Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)

2010 #97
Jim Mallon | 74 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

I’m not that well versed in the cult fandom of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but, as I understand it, Turkey Day (i.e. Thanksgiving) is the MSTie (as fans call themselves) High Holy Day (I’m presuming not literally, but who knows?) Something to do with Thanksgiving marathons on whichever network MST3K was on at the time, I think.

Anyway, with that in mind, what better day to finally post my review of MST3K’s big screen endeavour than on that beloved American holiday.

The world, so they say (and by “they” I mean “absolutely no one” — I’m making this up), is divided into three sorts of people: those who love MST3K, those who’ve never heard of MST3K, and those who have a vague notion of what it is but have, for whatever reason, never seen any of it. (Of course, there will be that fourth group who don’t like it, but my saying’s already stretched at three. This is why I said “they say”, y’see, to absolve me of responsibility for the glaring oversight. But anyway…) I fall into the latter category. Having bought sci-fi mags for the past decade or so (thereby overlapping with the time MST3K was actually in production) I naturally have an idea what it is, but had never actually seen any of it… (you know what’s coming…) (wait for it…) …until now.

For those who’ve never heard of MST3K, it’s a bit like a DVD commentary… except instead of people involved with the film recounting anecdotes or academics offering analysis, we have people taking the piss out of it. I say “people” — one person and two robots. Who are obviously voiced by people. Look, that’s not the point. The movies they watch are all cheaply-made rubbish ones, well deserving of having the mickey taken (not to mention the all important fact that such efforts are generally copyright-free). The bloke and two robots appear on screen at the bottom as silhouettes, because… well, there’s no real need for it, other than to remind you they’re there and remove the issue of disembodied voices. The series started before DVD, remember, so the notion of an “audio commentary” wasn’t yet widely known. Besides which, I quite like seeing them there. OK, they don’t do much besides wiggle their heads or arms occasionally, but it feels more congenial than the disembodied chatter of an audio commentary.

The film isn't in black and whiteAnyway, the gang set their sights on one film per episode — or, in this feature film, one film per film. They’re being forced to watch these movies, for various unimportant reasons, and every once in a while we get comedic ‘host segments’, where they get up to hijinks on their space station (I forgot to mention, they live on a space station). These bits are well-meaning and quite funny — and in this big screen outing have been shot with a suitably filmic gloss that the video-shot TV episodes lack, which adds a surprising magnitude to the still-small-and-cheap sets and props — but the real meat of the humour is in the riffing over the film.

In this film, the film is This Island Earth, Joseph M. Newman’s 1955 sci-fi… film (“2½ years in the making!”). “Classic” wouldn’t be the word, though MST3K: The Movie provoked some controversy among some film critics because they considered This Island Earth to be an SF classic, one that didn’t merit the derogation that MST3K usually lavishes on B- (or lower letters) movies. On the evidence of what we see here (not, it should be noted, the full film, which runs a quarter-hour longer than MST3K: The Movie; including those host segments, quite a lot must be lost), This Island Earth is perhaps of higher quality than some of the films tackled by MST3K, but is clearly a cheap effort and no classic.

This Island cropped poster

Talking of things being shortened (I was, in the brackets), MST3K: The Movie is, unusually, a good fifteen minutes shorter than a regular episode of the series. There are reasons — partly to do with helping mainstream appeal, more necessary on the big screen than a minor cable network, and not wanting to outstay their welcome. Similarly, the jokes feature fewer obscure references than on TV and they’re more spaced out, to make sure people catch them (when laughing as part of a large audience, you see). This latter fact means that when the film is watched by yourself the gags can be more spread out than might be desirable, which is a shame. This improves as it goes on though — clearly most of what got lopped out of This Island Earth was cut from later on, and as the film they’re watching becomes harder to follow so we’re compensated with more laughs.

The quality of the humour varies, as is the case with so many comedies. For me, there were enough laugh-out-loud moments and significant chuckles to make it a good experience; equally, there were also a couple of fart-related gags, something I’ve never found funny personally. There are some current affairs-related references that not so much date the film as lose their currency as time wears on (this is 14 years old now after all), as well as culturally specific jokes that don’t carry across the pond. Such occurrences are an inevitably of this kind of humour, I think, and they’re not too prevalent to destroy the experience. That experience is very much like watching a movie with some matesMike and the bots when you’re in the mindset to take the piss out of the film. That is, if you get on with the characters (as it were) and sync with their sense of humour; if you dislike them or their humour, or like whatever they’re watching too much, then it’s probably more like some irritating yobs nattering away over something you’d quite like to watch thank you very much. (Equally, if you embark on this intending to watch This Island Earth, more fool you.)

