Former fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 can rejoice in the fact that RiffTrax is making its DVD debut today. Although the DVD format may sound as if it violates the point of RiffTrax.com, a website that sells audio commentaries to be downloaded over the Internet and synched up with DVDs you already own, that’s just part of the zaniness of the enterprise. After all, RiffTrax is the brainchild of MST3K alumni Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who have simply pioneered a whole new way to hurl their slings and arrows at deserving cinematic targets. Whereas MST3K was a television show about an astronaut and his robots forced to watch bad movies, RiffTrax is an audio-only enterprise. Since the website sells only commentaries, not the films themselves, it is not necessary to secure broadcast rights for the films being targeted, which allows the RiffTrax crew to expand their reach, targeting not only low-budget stinkers but also big-budget blockbusters and acknowledged classics: JAWS, STAR WARS, CASABLANCA, etc.
Unfortunately, the home video rights these high-profile titles do not come cheap, so the new RiffTrax DVDs are a throwback to the kind of titles that used to fill up the time slot of MST3K. The ten discs include NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (reviewed here), CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, MISSILE TO THE MOON, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, REEFER MADNESS, SWING PARADE, and two sets of short subjects. The budget priced DVDs (under $10) lack bonus features of any kind, but they do offer you the option of watching the films with or without the acerbic barbs of Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett.
We recently spoke by phone with Kevin Murphy, about the DVD release and the evolutionary process that led from MST3K to RiffTrax.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Obvious first question – How would you describe the difference between what you’re doing now with RiffTrax and what you used to do on television as Mystery Science Theater 3000?
KEVIN MURPHY: I guess you’d call it a 21st century edition of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 was. First of all, it’s 99.98% puppet-free. By and large we’ve been targeting films we could never get in a million years because we had to buy the rights to them. Thanks to 21st century technology , particularly the podcast, we can now allow people to buy our commentary – our riff – and synch it up with the movie at their leisure, in the comfort and safety of their own home. That way, we can make fun of any film we want to. Of course, that makes me chuckle warmly inside.
But we haven’t abandoned entirely the model of making fun of old, bad movies. As these DVDs will attest, it’s still fun. It’s so easy to do in comparison, and people enjoy those old things. But let me tell ya’, Twilight just might end up being our biggest seller so far. That and The Happening are two of the things that have made my year so far.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: I see the potential for both of those. The Happening is interesting because, like The Exorcist II, it’s a disappointing movie from someone who obviously has talent.
KEVIN MURPHY: Especially with a guy like Shyamalan, who we make a lot of fun of, it’s only because he showed so much promise and then all of a sudden – what the hell has happened to that poor guy? It’s so easy in a film like that; it presents itself as a huge target. It’s trying to do something so hard that it just becomes absurd. He’s trying so hard to be this Gothic story-teller. I want to have “Why you eyeing my lemon drink?” on my t-shirt. That’s how silly that comes across, and I’m sure he doesn’t think that. I’m sure he wrote that line and sat back very satisfied and said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good moment.’ He was so wrong, so misguided. So it’s really fun to watch the whole thing go to ruin and just be along for the ride.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How different is it going after a big movie like Jaws, versus your more traditional targets?
KEVIN MURPHY: Well, Jaws is a unique thing. All of us like Jaws. It’s its own kind of classic – the first really big monster blockbuster. It still holds up, except the rubber shark looks a little dumb on occasions. When we do that – instead of a film like Twilight or The Happening or Wicker Man, where we’re just really picking it to pieces because it’s there and it’s trashable – with a movie like Jaws it’s more like a celebrity roast. That’s how I equate it. It’s a loving good-natured ribbing at something we really do quite appreciate and like. So we don’t spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in the film, because that’s just sort of silly. Not to over-analyze the process – because I hate doing that – everybody knows Jaws, and a lot of people even know all the tropes and the beats and the rhythms of the film, and certainly all the characters; because they’ve become so familiar, it’s fun to point out their little quirks that we all know and maybe haven’t identified and put a label on them. This is a chance to do that. That’s sort of what a roast is all about – sort of those little things we begrudgingly love about a film and wish we had thought of in the first place.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Because of the issue of rights, we won’t be seeing the high-profile titles on the RiffTrax DVDs. What we’re getting on disc is not fully representative of what is available for download on your website.
KEVIN MURPHY: It is one end. For the other end, to come along with us for our more daring ventures, you have to either use two remote controls or press two buttons at the same time. Which – believe me – I understand is difficult for a lot of people. My spouse – bless her – barely knows how email works. So she’s not one to do that; she’d rather sit down with the DVD. But me, I’ll pop in The Happening and run the synch track and I’m happy as a clam.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Instead, the DVDs are a throwback to old, inexpensive movies, including a lot of public domain titles.
