Here's the Thing

MST3K and My New Appreciation for Bad Movies

The cover of Unwinnable #174 features a black-and-white double-exposed photo of a ghoulish person holding their hands up to their screaming mouth. "Every time I write, things only get worse," is written across the image in shaky red lettering.

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #174. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Here’s the Thing is where Rob dumps his random thoughts and strong opinions on all manner of nerdy subjects – from videogames and movies to board games and toys.

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I make no secret of appreciating the occasional bad movie, or even terrible ones – provided there’s still entertainment to be had – though I do have my limits. So, of course, I’ve been a longtime fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (plus its numerous spiritual successors and even revitalizations) and the constant riffing on bad films. To the point where, ever since I found out it exists, I’ll usually toss on the official Forever-a-thon when I’m not sure what else to do with my time. But here’s the odd thing: Watching so many awful movies so often, even with the redeeming qualities of the color commentary, has made me realize that a lot of really awful films are actually kind of decent. At least on a conceptual level.

Obviously, things like budget, acting, direction, camera work, special effects – or a lack thereof on any or all of that – can lead to the creation of a really bad movie. Like, objectively bad. And plenty of MST3K’s subjects are what I’d consider irredeemable stinkers. But it was kind of surprising when I started to think about some of them in slightly more abstract terms. Not about how they were presented but how they could have been if conditions were different.

For example, 1985’s Hobgoblins is in no way good. It’s nonsensical and disjointed, characters are less than one-dimensional and most of the visual effects are people reacting to something happening off-screen. But the idea of it isn’t terrible. A movie about a monster (or monsters, in this case) that kill people by fulfilling their wildest fantasies and then having things go awry is a decent concept, as is having their initial prison set in an old movie studio. The concept is sound – it’s the execution that lets it all down so severely. Not to say this would have made Hobgoblins an award-winning film, but I’d imagine it could’ve at least garnered a fond cult following.

The MST3K crew watches a scene from a black-and-white flick starring two stiffs in a suit who look like they're acting badly even in the still.

Or how about The Dead Talk Back instead? It’s a fairly whatever murder mystery, but the concept of detectives asking a meta-physicist for help is solid. And having said scientist trick the murderer into confessing by pretending he could actually communicate with the dead via radio isn’t a bad twist. I’d go so far as to say it could have made for a perfectly watchable film if it were handled just a bit better. Even Teenage Caveman with its twist of being set in a surprise post-apocalypse rather than a pre-historic era might have been a fun time under better circumstances.

The idea of watching maybe a little too much MST3K over the course of months resulting in shifting the way I think about bad media isn’t something I’d expected, but I can’t really say I’m mad about it. I’m not about to start championing a second go at Manos: The Hands of Fate or anything like that, and none of this makes the bad movies less bad. I just think it’s kind of cool to be able to look at the broad strokes of a terrible movie’s story and think about the ways in which it could’ve made a different (i.e.: more positive) kind of mark on cinema. It’s given me a new kind of respect for a lot of these stinkers, as well as other flubs I may have seen in the past or will inevitably watch in the future.

Except Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). I’m still too mad.

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Rob Rich is a guy who’s loved nerdy stuff since the 80s, from videogames to anime to Godzilla to Power Rangers toys to Transformers, and has had the good fortune of being able to write about them all. He’s also editor for the Games section of Exploits! You can still find him on Twitter, Instagram and Mastodon.

 

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