Believe it or not, some of us just don’t relish the idea of having to download a movie and watching it in all of its pixelated, choppy glory. Despite that we live in a world where people can simply log on to a website where pirated torrents of the latest blockbuster lie in wait and thousands upon thousands of public domain titles are available from commercial sites alone, I still cannot bring myself to watch a feature-length movie or even a short on my computer. I prefer to have something tangible that I can pop into my trusty ol’ DVD player and watch on my television with some stereo sound (where applicable).
Now, don’t get me wrong, kids. I love to download things off of that there Internet contraption. Why, there’s a whole web full of ripped music, photos of other people's pets, bootlegged porn, and of course, the inevitable viruses that all of those bootlegged porn downloads bring that keep us on our toes in an effort to try and prevent those nasty Trojans from leaping out of their wooden horse and attacking our CPUs.
Ah, but I digress.
So anyway, I have always been a devout fan of the hilarious antics that Mystery Science Theater 3000 brought forth to the viewers of cable television for ten years, and when former MST3K host Michael J. Nelson developed his brainchild RiffTrax for the web, I found it to be nothing but pure genius. In case you have never experienced the RiffTrax sensation, the RiffTrax website offers viewers MP3 downloads of comical commentary tracks from Mike Nelson (with numerous joint efforts from other MST3K alumni such as Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, among others). The process is simple: the writers create a solo soundtrack for a film (ranging from classics such as Jaws to decidedly anti-classic flicks like Road House) which you in turn download and play on your iPod (or other such device) while you watch the movie on your DVD player (a special RiffTrax player for your computer is also available to solve any synchronization problems which may come up from playing two separate devices at once).
A few public domain feature-length titles have been released to the RiffTrax site that can be downloaded as a whole, movie-plus-commentary. But, as I said before, I’m just not the type of person that likes to watch a movie on a computer screen, so it is with great pride and joy that I feverishly watched all of the RiffTrax titles that are now available on DVD from Legend Films and are coming to stores in June. With a total of 10 different titles now at our beck and call — all of which feature uproarious commentaries with Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett — it’s hard to know which one to go with first, and so, I begin this critique with what is quite possibly the most famous bad movie of all time…
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.
“I’m gonna go do Levy Town.”
When I first discovered Plan 9 in grade school, I was in bad movie ecstasy (long before I even knew what ecstasy was about). I showed it to my whole class one day; they were confused — I think a few of them cried. My eighth grade teacher loved it so much that he made it a mandatory part of his class every year. I have seen the movie so many times that I could probably recite all or most of it by memory. Yet, as with any big cult “midnight” movie, the bliss that something like Plan 9 holds on its own seems to evaporate like the water in a kettle that has sat on the burner for far too long — and, just when you think there is nothing left for one to say about this horrendously inept science fiction class-ick from cult auteur Ed Wood, the RiffTrax crew comes through admirably and discovers new ways for you to excise that unwanted bodily weight from laughing.
The story, which pits a handful of seemingly inept and decidedly macho humans against the most fey and wimpy invading aliens ever, takes Michael Rennie’s stern warning issued in The Day The Earth Stood Still and turns it into something resembling a tantrum between second-graders. Several of Wood’s regular crowd (Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks, Criswell, Lyle Talbot, et al) make for a riveting supporting cast of embarrassments, while the lead actors (Tor Johnson, Vampira, and future Clint Eastwood co-star Gregory Walcott) are forced to interact with some unused stock footage of deceased horror icon Bela Lugosi and his unconvincing stand-in.