KEVIN MURPHY: [chuckles] Yeah, a lot of that stuff is public domain, or Legend Films, which is sort of like the benevolent parent company of RiffTrax, already had a certain arrangement on, so that made it very easy for us. They are the kinds of films we used to do for Mystery Science Theater. So I think a lot of MST fans are going to enjoy them because you don’t have to worry about doing any synching up – you can just pop it in your DVD player and enjoy it. For the most part they’re old cheesy movies, and they’re really fun.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Even though you don’t have to buy the broadcast rights to mock these films in your audio-only podcasts, has anyone ever tried to come after you in some way legally?
KEVIN MURPHY: I think Mark Whalberg would try to beat us up if he ever got us in a room, but nobody has. When you think about it, all we’re doing is helping them sell more of their product. If people are renting more movies because there’s a commentary available for them, I don’t think anybody’s going to have a problem with that. We could end up being the remora on the back of the Hollywood shark.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: When I interviewed Joel Hodgson about MST3K, he said he didn’t want to get too far into making fun of movies that people enjoyed. Are there more negative reactions now that you’re going after high-profile films. Are you getting angry emails shouting, ‘THAT’S NOT FUNNY!’
KEVIN MURPHY: [laughs] Well, the funny thing is we probably get it more from – especially with these DVDS we’re putting out now, that have things like Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls – there seem to be some online critics that are really put out that we are quote-unquote trashing these classics. Sure, fine, that’s your opinion; that’s wonderful. We don’t get a lot of hate mail. As much as I was thoroughly creeped out by Night of the Living Dead when I was a young lad, what has come in its wake has made the thing seem really pale and almost boring to the audience. Not that it is, but in the context of the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Night of the Living Dead does not have the impact that it once had, and therefore it sort of opens itself up to be riffable. The same goes for Carnival of Souls.
And I don’t know who the hell out there thinks Little Shop of Horrors is a quote-unquote classic film, but I feel really bad for someone who feels that way. I can understand people challenging us on that because it was ostensibly a comedy, and comedies are really difficult to make fun of . But as a comedy it fails so spectacularly, it ends up being depressing. So adding jokes to the failed humor of that movie is the only way to save it.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: When it comes to Night of the Living Dead, the interesting thing is that, when it came out, it was quite disreputable and you could have maligned it with impunity then. Four decades later, it’s not as shocking, so it has a certain critical respect that it didn’t at the time.
KEVIN MURPHY: It’s absolutely true. It’s funny how that turns around on itself. It makes you wonder – this truly is a plastic art. Something can stand that test of time and end up being better than it was then, at least according to some people.
Okay, we’ve never shied away from the fact that we’re irreverent. People should keep that in mind when they see what we do. So if you’re reverent about a film, you’re probably going to be a little put out by the fact that we’re being irreverent about said film. It’s pretty simple.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: One example of people put off by your irreverence is on one of the audio commentaries for the 50th anniversary DVD of the 1953 War of the Worlds: some genre journalist say they hope Mystery Science Theater never gets hold of the film.
KEVIN MURPHY: [laughs] Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote the most bilious screed about us that I’ve ever read. He used to be with the Chicago Reader; I think he still is. He went out of his way. He started calling us names and picking on our physical flaws. He’s defending a certain kind of genre cinema, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it. There are so many people out there who don’t have that respect, and that’s who we’re going for. We’re going for the kids who sat in the back of the room while the education film was going, and making fun of it.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: For myself, I was watching a sample on your website, the opening scene from The Grudge. That’s the worst scene in the movie, and I got a laugh out of it, but it didn’t make me want to see the whole thing with a riff-track. On the other hand, I’ve never seen Planet of the Dinosaurs because I’ve heard it’s awful, but I would like to because it has stop-motion dinosaurs. So I thought, ‘This is just what I need to get me through this film! At last I can see the dinosaurs without having to listen to the dialogue!’
KEVIN MURPHY: That is one purpose we do serve. If you are a fan of stop-motion animation (which is not done terribly well in this instance – they’re not anatomically correct with a lot of their dinosaurs), that’s a lot of fun. You get to see some cool-looking [special effects work] … It almost seem anachronistic in that film because it was done in the late ‘70s – it’s a disco era film. You can tell by the hair styles and the costumes. To have bad Harryhausen-type effects at that time seems really anachronistic. That’s one of my favorite of the recent video on demand style RiffTrax that we have done. It was so much fun to do.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How have things changed from MST3K to The Film Crew to RiffTrax? Has your attitude changed toward films? Is the humor any different?
KEVIN MURPHY: I’m surprised I still enjoy it as much as I do. It’s really quite fun. Since I can remember, I’ve set my sights on talking back to the culture instead of being bowled over by it, so I still have that opportunity. If anything has broadened, it is my idea of what we can have fun with. I don’t have a reverence, and I don’t feel we have to limit ourselves to quote-unquote old bad movies. In some ways, they don’t present as much of a challenge any more. They’re still fun to do. But sitting down with Twilight – it was a confection, like eating too many éclairs.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Recording audio must be much easier than doing a television show.
