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Movie Review: Best of RiffTrax Live: Manos – The Hands of Fate and Plan 9 From Outer Space

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For those of you unfamiliar with RiffTrax or with the long-running cult series Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K), here’s the shtick. Take a bad movie, not an ordinary bad movie, but a horrifically, truly terrible B-movie. Now imagine that movie with the soundtrack replaced by a running commentary, not a director’s commentary, like on a DVD, but a smart, smartass, and very funny commentary. You might call it heckling; RiffTrax calls it “riffing.” Now you have the idea (sort of). 

The RiffTrax treatment is a fun way to watch any bad movie, but it is most enjoyably experienced in group. So, MST3K alumni Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett created the RiffTrax Live cinema series through Fathom Events, simulcast live on theater screens across the country, creating a truly shared movie experience. The crowd in the theater was what I’d probably call a Comic-Con crowd: mostly guys and a few women, all fairly geeky looking. (This is not an insult; I am enough of a geek-ette that just going to the theater made me begin to count the days ’till July and Comic-Con 2013!)

Best of RiffTrax Live reprises some of those captured live RiffTrax events and brings them back to the big screen to be enjoyed by those who might have missed them first time ’round. 

First, a warning before attempting to attend: eating or drinking can be hazardous to your health (and the person sitting in front of you). Sipping that soft drink at an inopportune moment can result in the same fluid emerging from your nose, or worse careening down your windpipe as you try desperately to suppress laughter while trying to swallow and breathe. 

Last August the trio recorded a live event in Nashville, riffing on the 1966 horror of a horror movie Manos: The Hands of Fate. Listed #4 on IMDb’s 100 worst movies ever made, Manos is truly a terrible movie in every possible way. It is a perfect candidate for the RiffTrax Treatment, and was reprised January 24 as part of the comedy group’s Best of RiffTrax Live series. Fathom followed that up a week later with Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, also recorded at an earlier time. 

The RiffTrax experience actually begins before the the movie theater lights go down, so my suggestion is to get there about 20 minutes before the start time, especially if you miss those old “Movie Mistakes,” and other assorted cinema trivia that used to roll before commercials took over the pre-coming attractions slot. These, too, get the RiffTrax treatment. The trivia slides are accompanied by the RiffTones riffing musically (Dr. Demento would be proud!) about “Reefer Boy,” “Plans 1-9,” “The Party on Haunted Hill,” etc. (You get the idea). Once the lights go down and the film rolls, there bit of pre-show entertainment before the “main event,” including guest appearances, and musical surprises, movie shorts (with RiffTrax accompaniment) . 

It’s hard to tell which is the worse movie, Manos or Plan 9. They’re both pretty awful; that’s sort of the point, but the RiffTrax commentary makes lemonade out those nasty, moldy, bitter lemons. Manos is a mid-1960s horror movie created on what seems to have been a $5.00 budget. It is about a family who gets lost in the Texas wilderness while on a driving vacation. They come across a seemingly deserted cottage with a very dodgy-looking caretaker. The cottage is owned by cult-leader Manos who is all about human sacrifice, and so you know the family is in a bit of trouble. To say the least.

But the RiffTrax folks are on it and make a classic out of the cult classic with a running commentary, substitute dialogue and hysterical observations about the acting, the writing and random sub-plots that come out of nowhere and go nowhere (like a young couple making out on a ridge in their convertible throughout the movie, and Manos’ bevy of dead and scantily, but strangely attired ladies who come to life it seems only to cat-fight with each other).

Plan 9 from Outer Space is Bela Lugosi’s final movie; he died while making it, and his role as a bereaved husband who dies and then reappears in full Count Dracula uniform is then assumed during the movie by two other actors (trying desperately to hide the fact that they’re not actually Bela Lugosi). This of course leads to the RiffTrax crew remarking snarkily “one Bela Lugosi…two Bela Lugosis… ala Sesame Street‘s counting Count.

It was at that point that I nearly choked on my Diet Coke. Named the worst movie of all time by Michael Medved, Plan 9 is a 1959 flying saucer movie about a group of aliens (who strangely both look like humans and speak perfect American English!). The sets are cheap; the acting is terrible; the dialogue is cheesy, even by 1950s sci-fi standards. And the movie features a dialogue-free performance by Vampira, and an actor named Dudley Manlove playing an alien named Eros. Need I say more? RiffTrax has made this infamously bad movie a true classic!

You can find Plan 9 on the RiffTrax site for purchase along with many other RiffTrax movie treatments, but there is something to be said for enjoying the show with others in the dark anonymity of a movie theater. It’s an enjoyable outing, and if you like groan-inducing humor, snarky (and occasionally politically incorrect) commentary on truly horrible filmmaking, it’s even more fun on the big screen. I hope that Fathom continues to bring us more RiffTrax Live to the local cinema along with its slate of opera, musical theater, and (in May) a live performance of NPR’s great radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.