a lot of truly unusual motion pictures, exposing these cinematic curiosities to a far greater and (relatively) more mainstream audience than they ever accrued in their unheckled forms. Only the most dedicated and tolerant moviegoers would have even heard of the legendary trainwreck that is Manos: The Hands of Fate had it not been immortalized at the peak of MST3K’s popularity, and a handful of the show’s other targets—Robot Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Horrors of Spider Island—have also been honored with inclusion on this website’s eponymous list. (The show’s own movie adaptation was not similarly recognized). After ten seasons of plumbing the depths of movie misses, the last new episode was transmitted in 1999, and while audiences have had other sources for high-octane movie riffing (including efforts from the show’s stars), the special combination of comic commentary and curated curiosities provided by the original series has been unavailable.
Thanks to one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns ever undertaken, that void has now been filled. Show creator Joel Hodgson has shepherded the show back onto the small screen (and the very, very small screen, as the show is available for binge-watching courtesy of Netflix), with a new cast of riffers, some higher-grade mad scientists, some even higher-grade cameo appearances, and a few tweaks to the host segment formula. It’s all in service, though, of the same basic low-fi approach to movie-watching: man and robots watch bad movie, man and robots make fun of said movie.
I don’t want to use this space to review the show itself (full disclosure: I’m an acquaintance of the actress who voices Gypsy and two Bonehead assistants in this iteration), except to say that it accomplishes the most critical and challenging task: it feels like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Instead, I’d like to recap the films selected to re-christen the Satellite of Love and consider their place within the canon of Weirdness.
Right out of the gate, the producers hit upon a solid formula: monster movies from other lands. The show’s original run set a high standard for making fun of giant monsters with five Gamera movies on the bill. The new season’s debut, Reptilicus (1961), riffs upon an especially funny logline: a giant lizard attacks Denmark. The notion of a ridiculous monster terrorizing the land of Hans Christian Andersen is so delightfully absurd that it inspires the instant-classic host singspiel, “Every Country Has a Monster.” There is much to enjoy, including poorly assembled rear-projection monster attacks, outstandingly negligent scientists, and interminable “comedy” from Danish clown Dirch Passer. It’s as endearing as you would expect a continental kaiju to be, and a solid hit right out of the box.
Monsters figure large this season, and one of the best is the low-rent Bigfoot at the center of Cry Wilderness (1987). Somehow, the legendary Sasquatch has taken off its gloves (literally) and befriended an obnoxious grade-schooler, and together they romp through a disconnected assembly of attractive California forest locales while befriending a number of wild creatures who should really be left alone. The strange collection of characters—including an overly jolly Native American, a big game hunter who chews carcasses and scenery with equal aplomb, and a bipolar school dean—dovetails poorly with the intended family-friendly vibe, giving the riffers plenty to mock.
The Time Travelers (1964) is the kind of movie that fits easily into the MST3K wheelhouse: American white privilege meets a new society and sets about wrecking it. The script threatens to touch on taboo subjects like cultural bias and sexual mores, but the goofball antics of non-scientist Steve Frankel (who surprises by showing up in the next MiSTed film, as well) keep everything grounded in puerility.
Despite the fingerprints of Roger Corman, Avalanche (1978) doesn’t really dip into weirdness, serving as a low-budget take on the disaster genre. Mid-range stars Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster anchor this Towering Inferno wannabe, but the biggest star seems to be the 1970s, which drench the film in a disco-infused, long-tressed, garishly attired vibe before the finally ending up buried in the snow.
A Western-creature feature mashup, The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) features a gringo rancher being run out of town by a nefarious competitor, but not before a mysterious giant beast frightens the cattle and eats the town drunk. Some critics have dinged the film for its white-splaining hero and the many Frito-Bandito accents and associated stereotypes. Still, it must be said that the movie treats its Latino characters with an unusual level of respect. Well, there’s that drunk, I suppose, and his callously dismissed son, so respectful for 1956, anyway.
Starcrash (1978) has the finest pedigree of any of this season’s movies, with future Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer showing up to orate profoundly in dumb costumes. He’s joined by erstwhile Bond girl Caroline Munro and perennial 70s TV guest star Marjoe Gortner, but most people will have their eyes out for pre-Knight Rider David Hasselhoff. (It’s a bit of a wait.) The story itself is quite forgettable, with one deus ex machina after another getting Munro out of a jam. A Southern-fried robot assassin scores some points for quirkiness, but it’s mostly a lot of nothing happening, with some blatant ripoffs of Star Wars to underline the true reason for the film’s existence.
The Land That Time Forgot (1974) marks the first of two Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations starring Doug McClure, providing the show with a successor to incumbent punching bag Joe Don Baker. The movie itself has high production value for its day, and suffers mostly from a significant lack of tension underlying the primary conflict between McClure and the captain of the German submarine he has hijacked. Also, the fact that this is the primary conflict, and not so much the dinosaurs who would seem to be the main attraction.
