Mystery Science Theater 3000 probably found its greatest success not in delivering its own comedy to viewers but rather in turning what were often distinctly unbearably bad movies into something worth watching. Let’s face it, even something as putrid and vomit-inducing as Conan the Barbarian (or for that matter any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) would become instantly enjoyable in the hands of Mike and the bots. (Or Joel, whom I must profess to enjoy slightly less than Michael J. Nelson.)
On occasion, however, a film slipped into the lineup that can actually be enjoyed without hearing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 wisecracks and quips and observations attached. Not as much, of course, but on another level. For instance, I was a Teenage Werewolf is kind of like an early version of a first season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Remember how Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out with its high school angst of the week? The girl nobody ever notices literally becomes invisible or the boyfriend who turns into an animal when things get hot literally turns into an animal. Same thing with I was a Teenage Werewolf, except you don’t get a butt-kicking cheerleader wannabe. In fact, the very concept of a tough, smart (in her own way) high school girl is anathema here. Practically every female character in this movie is dumb and male-dominated. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I was a Teenage Werewolf was made in the 50s when girls were supposed to be dumb and actually were male-dominated. And when the character played by Michael Landon transforms into a being hairier than Robin Williams or Ed Asner, in a sense it is a response to that very dominance. Believe it or not, but Landon’s character is actually one of the more sympathetic and thoughtful characters in the movie; though, admittedly, it’s hard to see why his girlfriend is so incredibly loyal to him. I was a Teenage Werewolf is maybe not the greatest title in the world for a movie that at some level was attempting to make a serious statement, but make a serious statement it does. It isn’t the bite of another werewolf that starts Landon on his journey, it is the interior bite of teenage rebellion.
Another movie about a young man facing the turbulent conformity of his time and engaging in a sense of rebellion can be found in I Accuse My Parents. Laugh if you will, but this movie has been remade and restructured with females of various ages in the lead so many times for the Lifetime Network that it’s not funny. Mystery Science Theater 3000 turned this one into a legend, but it also works as a simple morality tale; a message as relevant today as it was then: parents should pay more attention to their kids than to their alcohol and libido. The rather bland, faceless lead character embarks upon a road to near-ruin as a result of a lecherous dad and an alcoholic mom. Before it’s over, he’s fallen in with petty gangsters and nearly pulls a gun on the owner of a diner. Oh yeah, he also falls in love with a pretty cute lounge singer. The movie ends in a courtroom with the parents the ones who are (not literally) put on trial. Reminds me of an Afterschool Special.
Enjoying Girls Town on its own is really not so different from enjoying it Mystery Science Theater 3000 style. There are just so many cheap thrills to be hand from this flick that it almost defies belief. In the first place, of course, is Mamie Van Doren’s gravity-defying body. Then there’s the jarring experience of seeing Elinor Donahue (the woman Andy Taylor should have married instead of that prude Helen Crump) as a blonde. But this movie is really worth watching for one reason only: Mel Torme as the tough guy! I’m serious, folks. The only thing funnier than watching Mel Torme try to be tough in Girls Town is watching Denise Richards try to be a nuclear scientist in that James Bond movie.
The Leech Woman contains a fascinating premise in which the key to eternal youth for women rests in the continual annihilation of the male. Great, great stuff. The movie doesn’t quite do the premise justice, but it is still entertaining in its own right. Once the secret has been passed along to our leading lady and she returns home from Africa the plot twists off into standard thriller material, but up to then it really tries for something a little beyond the pale of its genre.
Same thing with Terror from the Year 5000, in which scientists concoct a machine that can communicate with the future. Another great premise that doesn’t quite hold up, but allows for some more than decent filmmaking considering the budget constraints. The idea is that the future is a horrific place and would it be possible to change the future by taking different actions in the past. Ah, if only we’d had that machine a few years ago. Oh wait, we did, it’s called a history book.
Probably my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie to watch for the sake of the movie itself is The Space Children. The premise here is that aliens have sent a messenger to earth to use the innocence of children to convince the adults that they are embarking upon a path of global destruction by building bigger and more dangerous weapons. It’s strictly low-budget all the way-the most recognizable faces are Uncle Fester and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island-but has a relevance that has outlasted many more famous films of the period. The messenger itself looks like a cousin to the Blob. I love the way the alien helps the kids by interfering in the paths of various adults. Ultimately, innocence wins out over stupidity. And that’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.