It’s a gloomy Sunday afternoon in the early ‘60s and everything is silent and gray. Outside, there’s 17 inches of new snow. All you want to do is put on your snow pants, snow boots, parka, and Chicago Bears wool cap and dive into the drifts. You want to get lost in the whiteness, to become one with the frozen ice. But typically, your Mom won’t let you out because you’re jerky sister’s got the “sniffles”. So you are stuck staring at the wonderland just beyond your back door.
Though the UHF channels have movies you’ve never heard of playing in between non-stop ads for Vegematics and used cars, you understand instinctively what will satisfy your waning attention span. You look at your Snoopy character watch, run over to the TV, dial up the channel and wait for the set to warm up. The tiny dot in the center suddenly enlarges and that familiar music begins to fill the side speaker. A quick glance at the TV Guide, today’s film is Hoppity Goes to Town! You LOVE that movie! You settle into the couch, thoughts of snow forts and snowball fights drifting out of your head. As the smile begins to cross you lips, you hear those magical words; “Hello everyone. I’m Frazier Thomas and welcome to Family Classics”. Ah, what a perfect day.
Jump forward 30 plus years and change the location to a small town in Minnesota. Again, it’s chilly outside. You’ve spent the majority of the day raking the leaves from the yard. On a whim, you jumped head long into the pile. Immediately your senses registered several things: the scent of foliage, the clammy cool of the pile, and the sound of fall’s signature crackle. Luckily, not a single nasty slippery slug was found to ruin your romp. With the mound left for a later date with lighter fluid and a match, you walk into the house as night chases day into the purple pleasantries of an autumn dusk. The days are really getting shorter, now. You notice the house looks darker than usual. You flick on a light switch and blow a little warming breath into your cupped, cold hands. You just begin to smell the aroma of your neighbor’s yard as he sets his pile of nature afire
But the cable is out, again, and the network never shows anything good. Taking a chance, you switch over to last place UHF channel KTMA. There you see an opening shot of some stars and a raged rock riff begins to play. Then a cracked voice starts to sing “In the not too distant future, next Sunday A.D.”. You’re intrigued. You let the footstool of the armchair up and settle back. The song continues, “...on Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Is there really a connection to WGN’s Sunday matinee movie for the entire family and a self-proclaimed cow-town puppet show that used bad cinema as an in-theater source of comical talk back? Indeed there is. There is even a nice tie-in to a certain Toho terror that made mincemeat out of miniatures for the sake of some monster island madness. For generations who grew up in that bastion of inbred value systems, The Midwest, the carefully edited films that Frazier Thomas (at his prime, a virtual God of children’s television in Chicago, along with other members of the holy trinity, Ray Rayner and Bozo the Clown) used for his Family Classics TV show were the wholesome adventure stories that kept the kiddies mesmerized for hours. To this moralistic man, fantasy and imagination were paramount virtues and he found many of those mandates in the Godzilla canon.
The same can be said for a cockeyed update on Thomas’ fireside film festivals. Though it may not look like it from the outside, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Hodgson’s loving tribute to bad cinema and equally inoffensive kid shows, is the bastard step-child of Classic, Creature Features, and all other attempts to make amusement sense out of incredibly awful films. It used its premise (a man and his puppet robot “pals” would watch a bad movie and make fun of it as it played) to uncover the ironic and ridiculous in the magical films that someone like Frazier felt a keen kinship with. And oddly enough, Godzilla turns up here, as well.
Thomas loved to champion the giant lizard loyalty, explaining to the captive audience how, though big and scary, he still came to the rescue of city and state to protect the world (or mostly Japan) from all factions of ferocious fiends. Joel Hodgson and his sidekicks could find no such nobility in a man dressed up like a prehistoric pickle and loved attacking Godzilla’s cultural, as well as creature, impact.
During its second season, Mystery Science Theater 3000 took a couple of the green guy’s more obscure excursions and ran them through their riff-frenzied factory. Not deconstructing so much as obliterating both with wit, what the show discovered was that, after his initial foray in the world of mega-monsters, the surly superstar from the land of the rising sun really coasted through a great many of his later films. Letting his ego match his pant size, the former king of all monsters routinely became the master of the walk-on, happy to sit back and toss in his routine squelch and belch antics only as needed.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) is one such example of our humongous hero’s hanging back strategy. For most of the movie he lets other’s do his dirty work until he can find a way to drag his huge hinder out of the trailer and clean a few clocks. Utilizing some support from an android turned Andre the Giant, named Jet Jaguar, the once mighty behemoth is literally a cameo in his own starring vehicle. True, he couldn’t have been too happy about a script that centers on an underground creature that looks like a cordless drill gone goofy. As the defender of Seatopia, which consists of angry Anglo-Saxons in togas, the mean Megalon recruits fellow WWM (world wrestling monster) avenger Gaigan to take on Godzilla’s tired tag team while skinny Japanese men in bad sports jackets stand around slack jawed and a brat in short shorts screams support. As an example of gigantic grappling, there have been freakier fisticuffs (that ersatz brawl between pitcher Pedro Martinez and human gerbil Don Zimmer comes to mind). But Megalon ends up being no match for the logic-leaping lizard.
