Look, I don’t care how much you may debate it: Mystery Science Theater 3000 changed how we looked — or rather, talked — at movies. Growing up, I was something of a B-Movie Puritan. While I preferred to revel in vintage z-grade science fiction and horror films, I more than occasionally lambasted the few friends I actually had who insisted on making fun of them. There was something about the naïve and hokey onscreen antics that I found soothing. As I matured ever-so-slightly (I’m still not done; not according to my many exes, at least), however, I finally “mellowed” out enough to the point where humor had at long last found its place in my ritualistic form of therapeutic cinemasochism.
And then came Mystery Science Theater 3000. My first encounter was on the Comedy Channel (as it was then called) in late 1989. It was the premiere of Episode #103: The Mad Monster. At first, I was afraid; I was petrified. But then, I acquired a need for it — much like my already-established addiction to silly movies itself. The Mad Monster was only the third episode of a series that would go on to have a complete cast change, cross over to an entirely different network, and even make a theatrical feature before finally calling it quits some ten years later. But that doesn’t mean the Best Brains behind MST3K stopped quipping. Far from it, actually.
In 2006, after a couple of varied attempts at keeping his fans happy one way or another (books, solo riffing gigs, animal husbandry, etc.), the show’s second and final host, Michael J. Nelson, found his post-MST niche in RiffTrax: an online site that specialized in downloadable comical commentaries that one could view whilst watching their favorite (or perhaps least favorite, as the case usually is) film. The following year, the show’s original host, Joel Hodgson developed Cinematic Titanic: a similar-though-completely-different concept which was more along the vein of the long-running Cable TV series he cultivated back in 1989.
During the last couple of years, both variants have released a number of DVDs that we longtime MiSTies just can’t seem to get enough of. And, so, for this special chapter of Catching Up At The Video Store, I have decided to explore a few recent home video releases “From the Best Brains Mystery Science Theater Had to Offer.”
· Cinematic Titanic Live: Danger On Tiki Island (2010) (EZTakes/Cinema Titan, LLC)
The Short Version: Eddie Romero finally gets riffed.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: There were several DVD releases of Cinematic Titanic fare before they started issuing live performances such as East Meets Watts (a favorite) and The Alien Factor. Here, Joel Hodgson teams up once more with his regular riffers Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein to treat a live audience to a well-deserved skewering of Eddie Romero’s laughably-bad Brides Of Blood from 1968 (titled Danger On Tiki Island for this release). The truly bizarre Filipino horror oddity features a man-eating tree-critter type of thing as one of its main antagonists, and a mad scientist as the other. Two embarrassed American leads — Kent Taylor and John Ashley (who would go on to make several more films with Romero) star alongside an actress billed as “Beverly Hills.” There are also a bunch of vertically-challenged people on-hand to open up the floodgates for midget jokes (because, honestly, we can never get enough of those). The experienced crew of jokesters certainly dish out the goods here; delivering a memorable performance to their live crew as well as their viewers back at home. Unlike previous Cinematic Titanic releases, this one includes an 18-minute long behind-the-scenes featurette with the crew.
· RiffTrax: Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny (2011) (Legend Films)
The Short Version: NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Slightly-Elongated Version: A god-awful ode to incompetence, 1972’s Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny finds Santa Claus stranded on a beach in Florida. Instead of trying to help himself, the singing, soiled-suited Kringle enlists the local kids to help him while he sits in his rinky-dink sleigh. In lieu of any actual token of gratitude for their assistance, Santa tells the kids a tale (which is actually a short movie by Barry Mahon that was spliced in) before the Ice Cream Bunny (!) shows up to save the day (too bad he couldn’t save the souls of those who watch this movie as well). Throughout the excursion through extreme anguish, Mike Nelson and his fellow RiffTrax buddies Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy unleash their humorous vehemence at the movie, tearing it enough new assholes to start up a large government. How bad is the movie? Well, not only does poor Kevin scream at the movie for a good solid minute at one point, but my PlayStation 3 died shortly after I watched it because it just couldn’t take it anymore, either (seriously, it did). The DVD also contains the original un-riffed version of the movie — just in case you decide life is no longer worth living (or your relatives show up unannounced), as well as a disturbing bonus short: Santa Claus’s Punch And Judy from 1948, also with an anjoyable RiffTrax commentary.
