About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Old Dracula and the Stupidity of Critics Like Roger Ebert

Old DraculaOld Dracula is a 1974 British horror comedy.

It was originally released as Vampira. The reason for that name is that Vampira[1] (Teresa Graves) is Dracula’s old flame, who is now dead. Well, I guess she was dead before, but now she’s dead dead or in a coma. I didn’t see the beginning of the film.

Dracula (David Niven) wants her back. Old age is so lonely. So he gets blood from a number of Playboy playmates. But this turns Vampira into a black-skinned woman. So the film is about Dracula’s attempt to turn Vimpira white. In the end, Dracula is turned black.

Racial Politics In 1970s Film

This was 1974, after all, and inter-racial couples were still taboo. Although they were not all that unusual, they were certainly not something seen in mainstream films. So it’s a happy ending, even if David Niven looks ridiculous in black face.

Shortly after Vampira was released, Young Frankenstein was released and became a huge hit. It was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1974, even though it was released on 15 December.

Roger Ebert Pretends He Doesn’t Know How Films Are Made

So when the distributor took the film to the US in 1975, they called it Old Dracula, hoping to goose the film with the similar title. It doesn’t make much sense to me, because it took me forever to connect “Old Dracula” with “Young Frankenstein.”

The films couldn’t be more different. Old Dracula is a very British comedy — more droll than exquisitely silly like Young Frankenstein[2].

So the distributor changed the name. This led the supposedly good film “critic” Roger Ebert to write, “The movie’s obviously intended as a rip-off of Young Frankenstein, right down to the artwork in the ads.

Old Dracula Was Released Before Young Frankenstein

Young FrankensteinBut Old Dracula was released before it. It was doubtless also conceived and produced before it. Ebert knows how movies are made. He can’t possibly have thought that the producers of Old Dracula saw Young Frankenstein doing so well at the very end of 1974, got the money and casting set, had a screenplay (that is clearly not targeting the same audience) written, shot, edited, and released it within a year.

But there he is. He gives the film one star and calls it incoherent. I haven’t created a page for the film, because I’ve only been able to see the last half of the film, and I had no problem following it.

What’s more, major film “critics” get a whole package on the films they are going to review. That’s how, in the days before Wikipedia and IMDb, film “critics” knew lots of inside information about the films, including the names of minor actors.

How Roger Ebert Could Have Liked Old Dracula

But let’s face it. If Young Frankenstein had never been produced, Ebert would have given the film a chance. (He spends two paragraphs trying to convince us that he did give it a chance because of Niven and director Clive Donner. In a 5 paragraph review, that screams, “I went into this film determined to pan it!”)

I’m not suggesting that Ebert would have loved the film. From what I saw, I’d guess he would have given it 2 and a half or 3 stars. Or maybe only 2 stars. But not one. Not with this movie.

In the quote above, Ebert says the artwork was meant to rip-off Young Frankenstein. I’ve included the images of both posters. Could any objective person say one was trying to rip-off the other?

Film “Critics” Suck

I’m so tired of film “critics.” And it’s particularly bad when you consider that popular music criticism is actually pretty good. Yet people continue to listen to these film blowhards.

Look forward to a full page on the film. I’m hoping I can rent it, because it sells for $20, and I’m not that interested in film.

[1] Although spelled the same way as Maila Nurmi’s character, her name is pronounced with soft “i” — undoubtedly not wanting to associate the character with Maila Nurmi.

[2] For the record, the brilliance of Young Frankenstein is due to Gene Wilder, not Mel Brooks. From interviews, it’s clear that Brooks had very little to do with the writing. A less narcissistic director wouldn’t even have put his name on the credits. The same is largely true of Blazing Saddles where Brooks did everything he could to minimize Andrew Bergman, the brilliant comedy writer and director. I will admit that I have a very low opinion of Brooks, but it is based everything I’ve learned over the years. Read the chapter on The Producers in Ralph Rosenblum’s book When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story.

The Multi-Disc-Type Rip-Off

Todd and the Book of Pure EvilI recently bought Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End. The story of buying it is interesting, and I will include it in the Afterword at the bottom of this article.

