So how about a break from the Fab Three ragging on the latest release? How about a few, carefree minutes with Matt Senreich, the twisted mastermind who, along with the equally twisted Seth Green, oversees Adult Swim’s wickedly funny, sharply satirical, and supremely nerdy stop-motion animated puppet show, ROBOT CHICKEN? Before he was felled by the dread Martian crud, Dan Persons sat in on the New York Comic Con roundtable with the amiable Mr. Senreich, and found out more than anyone needed to know about what kind of person throws it all in to start playing with toys for fun and profit. Turns out it’s the kind who still has his original, C-3PO carry-case of mint STAR WARS action figures. Not a surprise, actually.
Click on the player to hear the discussion.
FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS seems like a near-perfect fit for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Despite the show’s reputation for ribbing the worst cinematic atrocities on the planet, MST3K is often most entertaining when addressing a film that is technically competent, even watchable in its own right, but marred by dated attitudes, heavy-handed messaging, and/or overdone melodrama. This is why ROCKETSHIP X-M worked so well on the show: with no papier-mâché sets at which to hurl verbal bricks, the crew of the Satellite of Love instead offered up trenchant remarks regarding its 1950s world view, particularly the “white male reality” underlying the film’s attitude toward women. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS is essentially a German-Polish variation on ROCKETSHIP X-M: filmed in 1960 as Der Schweigende Stern (“The Silent Star”), it offers bigger production values, including widescreen color photography and 4-track stereo sound, but its overly serious tone, heavy handed anti-nuclear message, and occasional soap opera melodrama cry out for the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 treatment. As funny as the results are, however, they are not quite as funny as they might have been.
One of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s most beneficial services is that it occasionally allows you to view films that you either want or feel obligated to see, while providing a laugh track to help you through the longueurs. With its elaborate sets, imaginative production design, and sometimes trippy special effects, THE SILENT STAR, in its original form, is visually interesting enough to warrant attention, and on-screen wisecracks from Joel, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo are just the thing to lighten up the dreadfully humorless tone of the original. What prevents this episode from reaching the absolute zenith of hilarity is that FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS is presented in its truncated American version.
Given the MST3K format, with Joel Hodgson and his robot pals hurling peanut gallery insults at the screen, it was probably necessary to use the English-language version, but the bad dubbing – combined with the faded, pan-and-scan print – makes FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS look and sound like a cheap sci-fi flick – an obvious target that deserves to be pilloried, as opposed to a near-miss redeemed by MST’s 3Klaugh-alone camaraderie. Also, the shorter cut (79 minutes) deletes several potentially hilarious scenes: melodramatic moments meant to add weight to the story (such as one character’s suggestion that the ship’s lone female astronaut should be making babies instead of risking her life – “white male reality” indeed!), along with a pro-Soviet subtext that would have been rife for riffing.
Even so, the Americanized version of FIRST SPACE SHIP offers plenty of opportunity for enjoyable nonsense. The pressurized space suits and other technology draw the inevitable – and perfectly appropriate – reference to the old Major Matt Mason toy line, while the ridiculous outfit worn inside the ship is likened to a teddy bear. The Venusian atmosphere, with its swirling gaseous colors is compared to “creamy nugget.” When one character foolishly manages to get himself run over by a harmless-looking robot, the doctor’s diagnosis of “internal injuries” sounds a bit too much like “eternal injuries,” prompting Joel to remark “Even in the afterlife?”
The interstitial segments (which could sometimes be hit and miss on MST3K) are enlivened by a running gag in which Tom Servo has had his “Sarcasm Sequencer” turned up. After 90 minutes of excessive iron (“Ooo, sign me up for more of that!”), the joke pays off when his head goes up in an explosive puff of smoke. (Don’t worry – he recovers.)
Rare for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, the episode ends with Crow T. Robot expressing some deserved praise for the film: “I liked the international flavor, and it had a lot of action”. There is no doubt that FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS deserves the MST3K treatment, but it is nice to hear a small acknowledgement that the film is not totally bereft of positive qualities. If you want to watch this film straight up, then checked out the subtitled version under the title THE SILENT STAR is the way to go. In its truncated and dubbed form, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 is the only way to go.
The episode is available on DVD as part of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION box set, which also includes LASERBLAST, WEREWOLF, and FUTURE WAR. It is also available as VOD through Netflix Instant Viewing.
Click here to read a review of the original European version, titled THE SILENT STAR, which ran as part of Cinefantastique’s 50th anniversary tribute to the horror, fantasy, and science fiction films of 1960.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: Season 3, Episode 11 – FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (air date: December 29, 1990). Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff, Crist Ballas, Michael J. