There's compelling evidence to suggest that the defining trend of the past decade in arthouses has been the revival of the midnight movie circuit, overthrowing the heady, manifesto-driven Dogme 95 and twee New Sincerity in favor of finding joy in absolute badness. Films (and I use the term loosely) like The Room and Birdemic are drawing fanatical audiences eager to confront these cinematic crimes face to face, armed with quips and plastic utensils.
Though these famously wretched movies may be where they are now because of their merits — or, more accurately, their failures — it's no coincidence that their rise to fame comes after the conclusion of Mystery Science Theater 3000's 11-year run on television. During that decade-plus in orbit, MST3K – through its human and robot avatars Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo – lampooned nearly 200 of the worst movies ever committed to film, setting the template for films to come.
"On no level can I ever, ever defend Birdemic or The Room, but you kinda can't help what makes you happy," Michael J. Nelson says, speaking to the Scene from his office at RiffTrax Industries in San Diego. Nelson spent six years as part of MST3K's captive audience on the Satellite of Love, guiding the series through classic catastrophes like Hobgoblins and This Island Earth until its cancellation in 1999. He'll be returning to The Belcourt next week with MST3K compadres Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett for another onstage RiffTrax performance, broadcast live digitally to 400 theaters across the country.
When you think about it, it's amazing that a series like Mystery Science Theater managed to find an audience outside its humble roots as a low-budget comedy show on the lowest-rated UHF station in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. But MST3K's "aw shucks" Midwestern wit offered a sarcastic pop cultural prism, not just for young comedy fans but for parents who grew up watching films similar to the ones being maligned on screen.
Even 12 years after its cancellation, the show is more widely available now than it ever was in the 1990s. As of this writing, a total of 58 episodes show up on Netflix's instant watch alone, not to mention the more than 20 DVD collections. But there's no greater symbol of the show's lasting popularity than RiffTrax, an audio commentary series created by Nelson in 2006 as a way of continuing MST3K's legacy with contemporary movies that would prove impossible to license. And Nelson still can't escape from watching terrible movies — they just happen to have better special effects these days.
"A lot of times you really have to stop yourself in films that are terrible from making the experience bitter. Like, 'Isn't this terrible?' Because you actually are angry at the film for hurting you so badly," Nelson says about slogging through movies like Transformers. "If there's any choice between letting that come through and just making it fun, it's always supposed to be making the experience more joyful. Sometimes it's easier to get that across when you actually are quite enjoying this movie."
True to that feeling, RiffTrax has targeted lauded movies like Casablanca, Inception and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in addition to subjecting themselves to the likes of Dragon Wars: D-War. But, there's value in a group of professional undercutters when it comes to making it through improbably popular blockbuster schlock like Twilight. In the end, Nelson knows that he has one singular responsibility.
"Our job is always first to be funny," Nelson says. "And if this particular joke doesn't make a broad swatch of people laugh, that's OK — because a joke's coming up that there's no way you can miss."
RiffTrax appears live at The Belcourt with the 1962 fantasy Jack the Giant Killer 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17. Tickets are sold out, but the event will also be broadcast via satellite nationwide and locally at Regal Green Hills 16.