After two seasons of the television show Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, it was canceled. So the producers go money to make an animated final film to tie everything up. This was great, because more or less the same thing was promised for the series Deadwood, but it fell through and it really sucked.

It was advertised as a blu-ray set. I assumed it contained 3 blu-ray discs. The problem was that I didn’t own a blu-ray player. But I bought a blu-ray player for my computer, and shelled out $39.99 for the product — such was my desire to finish off Todd and the Book of Pure Evil.

What $39.99 Buys You

But for a product advertised as blu-ray, this was pretty short on blu-ray discs. It contained one blu-ray with extra features, a DVD that contained the audio commentary as the only interesting extra, and a CD of the soundtrack. I’ve never been much of a fan of the music on the show. It’s okay. I suffer from the problem of being a trained musician with wide taste. I can tell the difference between greatness and mediocrity in most forms of music. And Todd and the Book of Pure Evil has always featured professionally created mediocrity.

The idea that someone who wants the movie would want the soundtrack is preposterous. This is why soundtracks are sold separately from films. So the soundtrack was just added for padding. Basically, your $39.99 gets you one blu-ray disc and that it is. They threw the other two discs in to justify the price.

Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End

Price Gouging

Think about this. Throw away the CD, and you have one DVD and one blu-ray. And the DVD is simply a subset of the blu-ray. What is the point of this? You either want a DVD or you want a blu-ray. You don’t want both. So what the distributor is doing is simply forcing you to pay an exorbitant price for an extra disc that you do not want and probably can’t even use. (Blu-ray has never taken off. Most people are perfectly happy with their DVDs.)

This is madness. It’s not as though DVDs and blu-rays are not already expensive enough. And in the case of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil all of the extras are on the Blu-ray. So if you do not have a Blu-ray player you don’t even get the full complement of extras that at are available.

It would be a trivial matter for the producers of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil to have released a single disc DVD of the film selling for 10 or $15. Or they could have had a second DVD with the extras one it and sold it for $20. But instead they have been depending upon people like me who would be willing to pay more than double the value of the set just to watch the film.

This Film Didn’t Need to Make Money

And remember that this movie was primarily financed by an Indiegogo campaign. They did not have to pay back most of their backers with money but rather gifts. Mostly, they gave backers stupid things like a Crowley High diploma or six playing cards they made up. For $25, you could get a downloadable version of the film. This was by far the biggest donation level. If you wanted a DVD, you had to donate $99.

But some of those gifts weren’t even things. For example, for just $2,500, 7 people had their likenesses used in the cartoon to be killed. That’s better than free money because otherwise, they would have had to either make up a face, or pay someone to use their likeness.

Now I know they got money from other sources, but I suspect the Indiegogo campaign was the main financing since they were only asking for $75,000 and ended up getting $123,160.

Money Grab

What I most love about psychotronic films is that they are usually made for love. Yes, their naive makers often hope they will make money. (Trust me, I know about this. I’ve had published three books published, and only one of them has made more than the advance I was given. When the first one was published, I really thought it would do well. But I have to admit that the first one I wrote is the one that actually sold pretty well — and is no on its second edition.)

So why the money grab? I really do wonder. I think blu-ray is a scam anyway. Most people do not care about the higher definition. And at least on computers they run incredibly slow slowly. Most people would prefer to simply have DVDs (with some system that made NTSC and PAL or regions the same so no one ever had to worry about it).

It’s like cassettes and 8-track players. The sound quality of both were much worse than LPs. So are CDs! But why were cassettes and 8-track players really popular once and way are CDs popular today? Because they were easy to deal with. It’s the same thing with video.

The End of the End Isn’t That Good

To make matters worse, the final episode is not nearly as good as the series was simply because it is animated. There is something very funny about watching gallons of fake blood fly everywhere in live action. Animated it’s just stupid. When The Student Body (episode of the same name) rips apart and blood flies everywhere, I could hardly stop laughing. I didn’t laugh a single equivalent sight gag in the animated film.

So I ended up paying substantially more ($39.99) for an 80 minute animated film that was mostly funded by donations than I did for 9 hours of the television show (series one and series two — less than $20 for both — as I write this, $17.68 plus tax) which was much better.