With a movie this bad, a comedy commentary is practically a phone-in job for the RiffTrax crew, but Mike, Kevin and Bill have a blast poking fun at the bad acting (which everyone in this film is guilty of, especially John “Bunny” Breckinridge’s performance as the alien leader), unconvincing special effects (“Look at all the controls! How do they keep track of everything?” cries Mike at the sight of a completely instrument-barren airplane cockpit), and Ed Wood’s inept writing and directing (love that bit where oddly named Ivory Soap spokesman Dudley Manlove attempts to explain the “solarminite” bomb, which leaves everybody perplexed). In what is perhaps my favorite riff in the commentary, Mike fills in for a lumbering Tor Johnson’s lack of dialogue with a touching soliloquy: “Hear not thy steps which way they walk, for fear thy very stones prey to my whereabout, and take the present horror from the TIME FOR TO GO TO BED!” and, with that one line alone, I found myself was once again in ecstasy with Plan 9. Rating: A-
Missile To The Moon (1958)
Directed by Richard E. Cunha
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, someone’s got to say it: the moon‘s really a let down!”
Well, since I started with a sci-fi title, I figure this is as good of a second entry as any. An uncredited remake of the equally awful (but in many ways better) Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953), Missile To The Moon features a less-than-stellar cast of TV actors who were probably out of work (including Richard Travis, K.T. Stevens, Tommy Cook, and Gary Clarke) who, for one reason or another, wind up hopping in the phoniest balsa wood rocket ship ever and taking an impromptu trip up to the moon. Unbeknownst to the native Earthlings, their ship’s designer and pilot, Dirk Green (Michael Whalen), is actually a moon-man, and his unwitting passengers (two runaway juvenile delinquents, a boozing middle-aged scientist, and his boozing middle-aged wife) are left to fend for themselves on the lunar surface when Dirk is accidentally killed by a very large battery that was placed on a high shelf with a loose knot.
The moon, which looks a lot like a Southern California desert (“Look at that: lot more crabgrass on the moon than I thought there’d be,” quips Kevin as the jumpsuit/pilot helmet-clad heroes stroll down through Red Rock Canyon), holds perils the likes of which mankind has never seen before like a big fuzzy inanimate spider puppet, giant rubber rock critters that look like Gumby, and a bevy of beauties from the '50s complete with torpedo boobs. The busty ones are actually the moon’s doomed inhabitants, who are presided over a blind old woman known as The Lido (Stevens), and whom Dirk was returning to in order to save them from their rapidly diminishing atmosphere.
Naturally, nothing ever goes right in this sort of a flick, and The Lido’s number one right-hand gal Alpha (Space Patrol’s Nina Bara) has some treacherous plans up her spandex sleeve involving keeping the story’s boring middle-aged hero for herself and killing the others. Yada, yada, yada. Luckily for those of us who have had the misfortune of seeing the movie on its own several dozen times (and I have, really), Missile To The Moon gets a much-deserved verbal pummeling from RiffTrax, who assault everything from our hero’s ripening age and suspicious social drinking to the grand special effects that Ed Wood only dreamed of. Rating: B-
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
“Well who elected you President, Barack?”
After a double-dose of sci-fi, the best genre to turn to is horror. And that’s just what RiffTrax did, too — turning to one of the world’s most famous and iconic B-horror movies ever, Night Of The Living Dead. Now some of you may be just the teensiest bit in arms over them riffing a classic like this (more on that feeling later), but let’s be honest kids: the original Night Of The Living Dead makes for some funny moments as is, so why not?
It’s the beginning of the zombie apocalypse: an unexplained epidemic is bringing the recent dead back to life and they are-a-hankerin’ for human flesh… and the whole world is their buffet. With no alternative but to board themselves up in a Pennsylvania farmhouse, several doomed outcasts (Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, et al) try to make it through the night without being eaten by the zombies or killed by each other.
George A. Romero’s dark social commentary of a world eating itself alive has since gone down in history to horror and non-horror fans alike — but mostly horror fans who probably skip over the social commentary thing entirely.
