Two cult TV comedies made furtive attempts at the big screen in 1996, and the results were as unappreciated then as they are now.
Over the course of one fateful week in 1996, two films emerged that saw the creators of cult favorite cable TV comedy shows attempting to make the leap to the big screen. Unfortunately for fans of The Kids in the Hall and Mystery Science Theater 3000, they only had about a week to actually try to catch those films—Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)—before they both vanished from theaters.
Both films were the projects launched into production with a certain degree of enthusiasm, but which soon developed into wars of attrition between creative groups used to doing things their own way and studio executives determined to dampen the elements that made them unique. While the final results are undeniably compromised, they both manage to maintain enough of the wit and creativity that inspired them to make them worth looking at today.
When news that The Kids in the Hall were going to be making a movie, their fans probably surmised that it would involve some of the memorable characters that they created during the run of their TV show. It was an assumption bolstered by the fact that Lorne Michaels, who at that point was spinning off numerous SNL characters into their own big-screen vehicles, was serving as producer.
While some characters would turn up briefly (one to especially notorious effect), the group came up with a new narrative that centered around Dr. Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald), a scientist employed at the all-powerful Roritor Pharmaceuticals who, with his colleagues (Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson), are working on a pill designed to eliminate depression. The mechanism, of course, causes users to lock on their most cherished past memory and stick with it until it feels “like it’s 72 degrees inside your head, all the time.”
When the boss, Don Roritor (McKinney), demands immediate results, Cooper panics and tells him that it is ready for the market even though it has barely begun the testing phase. The pill, dubbed GLeeMONEX, is an immediate sensation, and we see its results through the eyes of such users as a clinically depressed old woman (Thompson), a gloom rocker (McCulloch) and a seemingly ordinary husband and father (Thompson) whose homosexuality is not nearly as closeted as he thinks.
MST3K: The Movie, on the other hand, stuck to the basic concept of the show, in which mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) shoots amiable dope Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) into space, forcing him to watch the worst movies alongside his robot friends Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu) and Gypsy.
Their cinematic target this time around is This Island Earth (1955), an elaborate-for-the-time sci-fi opus in which a group of scientists participate in a think tank run by seemingly normal (provided you don’t look too closely) people who prove to be aliens looking for allies in a devastating war back on their home planet. (Sample quip: “This isn’t shot day-for-night. It’s more like 4:30-for-5:15.”)
Both films had rough production periods, but the difficulties behind Brain Candy started right at the beginning. When the project started, the group’s television show was going off the air, several of the members had undergone personal tragedies and member Dave Foley had essentially left the group by this point to work on Newsradio. He was contractually obliged to appear in it, though his contributions were less than those of the others; he’s the only one who does not get a writing credit, plays the fewest number of roles and did not portray Dr. Cooper, the central role he was originally planned for.
Needless to say, you can feel these behind-the-scenes tensions in the film itself—it’s oddly reminiscent of The Eagles’s 1980 album The Long Run, in the way that the group’s disintegration hangs over everything. And while they ultimately dovetail nicely with a film that’s ultimately about dealing with depression, even the most dedicated fans of their hardly cuddly brand of humor found it a bit much.
What sealed the film’s fate was the appearance of Cancer Boy (McCulloch), a character who appeared in the final episode of the series in a sketch about trying to be as offensive and tasteless as possible. Granted, Cancer Boy’s screen time is fairly brief—he turns up at a party, acts as uplifting as possible and, after wincing in pain from a mere handshake, waves off concern by cheerfully explaining “My marrow is low.” But Paramount Pictures hated the character and demanded he be removed. The group stuck to its guns; while Cancer Boy ultimately made the cut, the studio’s enthusiasm for the project greatly waned as a result.
In the case of MST3K: The Movie, the troubles didn’t start until after production had mostly been completed. Studio notes suggested that execs didn’t quite grasp the concept of the whole thing; they demanded they get rid of some of the more esoteric jokes (the kind of humor the show was famous for) and replace them with ones with broader appeal.
Then the studio began mandating cuts to make the film shorter, ranging from single jokes to an entire host segment in which the gang rides out a meteor shower. As a result, the final running time for the film clocked in at 73 minutes—nearly 20 minutes shorter than an episode of the show. The end product included only about 55 minutes of This Island Earth, which had originally run a full half-hour longer.
In the end, both films ended up facing catastrophic results upon release. Reportedly still smarting over the Cancer Boy brushoff, Brain Candy was tossed out into theaters with a minimum of hype to anemic box-office results and generally poor reviews—although Roger Ebert hated it, Gene Siskel loved it, leading to an especially spirited discussion of the film on Siskel & Ebert At The Movies.
The reviews for MST3K were better, though fans of the show were disappointed that the quick wit demonstrated on television had been dulled somewhat. What’s more, fans of This Island Earth were upset that they were mocking a film that was above the usual junky fare that they mocked. Unfortunately, Gramercy Pictures only released it in 26 theaters—this was done to help the film slowly build an audience, but since the lack of advertising meant that few knew that it was even out, this approach didn’t pay off.
In both cases, the films would come to be regarded as low points in the histories of their respective creators. And yet, for all of the pain and agita that went into their creations, they both actually hold up pretty well today. Brain Candy, for example, is an undeniably flawed and scattershot work: It always feels as if it was maybe one more rewrite away from transforming into a genuinely cohesive narrative. and the decision to give McDonald the lead is a double error that robs the film of a strong central character in Foley and the array of oddballs McDonald could have been free to play.
Yet despite its unevenness, Brain Candy is a very funny movie whose principal comedic concerns are as viable today as they were a quarter-century ago. There are any number of wonderfully funny moments to be had: The opening sequence plays like a spoof/homage of the opening of Wings of Desire, a depressed woman’s flashback to a cherished Christmas memory with her awful son (Foley) and his horrible family (“Sorry we’re a few hours late, Ma, but you know how the kids. . . uh. . . hate old people.”), and yes, even Cancer Boy.
Of the players, McKinney scores best as Don Roritor, whom he presents as a spot-on impersonation of Lorne Michaels that is far funnier than the one Mike Myers would deliver a year later in Austin Powers. Besides, any film that includes the line “The nipples of mother fortune have run dry. . . “ deserves to be canonized for that bit alone.
MST3K, on the other hand, is perfectly fine but not much more than that. For hardcore fans of the show, the broader approach and slower-paced deployment of quips makes for an odd experience—like watching a farm team of riffers training to one day make it in the big show.
While it’s understandable why This Island Earth was picked—it was a Universal Studios property and has dopey heroes and goofy aliens to spare—it lacks the absolute ludicrousness of films like Mitchell or Manos: The Hands of Fate that made those episodes of the show so memorable. (Of course, cutting a full 30 minutes out of the runtime would make anything seem slipshod.) It’s about as good as your average episode of the show, and not much more.
If you were charged with introducing someone to The Kids in the Hall or MST3K for the first time, I would not recommend using these films as entry points. The former lacks the show’s cheerful silliness, and the latter doesn’t measure up to the show’s best, wittiest episodes. At the same time, both films contain a number of big laughs that have managed to stand the test of time despite all of the studio interference.
In the end, both are funny enough to warrant a look—or a relook if you haven’t seen them in a while. But neither one will have you mourning the lack of a sequel.