Is Todd and the Book of Pure Evil Psychotronic?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that they got to make the final film and to pull it all together. And listening to the commentary it is clear that they had thought out the entire series completely before they started it. So it all works well. But this just leaves me with a very bad taste in my mouth. And it makes me seriously consider redefining the meaning of psychotronics.

But what do I expect when psychotronic film goes mainstream? I will stick to the older psychotronic films. They never break my heart.


I see how Amazon stays in business: good customer service. Because they are a vile and manipulative, and I would even say criminal organization. I have been waiting six years for the constantly promised final end to “Todd and the Book of Pure Evil.” And finally, late last year it came out: Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End. So I went to Amazon. It had it in blu-ray, which I didn’t want (because I didn’t have a player at that time), with three discs and all kinds of extras. But there was a little link, “DVD.” It was cheaper and came on only one DVD. But I just wanted to watch it. I didn’t need the extras. So I clicked and bought it with one click.

But I made a mistake. The DVD button didn’t take me to a one-disc DVD version of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End. (And note, nothing said anything like “You might also like!”) It took me to the page for the first season of the show, which I’ve owned for years.

My Mistake

Okay, my bad. I should have been more careful. But this page is clearly designed to make people do exactly what I did. So I was going to send it back. But I couldn’t just send the item back, I had to use one of their services, all of which cost $4.99 to ship. Fun Fact: it is cheaper to mail a DVD first class than media mail. Obvious conclusion of fun fact: Amazon screws its customers at every opportunity.

So okay: I blew $10. No big deal. But I wanted Amazon to know that I was unhappy. Unfortunately, there was no way to do it except if you ship it back. I wasn’t going to do that. I was just going to give it to the library. But eventually, I found their phone number and called on the off chance that I could talk to an actual person. Remember: all I want to do is say, “I think this page, and many more like it, are deceptive and I think you should stop doing it.” That’s it. I didn’t want money. I knew that Amazon would continue to screw over their customers. But I wanted to have my say.

Customer Service

I called and got to a live person almost immediately. The representative talked in a way that made me think he wasn’t listening to me. But he did. He followed me better than anyone ever has before. Apparently if you go to the trouble (the first time anyway) of calling them, they’ll do more. The representative told me keep the DVD and they would refund my money. I had them refund it to my Amazon account because I thought there was a streaming version that I could purchase. There isn’t. There’s only the $39.99, three disc set of which I only want one.

So through great customer service, they saved a customer. But I still think they are evil. I know they will continue this practice and that 99% of the people will not take the time to find their phone number and call. When most of them see the shipping rates, they will drop the whole thing. They are still an incredibly evil country that will destroy capitalism and democracy in this country.

But I got to see the movie. See my page on Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. There isn’t much there yet, but it will slowly get finished.

Kobe Bryant Wins Oscar for Best Animated Short With Dear Basketball?!

Dear Basketball
I hate the Academy Awards. No film lover — much less a psychotronic film lover — should have any patience for this narcissistic display. So I didn’t watched a second of last night’s event. But I did read that Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for “his” film Dear Basketball. It is mostly stirring controversy because (I don’t know if you’ve heard) sexism is no longer allowed in Hollywood.

And there’s this little problem that Kobe Bryant, to a fair degree of certainty, raped a young woman in 2003. Ultimately, like most rich men, Bryant bought his way out of his legal problems. I don’t like to mix artists with their personal lives, although I must admit that after I got to the point of believing the allegations against Woody Allen, I haven’t been able to watch any of his films. Some like Manhattan are particularly troublesome at the same time that it’s hard to deprive myself of some of Gordon Willis’ best work.

Since When Is Kobe Bryant a Filmmaker?

But what really bugs me here is that Kobe Bryant isn’t a filmmaker. He’s just a rich guy who hired the best people in the field to make something for him. It’s really the creation of Glen Keane, a man usually referred to as “legendary animator.” The music was created by John Williams, a film composer so well known and respected that I can’t imagine anyone reading this not knowing him. His themes for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are major parts of the soundtrack of America.