Speaking of commentary, you won’t want to skip over Mike, Kevin and Bill’s exchange of witty banter as they give NotLD a light riffing with jokes like “They really locked into something here, stumbling into the home of a woodscrap collector … This is what Neil Gaiman feels like in his hotel room at Comic-Con” and “George Romero invoked Corman’s law: leave nothing on the cutting room floor.” My personal favorite line though is probably “The role of Barbara will now be played by Chance the Gardner” as Bill reflects on O’Dea’s performance as a woman in extreme shock. Rating: B-
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
Directed by William Castle
“You know, this is back when millionaires knew how to spend their money. Now they just throw it away on senate campaigns.”
Toning the horror down a notch, we wander into the extremely campy reaches of actor Vincent Price and director William Castle in one of the latter’s many patented “gimmick” films. An eccentric millionaire (Price) invites five total strangers (Richard Long, Elisha Cook Jr., Alan Marshall, Carolyn Craig, and Robert Mitchum’s sister Julie) to survive one night in an allegedly haunted house full of creepy caretakers on roller blades, the severed head of Charlie McCarthy, and a walking skeleton on wires that emerges from a vat of acid (“He’s managed to exactly simulate the experience of jury duty!” quips Kevin). The great Carol Ohmart co-stars as Price’s money-hungry wife who’s up to her pretty little neck in dastardly secrets.
Although it was nothing more than a quickie gimmicky fright flick with a generous serving of red herring, House On Haunted Hill made a killing at the box office, beget the now-tired trend of horror movie clichés and even inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho. House On Haunted Hill is good fun either by itself or with the RiffTrax crew mercilessly haggling the poor actors onscreen, especially Elisha Cook, Jr. (the drunken leprechaun), Julie Mitchum (scotch and scotch and more scotch), and the continuously thwarted advancements of Richard Long (whom the boys have singing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” for some reason). Rating: B+
Carnival Of Souls (1962)
Directed by Herk Harvey
“She’s managed to get in a single car accident in Utah? That’s Kelsey Grammer level talent.”
Out of all the movies in this collection, Carnival Of Souls is one of two titles that makes me raise my eyebrow a bit as it is one of my all-time favorite movies. But, as Mike, Kevin, and Bill prove, even a highly-rated cult classic like this one can still be turned into a laff-riot.
After a disastrous attempt at drag-racing, three women crash into the muddy waters of Lawrence, Kansas. Several hours later one of the ladies, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), emerges — seemingly unharmed. Determined to forget all of the inexplicable how-did-you-survive-being-three-hours-underwater-following-a-car-crash bit, Mary packs her bag and heads off to Utah to play an organ in a church (“Yep, I’m always amazed at how much hard work, and ingenuity, and sheer human labor goes into making such monumentally annoying music!”). Once she enters the “black hole of Utah,” however, Mary begins to see ghostly pasty-faced figures in the shadows of the night (including director Herk Harvey). As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mary also has a total perv of a neighbor (“Just a warnin’: do not eye his lemon drink.”) with a wandering eye. Actually, Mary’s eye tends to wander a bit as well… hmmm… must be a Utah thing.
Like I said before, Carnival Of Souls is a personal favorite of mine: it was made on a shoestring budget, never made any money theatrically due to a shady distributor who ran off with the proceeds, and yet still managed to become one of the creepiest B-movies ever made. Director Herk Harvey (who made over four-hundred educational shorts with the Centron Corporation in Kansas over a 30-year period) and writer John Clifford (Harvey’s regular collaborator at Centron) shot the entire project while they were on vacation and cemented their names in the annals of psychological horror in the process (even if it did take about 30 years to do so). The RiffTrax commentary here is truly engaging and very witty: harping on the constant organ music heard throughout the film, the emotionally blank lead actress, the creepy neighbor and, of course, the many parallels between Mary’s non-existence and the experience of attending Comic-Con. Rating: B-
The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)
Directed by Roger Corman
“Dragnet with an all gay cast.”
This is the other title in the whole collection that I feel doesn’t really need a comedy commentary, but it’s still a hoot to hear the RiffTrax remarks regardless.
