Mystery Science Theater 3000 may be long gone, but fortunately the creative minds behind it have hardly been idle, releasing similarly themed material under the brands of The Film Crew, Cinematic Titanic, and RiffTrax.
RiffTrax probably has branched out from the MST3K tradition the furthest, with creator Michael J. Nelson releasing downloadable MP3 commentary tracks that audiences can sync up with popular films widely available on DVD. Soon after beginning this undertaking, Nelson was joined by Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, making the riffing lineup identical to the one in the final years of MST3K.
Now, RiffTrax has expanded even further, releasing a series of public domain titles with commentary tracks on the DVD, ensuring that users don't have to make two separate purchases. The films can also be watched sans commentary, and unlike most of the Mystery Science output, some of these titles just might retain enough of a cult status to be enjoyed on their own merits. But why not take Mike, Tom Servo, and Crow along for the ride? (Okay, it's not exactly Servo and Crow, but with only the voiceovers added to the films, it might as well be.)
In the first wave of RiffTrax DVDs are two stalwarts of cult cinema — both of which have since been adapted into musicals — and the hilarious stiff-armed propaganda of one and the awe-inspiring low budget mastery of the other make them perfect candidates for Mike and the bots (er … guys … whatever).
The first is Tell Your Children (1936), or as it has been since reissued, Reefer Madness. This film takes the cautionary tale motif to the extreme, presenting an outrageous – and often plenty funny on its own – story about the dangers of pot, jazz music, and bad friends. But mostly pot. Mike obviously is a fan (or something), because he already contributed a commentary track to the colorized version of the film released several years ago.
This time around, he's got backup, and the guys let the riffs fly in this packed commentary track for a film that's barely over an hour. They consistently come back to the theme that you'd have to be on pot — or "marihuana" as the film refers to it — to even enjoy or believe anything that happens. When a bunch of high school kids who actually look to be in their 30s get sucked into the world of wild, pot-smoking parties, they become crazy and violent, and it's clear that this is isn't going to end well for anyone involved.
The recurring riffs here are hilarious, such as an observation about a character who seems to have to eat something in every scene he's in, but the film itself provides plenty of unintentional humor, like when a deranged pothead runs over a pedestrian with his car. Reefer Madness is like one of those propaganda-fueled shorts that MST3K often featured, just stretched out to an hour, and what a glorious hour it is.
The second is Little Shop of Horrors (1960), notable for containing one of Jack Nicholson's first roles, and for being allegedly shot in only two days by B-movie king Roger Corman. Little Shop is cheese-tastic, but enjoyable enough for its twisted sense of humor. The riffs here aren't as consistently funny, but the guys still find lots to dig into in this fairly mean-spirited commentary.
Lowly florist employee Seymour Krelboin is going to be fired unless he can find a way to get business to pick up, and he does so by bringing in an unusual plant. Unfortunately, it quickly acquires a taste for blood, and Seymour is forced to do its bidding by feeding it with human flesh. Meanwhile, the plant attains an inexplicable following in the town, mostly from teenage girls.
The guys riff long and loud on the dorky Seymour and his anti-suaveness with the girlfriend he somehow gets, Audrey. But they save their harshest (and funniest) lines for Seymour's mother, a bedridden bear of a woman who serves various types of medicine for meals. Little Shop had a fairly strong concept, even if the execution wasn't all that great, but it hardly matters — there's still plenty of fodder for insults to be found.
I do miss seeing the beloved Mystery Science silhouettes in front of the screen, but I'm just glad that making fun of movies — good or bad — isn't going to stop anytime soon.
The first wave of RiffTrax DVDs will include eight other films, including Night of the Living Dead, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Carnival of Souls.