All Bryant provided was the money and what people are calling a poem, “Dear Basketball.” I wouldn’t call it a poem. A bunch of lines written on a piece of paper is not a poem. That’s especially true when those lines are riddled with platitudes and cliches. “Dear Basketball” doesn’t have a transcendent phrase in it. What’s more, the “poem” is little more than a grand tribute to its writer’s ability to play basketball. It isn’t about basketball. That might generate something of interest. But as it stands, this would fail in a high school sophomore creative writing class.

The Oscars Are a Popularity Contest

I know why Bryant won. He was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. He was well-known and well-liked in the Los Angeles area for much of the time — minus occasional downs when he raped or did other things. So he’s popular. So he won. The Academy Awards don’t have anything to do with the quality of the films. It’s a popularity test. And this is the most obvious and pathetic example I’ve seen so far.

There’s another thing. I understand that given that all ticket prices are the same, all films should be judged equally at the box office. But when it comes to awards, I think it’s unfair to judge a $100 million film with a $10,000 film. There are men and women’s categories in the Olympic games because men and women have different physical resources. Why isn’t it the same with film? The truth is, the Academy won’t even consider nominating low budget films except under extraordinary circumstances. The Academy Awards is just one long commercial for big-time filmmaking. What does it say to the students who showed so much creativity that they managed to sneak by Hollywood’s natural shallowness? It says lots. But mostly, it says art doesn’t matter and money does.

Dear Basketball Isn’t Even Very Good

But the amazing thing is, the film itself is not that good. Sure, it’s professionally produced. How could it not be?! It was made by a bunch of professionals. But it uses an animation style that was considered cool before Kobe Bryant began playing for the Lakers over two decades ago. The music is saccharine, designed to make the viewer cry despite the fact that there is nothing on the screen to warrant it. I don’t know. Am I supposed to feel bad that a man got to live his ultimate dreams and get paid hundreds of millions of dollars for it now has to retire from one aspect of the game?[1]

Forget the Academy Awards and Hollywood

The one good thing about Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short is that no one can seriously argue that the Academy Awards have any artistic merit. If a film wins an award, it means it was either commercially successful or made by popular people, and the the product didn’t completely suck. But that’s perfect, really. Because that’s Hollywood: an industry designed to make money by making things that aren’t too offensive to the keen viewer. (They mostly fail at that, but they do try.)

[1] Note that if he really loved playing basketball so much, he could go and play in another league. It just wouldn’t be one that paid him tens of millions of dollars per year. And his career is hardly over. He can do different things in the NBA for the rest of his life. But judging from what I’ve seen, he will choose to do the things that will get him the most attention and money.

How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition

YojimboI don’t believe in rating systems. There’s a reason that we don’t use “stars” or whatever on this site. Eventually, I’ll write an article about it. But I do find such systems useful under certain circumstances. For example, Netflix uses the system and it does work well to estimate how much I’ll like a film.

Note that in this case, the rating is for what I like; it isn’t some kind of statement about the film is. When Leonard Maltin gives a film a certain number of stars, he isn’t making a claim about his preferences; he’s making a claim about the film. (This is one of many reasons why film “critics” suck.)

Obviously, if you are going to try to quantify the quality of a film, the larger number of “stars,” the better. I am glad that Netflix uses a five-star rating system rather than a four-star system. It is probably because of the very many films that I think deserve 4 stars; somehow, 3 out of 4 stars doesn’t seem quite high enough, when 4 out of 5 does. This is despite the fact that the numbers are almost identical: 75 percent versus 80 percent.

I almost never give a film a rating of 2 stars, and I can’t remember ever rating a film as 1 star. To do so would reflect badly on me, I think. The filmmaker spent at least a year working on the film and I spent perhaps two hours. If I think it is really bad, isn’t it more likely that I just don’t get it? Even a film as sophomoric as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is still worth at least 3 stars. And perhaps more, because the film really doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Would I have rewritten it? Sure. Could it have been so much better for me? Absolutely. Would doing so have reduced its potential audience by 90 percent? Probably.