In case you’ve lived in another dimension (or, the black hole of Utah as we learned it is called in the previous RiffTrax entry), you’ve probably at least heard of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop Of Horrors or its hit musical counterpart of the same name (minus the “The” of course). In this dark comedy shot in a record-breaking two days, Jonathan (“But I’m a Grimault warrior!”) Haze plays Seymour Krelboin, an inept and naïve kid from skid row who develops a man-eating plant. Mel Welles is at his overacting best as Seymour’s growling employer Gravis Mushnik and Jackie Joseph plays “Chico Marx… with breasts.”
Several highlights of The Little Shop Of Horrors include an early appearance by Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient (“Wow, it’s possible for Jack Nicholson to be creepier than he is normally”) and the great Dick Miller as a flower-eating customer (“I’m character actor Dick Miller. I’ve been in more crap than corn”). Most of the riffing here goes (deservingly) to Haze’s “comic” performance, causing Bill to refer to him as “Shia LaBeouf, Sr.” and following it up with “Balki owes a huge, huge debt of gratitude to this guy.” Rating: B-
Swing Parade (1946)
Directed by Phil Karlson
“Kids, here it is: the stark warnings about the dangers of eating paste.”
The only title in the entire line-up of feature films here that wasn’t remade or isn’t a remake itself. Throughout the '30s and '40s, Hollywood’s Big Five made many “variety films” like these. The stories usually had people putting on song and dance shows and featured cameos galore of famous comedians, actors, musicians, etc. Swing Parade is Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures’ attempt to jump on the bandwagon, featuring some still well known songs and featuring The Three Stooges in a rare non-Columbia appearance (minus several hundred points to Monogram for re-using gags from A Plumbing We Will Go, though).
The film has Phil Regan (“If Matt LeBlanc and Emerile Lagasse had a love child”) trying to open a swingin’ nightclub, all the while fighting with his bigshot father (Russell Hicks) who is attempting to have the place shut down. Gale Storm is the heroine of the story. Musician Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five cause Mike and the gang to worry incessantly about their mules going blind, B-movie legend Edward Brophy plays the Stooges’ boss Moose (and the butt of many a joke), and a god-awful sound effects “comedian” named Windy Cook only add to the fun. Rating: C+
Reefer Madness (1936)
Directed by Louis J. Gasnier
“You know, ironically, the only ones who could sit through this are the stoners.”
Moving from intentional comedy, we find ourselves wiping our mud-stained souls onto the doormat of unintentional comedy, and the most famous propaganda film since Triumph Of The Will, Tell Your Children. Better known as Reefer Madness, this cult classic is yet another movie from this wave of RiffTrax goodies that has since been turned into a musical. A playing-it-so-serious-it-hurts Joseph Forte (later to be one of the doomed professors in Republic’s fab-a-roo serial The Crimson Ghost) introduces this anti-pot film with a very long lecture on the dangers of “marihuana” (“This was ten years before the invention of the letter J,” quips Mike during the movie’s three-minute long prologue) and proceeds to tell us the story of several middle-aged youths whose lives are ruined from just a few puffs of the reefer.
Thrill! To the sight of a very hammy Dave O’Brien as a wide-eyed would-be rapist/drug dealer/murderer! See! A dope-smoking ragtime piano player (“the film that gave jazz musicians the idea to do drugs”)! Witness! Party people that sound like “somebody’s torturing a schnauzer!” But wait, there’s more. Watch! Carleton Young eat meal after meal! Listen! To a shitload of stock swing music and ragtime piano! Laugh! Your ass off as Mike, Kevin, and Bill give Reefer Madness an even-more deserving riffing than Plan 9 From Outer Space! Rating: A-
The Best Of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume One (2008)
“Zapruder films presents…”
One of the things I always loved to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the justified thrashing of the unjustly amounts of misinformation contained in the terrible and often traumatizing educational shorts of yesteryear. The shorts were designed for “social engineering” of sorts, teaching us all how to be the best white American folk possible, but instead they pretty much caused an entire generation to drop out and drop acid instead.
