Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cinematic Titanic & MST3K

Long ago, in a time far away -- another lifetime it seems, when high school was over yet whatever was to follow had yet to begin, there was a daily ritual. I'd wake up at the crack of noon and turn on Comedy Central. There would be a man and two robots who lived on something called the Satellite of Love and they would "riff" on bad movies. Sometimes the man would look different but it was almost always a fun and sometimes even enlightening two hours in front of the television. The show was called Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I absorbed it like the perpetually thirsty movie sponge I was at the time.

One of the reasons I always hold MST3K in high regard is that it is more than just funny banter during a bad movie. Whether they meant to or not, they point out why the movie is bad. In its own way, its a useful tool to someone just getting into the deconstruction of the medium. One of the best ways to learn what makes a good movie good is to know what makes a bad movie bad and how easy it can be for a filmmaker or storyteller to fall into the pitfalls of the lazy or misguided. Whether it be bad framing, lame exposition, narrative incoherence or simply poor acting, it was duly noted and skewered by the guy and his two robots. A budding filmmaker could take useful notes from watching this show.

Well, after a while Comedy Central decided they'd rather show horrible 80s movies, the kind of movies the crew of the Satellite of Love could easily savage, instead of MST3K and so they eventually found a new home on the SCI-FI channel. (There was a pretty funny movie that actually made it to a few theaters in between.) One of the robots had a slight voice change and they were of course unfortunately forced to stick to one genre,but they had some good final episodes before the whole thing wound itself down.

One half of the team went on to an enterprise called Riff Trax. And the originators finally reappeared a few months ago with Cinematic Titanic. (I think one or two people might have been involved in an unsuspectingly awesome show called Let's Bowl, but I might be wrong and it might just be that they were both spawned from the Minneapolis area.) I haven't taken part of the Riff Trax process, whereupon you purchase an audio track to watch alongside a movie (an excellent way to skirt having to buy the rights to a movie, thereby allowing you to provide that necessary zinging of Memento), but I can tell you Cinematic Titanic picks up right were the OG Comedy Central MST3K left off.

Using the same silhouetting technique they've always employed well, a team of five have taken on three movies thus far. First was The Oozing Skull. A film featuring perhaps one of the worst make-up jobs on its central oozing skull character. They basically slapped some papier mache on a guy's head and called it a battery acid burn. Like a lot of bad 70s movies it gives you this weird dirty feeling when you watch it. There's a fair amount of ugly people and an inappropriate dwarf -- you know, the kind of thing that makes you wonder just how desperate people were for entertainment that such a thing could have ever gotten made. But then you look at White Chicks and go back to thinking about something else.

The Oozing Skull provides excellent fodder for the new crew. It's basically Frankenstein with some half-assed political intrigue thrown in. We have a bad Vincent Price substitute with a tiny desk -- "is that a desk or is he wearing wooden pants?" -- who can put a dead president's brain into a new body but his Igor ends up getting one too badly damaged so they decide to put the brain into the deformed, brain damaged adult they just happen to have playing with toy cars in the corner of the room. Hilarity ensues.

But my vote for new classic is their second production, The Doomsday Machine. Now sometimes when the movie is relentlessly bad, the episode can suffer. (I recall an episode featuring a black and white movie where the police spent the last 20 minutes of the movie chasing after some "monster" in the dark - cue 15 minutes of stock footage and 5 minutes of shots so murky you could hardly make out where the voices were coming from.) The Doomsday Machine is a terrible, terrible movie. A movie so bad they didn't even bother filming a proper ending for it. It is entirely possible that they gave up hope on the movie 2/3rds into it and out of some contractual obligation tacked on part of a completely different movie and hoped no one would notice. But everything about this movie is joyously bad rather than depressingly bad. The kind of bad you can laugh along with rather than hang our head and shield your eyes from.

Only a couple weeks ago the team released their latest episode, The Wasp Woman. A bona fide Roger Corman picture that makes me wonder if it was shot in three days or just two. The episode doesn't quite live up to the greatness of The Doomsday Machine but it's a solid entry. Basically it has the rediculous premise of a 30 something business executive going to insane levels to make herself look twenty something again so that her youthful image will buoy her slumping business. Maybe she's supposed to look 40 or 50 years old? At any rate the whole plot is a wreck from the beginning. But the fountain of youth in the movie is injecting royal jelly into your arm (or some such bee/wasp byproduct) -- which provides the Titanic crew with many a great heroin joke. And yes, this eventually turns her into a wasp woman. Or a wasp headed woman that must instantly chomp on the closest unlucky co-worker like a vampire.

Anyway, so far I would rate the episodes as follows:

1. Doomsday Machine (a must own)
2. Wasp Woman (c'mon it's Roger Corman)
3. Oozing Skull (the movie itself is just so painful to watch)

They haven't come up with anything close to a dud yet and I think a small part of this goes to the secret weapon of Frank Coniff. I always loved TV's Frank from the old episodes and shed a little tear when he went away. Having him back is a huge joy and his success rate at the zingers is markedly higher than others. Or maybe I just appreciate his slightly more twisted sense of humor. Joel Hodgson is still fantastically droll in his delivery and hearing the original smart-ass voice of Crow, Trace Beaulieu, is always a pleasure and J. Elvis Weinstein has a pretty funny ongoing bit of being the first one to crack and want to throw in the towel when the movies inevitably become too horrible for words. But Frank's my man.

The show is piecing together some sort of mythology a'la the Satellite of Love. It seems the team is living in some sort of underground bunker -- there is some chatter at the beginning of The Wasp Woman where they talk about getting comfortable in their new living conditions at the facility -- it's amusing but fairly unnecessary.

Well there you have it, now it's up to you.


Doug said...

"I recall an episode featuring a black and white movie where the police spent the last 20 minutes of the movie chasing after some "monster" in the dark - cue 15 minutes of stock footage and 5 minutes of shots so murky you could hardly make out where the voices were coming from."

That would be "Monster A-Go Go". It's there with "Manos: The Hands of Fate", "The Beast of Yucca Flats", "Werewolf" and "Hobgoblins" as amongst both the worst films shown on the show and the funniest episodes. Like "Doomsday Machine", it too had an ending tacked on from another film.

John Seavey said...

I actually looked up what happened to 'Doomsday Machine', I was so stunned by the bizarre ending. It appears that they ran out of money before they could finish the film, and went back once they'd scraped up enough funds to shoot a final sequence. But by that point, getting back any of the original actors proved to be impossible (or the original director, for that matter: If you pay attention, you'll notice two directors credited at the beginning.)

So they just shot the two characters in opaque helmets, hired people to voice them, and wrote a new ending that didn't involve any of the three actors on the other ship.

Terrible decision, but it proved to be perfect for riffing.