This show loves it some Hercules (even if often the hero was actually Maciste, renamed for American audiences), so The Loves of Hercules (1960) is an easy choice. The notoriety of leads Jayne Mansfield and her bodybuilder husband Mickey Hargitay (parents of Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson!) lifts this up a few extra notches, and Hargitay’s strange Slavic-Italian accent is ripe fodder for Hampton Yount’s memorable impression. Like most Hercules movies, there are a host of bizarre mythological creatures, at one point Hercules forgets which side he’s on, and the horrible fate of his wife and children is ultimately glossed over. This checks all the boxes.
Proving the truth of the song from Episode 1, Yongary: Monster from the Deep (1967) brings us the South Korean iteration of the monstrous trope. Like the best of the genre, it features ineffectual heroes, helplessly frightened heroines, a meddling child with no sense of boundaries, and cardboard representations of a city that couldn’t possibly be Seoul. Yongary may be the most fun of the Season 11 films on its own, capturing the batty enthusiasm of previous Japanese alien and monster movies. Also: Capsule!
Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985) begins with a confusing infodump (courtesy of producer Roger Corman, who spliced in footage from a host of older films to stretch out the runtime) and never looks back. We are graced with another callow hero who is joined on his quest by a washed-up drunk and a useless walking Snuggie. The story itself is boilerplate hero’s journey; as filmed, it’s proof that production value isn’t everything, but it sure would help.
MST3K has tackled sequels before, but never back-to-back. The chutzpah in doing so here is mitigated by the fact that Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989) shares nothing with its predecessor beyond the name. What it can offer is David Carradine without pants, which may not be a great trade. Another sword-and-sorcery adventure with awkwardly blocked action and precious little at stake, this second-go-round may be even less committed to finding the reality in the fantasy genre than the first.
Carnival Magic (1981) is probably the weirdest entry here, in large part because the film’s most unusual element—a talking chimpanzee—is so thoroughly downplayed as to be almost irrelevant. Drenched in the sad, depressing milieu of a shady traveling fair in the South, the filmmakers seem to think a grizzled, taciturn Buddhist mentalist is the delightful hero kids are looking for. Given that he’s sharing the screen with an abusive animal trainer, a greasy carny boss, a spark-free romance between a girl who is encouraged to dress as a young boy and an underachieving PR flack, a couple exotic dancers, and the aforementioned chimp with a voice like a drunken electrolarynx, they may have been right.
The third holiday entry in the show’s history, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966) is most notable for how little actually happens. It’s an enchanting tale of contract law, eminent domain, and the Christmas spirit, and features a Kris Kringle who doesn’t really get kids, a lawyer with no legal skills serving as sidekick, a villain who mainly repeats himself, and great surprise at the very notion of a department store Santa, even two decades after Miracle on 34th Street. Compared to the two previous holiday installments, this take is surprisingly light of both fantasy elements and forced whimsy.
Doug McClure returns triumphantly in At the Earth’s Core (1976), this time bringing along Peter Cushing and a return visit from Caroline Munro in a subterranean adventure to overturn the dictatorship of some enormous birds. The turn-of-the-century setting brings a steampunk vibe that a new source of fun, but more large beasts to be vanquished is the real reason we’re here.
All told, it’s 14 films, all in color, with only one dated pre-1960, and all science-fiction-fantasy in content (with the possible exception of Avalanche, which I’ll lump in as part of the speculative natural disaster genre). The common theme that unites them most is cheesiness. They all have big aspirations, but none of the resources or wisdom to pull them off. The ones that score highest on the weird-o-meter are definitely the ones that think they’re doing something enchanting, but mainly come across as creepy.
If there’s a gripe, it’s that a show built on references relies so heavily on source material that hearkens back to earlier favorites. Does Wizards of the Lost Kingdom remind you of Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell? Is The Time Travelers a revisit to territory covered by This Island Earth? Is it savvy thinking or lazy fan service to provide another Hercules movie, another Christmas movie, one prehistoric beast that has survived the ages after the last? There was probably an impulse to select films that would best exemplify what viewers expect from “bad movies.” But the consequence is that there was no opportunity to go beyond the formula and find hidden gems like the earnest I Accuse My Parents, the maddening Wild World of Batwoman, or the supremely idiotic Mitchell. Perhaps a Season 12 will give the producers room to expand the scope of movies selected. Jonah and the ‘Bots staff seem well-armed for the challenge.
One thought on ““WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11”
My thought on Season 11 is that it’s not a success on its own, but it is a promising setup for a Season 12. Each new iteration of the show has required around a dozen or more shows to find its identity. I think the new hosts can do it.
As for the movies, I’m only six episodes in. I’d say Starcrash is the most watchable overall (mainly because of Caroline Munro in a space bikini), Avalanche is the best riffed, and Cry Wilderness is the oddest movie find. Looking forward to Carnival Magic.