KEVIN MURPHY: It’s much less of a grind to do what we do now, because it’s an audio track. There’s not all that was entailed with doing a television show with effects and puppets. Especially on a low budget, that’s enough to kill a person. We cranked those shows out on an average of one every nine days. Doing [RiffTrax] as a podcast, it’s much simpler and we can concentrate more on the writing and the funny than we were able to do with MST3K.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: By the way, what is the story with The Film Crew? Is that the missing link between Mystery Science Theater and RiffTrax?
KEVIN MURPHY: The Film Crew evolved into doing RiffTrax. It was the direction we wanted to go. Mike and Bill and I had talked for years about how frustrating it was that we couldn’t do some kind of synch up technology with a DVD in order for people to watch it with their movies. Film Crew was sort of an interim position. We were actually asked by some people at Rhino Home Video if we wanted to do something with them that was like post-Mystery Science Theater. We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll make up some silly fiction and use it as an excuse to make fun of goofy old movies.’ That’s what we did. For whatever reasons, Rhino decided they were in conflict with the Mystery Science Theater releases they were doing, so we went over to Shout Factory – and oddly enough, so did Mystery Science Theater.
It took a long time for those DVDs to come out. In the meantime we all wanted to make a living. Mike had this opportunity at Legend Films to do film commentaries, and that transformed into RiffTrax. When we saw what was going on, boy, this was really going to be something, and it has been and it’s still growing. In a way, we’re having more fun than we could with any other iteration we could possibly do right now.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Have you had any negative reactions from filmmakers?
KEVIN MURPHY: Not so far, thank god! [laughs] Nothing that I’ve heard. We haven’t had the stars of any of these movies want to sit down and riff with us. I think we’re lucky in that respect; I’m insulated from any hate mail we might have gotten. I’ve far more wired in than I ever wanted to be, with Twitter and Facebook, so I’ve had my ear to the rail, and I look for things like that because I don’t want to piss people off; I want to entertain them. I keep an eye out, and most of what we get is overwhelmingly positive.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Have you ever riffed on a title that didn’t pan out, that wasn’t as much fun as you had hoped?
KEVIN MURPHY: [laughs] I think that happens off and on. We wish we had had more time with it or that it had worked out better. I can’t think of one off hand, so there’s no glaring examples of that, no.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Is there a film you wouldn’t do?
KEVIN MURPHY: I think Schindler’s List is right off, for obvious reasons. Anything like that – there’s nothing to be gained from mocking it and making fun of it. Jaws is different because it’s an entertainment. But something like Schindler’s List is not going to work out. I’ve pushed as far as I can push for us to do Brokeback Mountain. I still think it would be a lot of fun to do. Maybe after a couple more seasons of film grind on, we’ll feel like taking that one on.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You’ve anticipated my next question, which is whether there is some Holy Grail of movies you would like to do.
KEVIN MURPHY: Holy Grail? You know, they keep coming out with newer, dumber films. It’s amazing. So we’re going to continue to find gems like The Happening and Twilight.
It’s funny because one of the films are fans keep haranguing us on –and keep on haranguing us because that’s how we know what people really want – is Titanic, for some reason.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You’d have to sustain that for over three hours.
KEVIN MURPHY: That’s the problem. That’s a long riff, as compared to Night of the Living Dead – it’s really breezy and compact in comparison. I don’t want to look at Leo DiCaprio’s gob for three and a half hours and make fun of it. You run out of things to say after awhile. But I think one of these days we’ll take it on.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Is there something about a film that makes you immediately think, ‘This one is for us’?
KEVIN MURPHY: Nicolas Cage, for one. That’s a given. If he’s in a film, my head immediately turns toward it. It’s funny how you can sometimes tell now just from watching the previews, if a film is going to be good for us. I’d like us to start keeping our eye on Jason Stratham, because he is only going to be able to collapse into sillier and sillier premises now; he’s going to be real cannon fodder for us.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Like the recent one, Crank: High Voltage, where he keeps shocking himself to recharge his artificial heart?
KEVIN MURPHY: Yeah, and the sequel’s coming out. I think his heart goes dead again. That may be on the list right there. And we keep on dredging up all these old short subjects. That’s another thing we do that’s near and dear to my heart. We have these collections of shorts coming out on DVD as well. If you just want a little concentrated nugget of funny, that’s what I recommend. Trying to get friends to watch us for the first time? Pop in a short like “Shake Hand with Danger,” which is a nice cavalcade of industrial accidents set to country music.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Has the riffing of movies infected your enjoyment of movies?
KEVIN MURPHY: No. I think I have less patience for mediocrity than I used to. I try to see only really good films if I can. If I’m going to go out and spend my money and support a filmmaker, I’m going to see something that I really like. I liked Coraline – that was a delightful film. I liked Gran Torino. A film has to be damn good these days for me to really enjoy it.