Movie News & Reviews

Movies so bad they’re great: ‘Mystery Science Theater’ alums bring road show to KC

Frank Conniff Jr. (left) and Trace Beaulieu continue their “Mystery Science Theater 3000” shtick in a live show skewering bad movies.
Frank Conniff Jr. (left) and Trace Beaulieu continue their “Mystery Science Theater 3000” shtick in a live show skewering bad movies.

Frank Conniff Jr. remembers going to see the reviled family adventure “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” when it first hit theaters in 1964.

“It’s not that at the time I thought it was a bad movie; I just don’t remember anything about it. It made no impression on me whatsoever. Around that same period, I was seeing ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’ Those movies, I never forgot,” Conniff says.

About that time, Trace Beaulieu often visited the drive-in theater with his family.

“We’d see a lot of those Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies,” he recalls. “But they were always followed by bad, poorly dubbed gladiator movies for some reason …”

“… which Rock Hudson quite enjoyed,” Conniff quips.

Thus began a lifetime of sitting through crappy movies — just like the kind that gained Beaulieu and Conniff fame on the cult TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Although Conniff suffers from a cold today during this joint interview, there’s still no mistaking his or Beaulieu’s distinctive voices. Beaulieu played the role of mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and articulated the puppet Crow T. Robot on the movie-roasting comedy series. Conniff portrayed the abrasive subordinate named TV’s Frank on the Peabody Award-winning program, which showcased both of their writing talent in its original run (1988-99).

As anyone raised on the pop culture of the 1980s and ’90s can attest, their voices and general patter are as familiarly nostalgic as Al Bundy, George Costanza or Pee-wee Herman. A mix of underplayed snarkiness and self-deprecating humor.

Those attributes continue to serve them well. The performers stop by Kansas City’s Alamo Drafthouse next weekend to present two shows billed “The Mads Are Back: Live With Trace and Frank.” Each night features a different atrocious movie that the pair will eviscerate with comical precision.

“We do write a full script for each movie,” says Beaulieu, who isn’t revealing what titles will be screened in KC. “It does take quite a bit of time to write this much stuff. It doesn’t just fall off the typewriter. Hopefully, it’s funny. That’s the benefit of a live show: We know immediately if we’ve been successful.”

Plus, the onstage dynamic affords idyllic opportunities for improvisation.

“When we’re doing the show live, we’ll be inspired and come up with different lines,” Conniff says. “Sometimes the spontaneity of the moment will cause us to go off-script. Sometimes it’s the reaction of the audience. … We end up making the bad movie more entertaining than most of the movies that come out today.”

Beaulieu adds, “My life’s goal is to get an unsolicited laugh out of Frank with a joke he didn’t know is coming.”

Cinematic abominations such as “Space Mutiny,” “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “The Horror of Party Beach” and “The Sinister Urge” serve as fodder for classic “MST3K” episodes. (The series produced 197 episodes and a feature film.) These pictures represent the pinnacle of stiff acting, clunky dialogue, irrational plotting, shaky camerawork, cheesy effects and inadequate financing.

Is there any era or genre that generates the most rotten flicks?

“Every era has its bad films,” Conniff says. “But we prefer the ’50s and ’60s. We prefer black and white. We like the kind of low-budget vibe of those. There’s an innocence to the films. They’re very sincere. They’re not winking at the audience — that’s our job.”

Beaulieu admits those are also the preferred ones from a practical standpoint. Such clunkers usually reside in the public domain.

“Our margins are so small now that we could never afford to do a Michael Bay movie, even though he is still making bad movies,” he says.

At ages 58 and 60, respectively, Beaulieu and Conniff find that not every pop culture reference lands with millennial audiences.

“That doesn’t keep us from doing it,” Beaulieu says. “But we meet young kids all the time, and you’d be surprised how they pick up on this stuff. Like we grew up before Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, and we got those references.”

Conniff echoes, “A lot of the fans of the show are younger people who weren’t even born when the show was on, and they’ve watched it since. They just tend to be the kind of people who were like us. We were very interested in older show business, older movies. So there is a common sensibility that goes across generations.”

Beaulieu claims he frequently must defend his relationship to these movies, since folks often assume the lampooning is done out of spite.