Yojimbo and Its Remakes

One of the greatest films ever made is Yojimbo. It tells the story of a ronin who saves a town by setting its two controlling gangs against each other. This may sound familiar because it’s been made at least twice since then in the form of A Fist Full of Dollars and Last Man Standing. And I can think of no three films that better illustrate the difference between 3, 4, and 5 star ratings. Just so you know what I’m talking about, I rate them thusly:

*** Last Man Standing
**** A Fistful of Dollars
***** Yojimbo

All of these films are good. I’ve watched them all many times. But why is Yojimbo better than A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing? There are a few reasons. First, on its storytelling merits, it is better. It is funnier and more exciting. But that in itself wouldn’t cause me to put it into the 5-star category. Yojimbo is also at base a serious film with real characters.

This is not true of the other two film, which are at base comic books. Joe[1] and Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars are superheroes. All the characters are stereotypes. The same thing goes for Last Man Standing. The argument can be made that Sanjuro[2] is a superhero. I don’t think it is very strong, but it doesn’t matter. The people who occupy the town are very real, and the film is mostly about them.

The final thing that makes Yojimbo great is that it is beautifully shot. A Fistful of Dollars really falls down here. In particular, I am thinking of the day-for-night graveyard sequence. Last Man Standing, on the other hand is easily as beautiful as Yojimbo. This is one of the best things about it.

A Fistful of Dollars vs Last Man Standing

So why is A Fistful of Dollars better than Last Man Standing? One reason: Bruce Willis. I don’t generally mind Willis as an actor. In particular, he was excellent in the great film 12 Monkeys. But here, his performance is bad enough to almost destroy this film. Otherwise, I would likely rate Last Man Standing the better of the two.

Beyond the Numbers

I still don’t know what it is that distinguishes a good (4 star) from a great (5 star) film. I’m much more likely to give a film five stars when its intent is serious (and that has nothing to do with it being a drama; I think comedies more often have serious intents). But His Girl Friday is nothing more than a romp, and it is clearly a five-star film.

That’s why I think writing about film is a useful thing to do. It’s helpful to discuss a film — things to watch for; things that didn’t work; how one film relates to another; and so on. But to slap a number on a film is to reduce the film to a single thing. And even the very worst film is so much more than that. That’s why on our film pages, we have multiple articles. It’s easy for the same person to write ten different articles on the same film. Rare is the film that gets an entire book written about it, but I don’t think a film exists that an entire book could not be written about.

The Hidden Complexity

Still, everyone has opinions about films. They like some films better than others. What’s more, their tastes change from day to day. And Netflix does provide a good service in being able to take into account what people who have tastes similar to yours. So there is nothing wrong with rating films. And if you do, it’s probably a good idea to know why you rate different films differently. Behind ever number is an enormously complicated calculation that none of us is fully aware of.

[1] Note: he has a name. He is not “The Man With No Name.” The fact that people know him by this moniker is indicative of the mythic nature of the character.

[2] I believe that Sanjuro means “30-year-old” based upon the translations in Yojimbo and the almost equally wonderful Sanjuro. I highly recommend The Criterion Collection double DVD Yojimbo & Sanjuro. It’s great to have them together. Sanjuro is the name of the character. So the first film can be thought of as, “Sanjuro Goes to the Country.” And the second film would be, “Sanjuro Goes to Town.”

Do You Have a VCR?! Of Course I Do!

Do You Have a VCR?! Of Course I Have a VCR!

I was at the library the other day picking up a VHS copy of 1955 British comedy The Ladykillers. I had seen the 2004 Coen Brothers film, which I thought was just fine. It was savaged by the critics, however. And I noticed something about it: most of the complaints were more about it not being as “Whatever!” (each critic had their own thing) that the original had. So I thought it would be interesting to write something about the two films. But when I picked it up, the librarian asked, “Do you have a VCR?!”

I’m sure this is a common occurrence. The library catalog is not that clear. It’s happened to me too: coming into the library thinking I’m going to pick up a DVD and finding that it’s a VHS. But it’s never been that big a deal because I do have a VCR. And for very good reason: a lot of great movies have never been released on DVD. In some cases, it’s shocking. As I write this, The Amazing Colossal Man is not available on DVD in the United States. (There is a Portuguese double feature DVD O Incrível Homem Colossal and A Volta do Homem Colossal. But I assume it is a DVD-R, as it comes only from one seller and is $42.99.) If you want it, you can get it on VHS for $56.99 new (or $19.99 and up, used).

