The Highest of Low Standards: How ‘MST3K’ Picked Movies to Mock
The scene, as I remember it, is like this: Ally Farson is in the kitchen with her emotionally abusive mother having a lengthy argument. Ally, as we’ve learned earlier, is fairly unhinged and has recently started a successful career as a serial murderer. Her mother doesn’t care about that, she’s just telling Ally how useless she is, how bad a person she is, and how she needs to get a job. Ally, for her part, is occasionally threatening to kill her mother. In the left corner, the actor playing the grandmother is cracking up. This scene runs, without any cuts, roughly fifteen minutes. The grandmother actress is laughing in the corner the whole time. The natural lighting of the kitchen gives everything a sickly yellow tinge. The actors who are doing their job aren’t particularly good at it. The scene is both unsettling and cripplingly boring.
That is the climactic scene of Ally Farson: My Private Life. It’s a found footage movie made in 1999 to cash in on the whole Blair Witch craze. It’s also one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. When I was in college one of my good friends would go to the dollar store and buy every single movie they had on the rack. We watched all the worst movies, Catman: Lethal Track , Sleepy Hollow High, Aladin everything. I’m not sure why we watched them, since most of the movies we watched (certainly Ally Farson) were unwatchable. While every now and again a gem would leap out, most of them were painfully boring. They didn’t bring much to the table to make fun of either.
This lead me to wonder how they were able to make 197 episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). One of the greatest shows ever made, boiled down to its essentials it’s three people cracking wise during an awful movie. They were able to do this for 10 years. Intriguingly, many of the movies they watched weren’t like the movies I watched with my buddy. They had plots, characters, lighting, and a lot of weird goofiness. If you were in the business of turning a bad movie into hilarious entertainment, it was as if they discovered a rich vein of movies full of setups for punchlines.
Frank Conniff, who joined the show as a writer late in the first season and then joined the cast as TV’s Frank in the second season was given the job to select these movies. During his tenure (through the sixth season) they made fun of movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Teenagers from Outer Space, and most memorably Manos: The Hands of Fate. “I think I was given the job because everybody else was busy with other stuff.” Conniff recalls. The job was particularly difficult because for every one movie that made the show, he had to watch approximately twenty duds. He couldn’t skim either. During the second season of MST3K they got the rights to a film that they had only skimmed a part of. When they sat down to write the show, they discovered that there was a violent rape scene towards the end. The movie, Sidehackers, stayed in, and the cast just had to explain to the audience why the female lead suddenly disappeared.
What made one of twenty terrible movies worthwhile? “[We looked for] a movie that’s really bad but at least watchable and with a somewhat of a plot,” said Conniff. It sounds fairly easy, but most bad movies get that wrong. It’s been years since he had to screen movies, but the worst movie he had to watch still sticks out in his mind: “Child Bride”, a 1938 movie about a backwoods town where a preacher is trying to stop older men from marrying underaged girls. The movie is public domain if you care to subject yourself to it.
The fruits of sitting through trash like Child Bride can be found all across MST3K. Their tireless work dredging through the worst cinema ever made has exposed the world to beautiful things like Puma Man and the aforementioned Manos: The Hands of Fate. Manos was so strange and disturbing that half the cast went back to make fun of it again last August with Rifftrax. Since being rediscovered in 1993, there have been multiple articles written by journalists who have chased down surviving cast members, an independent film sequel, at least one live musical, and a successfully kickstarted HD remaster.
Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a secret sauce to these great bad movies. MST3K movies were found in every genre. It seems more likely that it takes dogged persistence to dig through the worst movies ever made to find amazing riches like what they found on MST3K or similar trash films like The Room, Troll 2, and Plan Nine From Outer Space. When something amazing is found, it becomes fodder for obsession, and the subject to derision, theme parties, flash games, musicals, and independently made sequels.
Ben Vigeant performs and writes for Chicago’s The Telethon. His favorite bad movie is Catman: Lethal Track.