“We have a great affection for these films. People think, ‘Oh, you hate these movies. You’re making fun of them.’ No, we cherish these films. We couldn’t travel on the road and watch them as often as we do and be in contempt of them,” he says.

Ryan Davis, the creative manager at KC’s Alamo, agrees with this appraisal: “Even though the guys are riffing on these films, at the end of the day it’s a celebration of movies, and that’s what the Alamo is all about.”

“MST3K” was created and originally hosted by Joel Hodgson in 1988 as a local program for KTMA in Minneapolis. In its second year, it was picked up by The Comedy Channel (eventually rebranded as Comedy Central) and soon became the network’s signature production.

Minneapolis native Beaulieu — versed as a puppeteer, writer and actor — came onboard during Episode 1. In addition to voicing Crow, the golden robot with a head shaped like a catcher’s mitt fused with a bowling pin, he also portrayed mad scientist Dr. Forrester of the Gizmonic Institute. His whirlwind-haired evil genius was responsible for launching janitor Joel into space and forcing him to watch B-movies as a means of weaponizing them for world domination. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, New Yorker Conniff had dabbled in standup comedy. But a stint in rehab for substance abuse deposited him in Minneapolis, where he became friendly with the show’s eventual creators. He joined the writing staff during the second year and earned the duty of curating the movies that ended up being featured.

Onscreen, he played TV’s Frank, the much put-upon lab assistant of Dr. Forrester. Decked in a black chauffeur’s uniform and wearing slicked back white hair and a spit curl, he drew comparisons to Marlon Brando from the prologue of 1978’s “Superman.”

“I certainly don’t claim any ownership to the (‘MST3K’) concept,” says Conniff, son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frank Conniff Sr.

“To me, it was just a job that I felt pretty lucky to get. Legally, we don’t have any claim. But in recent years, Shout! Factory — which now does have ownership of it — has started paying us royalties, which we never got before. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s much appreciated.”

After the end of the iconic series, the men spent years working in network television. (Notably “America’s Funniest Videos” for Beaulieu and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “The Drew Carey Show” for Conniff.)

But in 2007, the pair partnered with members of the original “MST3K” cast and toured for six years as Cinematic Titanic, a live movie-riffing show. Now the Mads are taking a similar concept out on their own.

Along with cultivating regular viewers, they even boast having converted some actual scientists into admirers.

“There are a couple ‘Mystery Science’ fans from way back, and they work at Fermilab with the particle accelerator. You can’t get much madder than that,” says Beaulieu, whose father was born in Kansas City.

They also cite Phil Plait, the popular science blogger known as the Bad Astronomer.

“He has a huge following. He’s a big fan with a very similar sensibility. I think if we called him a mad scientist, he’d take that as a real compliment,” Conniff says.

So far, the process of watching and rewatching terrible movies has not jeopardized the Mads’ own sanity. Yet there have been a few pictures that tested their collective patience.

“There are films we’ve seen much worse than the films we’ve done,” Conniff recalls.

“When I used to screen the films at ‘Mystery Science Theater,’ there were a lot that you couldn’t hear or see what was going on. I still haven’t found the bottom of the barrel of how bad a movie could be. I’m always surprised by how bad some are.”

As for the worst to ever appear on “MST3K,” both men cite the 1969 action thriller “The Castle of Fu Manchu.” An honorable mention goes to the 1964 sci-fi/horror flick “The Creeping Terror.”

“It’s a repressed memory for me. I need to go into therapy and hypnosis to remember any of ‘Fu Manchu,’ ” Conniff says.

“It’s tedious, it’s boring, it has an impossible-to-follow plot. When we were writing that one, that film really stood out as something we couldn’t wait to stop working on. We hated it so much.”

Beaulieu says, “At least ‘The Creeping Terror’ had some great elements we could comment on, like all the teenagers that were under this rug costume. But I think the George C. Scott character in ‘Hardcore’ enjoyed watching his film more than we enjoyed watching ‘The Castle of Fu Manchu.’ 

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

At the Alamo

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” writer/actors Frank Coniff and Trace Beaulieu star in “The Mads Are Back: Live With Trace and Frank” at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 7 and 8) at the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, 1400 Main St. Tickets are $20. See Drafthouse.com.

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