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CRINGE AND BINGE

TV syndication created our ironic love affair with bad movies

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Often branded a “cult” interest, bad movies are now a permanent part of the mainstream.
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For 14 years and counting, the Maverick Theater in Fullerton, California has staged a production of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the 1964 sci-fi movie that has a reputation for being… not great. Called “physically painful” by contemporary critics, the bizarre Christmas tale has repeatedly been hailed as one of the worst movies ever made. Joel Robinson and his wisecracking robots mocked it in a 1991 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it also appeared in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, the 1978 book that’s considered a bad movie Bible.

Fullerton audiences, however, love Santa in space. According to a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times, the show routinely sells out in just two days, a metric that astounds even the director and co-writer Brian Newell. “I don’t know how this became a success,” he said. “I had to beg actors to do it. They thought it was a suicide show.”

The unexpected success of the stage show mirrors the legacy of the original film, and so many other “bad” movies like it. Embraced by fans who watch them for the unintentional laughs, these films are often rescued from obscurity or from critical scorn to become beloved communal viewing experiences. Often branded a “cult” interest, bad movies entered the mainstream long ago—people listen to podcasts about them, build traditions around them, and attend sold-out midnight movie screenings to watch them over and over again.

Eager to spin these cast-offs into something bigger, local channels turned them into “television events.”
This phenomenon would not have been possible without the influence of an unexpected source: local television. Many all-time best of the worst premiered in the 1950s and 1960s, when television sets were just becoming a fixture in American living rooms. Before that, you only had one shot to see a movie in theaters before it disappeared forever—maybe a second, if a theater near you decided to book it again, sometimes years after the fact. Unless you were a regular moviegoer, there was little opportunity to stumble upon an oddity by accident.

All that changed when early TV channels started looking for ways to pad their programming. As The Dissolve noted, “a breadth of cheap science-fiction and horror pictures produced in the 1950s… found new life courtesy of TV syndication packages.” Since these movies had no-name actors, low production values, and less than sterling reputations, it was relatively easy to acquire the rights to broadcast them on television. Eager to spin these cast-offs into something bigger, local channels turned them into “television events.” Hosts in lab coats or ghoulish make-up would present the films on a Saturday night, on programs with eerie titles like “Chiller Theatre” (airing on New York’s WPIX) and “House of Shock” (on New Orleans’ WWL-TV).

Vampira, played by actress Maila Nurmi, is considered the first of these macabre emcees, but she was quickly joined by Zacherley, Morgus the Magnificent, and Dr. Creep, too. Anyone at home and bored on a weekend night could catch these movie shows, and despite the varied quality of the films, they made an impression on countless kids. Harry Medved, a co-author of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, was one of those kids. Joel Hodgson, the creator and first host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, was another.

In the Green Bay area, where Hodgson grew up, the local horror show was Eerie Street, hosted by a caped character named Alexander on WBAY-TV. Hodgson directly linked these local TV curiosities to his eventual series, in which his character Joel Robinson and a group of robot sidekicks watched bombs like Manos: The Hands of Fate with the audience, riffing over them the entire time.

“When I started Mystery Science Theater, I kind of went back to that and said how could I do a show locally that’s inexpensive and would be novel. I kind of started with that, like what do I remember from Green Bay? What do I remember growing up? And it was kind of those shows,” he told The Green Bay Press Gazette. “So if you look at Mystery Science Theater, it’s a lot like one of those midnight movie shows, where there’s a host and they run a movie. The difference is our characters stay in and watch the movie with you.”

MST3K originally aired on a local Minneapolis station with “the worst movie library imaginable,” before expanding to Comedy Central. The show would have a profound effect on the bad movie discourse, introducing a new generation to old, forgotten films and showing them exactly how to (lovingly) mock them. As the literature scholar John King writes: “Despite its at times erudite (and adult-oriented) tone, [MST3K] gained a large following among children, many of whom wrote letters to the show, often accompanied by crayon renderings of the cast.”

MST3K was revived in 2017, and now reaches millions of viewers through Netflix. People who love bad movies have more sources than ever for their obsession. In a way, it’s all thanks to Vampira, Alexander, and the creative weirdos at so many local TV stations in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, who took the terrible movies they had the rights to broadcast and turned them into an ironic national pastime.

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily.

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