“…repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax…”
Before you read any further there is something I think you need to know about me. I’m a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and have been since sometime in 1994 when a friend living in the USA began sending me episodes (and I will be eternally grateful to Lucy for her part in circulating the tapes). Now I know some of you will be shocked by this revelation and the rest of you will be confused. For the latter group I suggest you go here.
Okay, so now we all know that MST3K is a TV show that revolves around showing a movie of dubious quality and providing a humorous commentary which, in this, the future world of today, is a little thing we like to call riffing. I doubt riffing is a new or revolutionary practise, I imagine people have been moved to talk back to the screen ever since the very first bad movie was shown in front of an audience. I even have evidence of a primitive form of movie riffing happening at a British science fiction convention. Consider this quote from Walt Willis writing about the Loncon in Quandry #22 (edited by Lee Hoffman, August 1952). This particular Loncon (there has been more than one SF convention called this) was held 31 May & 1 June, 1952 and in London of all places:
The final event was a showing of Metropolis, which in a way was the best part of the official programme. This was because there was no incidental music to drown fan comment on the action, some of which was brilliant. Dan Morgan shone especially. When the hero suddenly mimed exaggerated alarm the way they do in silent films and dashed madly for the door Dan remarked “FIRST ON THE RIGHT”. That started it and the whole worthy but rather dull film was enlivened by a ruining commentary from the audience which I wish I had space to quote…
By the way, I’m pretty sure the Dan Morgan mentioned here was the soon to be published author Dan Morgan.
However, to get back on topic, as far as I’m aware MST3K was the first ever attempt to use riffing as the centre piece of a TV show. Earlier attempts to reuse old film and TV footage for comedic purposes usually involved removing the original soundtrack entirely and replacing it with new dialogue and sound effects. This is clearly a different thing entirely, though when done well it can be extremely funny.
However, while I’ve been a long-standing fan of MST3K (or a MSTie if you prefer) my taste in bad movies doesn’t entirely match majority opinion. The bottom line is that for me the added humorous commentary can’t make a badly plotted and slow moving movie watchable. For example, according to The Den of Geek the top three MST3K episodes as voted on by fans of the show are 1. Manos: The Hands of Fate, 2. Space Mutiny, & 3. Mitchell. I’ve watched all three of these episodes once but despite several attempts I simply can’t sit through any of them a second time. Once was possible only because the novelty value helped me through but once that was gone…
Instead my favourite episodes include (to select a few from the Den of Geek list) 9. Cave Dwellers, 27. Warrior of the Lost World, 44. Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, 57. Attack Of The Eye Creatures, & 65. The Magic Sword. None of these are good movies, all of them deserve to be on MST3K but still each of them have enough plot to maintain forward momentum. In these films there’s always something happening, it may be a stupid thing but at least the stupidity is driving the plot forward.
Then there are the marginals, those MST3K episodes which use almost interesting films, the sort of you can watch more than once so long as you can jump over the slower bits. Many, but not all, of these involve monsters for some reason (don’t ask me why, there are some things best not pried into). Good examples of these, again taken from the Den of Geek list, would be 16. Hobgoblins, 68. Wild, Wild World of Batwoman, & 84. Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster.
Curiously I see The Giant Gila Monster, an episode I’ve never had the will to watch all the way through, not only made the Den of Geek list but also placed a very respectable 43. I am amazed at this given the far more entertaining Earth vs the Spider didn’t make the list at all. Now Earth vs the Spider isn’t up there with the better MST3K episodes but I would still rate it a watchable marginal on a level with Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster.
Personal taste to one side Earth vs the Spider has two features that in my opinion set it above The Giant Gila Monster. The first being the superlative performance by Gene Roth as Sheriff Cagle. By the way, if he looks at all hauntingly familiar to you it will be because Gene Roth also played Sheriff Kovis in Attack of the Giant Leeches, another watchable but not great Roger Corman film featured on MST3K. Gene Roth had a long and varied career but I think it’s fair to say he was never better than when he had to play a law enforcement officer who through no fault of his own was forced to work a beat that was a week away from the nearest source of doughnuts. In The Giant Gila Monster Fred Graham did his best as Sheriff Jeff but how could he compete with the man both Bert I. Gordon and Roger Corman knew was sheriff material?
Even better than Sheriff Gene Roth however was the shameless plug director Bert I. Gordon gave his own work. About fifty minutes into Earth vs the Spider faux-teen Carol (played by June Kenney) phones Mike (played by Eugene Persson) her faux-teen boyfriend. Mike is working at his father’s movie theater so naturally the action twice passes by a large poster advertising The Amazing Colossal Man, a film directed by (surprise, surprise) Bert I. Gordon. Then when we see Mike on the phone he’s standing in front of a selection of lobby cards framed on the wall, lobby cards that look suspiciously like they might be advertising the work of a certain Bert I. Gordon. (I can’t be totally certain about the lobby cards however as my eyesight is no longer sharp enough to read those tiny, blurry titles.)
Okay, I can let the above pass because the scene is set in a movie theater, a place where you would expect to see posters and lobby cards. True, the plot didn’t need Mike’s father to own a theater and the poster and lobby cards could just as easily been for a fake movie but I can accept the possibility that Gordon did what he did simply because it required no effort. However, when faux-teen Mike tells Carol he doesn’t want to leave the cinema and take her to the cave they had visited earlier in order to recover a bracelet any doubt I had about the director’s motives were blown away. And just why didn’t young Mike want to live up to his earlier promise and do the decent thing for his girl? Well, in his own words, “Carol, not today, my dad just got in a new picture and I haven’t even seen it yet, something about puppet people, sounds pretty wild.” That wouldn’t be Attack of the Puppet People (directed by Bert I. Gordon) you’re talking about by any chance, would it Mike? Not only that but as he says this our faux-teen glances in an exaggerated manner at those lobby cards which leads me to suspect they might indeed be advertising Attack of the Puppet People. Oh my! Bert I. Gordon! You certainly deserve to be called the Notorious B.I.G. for so blatantly suggesting that a teenage boy (even a faux one like Mike) would be better off watching one of your movies than making his girlfriend happy. Even Quentin Tarantino has never gone so far as to suggest his films are a superior choice to normal human relationships (at least don’t I think he has, but it’s hard to be sure with a hot bag of nuts like Tarantino).
So there you have it, the Bert I. Gordon get out of gaol free card. Any time somebody wants you to do something you don’t wanna just tell them you really, really have to watch a Bert I. Gordon film (your choice of title) because you hear it’s really, really wild. Try it tonight, you’ll thank me in the morning.