· RiffTrax: Maniac (2011) (Legend Films)
The Short Version:
The Slightly-Elongated Version: One of the truly admirable aspects about these two MST offshoots is that it finally gives us the chance to see some of our most-requested bad movies receive their just desserts. Brides Of Blood? Check. Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny? [shudders] Oh, yeah. But what about Dwaine Esper’s controversial 1934 mess-terpiece, Maniac? Well, it’s time to pay the piper, Dwaine. One of the original gangsters of the exploitation genre, Dwaine A. Esper made this incredibly off-the-wall horror film before the Hayes Code seized power in Hollywood, and, as such, contains several shots that were decidedly shocking for their day and that still are able to give us a jolt or two. The film features an ex-vaudeville performer that assumes the identity of a mad scientist, only to go crazy himself! Speaking of crazy, this movie is just that — and so are the actors. Mike, Bill and Kevin sit through this one like the brave, demented cine-soldiers that they are. In addition to having the option of watching the movie sans the heckling trio, a bonus featurette of Mike, Kevin and Bill interacting with the crowd and ridiculing a short (“Buying Food,” also available on the DVD collection, The Best Of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume One) live at Comic-Con 2010.
· RiffTrax: Shortstoberfest (2010) (Legend Films)
The Short Version: Eight educational shorts get schooled.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Once more, the boys at RiffTrax have amassed several shorts from yesteryear that were manufactured with edification in mind. Needless to say, these shorts didn’t quite succeed — but they have found a new life with Mike, Kevin and Bill. Included with this release are Back To School With Joan Miller (which could also be titled “The Plaid/Gingham Fashion Show Nightmare”), Call It Free (a look at how cars work from a sexist male viewpoint), Little Lost Scent (wherein a poor little skunk has to find his way home), An Aquarium In Action (which takes place in a classroom, interestingly enough), Drawing For Beginners: The Rectangle (seriously), Families: Food And Eating (witness how people in three different countries prepare dinner), Beginning Responsibility: Taking Care Of Your Own Things (the highlight of the disc for me, with a weird, spectacled and cross-eyed kid the guys refer to as a “young Ira Glass” whose creepy toys come to life to teach him responsibility), and Geography Of Your Community (in case you slept through that class in grade school). A bonus item includes an alternate intro for the latter short.
· RiffTrax Plays With Their Shorts (2010) (Legend Films)
The Short Version: Nine more educational shorts get discredited in the most appropriate of fashion.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: And, finally, we have another collection of misguided short subjects. RiffTrax Plays With Their Shorts presents us with nine more outlandish attempts to tutor an otherwise stupid American public, starting with the aptly-titled What It Means To Be An American: a wonderful look at all kinds of stuff. A couple of social engineering ditties — Going Steady and Understanding Your Ideals — probably only made teenagers feel even more awkward, while shorts like A Circus Wakes Up and Highway Mania (complete with an eerie bug-eyed fellow driving) just gave ‘em nightmares. Teenagers On Trial attempts to get those darn kids from joining the ranks of the ever-increasing hoards of juvenile delinquents that plagued the ‘50s. Women In Blue takes us back to that peculiar period in history when the United States Army figured out the female sex were actually capable of doing things. Finally, Mike, Kevin and Bill bear witness to the odd cat/dog/bird/lion/penguin pairing featured in Wing, Claw And Fang! before learning some of Constance Bennett’s Daily Beauty Rituals — none of which I’m sad to say I will be trying out (only because I don’t have a maid to help me).
· Future Releases…
The Short Version: A peek at a couple of upcoming titles.
The Slightly-Elongated Version: Some things simply get better with age. Broader, even. Here we are, twelve years after Mystery Science Theater 3000 got the axe from television, and its popularity has not waned in all that time. In fact, it’s only grown stronger. During the early 2000s, Rhino Home Video started releasing select episodes of the cult TV fave to DVD — a tradition that has since been taken on by the fine folks at Shout! Factory. This year, Shout! will not only re-release an old Rhino title on September 13 (Mystery Science Theater 3000: Manos – The Hands Of Fate, which will now come with a new line of special features), but will also unveil their new box set — Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI: MST3K Vs. Gamera — on August 2. That’s right, all of those giant flying turtle movies from Japan are seeing a legit release once and for all. Additionally, Legend Films will not only release two more RiffTrax compilations of those mind-numbing shorts (Olde Tyme Shorts Roundup and Shorts To-Go) on July 19, but they will also present us with the very first Blu-ray releases from this field of backseat moviegoing: RiffTrax Live: Reefer Madness and RiffTrax Live: House On Haunted Hill.
Furthermore, RiffTrax Live: Jack The Giant Killer will be broadcasting to theaters nationwide on August 17 (click here to buy tickets), while Cinematic Titanic will be starting up their next tour of live shows in late September (visit cinematictitanic.com for more info).
Happy viewing, kids!