One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only does it do what all of us want to do, but it does it so well in its format that it’s almost pointless to publicly bother: make funny comments during a movie that didn’t set out to be funny.
If you’re not aware of the show, there’s 10 seasons of a guy and two robots held captive on a satellite by mad scientists, forced to watch movies, making fun of them, with some clever skits breaking up the monotony. Not all of these movies are flat out terrible (one is an edited-down Academy Award winner). Some are regarded as sci-fi or horror classics, although frankly there’s an audience out there that openly loves nearly anything that is marketed in their genre.
(Once I saw a guy selling copies of obscure movies, and one of the titles was recently lampooned on MST3K. I mentioned seeing it on that format, and the guy started complaining how it was a good film that didn’t deserve the MST3K treatment. It was not a good film, and most certainly did deserve it.)
Episodes abound on a variety of DVD packages and streaming formats, including an official YouTube channel with some of its more famous victims (Manos The Hands Of Fate and Mitchell). Since the show went off the air, separate cast members have been involved in things like The Film Crew, Rifftrax (which sells downloads of Film Crew & MST3K) and Cinematic Titanic. Recently, the show’s creator Joel Hodgson brought back the show to appear on Netflix in mid-April with a new cast and new movies to skewer. If the available catalog isn’t enough to sift through, you’ll have some fresh riffing to enjoy.
One of the great things about the series is that, despite the “science” in the title, there’s some other genres that they’ve covered. “Mitchell” is some kind of cop movie that also feels like a botched TV pilot. There’s a Lassie movie, for crying out loud. But some of the movies involve good people, not on spaceships, being tempted to do bad things on planet Earth, and brought down to a harsh reality. These failed crime plots were my introduction to noir. Or at least, some excuse for noir, just on an incompetent level.
That’s the great thing about noir: it’s usually made cheaply, but if done well you get 1. an amazing plot 2. stark imagery that was well planned despite a tiny budget 3. brilliant acting (often done on a quick shooting schedule) 4. a harsh life lesson for the viewer. A movie like The Girl On Lover’s Lane only offers the cheap, looks terrible, poorly acted, and the harsh lesson is that someone hates life, which is probably why it was chosen to appear on MST3K.
Available on their DVD sets but not available streaming is High School Big Shot**, which SUPPOSEDLY mimics the plot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Lifting beat plots from good movies was not uncommon in those days. High School Big Shot does this with (supposedly) teenagers. It’s a melodrama about a smart kid, Marvin, who might get a scholarship to college. College might be the only escape for him from his seaside town, where he’s picked on by the high school athlete star who has no future outside of sports, and his dad is an unemployed alcoholic who borrows money from him.
There’s a girl in class, Betty, who cozies up to Marvin because he knows a bit about Shakespeare, and she knows nothing about anything other than she wants to be rich some day and shove that status in her father’s face. Marvin & Betty are busted cheating, and Marvin loses his chance for a scholarship. At his night job, because life sucks and he has to work a night job on a dock, he overhears plans to buy $1,000,000 in heroin, so he brags to Betty that he’s going to steal the money and that they’re going to run away together.
Betty instead tells the oafish jock about the plan, and the jock gets a gun and, after Marvin steals the money, confronts Marvin and there’s a scuffle and the jock shoots Marvin. Then he regrets shooting Marvin and shoots Betty. And then the police show up and shoot the jock.
Sometime in this movie, unbeknownst to Marvin, Marvin’s dad kills himself.
This might not be the most beloved MST3K movie, despite the usual hilarious riffing, because WHY? WHY DID SOMEONE MAKE THIS MOVIE? If it’s the whirlpool of death of Hamlet mixed in with the heist of The Killing (which is an incredible dark caper film, with heist planning in the vein of an Ocean’s 11 or Rafifi), still, WHY TEENAGERS? I know teens of the 50’s weren’t as naive as movies would have us believe but I can’t imagine any kids back then watching this at a drive in and thinking “hey, that could be ME.” Yeah, if you joined organized crime tomorrow! Even The Killing has survivors.
It’s a bit of a downer, much less because Everybody Dies but mostly because Everybody’s Dumb. No one takes a step back to reasonably assess the consequences of what they’re getting involved in. Once the plans are in motion, everyone continues on with their base impulse to head straight into what must have been a last-act Hamlet death circle but instead is just a dumb jock killing everyone.
I guess that’s why I’m grateful there’s MST3K. Some stories out there are BLEAK. Not even with warning or message for the kids out there, or at least teams of people making the movie made no real effort to give you a chance to infer any real meaning from what they put together in a hurry, before sending the canisters off to any theater that will take the film before it disappears into obscurity.
MST3K isn’t here to rescue that movie and its deadened sense of storytelling from obscurity. It instead gives us an additional sense of learning right from wrong (filmmaking-wise).
Anything about the cast? Marv is played by Tom Pittman, who died in a car accident shortly after filming the movie.
** Maybe a fan site has a link. Dunno how long that will stay up for. Hopefully Shout! Factory puts that up on Rifftrax’s page or their official YouTube.