When Kevin Murphy came to UW-Madison as a grad student in the early ‘80s, the Department of Communication Arts let him design his own masters’ program.
“I wanted to concentrate on directing for film, TV and the stage,” Murphy said in an interview from his home in Minneapolis. “And in a very weird, tangential way, those have all come into play.”
Murphy is most famous for TV, having been a writer and performer on the cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” providing the voice of the gumball-headed robot puppet known as Tom Servo. But movies were also a key part of the show, as the “Mystery Science” hosts made fun of cheesy movies like “Manos, The Hands of Fate,” “Pod People” and “The Giant Spider Invasion.”
After “MST3K” went off the air, Murphy and two other former hosts, Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett, went on to create RiffTrax, a website where they continue to make fun of bad movies online and on DVD. And it’s at Rifftrax that the “stage” part of Murphy’s UW-Madison education came into play – for 10 years, the RiffTrax guys have also been broadcasting live onstage performances of their bad movie riffs to movie theaters nationwide.
The third and final RiffTrax riff of 2019 brings Murphy back full circle to both “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and Wisconsin in a way. “The Giant Spider Invasion” is a notoriously silly 1975 monster movie in which scientists accidentally unleash a mammoth arachnid on an unsuspecting town.
Alan Hale, Jr. of “Gilligan’s Island” plays the local sheriff, Barbara Hale of “Perry Mason” plays a scientist, and a Volkswagen Beetle covered in artificial fur plays the spider. The movie was filmed in the summer of 1974 in Merrill, Wisconsin by Bill Rebane, the independent Wisconsin filmmaker known as the Badger State’s own “Ed Wood.”
The RiffTrax version of “Giant Spider Invasion,” broadcast live from Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre, will screen in Madison at 7 p.m. Thursday at Marcus Point, 7825 Big Sky Drive and New Vision Fitchburg 18, 6091 McKee Road. An encore presentation takes place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
In addition to originally riffing “Giant Spider Invasion” on “MST3K,” Murphy has also brought the film back to Madison twice, once in 2004 at the Wisconsin Film Festival and in 2006 with Nelson at a “Bill Rebane Film Festival” at the Orpheum Theater. Both times, he said, it played like gangbusters.
“It was a great crowd,” Murphy said of the Orpheum show. “It’s the kind of movie that, when people get together to watch it, it has that “The Room”-like tendency to get the whole crowd growing nuts.”
This new RiffTrax version will be very different than the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” version from the 1990s, Murphy said, with all-new jokes.
“The fun thing is that now we have new writers (Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason) who are much younger than Mike and Bill and I,” he said. “And they’re not at all from the Midwest, so it adds a fresh perspective to it.”
As a special bonus for the RiffTrax screening, Murphy was working on a new song to play over the closing credits. He described “Spider on the Highway” as a Neil Young-inspired song about “a poor, forlorn, unloved giant spider who has no recourse but to kill all the people of Wisconsin.” (Jonah Ray, the comedian who now hosts the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on Netflix and released an EP of punk covers of “Weird Al” Yankovic songs, contributed drums to the song.)
“Giant Spider Invasion” will be the 30th movie that RiffTrax will have broadcast live in theaters over the last decade. Murphy said he loves performing before a live audience and feeds off the energy in the room.
“There’s something very high-wire about the fact that we’re performing live,” he said. “It gets our adrenaline going, and I think the crowd feels that. Every single movie, the audience catches and laughs at something that we, having seen the movie at least a dozen times, totally miss.”
Murphy feels a lot of affection for the movies he makes fun of. “You sort of cringe for the shortcomings of the director and the actors and the screenwriters and their hopelessly limited resources,” he said. “We nudge and we tease. There will be the occasional film where we’ll just get really f---- angry and lash out with our bile at a movie. But that gets uninteresting for people.”
“Giant Spider Invasion” reminds Murphy of another Madison memory from the years after he graduated. In 1985, while working at WHA-TV, Murphy met Jim Mallon, and the two filmed their own low-budget horror movie, “Muskie Madness,” near Hayward.
Now retitled “Blood Hook,” the movie has achieved its own cult status, especially since Mallon and Murphy went on to create “MST3K” with Joel Hodgson.
“That was the most fun summer I ever had,” Murphy said of filming “Muskie Madness.” “We could definitely riff that movie. I think we haven’t built up the nerve to do it. It feels like the same spirit as ‘The Giant Spider Invasion.’ Cheesy but very steeped in the Midwestern tradition.”