If You Love Film, You Need a VCR

Even when little known films are released on DVD, they are often no better than they were on VHS. They rarely have any extras, and often aren’t letterboxed.

This is hardly the only film in this category. I’ve been waiting for decades for Medicine River to be released on DVD. It’s a very funny film starring Graham Greene and Tom Jackson. It’s the kind of film that you love and then feel that you absolutely must share it with your parents. There are few films that fall into that category! And that makes its absence on DVD all the more remarkable. It is available on VHS right now for $69.99 new and $47.96 used.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a number of films finally make it to DVD. One Trick Pony took until 2009 to find its way to DVD. And there are many more, but I don’t know them off the top of my head. But the truth is that some films will never make it to DVD. And it seems strange, because it is very cheap to release a film on DVD-R. It’s just a question whoever has the rights doing it.

Not Even VHS

There are, of course, lots of films that your VCR will never help you with because the films were never seen as worthy of release on VHS. Now, just because something isn’t on VHS doesn’t mean it won’t be on DVD. As I noted, it’s cheaper to put something out on DVD than VHS. Indeed, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was never released on VHS. This may have something to do with its mastermind, George Barry. (For more on the film, see our page Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.)

To give you an example of how crazy this all this, consider the great sculptor Fredric Hobbs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he made four feature films. His first two, Troika (1969) and Roseland (1970), have never been released in any form that I know of. So your VCR won’t help you there.

His next film, Alabama’s Ghost (1972), has been released on VHS. Although strangely, there is currently only one copy for sale at Amazon, and the description states, “**DVDR DISC WITH NO ART** super rare movie. I bought this at a convention quality is a 7ish out of 10 looks like a vhs tape.” I assume that someone somewhere made an illegal DVD-R copy. So even though this film is on VHS, it seems incredibly rare in that form.

His last film, Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973), is available on DVD. It looks like it was once available on VHS, but I can’t find it for sale anywhere.


The takeaway from all of this is that you really have to hang on to your VCR. A lot of films will never be released on DVD. And even when little known films are released on DVD, they are often no better than they were on VHS. In many cases, they simply transferred from VHS. They rarely have any extras, and often aren’t letterboxed. So hang on to your VCR. You won’t need it a lot. And as time goes on, you should need it less. But you will need it.

The Good and Bad of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Crow T RobotI’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its Joel Hodgson days. But there has always been a love-hate aspect to it. On the one hand, it introduced people to a lot of great psychotronic films. In fact, Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr Clayton Forrester) has even admitted that Michael Weldon’s classic The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was the group’s bible. Just the same, I don’t think they quite understood what people were supposed to take away from the book: the films were weird, not bad — or at least not necessarily bad.

Not a Lot of Jokes

But in that same inverview, Beaulieu goes on to say that Josh Weinstein really wants to do a riff of Life Is Beautiful. Beaulieu then says, “I’d never seen it before so I decided to watch it, and you know what? He was right! I was stunned! It’s terrible, and there’s so much to make fun of.” Is that what the riffing was all about? Making fun the bad in the movies? I don’t think so. In fact, the show was kind of pretentious in making “jokes” that were nothing more than obscure references.

(A good example of this is in the Werewolf episode. A one point this old man shows up with a really long beard and one of them says, “Leland Sklar, survivalist.” The entire joke was that the guy looked vague like Sklar, who is a bass player, known especially for playing with James Taylor. But as a session player, he’s played with an amazing list of people. But it’s only music freaks who know who he is. When I heard the line, I felt impressed with myself that I got it. But I hardly laughed.)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Riffs on Bad Films?

