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DVD Reviews: Rifftrax Shorts, Volumes 3 & 4

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Once again, the folks at Legend Films and Rifftrax have put together another collection of misguided educational shorts, toasted to perfection by Mssrs. Michael J. Nelson, Esq., Kevin Murphy, M.D., and Bill Corbett, Pimp Daddy. Should one be unfamiliar with the entire Rifftrax Phenomenon, all one need do is take a look at their tagline: “We don’t make movies — we make fun of them.” Nelson, along with his fellow Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni, have the unenviable task (well, I find it enviable, actually) of sitting through some of the weirdest and worst motion picture antiquities (and sometimes the brightest and the best — just to keep things fresh). Then, they record their own comical commentary tracks to accompany them. It is, without a doubt, the greatest no-brainer project ever devised.

In the first half of 2009, Rifftrax and Legend Films released a slew of DVDs featuring a shorts and feature length films alike. Well, I’m guessing it must have caught on — since now we’re here with two more (shorts only) releases: Shorts-Tacular Shorts-Stravaganza! and Wide World Of Shorts, many of which had me on the verge of tears (in laughter, mind you) and have achieved that rare place in my memory wherein I need only think of a particular moment and start giggling like the mad fool that I probably am.

Shorts-Tacular Shorts-Stravaganza!
The longest of the two collections (a whopping 2 hours worth) is the goofily-titled Shorts-Tacular Shorts-Stravaganza!, which presents ten vintage instructive featurettes with subject matter ranging from boosting your self-confidence to making damn sure you don’t get VD from a skanky street whore (the professional ones are much cleaner).

Primary Safety: In The School Building (1955) chronicles the future security guard in the making skills of youngster Bill, who has been assigned by his teacher as the official class safety instructor (complete with two huge “Stop” and “Go” signs) — a mistake Bill’s teacher will be shaking her head over come 3pm.

Know For Sure (1941) is probably the only short I’ve seen from the Rifftrax vault thus far with an actual star in its cast. Irish character actor J. Carrol Naish plays an Italian grocer (complete with outrageous accent — hey, if you think that’s bad, check out the way he played a Japanese villain in 1943’s The Batman!) who is devastated to learn his newborn son was born stillborn (yes, I could have fit the word “born” in there a few more times if I really tried). Good ol’ syphilis is the subject of this educational short, produced by Hollywood for the Armed Services to prevent the disease from spreading. The original cut of the short included graphic photos of disease-ridden schlongs, but thankfully, this is the post-edited version.

The Self Image Film [If Mirrors Could Speak] (1976) – This one is scary. Made in the hip, mod, and racially-diverse world of the ‘70s, this short is hosted and narrated by a young black lad who relates the stories of several classmates with personality problems. One kid (who is Asian) is shy, while the other two are obnoxious as all hell. To further illustrate how being shy or obnoxious is bad, these kids are presented in clown makeup. A magic talking mirror (well, a plain ol’ wall mirror) gives the children a chance to reflect upon themselves (heh, get it?). As always with these racially-diverse ‘70s flicks, there are no Hispanic or Middle Eastern kids.

How Much Affection? (1957) tries to tell us that it’s possible to have a more successful relationship without making the sex. A young middle-aged teenager is worried about what almost happened in the car with her boyfriend, so her kind and understanding mother comforts her with an upsetting close-up. Obviously, the producers of this short were impotent, Lutheran, and the only ones to ever swallow Bush’s “Abstinence Only” spiel.

Overcoming Fear (1950) – It’s not easy, but we all have to do it. The “fear” in question here is one lad’s horror over being in the water. He wants to be a champion swimmer. Alas, he cannot swim. Thankfully, the school’s swimming instructor will help him overcome that fear — by relaying the story of his sister’s terror of dogs!

Your Chance To Live: Technological Failures (1970s) – Voiceover artist extraordinaire Peter Thomas is your creepy host into a look at how technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least, I think that’s the message of this meandering short — it never really makes its point known to us. Instead, it offers a lot of archive footage of “early American pioneers” (ahem), interlaced with footage of Thomas — who is referred to by the Rifftrax crew as Stan Moff Tarkin and the rotting corpse of Peter Weller.

Kitty Cleans Up (1949) is a no-budget personal hygiene effort wherein a little girl gets ready for the big pet show at school. The obsessive-compulsive weirdo make doubly sure that she’s good and clean for the day, and makes triply sure that her irritated cat, Kitty, is even cleaner. Being one that has a cat (a grumpy one at that), I can tell you by the various looks on Kitty’s face that she was not a happy camper.

Cooking Terms And What They Mean (1949) is one of the many fine shorts that the Centron Corporation turned out. This one in particular shows us just how dumb women were in the late ‘40s — or rather, how dumb the men at Centron thought women were in the late ‘40s (you make the call). A newlywed housewife gets her first cooking experience — with disastrous results. And so, the short offers us a crash course in cooking terms, such as “cream,” “braise,” “dredge,” “cook,” and my favorite, “boil.” Yes, this poor hapless dolt of a woman doesn’t even know what “boil” means. One borders on surprise over the very fact that women could even read, what with the near-misogynistic way the short presents the average American housewife here.

Playing Together (1947) – During the course of this deep dark void of a featurette, Mike implies that somebody simply took someone else’s home movies and placed a piano score from a silent movie over it. It certainly seems logical. Throughout the course of the ineptly shot short, two brothers “play” together — by eating, watching other people, and eating some more. No wonder we’re a nation of fat-asses.

