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Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In case your TV has been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, there used to be this show on the Sci-Fi Channel called "Mystery Science Theater 3000", in which a human and two robots were forced to watch bad movies which they heckled mercilessly. It was a wonderful idea that generated many memorable episodes and lasted for eleven years, until it finally ran out of steam and got cancelled. Either that, or the show simply didn't get the appreciation it deserved from the Sci-Fi Channel, which is now known as "SyFy" because the people running it these days don't know their wormholes from their asteroids.

Anyway, when the show folded, Mike Nelson took the "making-fun-of-bad-movies" concept, shaved off all the sci-fi elements, characters, and the movies themselves, and started making downloadable "riffs" for people to play while watching their own DVDs. This has now evolved into Legend Films' new series of ten "RiffTrax" DVDs with which viewers may now watch the film with or without commentary by Nelson and former MST3K co-stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. I recently got to watch their take on George Romero's 1968 horror classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and found it to be alternately hilarious, mildly amusing, and boring--much like the original MST3K.

If you're a serious fan of the film, the DVD gives you a nice-looking copy to look at even when you aren't in a laughing mood. The thing about NOTLD is that, for me, it's still so engrossing that I get caught up watching it and the riffers start sounding like those drunk high school guys who won't shut up in a movie theater. The parts of the movie that are still powerful, of which there are many, don't take that well to riffing, and often the guys are clearly looking for something to make fun of when there isn't anything.

For example, a shot of a fireplace elicits this remark: "A little product placement there from the Fireplace Council..." The opening titles sequence heralds a series of weak jokes about how empty the road is. And whenever Barbra cries "What's happening?" at Ben, then--you guessed it--we must hear the riffers warbling an eardrum-curdling rendition of the "What's Happening" theme. In the case of the burly police chief's celebrated ad-lib "They're dead...they're all messed up", the line is already so bent out of shape that they can only manage a weak "Death Be Not All Messed Up" in response.

All carping aside, though, there's still a lot of fun to be had with this film. My first big laugh came when Barbra's observation "They ought to make the day the time changes the first day of's 8 o'clock and its still light" was dubbed "Jerry Seinfeld's least-popular comedy routine." The sight of Ben barricading the farmhouse against the ghouls inspires a couple of clever cracks: "Now he knows how it feels to have a teenage daughter who's just started to date" and "Have to wonder how Macauley Culkin would've handled the situation." When Ben tells Barbra, "I know you're afraid...I'm afraid, too", the guys finish his sentence with "I'm the black guy in a horror movie! I might as well head straight to the morgue!"

During Barbra's screaming panic attack: "I imagine this is what it would be like to be stuck in an elevator with Kathy Griffin." After Harry Cooper throws a fit of his own and starts boarding himself in the cellar: "Cooper would be the greatest 'Real World' castmember of all time." Even Helen Cooper's creaking chair as she sits down is met with: "That's what it sounds like whenever Morley Safer stands up."

More exchanges between the movie and the riffers that tickled my funny bone--

BEN: "They're afraid of fire, I found that out."
"Mainly because they associate it with FIRESTORM, starring Howie Long."

NEWSCASTER: "So now let's go to that filmed report--"
"Taken by a drunk dog--"

NEWSCASTER: "...have been organized to search out and destroy the marauding ghouls."
"Marauding Ghouls? That was my high school football team!"

NEWSCASTER: "Kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul."
"That didn't work on Axl Rose!"

Okay, you had to be there for some of those. Like most of the films that have been made sport of by MST3K and RiffTrax over the years, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD yields it's share of howlers, groaners, and everything in between. Trouble is, my vivid memories of terror while first watching the film during its initial run keep me from settling into the mocking mood necessary to fully enjoy something like this. I think I might have a much better time with some of the other features in the RiffTrax series, including REEFER MADNESS, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, MISSILE TO THE MOON, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and SWING PARADE.

Two more titles, RIFFTRAX SHORTS: VOL. 1 & 2, contain riffs on some of those achingly hilarious old educational films that are another brand of "bad" altogether. A sample disc that I received along with NOTLD contains the fifteen-minute short "Harm Hides at Home", about a woman who is not only both an architect and a school crossing guard, but also a safety-conscious superheroine known as Guardiana. After being given superpowers by some aliens who sound like the Lollipop Guild from THE WIZARD OF OZ, Guardiana leaps into action whenever a careless kid starts a fire on the stovetop or, better yet, finds Dad's gun. This kind of stuff fractures me by itself, and with Mike, Kevin, and Bill adding their own wisecracks, it's irresistibly entertaining.

The thing I miss most is seeing Mike and the robots in the corner of the screen (especially the familiar yakky silhouette of Crow T. Robot) and hearing the robots' character voices. Somehow Corbett and Murphy just aren't the same when they're regular-sounding offscreen guys. But that's a pretty small gripe considering that MST3K fans can now enjoy the closest thing available to the original show with these new "RiffTrax" DVDs and get decent-looking copies of each film in the bargain. It'll be interesting to see what the next batch of titles will be.

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Anonymous said...

this was linked from your RYM msg post. awesome blog.

I believe the reason MST3K got the axe was because it was too costly. For one, obtaining the rights to some films were expensive. Also, it was a two hour show which I believe was cannibalizing other higher rated shows on Sci Fi. I'm glad the show got such a healthy run. one of the greatest.

porfle said...

Thanks for the compliment and the info!

Anonymous said...

Man, MST3k started as a cable access show in the 90s and was one of the first shows on Comedy Central for damn near 7-8 seasons, it finished up on Sci-Fi and got the axe when it changed owners to make room for truly shitty and long forgotten shows like LEXX...

Mark Onspaugh said...

Sad that neither Rifftrax nor Cinematic Titanic (with Joel Hodgson, Frank "TV's Frank" Conniff Jr., Trace Beaulieu and Mary Jo Pehl)reach the genius of MST3K - how could they? That was lightning in a bottle, and Hodgson's concept of the cobbled-together robots (who were sometimes naïve, sometimes hilariously inappropriate, sophomoric or sarcastic) gave us an SF experience where space travel and science are either so banal or attempted by underachievers (down in Deep 13) that we who love the genre - and bad films - had to laugh... Even when they were boring, they were characters you loved. I have friends who say they were far more clever riffing on films - I sat through some movies with those folks - they weren't. Thanks for a fine review, Mark - I think I will skip these. (Although I always loved the educational, ephemeral film shorts.)

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks again for reading and leaving an interesting comment!