The Best Of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume One features nine different ditties to drool over. First off is "Down And Out!" (1971), the story of one very hapless clumsy fellow who ceaselessly manages to trip, stumble and fall off of just about every item there is in a bizarre dream-like set surrounded by huge tools and empty containers. Next up are "Patriotism" (1972), a short that teaches us to take some good ole American pride in everything from planting trees to taking out the trash — with your host, Bob Crane (?); "Home Management: Buying Food" (1950), a fascinating look at a pre-Safeway/Wal-Mart world that actually discouraged Americans from buying more than they needed to; and "Skipper Learns A Lesson" (1952), wherein a lesson in “racial tolerance” is taught to… er, um a dog.
The difficulties of decision making are up next, with "Right Or Wrong (Making Moral Decisions)" (1951), one of the many “What would you do?” shorts that filmmakers couldn’t be bothered filming an ending for; followed by the mind-numbing "Drugs Are Like That" (1979) — the one short ever to warn us that doing anything and everything is just like developing a deadly addiction to drugs (complete with early synth sounds and trippy visuals that probably did more harm than good) and narrated by a washed-up Anita Bryant (who, oddly enough, didn’t compare drug use to homosexuality — she was probably fearful of another pie in the face).
"The Trouble With Women" (1959) delves deep into the waters of gender bias in the workplace (which is fine with me since women always get promoted before I do anyway) but, unfortunately, never actually tells you what their problem is, and instead only suggests that we treat them courteously and stuff. Bah! "It Must Be The Neighbors" (1966) finds a family man in the middle of a decade-long pissing war with his sloppy neighbor who gets caught with egg on his face when the Health Department says his old trash can with the bottom eaten away is not kosher and sends an informative, no-nonsense employee out to instill an extreme form of mysophobia into the neighborhood kids, turning them all into little Adrian Monks.
The last short here, "Shake Hands With Danger" (1980), was not only one of the final educational shorts from the great Centron Corporation, but is also the only *exclusive* piece in the whole of this RiffTrax collection that has never been available online. In it, all sorts of OSHA dropouts get killed or maimed around big machinery as a charming Johnny Cash-like theme song plays. To this day, this Herk Harvey directed short is still used in many training programs. This unreleased RiffTrax version contains some CGI versions of our three riffers as they sit and watch the short on a screen (Mike is seen as himself while Bill is an inflatable parrot and Kevin as a tub of popcorn — you can pretty much figure out why this one wasn’t released online).
While some of these shorts really don’t make for the best riff fodder, the gang keeps these shattered little gems glued together quite well and this volume is a great way for MST3K fans to rekindle the romance of tearing open one’s shorts (no, wait, that didn’t come out right). Rating: C+
The Best Of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume Two (2009)
“The song was so bad it trimmed itself out of the footage!”
And finally, we come to another collection of lousy educational short films. The Best Of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume Two features nine more oddities from the vaults of le domaine publique. Whereas Volume One’s shorts tended to not be as “riffable” as one would hope for, the RiffTrax crew rips through these babies like Orson Welles at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
"One Got Fat" (1963) is a horrific bicycle safety film featuring kids with scary papier-mâché monkey masks getting killed one by one (à la Ten Little Indians) on their way to a picnic in the park while Edward Everett Horton joyfully narrates the, er, “fun” (the disturbing short later wound up as the music video for a song by Boards Of Canada). If papier-mâché monkey masks weren’t enough to scare you, then how about a good old fashioned PUPPET SHOW? "Beginning Responsibility – Lunchroom Manners" (1960) begins with a classroom watching the rude antics of puppet Mr. Bungle. The show has a profound impact on young towhead Phil, who makes sure to be as anal as possible from there on in.
