[6 September 2011]
There’s no doubt that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a program of acquired taste. The low-budget aesthetics of Joel or Mike and his robot puppets in their silly sci-fi settings can be enough for casual viewers to dismiss it as valueless pulp. However, fans of the show know that while sometimes a highlight, the mad scientist/test subject in space “host segments” are more of a pacing break than anything, and the quality of an episode is determined by the qualities of the movie being watched. Its theme song even admits that the framing plot is just an excuse to watch bad movies, singing “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts / just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax’.”
As one would imagine, the most successful episodes of MST3K are the ones that feature the least successful attempts at visual storytelling. The majority of cinematic targets are bad science fiction B-movies, which tend to have the highest density of laughable acting, sets, special effects, and plot problems. But through the series’ approximately 200 episode run, the Satellite of Love’s “Shadowrama Theater” has been subjected to a wide range of genres, including Westerns, fantasies, and horrors, not all of which are as fertile for comedy as sci-fi. Unfortunately, for every episode of MST3K that mercilessly tears apart a comically bad movie, there’s an episode devoted to painfully enduring an uninteresting one.
The Unearthly belongs in the latter category. There’s no doubt that it’s a bad movie, but it’s a particular brand of bad that is unsuitable for the riffs of MST3K. The plot is slow, the dialog is wordy and forced, and there’s little to engage in,and that isn’t exactly good material to make fun of. There simply isn’t anything to gawk at, like insane cuts and ludicrous plot mechanisms to incredulously skewer and call back to. Instead of zingers, the commentary ends up resembling frustrated theater patrons, yelling at the screen or groaning and averting their eyes. Perhaps if writer Edward Wood had also directed, as he did for the notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Unearthly would have more questionable direction to ridicule. Instead, it’s just flat boring.
Fortunately, the feature is cut down to its bare minimum to make time for two vaguely educational shorts. Unfortunately, the shorts share the feature’s endlessly longwinded narrative. Each tell the story of children who learn a lesson through an elementary picture book pace, walking through every step of logic the way you would teach a child to tie their shoes. Even with some good quips from the peanut gallery, I found myself hoping for their end title cards. Of course, had I known what came next, I probably wouldn’t have been so inpatient.
On the other end of the spectrum, Red Zone Cuba is a perfect example of a comically bad film ripe for the MST3K treatment. The acting is poor, the settings are questionable, and the effects, props, and costumes are insufficient. Most importantly, the plot lands in the cross-section of “seriously ambitious” and “hopelessly unfocused”, like the screenwriter missed a day of his Narrative Continuity 101 course. As it turns out, writer Coleman Francis happens to also be the director, producer, and lead actor, making the film not only misguided, but a shameless vanity flick as well. Attached to the feature is a mediocre short regarding proper presentation posture (which coincidentally includes a callback to “Posture Pals”, the first of The Unearthly’s educational shorts), which is sure to be a footnote in comparison to the feature.
What makes great Mystery Science Theater so great is how watching the right kind of bad movie transforms the show from goofy fare to a sophisticated challenge of the audience’s screen literacy. The robots’ riffs go beyond the foreground, directing attention to the subtleties of filmmaking that are rightfully invisible in successful films. The skits that occur during the much-needed intermissions from at times exhaustingly bad filmmaking can exemplify the highest form of parody. There;s enough observational comedy to lightly entertain causal viewers, but much of the nuance is lost on those learned in production fundamentals, something far more common in this decade than MST3K’s original run in the ‘90s. What could be considered technical, “insider” comedy on the original air date is likely mainstream knowledge now, which explains why the series has aged so well.
These DVDs are entire 90 minute single episodes with no extras, so unless you have undying loyalty to Joel as your MST3K host over Mike, pick Red Zone Cuba for its aforementioned blend of optimal ineptitude and skip The Unearthly, an exercise in exhausting blandness.