Monday, October 27, 2008

Heirs to the Satellite of Love

Four weeks from now, it will be the 20th anniversary of the first episode ever of Mystery Science Theater 3000...and I will be celebrating it hopefully in Culver City and in a movie house on Sunset Boulevard. I will pause to toast the Satellite of Love, and its efforts to avenge movie goers who had to endure bad movies.
Before that, I will have the 20th anniversary DVD set, complete with Crow figurine, from Amazon. Although the four movies featured are already in my library, the extras are worth the price, especially the Comic-Con event featuring everyone from the show. It marks the first time, and maybe the last time, the living history of MST3K is in one room. The crew has since split into two groups, Cinematic Titanic (featuring the cast from KTMA and season one, plus TV's Frank and Mary Jo "Pearl Forrester" Pehl) and Rifftrax/Film Crew (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett).

I thought it would be interesting to compare how these two groups approach the traditional method of ripping bad movies apart.

Mike Nelson was first with Rifftrax, when he discovered if you recorded a "commentary" for any movie, new or old, and put it in your iPod, the variety of targets, I mean movies, grows dramatically. That's why we will all skin Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull alive just in time for Christmas--or should. Before that, he, Kevin and Bill came up with the Film Crew series, which was supposed to be released by Rhino in 2005 until Jim Mallon stopped that plan. They went to Shout! Factory instead in 2007. Only four movies were riffed, and they were of the sort of stuff you'd see skewered on MST3K: bad seedy drama (Hollywood After Dark), cheesy sci-fi (Killers from Space), sword and sandal (Giant of Marathon) and just plain oddball (Wild Women of Wongo). They also went towards things that were familiar to them, such as Peter Graves and Steve Reeves. They didn't have skits like MST3K, but they did have interesting lunch breaks. The DVD extras did have comedy bits related to the movie.

After that, they concentrated on Rifftrax, which now has a wide variety of targets, even Heroes (which has been asking for it lately) and Lost (which hasn't any more). They've also added some pre-riffed shorts, just like the MST days.

To spread the word about Rifftrax, they did live shows. I was at a couple of them in San Francisco and San Diego, and both were hits. The need for Man to strike back against bad media is eternal, and these guys know that in spades. What's more, even good movies that are cheesy enough to be riffed are not safe, not even 300 or Iron Man. I bought the Rifftrax for both, and have every intention to checking them out. I should get the Lost pilot, too. That will be for later.

Anyway, it was almost a year ago that Joel Hodgson started a blog announcing that he would revive the tradition of MST3K with Cinematic Titanic. He says it was due to the fact that people were buying the DVD's, either released by Rhino or circulated through other means, and that fans were keeping it alive. Of course, that would include Film Crew, which had just released its last disc, and Rifftrax. Anyway, after a tryout at Lucasfilms Studios, they released their first movie, The Oozing Skull. They riffed in silhouette, just like the old days, although the arrangement was different. On one side was Josh (J. Elvis) Weinstein), Joel and Mary Jo, and TV's Frank Coniff and Trace Beaulieu (Clayton Forrester) and the other. Aside from that, it was like old times.

The premise, however, is different: apparently they are chosen by some group or other to protect the "digital scaffold" or all digital media will be destroyed. Lately, the crew is getting a bit skeptical about this explanation, especially since someone has put a tank in front of the main exit. Aside from that, it's riffing on bad movies, just like the old days, whether it's cheap sci-fi (Doomsday Machine), even cheaper horror (Legacy of Blood) or Roger Corman (Wasp Woman). They also have skits in the middle of the movies. Sometimes they feature dead musicians, or an over-reacting security force who hates gum.

The business model is also a little different. Cinematic Titanic is family owned-and-operated from the start. You can download the DVD, or get the fancy version if you don't trust your computer to burn the movie to a blank DVD. Besides that, you get a nice note from the crew with the DVD, complete with autograph. They fulfilled their plan to release four movies this year, and plan to do so again in 2009. Like Rifftrax, they also got their act together and put it on the road. They recently appeared in Minneapolis, slamming something called "Blood of the Vampires". They will be visiting St. Louis next week and Chicago a month later. Who knows that movie they'll bring? I just hope San Francisco, where it more or less began, will be on the itinerary soon.

For now, it looks like CT and Rifftrax can exist in good-enough harmony. CT can maintain the traditional method of slamming bad movies, while Rifftrax can be the "home game", where people rent or buy the DVD, then download the commentary for their iPod or similar device. Everybody wins.

But is there room for those who think they can riff with the best of them? The best example is Incognito Cinema Warriors XP out of Missouri. A guy named Rikk Wolf is trapped in a movie theater surrounded by zombies, and has to endure bad movies with two robots...only this time one looks like Twiki's grandson while the other is a popcorn machine. They had four movies planned out, but have released two of them. One was Bride of the Gorilla, which is about as close to an MST copy as you can get, except for the laugh track (which is only on the original copies), and Lady Frankenstein, which is racier than MST could ever dare to be. I found these guys in YouTube, which is already loaded with MST wanna-bes. One of them, Josh Way, has been recruited in the ICWXP army. They've had problems with equipment and severe storms, but hope to release more movies soon, and much quicker. It already has the support of Mike Nelson, who has featured ICWXP in his iRiffs section.

Rest assured that if there's a movie out there that's so bad, it's awful, someone out there will avenge those movie goers who were unlucky enough to spend 12 bucks on it, or a little less. Maybe when November 24th rolls around, someone will mention the fact that it's the 20th anniversary of MST3K. If not, we should remember them, the crew and the mad scientists who delivered the bad movies to us. Seeing Manos, Bride of the Monster, Laserblast, Hobgoblins, or even a Rifftraxed Iron Man while nibbling on that turkey drumstick will be the best way to honor the Satellite of Love, and all that it stands for.

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