Next, get ready for the most depressing educational short EVER with "Elementary School Children, Part I: Each Child Is Different" (1953). Come and witness the personal tragedies of Miss Smith’s fifth grade class: there’s the dyslexic and withdrawn Robert; young Ruth, whose mother died and left her to raise her baby brother with a very depressed dad; Mark, who… um… yeah; Elizabeth, whose parents couldn’t care less about her (but nevertheless don‘t hesitate to take all of their frustrations out on her); and finally, the short kid whose father doesn’t like him nearly as much as his more macho big brother. The fun never stops! "Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast?" (1972) is best-described as a dairy council propaganda film, wherein a disembodied voice follows a tween girl around from the moment she wakes up and bombards her with the same damn question. Unfortunately, nobody gets an answer out of the tight-lipped lass, leading to a “Stop Projector – Discuss Film” title card. Huh? Since "Cathy" is such a short flick, the folks at RiffTrax wisely “double-billed” it with an even odder companion propaganda piece, "Petaluma Chicken" (1932), which, contrary to the title, is all about making a giant omelet.
The laughs continue with "Act Your Age (Emotional Maturity)" (1949), a film about teaching high schoolers to grow up (50 years on and they’re still not doing it, fellas); and "Safety: Harm Hides At Home" (1978), starring an even-more-embarrassed-than-usual Filipino film regular Susan Valdez, is a prime example of why you should never take a current science fiction movie trend and incorporate it into your educational short. The last three shorts here include "Coffee House Rendezvous" (c1969), a look into a caffeine-fueled folksong hell of Vietnam-era; "Are You Popular?" (1947), reminder of just how painful school was for me; and "Good Health Practice, Part I: Eating, Cleanliness, Toilet, Rest & Sleep" (1953), a short that takes us into the eating and bathroom habits of two really close siblings, Jim and Judy. Unforgettable. Rating: A-
Many of these titles were released before by Legend Films (with colorized versions also included) and had Mike Nelson providing a solo commentary (Missile To The Moon was also available through the RiffTrax website with guest riffer Fred Willard, who needs more work, people). While a few of the “older” jokes remain in these newer commentaries, it should be noted that a majority of the gags are brand new. For those of you who appreciate the original un-riffed versions of the films, you’ll be happy to know that all of the feature films include the original audio tracks as well (sorry, but you don’t get to see the shorts on their own — so go pick up the Fantomas Educational Archives today).
The audio and video quality varies from one title to another, with most of the offerings looking and sounding just fine. A few titles (three of the Vol. 2 shorts, NotLD) look very choppy and pixelated as if they were taken straight from the Internet, but for the most part, there are no complaints here. All titles are presented in their original 1.33:1 ratio with the exception of Shake Hands With Danger, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen (the short is displayed in the center of the screen while the animated characters look at it from the side and bottom).
Although there are no special features on these discs per se (one might argue that the original versions of the films, as well as the unreleased Shake Hands With Danger are bonus materials in themselves) we are treated to original comical songs from the RiffTones (Mike, Kevin, and Bill again) on the DVD menus. Songs for the feature films are somewhat specific to the title and make fun of several other popular songs (the menu theme for The Little Shop Of Horrors sounds like a cross between David Bowie and a Queensryche rock ballad). Out of all of them, I would rate the House On Haunted Hill song and the tribute to Larry Fine, “I Think Larry Is Fine,” on Swing Parade as the best of the bunch. There are three songs on the Shorts, Vol. 1 menus, whereas the menus for Shorts, Vol. 2 just feature stock music.
And so there we have it, a semi-comprehensive look at the first wave of RiffTrax titles on DVD. These titles hit stores on June 16 but are available now at the RiffTrax website. I think it goes without saying, but these titles comes recommended to any fan of RiffTrax or Mystery Science Theater 3000 — plus, how can you pass up all of those jokes about a Wendy’s Baconator or any item on the Arby’s menu?