Will told me I should check out the 1974 film, Phase IV. It’s about some cosmic alignment that had no effect whatsoever — except on ants, which have become a super intelligent hive mind. But only one British scientist has noticed. He works with a game theorist who is trying to learn how to communicate with the little buggers. Meanwhile, the ants kill ponies and grandparents everywhere they go. It’s a very strange film — with lots of long sequences showing ants doing their ant things. But it is also really professionally made. I think Will said that he and his wife wanted to turn it off, but they couldn’t. It does have that effect. It’s really compelling — much like The Andromeda Strain, but less plot driven.
I quickly learned that Phase IV had been used during the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 — before it was on Comedy Central, and was at the local station KTMA. I had never seen any of these really early episodes. The creators of the show have never released them, claiming that the episodes were embarrassingly bad. Given that the first Comedy Central season was weak, I figured the KTMA episodes must indeed be really bad. But judging from the Phase IV episode, that isn’t true at all.
It is possible that the MST3K gang are really just talking about the production values. It is true that the sets are minimal. It doesn’t look that great. But even when the show looked better, it was designed to look bad — like a low budget science fiction film. And this actually comes off even better in these early episodes. Regardless, nothing is ever really different. From the first season through the eleventh, it was still just silhouettes of one guy and two robot puppets.
One substantive difference is that the riffing during the movie doesn’t come as fast as it does in later seasons. But I think this is largely a good thing. Often, the riffing came so fast it wasn’t possible to follow it all. And more important, the riffing often distracted from following the film — thus making the riffing itself less effective. In this episode, there is no question but that the guys are responding to the film — they don’t seem to have any more information about the film than the viewers do. This is very nice. It feels comfortable and natural: the way that people normally make comments about a film.
Of course, MST3K always worked best when it had a good film. And that helps here. Even though I admire what the show did with Manos: The Hands of Fate, I don’t re-watch that episode because it is hard to watch the source material. But with Phase IV, the source material is quite good — it is worth watching on its own. I’m going to have to check out more of these early episodes. There are various references made to the Gamera films — which I love, but for different reasons. It turns out that before doing Phase IV, the show did five Gamera films in a row. That sounds like fun.