Damaged Goods (1961) is actually an eviscerated version of an exploitation flick called V.D., and the editing is oh-so-apparent throughout. The story here has four youngsters (who are middle-aged, naturally) going out for a night on the town, only to watch a post-menopause stripper and suck overpriced rum drinks with promiscuous women with beehive hairdos. One of the boys gets a venereal disease from his encounter. Lesson learned: avoid the rum drinks — stick to beer.

Wide World Of Shorts
In my opinion, this is the better of the two new DVDs. This set contains ten more educational ditties, ranging from booze and drugs to social conformism and eating right.

Snap Out Of It! (1951) – High schooler Howard doesn’t get the “A” he was hoping for on his report card. He’s so despondent about it, that he willingly starts talking to his principal, Mr. Edmunds — who gives the older-looking teen a series of unexciting pep talks about accepting disappointment in life. In the end, we become thoroughly convinced that poor Howard won’t stand a chance in the real world — and that he’ll probably wind up being a film critic (hey, it worked for me).

Alcohol Trigger Films For Junior High School: The Party, The Mother, The Ride (1979) – As to what they were going for here is really beyond me. Or anyone else, for that matter. Three unrelated scenarios are played out in this short, made to show them high schoolers just how bad the drinking is. Unfortunately, neither chapter succeeds in getting much of a point across: kids are shown partying, and a mother is shown driving while intoxicated — but ultimately, nothing profound and life-altering is shown to come from any of these events. Chalk one for booze, who clearly wins this round by default.

Carnivorous Plants (1955) – Presented by the Moody Institute of Science, this one takes a “fair and balanced” look at the spectacular world of Venus Fly Traps and other insect-eating foliage. A total dweeb of a youth group organizer-looking feller shows us all sorts of modern marvels (e.g. rockets, bear traps, a bizarro mechanical mousetrap) and then reminds us that God is much better.

Aqua-Frolics (1950s?) is one of those gimmicky newsreel thingamabobs, showcasing all of the marvelous things people do underwater (ahem). Some of the “fun” depicted includes a Thanksgiving dinner and a man lighting a pipe — underwater. Heh, ha, ho — yes, of course I’m having fun.

Why Vandalism? (1955) – Well, why the hell not? Three bored youths, each from a different background and each with a different personal problem, band together in the vain attempt to find something constructive to do in the mid-‘50s that doesn’t involve community groups or the church. They don’t succeed, and so they trash a schoolroom instead, killing a poor innocent bunny rabbit in the process.

Self-Conscious Guy (1951) takes us back to those awkward days of our youths in which we always felt like there was a great big spotlight on us whenever we were required to be in front of others. Interestingly enough, the poor dolt in this short does have a giant spotlight focus on him at those times. But with the help of his peers, he’s bound to work around it — unless his peers are psychotic sadists, of course, in which case they’ll just make him worse (I know from experience).

As We Like It (1950s) – A short about beer. Specifically, why beer is so great, and why we should all drink it constantly. And that’s how Mike, Kevin, and Bill like it — as we quickly learn in this one.

Psychology For Living Series: Toward Emotional Maturity (1954) – Say what? Despite the serious-sounding title, Psychology For Living Series: Toward Emotional Maturity winds up being another one of those “don’t have the pre-marital sex” featurettes that was so popular in the ‘50s. Teenager Sally thinks back on how she’s matured over the years — particularly when her boyfriend wants to park and make out. Shame!

The Terrible Truth (1951) is a hilarious look at the “dangers” of marijuana and all of those other fun substances we love to abuse so much. Phyllis was your typical outstanding American youth…until she started smoking the weed. As we all know, pot is the gateway for cocaine (wa-wa-wait — what?) and Phyllis was one of many youths that fell into the deep dark pit of despair that only drugs can cause. A “judge” narrates the film both offscreen and on — but the fact that the whole thing was shot without sound and the judge’s lines were (poorly) dubbed-in later make it all the more entertaining than it already is. Recommended.

Good Eating Habits (1951) – Quite possibly the funniest short out of both DVDs combined. Young Bill (no, not Corbett) can’t figure out why he doesn’t feel well. But his mum knows: the little freckled bastard doesn’t take the appointed sixteen hours per day to properly chew his food. Nor does he eat the right kind of foods: he likes the junky stuff. Bill soon finds out — via a tummy-ache — the benefits of Good Eating Habits.

No bonus materials are to be found with these releases, but, as in the case of the previous Rifftrax DVDs, the Main Menus feature some silly full-length songs, the best of which is found on Shorts-Tacular Shorts-Stravaganza!: a send-up of the absurdities we’ve endured in the Twilight series (thank you, gents, for that lovely song). Perhaps, in the future, Rifftrax and Legend Films will give us the added option of watching these shorts sans Mike and the gang — but I wouldn’t be too terribly disappointed if such a thing did not come to pass.

At this point in time, these two DVD volumes are only available via the Rifftrax website.  As one might expect, the video quality of these shorts varies, and all of them are taken from various sources, whether they be culled from VHS or downloaded from the Internet (hey, these are Public Domain, damn it — they can do it if they want to!). But, of course, the whole purpose here is not how good it looks, but rather, how good will it look when Mike, Kevin and Bill are done with them. And the verdict is: damn good.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.