Worse yet, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966) is like a night terror one would have after eating too much scampi during Red Lobster’s shellfish extravaganza. Thankfully, there is no pint sized adolescent pest screeching like a wounded weasel about how Godzilla must “fight” and “use fire” to win. Instead, we get a stupid story about slavery, shipwrecks, and seafood. And frankly, ‘Zilla ain’t much of a thrilla’ here. The oversized omnivore appears tired and out of shape. He waddles around a lot, rests his rump on available rock outcroppings and acts like he couldn’t be bothered to de-claw Ebirah, the crazed giant crawdad with an attitude. The sedentary superstar appears distraught with this career move and thinks a sit down strike is the answer. What begins as an endurance dance contest featuring mostly same sex couples (?) ends up a tropical turd about nuclear power and pissed off prawns. Even a comatose Mothra makes a minor guest appearance, required to do nothing more than lay motionless in a bad bit of split screen while bronzed busy bodies do ridiculous ritualistic dances for him. And the fights resemble soccer matches more than pain drains, as the great gecko and the oceanic tick whack a boulder around like it’s the final period of the World Cup.
In each case, the expert pop culture criticism of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in full farcical bloom to drown the entire Godzilla mythos in necessary lizard libel. There are just too many unanswered questions left after viewing these later day lumbering losers. Where was the mighty terror from another time? How and when did Godzilla go from A-bomb badass to washed up wimp? Heck, where was Raymond Burr when a giant iguana needed him most?
Mystery Science Theater 3000 understood the ramifications of the new, child-friendly face, placed upon the planet’s most recognizable reptile, and plugged the palooka into their satirical formula to say everything about the franchise that Frazier Thomas and Family Classics would not dare utter. They created a song, using a fake family tree and some questionable heritage (Godzilla married the Loch Ness monster to produce his “nephew”, Godzuki?) to explore the link between the once mighty monster and a few mutated ninja turtles, Swamp Thing and Mr. Steve Guttenberg. They developed a sketch about the Mothra Twins, those comely lasses who call on the giant gnat whenever they feel the inclination. The segment finale gets turned on its head when the giant moth stops by to chide the crew about making fun of heroes with out of control growth issues.
Such satirical surliness was warranted on the part of Mystery Science. Godzilla and his ferocious friends had long stopped being the source of nightmares and now simply wanted to frolic in the autumn mist of Monster Island, unsullied by human harassment. But trouble, and the ticket buying public, just wouldn’t let them be. So every once in a while he had to come out of “retirement” and ring the cash registers one more time. Inoshira Honda, known as the father of the first few “mean Godzilla” movies, turned the reigns over to director Jun Fukuda, who decided that his version of the jade giant would work much better in a more Gamera-ized mode (that friend of children consistently stealing all the juvenile limelight . . . and yen). The result was a joke to everything that Godzilla once stood for: mindless destruction, hatred of technology and the ingestion of humans as savory snacks. Where once a mighty creature of untold evil reigned supreme, wrecking vengeance across the countryside to answer the cruel call boiling in his prehistoric brain, we now have a jester, an amphibious idiot limited to a couple of clashes before they close down the craft services table. Godzilla: just the perfect “pet” for a little family afternoon viewing pleasure
And that is exactly what Fraiser T. and his family-friendly film festival needed. It was simple to celebrate the new, people pleasing, enlarged emerald entity. Having been neutered and nice-ified by a cash-hungry conglomerate, the impotent Godzilla was perfect for the small screen. He was nothing more than a dopey do-gooder with an overactive pituitary. And it took the keen critical eye of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang to uncover the ruse. They realized that the man in suit majesty that once existed in the Toho films had long since dissolved, taking the true Godzilla herpetoculture with it.
So as the snow melts, the air warms, and the claustrophobic fever of the winter months finally thaws, you can peel your pasty behind off the Barcolounger and take a walk in the sunshine. Realize that afternoons in front of the TV, staring blindly at the screen as your favorite fiend turns all goody two claws, have made you unnecessarily wistful. They have rendered you apologetic. Those days have lowered your standards and made you demand less of your fictional fire breathers.
Bah! You need to stand up and fight! You need to cast off the comfortable and dig the new breed! Forget Mr. Thomas and his heavily cut tributes to family entertainment and hang out with Joel Hodgson. Grab one of your Nth generation VHS copies of Msytery Science Theater 3000 and simply enjoy. Hodgson will teach you all you need to know about why Godzilla is now good and no longer nasty. And maybe then all those cold, lonely days of your youth will finally make sense. Or maybe its just because nobody really liked you. You ever think of that?
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// Marginal Utility
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