Just about every sci-fi/horror nerd is celebrating the return of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 on April 14, 2017, but although this beloved series has earned a loyal fanbase by mocking bad movies, I think it’s worth pointing out right now that not all of the movies it lampooned were technically “bad.”
Granted, many of MST3K’s most famous episodes featured Joel or Mike and their robot pals “riffing” on genuinely terrible motion pictures like MANOS THE HANDS OF FATE and MERLIN’S SHOP OF MYSTICAL WONDERS. But the outlandish awfulness of those discoveries gave rise to the idea that if a film was featured on MST3K it must therefore also be awful, and that’s simply not true, just like it’s also not true that every film that airs on Turner Classic Movies is, by definition, a “classic.” Sometimes old movies are simply old. They might be hard to watch now but they were once merely products of their time, and with a little historical context we can still appreciate them in the exact same way that they were originally intended.
So let’s take a look back at five films that, since their debut on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, are now often thought of as “bad movies,” but which – on one level or another – deserve another look, free of the context of MST3K, and back in the context that the filmmakers originally intended.
In the last-ever episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 (until now), Mike and the ‘Bots riffed on – ironically – the best movie they ever saw, a stylish and sexy supervillain thriller starring John Phillip Law (BARBARELLA) as a handsome criminal mastermind named “Diabolik”.
Mario Bava’s daring adaptation of the Italian comic book DIABOLIK dares to simply celebrate Diabolik’s wickedness. He’s living the mirror image of the James Bond fantasy, a sexually debauched and luxurious lifestyle, and without any pretense of morality. Ain’t it cool?
DANGER: DIABOLIK would be an odd motion picture in any era. Even now, in a landscape full of superhero movies, where a film like SUICIDE SQUAD can emphasize supervillains and feel like a novelty, you can look at DANGER: DIABOLIK and see just how much more unique it really is. The villain doesn’t need to save the world to be the star of his own movie. It’s essentially a film about the Joker, doing Joker stuff, in a world without a Batman to keep him in line. He lounges about in his over-designed lair having sex with his vivacious sidekick until he decides to throw the world into chaos, again and again and again.
Mario Bava’s film is a product of the 1960s, no doubt about that. It’s garishly colored and full of odd dialogue. But it has such a powerful visual style, and such a groovy, sexy soundtrack (courtesy of the great Ennio Morricone) that it’s impossible to say those are flaws. It’s an intentional blast of insidious, slick style, a champion of coolness at any cost. And it’s better than MST3K gave it credit for.
One of MST3K’s biggest punching bags is Roger Corman, a prolific director/producer whose early work, particularly in the 1950s, was often mocked on the cult tv series. Sure enough, films like IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, TEENAGE CAVE MAN and SWAMP DIAMONDS are cheap motion pictures, occasionally to the point of total ineptitude, but even that doesn’t mean that Corman’s early work was completely without merit.
Case in point: THE GUNSLINGER, one of the most staunchly feminist westerns ever produced, starring the charismatic Beverly Garland as Rose Hood, the wife of a sheriff who, after her husband is murdered, takes up his mantle. She interrupts her husband’s funeral to gun down his killer, and proceeds to take on the biggest criminal in town, Erica Page (Allison Hayes). It’s a vision of the wild west run entirely by women, populated by men who are either arrogant buffoons or impotent lackeys. The one exception is a gunslinger Erica hires to murder Rose, but who is immediately allured by his target’s strength, intelligence and dignity.
THE GUNSLINGER is another cheap production – and yes, it does appear at one point that Corman forgot to cue the horses until they were already in frame – but its unambitious production isn’t noteworthy in 1956, when cheap b-movies of exactly this ilk were rampant. What’s noteworthy is that it’s a potent and enjoyably pulpy story that made women the hero of a genre that too often ignored them, in a time when “progressive” films of any type were scarce.