MST3K: The Movie was disliked by the production team — too much studio interference during production left it an unpleasant experience. Tales of this pepper the web, if you want to go looking, but they include the studio forcing a story arc on the film, before conducting test screenings (to completely the wrong audience) which concluded they should cut out the resolution to said enforced story arc. Or the stupid release pattern, which failed so badly it’s never been repeated. MSTies have a more mixed response, as far as I can tell, but a significant number like it, particularly those for who it was their first experience of MST3K.

And that’s me, as you may remember. I can see that not everyone will like MST3K — the concept won’t appeal, or the style of humour won’t tickle some funnybones. But if the concept does appeal, the only way to tell is to try. Personally, I can’t wait to get stuck into more of the series. I believe there’s almost 200 episodes…

4 out of 5

Grindhouse (2007)

2010 #105
Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino | 191 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Infamously, on its release in America the much-hyped Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill was an almighty flop, so much so that it wasn’t properly released in its full form outside the US. Which is a bit ironic, if you think about it, because the US is the market least likely to respond to something a little bit experimental.

A grindhouse, for those still unacquainted with the concept, was a second-run cinema in the pre-home video days that generally showed trashy films from poor-quality much-screened prints. It should come as little surprise that this is the kind of film and viewing experience Tarantino enjoys, and so he and best chum Rodriguez set about recreating the style for a wider audience. Which was probably why it flopped — it was, almost by definition, not a mass audience-aimed style of cinema.

What this means for Grindhouse is a double-bill of exploitation movies, more-or-less with a horror bent, with grainy, dirty, decrepit prints that are missing shots, scenes, and even whole reels, and complete with trailers for similar films and ads for local restaurants. Clearly, it sets itself up to be as much about the experience of viewing the work of RR and QT in this context as it is the films themselves. So, to take the viewing programme in order…

It opens with one of the several fake trailers — except in this case the trailer is no longer fake, as Rodriguez has since gone on to turn Machete into a genuine feature (out next month over here). It sets the tone well: cheesy dialogue, stagey acting, an emphasis on gory violence over any other element, and plenty of utterly ludicrous moments. Plus breasts, naturally. Entirely random explosionChances are, if you don’t find this opening salvo entertaining in some way the rest of the film is going to prove a struggle.

And then the film launches into its first feature: Robert Rodriguez’s zombie horror Planet Terror. In short, this is a completely entertaining pitch-perfect 90-minute proof-of-concept. Rodriguez packs every scene with at least one element you should expect from this style of cinema: graphic blood-spurting violence, horrific mutations, vicious zombies, over-the-top logic-light gunfights, entirely random explosions, clichéd dialogue, stock characters, extended shots of the female form… Have I missed anything? If I have, it’s probably there too.

Rodriguez’s skill lies in making this both homage and hilarious. You don’t need to have much experience of this kind of cheap horror/exploitation movie to see how well he’s hit on the stereotypical plot, characters and sequences. His direction hits the nail on the head too, discarding his usual style for angles and cuts that feel thoroughly genuine. But he also recreates it in a way that’s amusing; not so much in a “look how stupid they are” way, but by levying elements in a way that is consistently entertaining. In particular, he uses the self-imposed print damage to excellent effect — the sex scene literally burns out from over-play, for instance, while the “Missing Reel” card elicits a laugh by jumping the plot forward so ridiculously, as well as skipping a whole chunk of exposition.

A gun. For a leg.It probably works better in context than described on the page, but Rodriguez has marshalled every disparate element to create a cohesive whole that’s exciting and funny. At this point, Grindhouse is firmly headed for a full five-star conceptual success.

Following “The End” card, there’s a handful of trailers before the second part of the double-bill. From directors Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), they showcase different archetypes within the overall grindhouse style. Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. is all Nazis, cheap werewolf costumes and (naturally) boobs — very video nasty. Wright’s Don’t takes on British ’70s horror with a nightmare-filled country mansion and a deliberately repetitive trailer (“don’t go in there”, “don’t see it alone”, etc). Also, for a British viewer, its sub-two-minute running time is packed to bursting with recognisable faces, some you’d expect (Mark Gatiss, Nick Frost) and others you wouldn’t (Katie Melua!) Finally, Roth’s Thanksgiving is a teeny slasher in the Halloween mode, A cheerleader giving thanksthough Roth can’t resist adding his own especially twisted brand of humour (I shan’t describe the final shot here).

While the trailers won’t necessarily convince you to see the films featured (good thing they don’t exist then), they perfectly capture the feel of various horror styles from the intended era, and — with the various “coming attractions” slides — sell the grindhouse experience.

