Keep Watching the Skies!

When it comes to monsters in the movies I’ve got a rule for being able to suspend my disbelief and actually believe in the creature, if only for an hour or two. If said monster is a product of the supernatural realm I just can’t buy into it. Ghosts just aren’t scary to me and I would be the guy denying that demons exist, just as Damien makes my head explode. If you give me the thinnest shred of ‘scientific’ evidence, however, I am down with it. Giant ants produced by atomic testing in the Nevada desert? You bet. An ancient alien discovered frozen in the ice in Antarctica that can shape shift? It could happen man.

I first discovered this rule in my precocious youth on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay up late on a weekend night and watch a locally hosted TV show, TJ and the Ant, which played what were then considered ‘horror’ films. These films were rarely frightening, unless you were terrified of men in foam rubber monster suits, and consisted primarily of Science Fiction films from the 50s and 60s. That didn’t stop me from loving them though. It also made it impossible for me to resist ordering Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The Twenty First Century Edition) by Bill Warren for the collection.

This two volume (yes, two whole volumes) set is a lovingly crafted examination of nearly 300 science fiction films from 1950 to 1962. Each entry is an extended essay on each film touching on the plot, cast, production values, critical reception and much more for each title. An extensive collection of movie posters and film stills is also included. Even the appendices are fun with listings of films that didn’t make the cut and why, titles that have been remade and science fiction serials among others. All the classics of the genre are here including titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The real fun comes in with the films of, shall we say, dubious quality. I mean how can you resist learning about movies titled The Astounding She-Monster, The Brain from Planet Arous, Monster on the Campus, and, of course, Plan 9 From Outer Space?

Speaking of bad movies might I humbly suggest that you view some of these lovable but, let’s admit it, at times god awful films with the aid of professional comedians? You can do so by sampling the many excellent examples of riffing produced by the folks from Mystery Science Theater 3000. While there are now several different ways to experience MST3K (the original show on DVD, the excellent online service Rifftrax, and now a new reboot of the show on Netflix) they all have the same concept at their core: snarky commentary while watching bad movies. Also, they are freaking hilarious. I seriously can’t imagine trying to get through some of the films from Keep Watching the Skies (Eeegah, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Cat Women of the Moon and Reptilicus to name a few) without the comedic assistance of MST3K. The library has three volumes of the original show for you to cut your teeth on. But be warned, once started they are very addictive.

So remember to keep watching the skies. Also watch out for snakes.

Please Talk During the Movie

inthepeanutgallerySometime 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.

Hobgoblins1One 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 3000published 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.

David