Anyway, as we’ve seen with RiffTrax, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment can be applied to any movie at all. But I don’t even know what Beaulieu means when he says “bad” anyway. Here’s an extended quote:

I do like bad movies. I have a fondness for them, and right now I’m finding that I love Netflix because they’ve got so many bad movies for streaming. Netflix right now is sort of like that bad VHS store every neighborhood used to have. You’ve watched all the good stuff so you find yourself going through the back catalog of a lot of people’s so-called careers. In fact I just watched Solar Crises. It’s an early ’90s forgotten sci-fi movie. And it’s kind of epic. It stars Charlton Heston, Tim Matheson, Jack Palance… and it’s stunningly bad. The special effects are awesome, but the movie… it’s got a great pedigree. But my poodle has a great pedigree and it still craps everywhere…

The Show Itself Wasn’t Well Made

But I do think that there was a lot of confusion about the films by the crew. If any group should appreciate movies done quickly on a shoestring, it should be the people making Mystery Science Theater 3000. For one thing, they are stealing most of what they do. Their own set design was not all that good. And the fact that they had an excuse for it doesn’t matter. They weren’t capable of doing any better. (Note how much better their film looks — with lots of professional studio help — even though it’s some of their weakest work.)

What’s more, their hosted segments were generally terrible. They made no effort at character consistency. And despite that, they were only rarely able to create comedy of a high level. What’s more, Michael Nelson’s extreme right-wing politics found their way into the show, like when Crow’s newspaper column gives Antonin Scalia a grade of B+. Could they have picked a more polarizing figure? It passes by because most people watching the show don’t pay attention to politics. But really!

It all works because it’s charming. But in purely technical terms — if you take into account resources — there was almost no film they featured that wasn’t better than they were. And their first season (KTMA) are far more enjoyable than the later episodes on The Sci-Fi Channel.

Kurt Vonnegut

And then there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. I ordered the book with great anticipation. The book is terrible. There’s almost no inside information. There are season introductions which have nothing interesting to say. And even though the book was produced just after Joel left the show, he isn’t in the book. He should have at least been brought in to write a substantial introduction. It’s possible that couldn’t be done. I suspect that the break-up of the show was far more acrimonious than anyone wants to admit in public.

The one good thing about the book is that Kevin Murphy tells the story of meeting Kurt Vonnegut. On their first encounter, it takes a while for Vonnegut to place the show. Finally he gets it:

Why, yeah, he’d seen the silhouette while channel-surfing. Yeah, we were the guys with the old bad sci-fi films and such. Then he said that we should try to appreciate the fact that many of those writers were struggling and turned out scripts for those movies virtually overnight.

When I read that, I thought, “He gets it!” I already had a high opinion of Vonnegut, but that was really nice to hear.

The Second Conversation

Later, Murphy tries to get Vonnegut to go out to dinner with the group. Here is Murphy’s memory of the conversation they had:

“I’m Kevin Murphy. I met you yesterday.”
“Oh, sure, with the shadows. You were up for an Ace Award…”
“Yeah. My partners and I were wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight…”
“It’s really difficult to get good fiction on television, isn’t it?”
“Boy, yeah. Now, if you’re not busy tonight…”
“…Those old movies, some were mighty laughable…”
“Exactly. If you and your wife…”
“…I’m here with the Showtime people, you know…”
“…We could eat right here…”
“…They have this thing I’m supposed to do…”
“…We’d be flattered if you could…”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.”
“Well, thank you all the same, it’s been a pleasure meeting…”
“Mm-hmm. Say, did you win an award last night?”
“Um, no, we lost.”
“We won.”

It turned out that Vonnegut didn’t have anything to do. He just didn’t want to have dinner with them. But in the second encounter, you can tell that he’s still processing. He clearly thinks that what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing is wrong.

But notice where he ends: he points out that he won and they lost. I don’t think Murphy got the significance of that. Vonnegut wasn’t saying that he was better and they were worse. He was making a broader statement about taste and what is considered good and what is considered bad.

My Experience

Over the years, what I found was that I liked any given episode more or less based on how good the film was. I often found myself getting annoyed that these guys were talking while I was trying to watch a film. I remember that specifically with Devil Doll, which is a damned good movie. Another was the excellent Phase IV, although in those early local television days, they all talked a good deal less. But I’ve always found it necessary to assume the best from the crew in order to enjoy the show.

Regardless, I have to give Mystery Science Theater 3000 credit for introducing a lot of people to a lot of great old psychotronic films. Whether or not their intent was to mock the films, they did them a great favor. And I think a lot of people who enjoy laughing at these films are just covering. They actually like them. It just isn’t hip to like them as enjoyable works of art. So they laugh. And that’s fine.