And then we have the second film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And here the concept falls apart.

It seems Tarantino can’t let go of his own style. With a handful of exceptions, Death Proof feels less like a well-considered grindhouse homage (which Planet Terror certainly was) and more like a typical Quentin Tarantino Film launched from a grindhouse-ish concept. He can’t even sustain the literal veneer of grindhouseness: after some early print damage, obviously missing scenes, the clearly-labelled “Missing Reel” (which, in one of the film’s few authentic-feeling touches, is a sexy sequence), and — in the best grindhouse-style touch — a shoddily-replaced title card, the picture quality gradually loses its flaws until a climax that seems visually faultless. Perhaps QT’s imagined behind-the-scenes story was that every projectionist got bored of the film by this point so the latter reels survived in pristine condition…

Foot fetishBut it’s not just the increasing lack of dilapidated print quality that prevents Death Proof from selling its concept. The screenplay is clearly a QT work, much more so than most of Kill Bill or even Inglourious Basterds, especially when the girls indulge in long dialogue scenes of the real-world-natter variety. It’s like the opening of Reservoir Dogs, only with girls instead of guys and repeated two or three times throughout the film. One such scene is even shot in a very long single take, the camera constantly roving around the four girls sat round a table. It’s a technically impressive bit of work for any film; as a supposed product of a low-budget horror-thriller flick destined for the grindhouse circuit, it’s beyond improbable. In short, it’s all too well written and directed to convince as grindhouse. Though he does get to indulge in a couple of lingering shots of the female form, in particular his regular foot fetish.

QT almost makes up for all this with the final twenty minutes, featuring some impressive car stunt action. As noted, by this point any pretense of being a grindhouse-style film has been done away with: the image is devoid of all but minor damage, the stunt work — all done for real, I believe — pretty impressive. Whether it conforms to the style statement of the film or not (that’d be a “not”), it does manage to entertain. Tarantino’s decades of studying action-filled trash clearly pay off here as well as they did in Kill Bill, Proof of deathand if he chooses to create some more action-centric pictures in the future it would be no bad thing.

One thing that left me uncertain was the decision to slaughter his main cast halfway through. Firstly, the death-inducing crash is another sequence that’s too well done for such a pretend-cheap film, repeating the impact four times to show the imaginative fate of each victim. Brutal, yes, but one of the few moments that matches Planet Terror for effectiveness. The actual act of removing the three lead characters is audacious, maybe, but mainly so because QT’s spent so long apparently trying to invest us in these characters and their lives. It makes all the dialogue scenes we’ve sat through feel even more pointless, especially those setting up slightly dull romantic-ish subplots.

It also leads to a cameo appearance for a handful of Planet Terror characters, which could be fun but ultimately feels ill-conceived to me. In no other way do these films appear to be set in the same world, or have any other connection — indeed, cast members such as Rose McGowan and Tarantino himself appear in completely different roles in each film. The crossover didn’t feel in the grindhouse spirit to me; it felt in the “Rob and I are buddies and did this for no good reason” spirit. And it certainly took me out of the film. Wouldn't it be cool if I had a gun for a legIn fact, it might’ve played better if the films were the other way round, as it means Death Proof must be set before Planet Terror. I’d approve of this switch not only for chronological reasons, but because seeing one-scene bit-parters turn up in the-same-but-larger roles in the second film seems like it would be more satisfying as a viewer, rather than re-encountering these (in any case, minor) characters the way we do.

A length-based aside: as I mentioned, both films were released separately outside the US, and in both cases were extended. By my calculations, the Grindhouse cut of Planet Terror is just under 15 minutes shorter, while Death Proof is around 20 minutes shorter. More on that when I get round to watching the individual versions.

Grindhouse ends up being every bit a film of two halves, as you might expect a double-bill to be. Up until the end of the trailers, I was loving its commitment to the concept and the fun it was having with it — all credit to Rodriguez for that, as well as the trailer directors of course. But Tarantino’s entry lets the side down by seeming to fail in its execution of the film’s conceit. I’m not convinced it would be any better viewed as a standalone Quentin Tarantino Film, but in context it certainly disappoints.

If QT could’ve produced an effort as successful as his mate’s, Grindhouse would’ve been on course for full marks; not because it’s a Good Film, but because it would have fully realised its potential-filled concept in a thoroughly entertaining way. The finished product is still entertaining, but not thoroughly. It loses a star, but does retain a moderate chance of appearing on my Best Of Year list.

4 out of 5

Grindhouse is out on Blu-ray, exclusive to hmv, from today.
Grindhouse’s constituent parts, Death Proof and Planet Terror, are on TCM tonight from 9pm until 1:30am.