THE MAGIC SWORD
Another frequent target of MST3K’s mockery was filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, a filmmaker who frequently tried to spin low-budget straw into gold with high concepts and ambitious visual effects. In particular Gordon was fond of stories in which people or animals grew to enormous sizes, a theme he would explore in many films that were screened in the MST3K theater, including THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, BEGINNING OF THE END, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS.
Bert I. Gordon had a varied career, however, and in 1962 he made his most impressive fantasy, THE MAGIC SWORD, about a noble knight and a kidnapped princess and a variety of spectacular beasts, including an ogre, a witch and – in the film’s most impressive sequence – an enormous dragon, produced practically on the stage. THE MAGIC SWORD also features a very respectable cast, including Gary Lockwood (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), Basil Rathbone (SHERLOCK HOLMES), Estelle Winwood (THE PRODUCERS) and even Maila Nurmi, whom horror fans know better as the legendary horror host Vampira and as the co-star of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
By today’s standards THE MAGIC SWORDS is a fairly goofy movie, but I think it’s fair to say that even at the time this oddball fantasy flick wasn’t intended to be taken too seriously. Estelle Winwood is camping it up here, in a magical cave full of wacky side characters, and the series of special effects-driven misadventures are obviously intended for younger audiences. But there weren’t as many ambitious fantasy films in the early 1960s and a film like THE MAGIC SWORD stands out from most of its contemporaries. It’s a fun and funny fantasy that warrants appreciation outside of its context as an MST3K punchline.
MOON ZERO TWO
Maybe the folks who produced MST3K just thought the 1960s were kinda funny, but then again, they always were. That’s why it’s odd to watch this series repeatedly mock 1960s motion pictures that were never intended to be taken particularly very seriously, like several of the films of this list. Certainly that’s the case with the delirious sci-fi caper MOON ZERO TWO.
This colorful flick, a combination of western and gangster tropes set on a futuristic moon base, stars James Olsen (AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION) as a flyboy who gets in the middle of a criminal who wants to steal an asteroid full of sapphires, and a woman whose brother has gone missing on the far side of the moon. They put on their rainbow space suits and punch each other out in zero gravity and eventually take their clothes off in tight quarters because they’re just too sweaty.
MOON ZERO TWO is a total lark, a fun and attractive sci-fi film that holds up better than many of its contemporaries because its style is, essentially, its substance. It’s a genre mash-up that works on its own levels. The fact that it feels hokey and kinda dumb isn’t a mistake, it’s a part of MOON ZERO TWO’s charm. Take a listen to its brassy theme song and tell me the makers of this movie didn’t know what they were doing. I dare you.
THIS ISLAND EARTH(Cover photo)
When the time came to select a subject for the first (and thus far, the only) MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 feature film, the producers of MST3K obviously decided to err on the side of spectacle. At least, that’s the only explanation for why – in their most prominent “episode” – they decided to pick on THIS ISLAND EARTH, a sci-fi classic with stodgy writing and gorgeous, influential imagery, instead of a movie that’s genuinely “bad.”
THIS ISLAND EARTH stars Rex Reason (THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US) as a scientist enlisted by a mysterious organization to help solve all the world’s problems. But when he gets to the isolated compound, his fellow scientists all seem to behave more like prisoners than saviors, and eventually they all realize their benefactors are aliens who plan to abduct them into outer space.
Like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL before it, THIS ISLAND EARTH has earnest messages about the importance of science in healing our damaged world. It also features impressive monsters called “Mutants” (pronounced “Mew-TANTS”) who are wreaking havoc on the alien’s home world, creatures whose designs were so instantly iconic that they became one of the go-to images for alien beings throughout the entertainment industry for decades.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL isn’t one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever produced but it was a perfectly respectable installment in the genre until MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 came along and popularized the idea that it wasn’t. It’s a relic of a time gone by and yet there’s a reason why we put relics in museums. Some of the MST3K movies (but not necessarily all of them) still have value, and it’s important to remember that when we watch old episodes, and the the new ones come out next month!