It's hard to believe that two decades ago, if you had deliberately rented a movie with the sole intention of laughing at it, people would have thought you were nuts. Enter Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show about a guy forced to watch bad movies while living in space with snarky robots. Though the show went off the air in '99, it helped pave the way for an era of major bad-movie riffage. After a brief break, the cast of MST3K is back with Cinematic Titanic, a live show (also sold on DVD) where the crew continue to make fun of films that time forgot. Joel Hodgson took a moment to chat with City Pages about his latest project.
CP: Mystery Science Theater 3000 had such an elaborate setup and storyline; was there a reason you kept things more sparse with Cinematic Titanic?
JH: With Mystery Science Theater, we took a whole year to figure things out. We did 22 shows locally at KTMA when we started, and back then we didn't really know what we were doing. But by the time we were done we had figured out movie riffing. This year, we're kind of doing the same thing: We're redeveloping it and figuring it out as we go. The big thing was getting back into it like we used to. It turns out that we can [laughs]. We're still working on filling out things conceptually, though.
CP: Of course, several decades ago riffing on bad films wasn't as common. Do you think people just "get it" now more than in the past?
JH: Yeah, I think that's right. We had to be a lot more formal back then. The idea of silhouettes on a screen—we didn't know if people would go for it. Nowadays, you don't have to be as formal. With Cinematic Titanic we also have a live element, which is something we didn't pursue with MST3K. Instead we had puppets and costumes and stuff—not to say there won't be puppets down the road. But this time we're really interested in the idea of doing a movie–riffing concert, and I wanted to design it in a way that works live.
CP: Is it possible for a movie to be so bad that it's actually good?
JH: Oh, absolutely. Every movie has moments. I kind of started this whole thing because I love those kinds of movies; they have their own magic because they show you how movies are made. They have holes that make you go, "Oh, it's not a perfect illusion." But the people who made those movies were really clever filmmakers, it's not like they're failures. I think that's part of the fun of it: We collaborate with the movie to make a different kind of entertainment with it. We don't want people to stop making bad movies. And I don't think that's ever going to happen. It is, thankfully, a byproduct of the industry.
CP: Has your job of riffing on movies made you hyper–critical? Can you still enjoy a good film or is it hard to take movies seriously?
JH: Not really. I mean, everyone wants to go to a movie and get taken away. I think when a movie is good, and it doesn’t give you reasons to question it, you want that to happen. I don’t feel like Mystery Science or Cinematic Titanic are really snarky or that sarcastic. I feel more like the movies are a springboard for a variety show. As far as being negative about the movies, I bet that is less than 10% of the stuff we do. It’s kind of like, if you’re too negative, it wrecks it for people. If we were really sarcastic people wouldn’t like us.
CP: Why do you avoid sarcasm? Do you worry about being overly negative?
JH: If we were like, "We don’t like this and you don’t deserve to make a movie!" I don’t think people would like it. The original premise was to watch a movie with a companion, so if you’re friends are super sarcastic, it’s too much. You don’t want to spend too much time with them…or maybe you do. I don’t want to dictate your lifestyle. [laughs]
CP: Any films that you would love to do, but just can't because of copywrite or other circumstances?
JH: There was a movie from a couple years ago, Van Helsing. It was supposed to be incredible epic monster movie where they took all these great universal monsters and put them in one movie and it was really stupid. It was a wildly expensive movie. I thought that one would be fun to do.
CP: Any movies out there that are so bad you just couldn’t make fun of them?
JH: You know, it happens with almost every movie we do. When you pick a movie and sign off on it, you don’t spend as much time with it as you do when riffing on it. You can’t always see trouble spots, and then you get in the middle and go, "Oh my god, this fight scene is so long and we aren’t saying anything." Right now, we are starting with this kung fu movie that’s kind of urban, not quite Blaxploitation, but it’s urban. There’s kung fu ghetto fighting in it, it’s set in the '70s. There’s a lot of fighting in the movie. We have to be really creative because it gets monotonous.
CP: How do you go about choosing the films that you use?
JH: We have a guy that helps us find movies we can license. Cinematic Titanic is artist operated and owned. So, we can’t afford great movies, and fortunately that’s ok with what we do. We look at screenings and negotiate with people and make a deal to do it live and as a DVD/download. Then we watch the movie and think, how is it different? Is it in our lexicon? We’re always looking for what we haven’t already done—kung fu for example—and that’s what we look for.
CP: Well, it seems like you would find limitless possibilities with the kung fu genre.
JH: Yeah, they still have a lot of popularity. It really comes down to what’s available; what we can afford. And then there’s the things we learned doing MST3K. Too much narration doesn’t work. Also, irony, if they know they are in a bad movie, it’s a joke on a joke and it won’t work.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about Blood of the Vampires? It sounds awesome.
JH: It’s amazing! It’s a dubbed, Mexican vampire movie set in a 1800s. On top of that it was filmed in the Philippines. It’s really a heady brew of a movie.
Cinematic Titanic screens Blood of the Vampires 7 p.m. this Saturday night at the State Theatre (805 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.339.7007). Tickets are $32.50-$37.50.