Sometime in the early 1990’s I found Mystery Science Theater 3000. Friends told me tales of a show with movie theater seat silhouettes on the screen, a human shadow bookended by 2 robot shadows, and wise cracking directed at very bad movies. I tuned in and was hooked. They said things I was thinking, as well as things I wish I’d thought of.
In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000, edited by two librarians at Texas Tech University (Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba), is a book containing scholarly essays about the show. It covers such topics as fandom, satire, and the culture and history of ‘riffing’, which is defined in the book as “…the process of creating a running satirical commentary concurrent with the presentation of a film.”
First, a brief explanation of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (often referred to as ‘MST3K’) is, from the out-of-print guide to MST3K, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide:
…mad scientists Dr. Forester and his assistant, Dr. Erhardt … work away in Deep 13, which is in the subbasement of Gizmonics Institute. They have shot a man into space … aboard the Satellite of Love (SOL) and, as one of their evil experiments, they force him to watch bad movies while they monitor his mind. Together with his robot pals Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, they watch the movie and make with the quips while another robot, Gypsy, maintains the higher functions on the ship.
The show ran for one year on the Minneapolis UHF channel KTMA, 7 years on Comedy Central, and 3 years on the Sci-Fi Channel (Now SyFy.)
Some directors and actors have reportedly been less than happy after their movies were riffed by MST3K. It’s rumored that the actor Joe Don Baker threatened bodily harm to the crew after they skewered his film Mitchell.
One director, however, has confirmed his happiness with the exposure his film received from the show in an essay called “There’s Been an Accident at the Studio: How We Made Hobgoblins” by Rick Sloane, the producer/director of the movie Hobgoblins.
Hobgoblins was made for a mere $15,000 in 1988. Sloane was inspired by the 1980’s puppet creature films such as Gremlins and Ghoulies. For $1,500, Kenneth J. Hall, who made the puppets for Ghoulies, made four Hobgoblin puppets for the film. On that budget, Hall was only able to make one puppet with a mouth that moved.
Hobgoblins has acquired the status of one of the worst movies of all time, thanks, in part, to MST3K. As of this writing, the movie was number 25 on the worst movies list on the Internet Movie Database. It is one of nine films listed on Wikipedia’s ‘List of Films considered the Worst of the 1980s‘. The movie’s newly found ‘fame’ inspired Sloane to make Hobgoblins 2 in 2009.
Another essay that caught my eye was titled “Cinemasochism: Bad Movies and the People Who Love Them” by David Ray Carter who writes for Film Fanaddict Magazine. Carter defines cinemasochism as “…finding pleasure in cinema that others have deemed too painful to endure.”
Many viewers have been exposed to painful movies like Monster A-Go-Go or The Amazing Colossal Man thanks to locally hosted shows popular in the 1960’s and 70’s such as Seattle’s Chiller Theater, Chicago’s Shock Theatre, Nashville’s Creature Feature or the syndicated Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which featured the ‘Mistress of the Dark’ presenting low-budget horror films and occasionally appearing in a box in the corner of the screen to make a witty comment about that evening’s film. MST3K widened the audience for cheesy horror and science fiction movies, as well as movies that defy categorization.
MST3K was cancelled in 1999, but the riffing continues with live shows, on-demand or downloads via internet, and direct-to-DVD releases from Cinematic Titanic, a troupe led by MST3K original host/creator Joel Hodgson (which is sadly ending this year), and Rifftrax, a trio led by MST3K’s second host/head writer Michael J. Nelson.
The MST3K scholarly essay parade continues with another book of essays, Reading Mystery Science Theater 3000, published in May 2013 and edited by Shelley S. Rees, an associate professor of English at The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. We can only hope that this book will turn up on Everett Public Library’s shelves in the not too distant future.