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Mystery Science Theater 3000 was one of my formative comedy experiences, along with watching reruns of SCTV starting when I was about 7 and collecting Mad magazine. Being a comedy geek has sort of been in my blood, I suppose — between loving comedy, being one of those kids who, even from a very young age wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and, well, my mild OCD, I kinda had to be obsessed. I’ve already revealed myself as someone who thinks way too much about this stuff on the macro level, but I also do on the micro as well.
As a nigh-obsessive MiSTie, I’ve seen more than my fair share of episodes. I haven’t seen all of them… yet… but a whole mess of ‘em. And, of course, with MST3K there’re good episodes and bad. Although, unlike with most other programs, the fault typically doesn’t lie on the writers for a bad MST3K, but the movie they’re riffing.
Sometimes a film is too bad to be enjoyable to watch even with Joel or Mike and the Bots — The Wild World of Batwoman comes to mind; but then again, Manos: The Hands of Fate is one of the worst films they’ve ever riffed, and yet it’s one of the best episodes. So, badness of the film isn’t the only factor; both Batwoman and Manos are complete train-wrecks and nonsensical through bad editing and general incompetence, but one works and the other doesn’t — though neither film would be watchable without the Satellite of Love crew.
That said, I think the best episodes tend to be the ones where the film’s actually not bad. For example, one of my favorites is Final Justice, directed by Greydon Clark — who also did the good episode Angel’s Revenge. Greydon Clark’s a pretty good director, honestly — not only is he genuinely competent (not something to be said for many of MST3K‘s source films), but his films are fun and enjoyable WITHOUT riffing. Check out Joysticks or Satan’s Cheerleaders if you don’t believe me; to sweeten the deal, the former even stars Joe Don Baker. Clark knows his films are basically exploitation films, but like the best exploitation directors, he knows this and has fun with them while turning out the best film he can regardless. In an interview on the Shout! Factory release of Final Justice, Clark reveals himself to be a good sport, too — he even says he’d be fine if MST3K did ALL his films. After all, it gets them out there.
Many of the best ones are of this level — Overdrawn At The Memory Bank was originally a TV movie by a PBS affiliate. While it won’t win any awards, it’s pretty good considering the budget AND it’s got Raul Julia in it, so it’s not TOO bad. Likewise, Pod People is a competent film, but one of my all-time favorites. Trace Beaulieu, among others, have always said that the film is the straight man in their routine, so it makes sense that if the film’s decent, the entire package will be pretty good. This is probably why This Island Earth was a great choice for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie; though, yeah, it’s a bit cheesy, it’s not a bad film by any means. (Though to get upset by them riffing a good film is silly as a lot of critics did when MST3K:TM came out; it doesn’t take away anything from the film — if anything, it encourages more people to see it, and helps people who have seen it to enjoy it in a new way.)
But what of the more questionable case of the truly bad film? Why is something like Manos so good, while Batwoman is so bad? Or look at the entire oeuvre of Coleman Francis, all of which riffed on MST3K. I enjoy the episodes Beast of Yucca Flats and The Skydivers, but I actually tend to think Red Zone Cuba is too bad. Why? It can’t be the names: While Beast has the presence of Tor Johnson, which is always enjoyable and compelling, Cuba has John Carradine, himself a name actor. Likewise, neither Manos nor Batwoman has anything resembling anyone remotely famous. Likewise, all these films are pretty slow moving; Manos the most of all, seeing as it opens with about a reel of random driving footage. Batwoman typically has a lot going on on screen, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense, where Manos‘ sets are sparse (likewise with Coleman Francis’ films).
While Coleman Francis should have perhaps known better — he was friends with Russ Meyer, who probably could have given him some pointers on how to make a good film, having made many himself — Hal Warren, director of Manos, was a fertilizer salesman with a camera that could only shoot about 2 minutes of silent footage at a time.
I think the difference between a good episode and a bad episode with films like these comes down to the quirks of the film. Manos is a mass of quirks — it was directed as the result of a bet, with a nonsense title, a goofy villain and a really creepy, though unintentionally so, final shot. Beast of Yucca Flats is as well — Tor Johnson is an odd enough actor that he brings a little bit of interest just by showing up, plus the beginnings of Coleman Francis’ weird obsessions, including coffee and the Yucca Flats/Mountains area; Skydivers, likewise continues the obsessions plus some random skydiving footage, which is an odd thing to have in a film. But Batwoman and Red Zone Cuba just come off as failed attempts at genre films; Cuba a bad noir with some attempt at political commentary, and Batwoman as, well, basically just a failed jiggle film as far as I can tell with a half-assed attempt at superheroics to further appeal to the young male demographic. There’s nothing particularly special about Batwoman, and it’s this lack of specialness that sinks it. There’re a lot of incompetent cash-in films, and Batwoman, and to a lesser extent Cuba is merely one of those. But Manos and the likes are so weirdly misguided that their incompetence doesn’t sink them; they’re obviously the result of a failed dream by a terrible dreamer, and that’s why they’re compelling. Well, compelling while a guy and a couple puppets make fun of it, anyway.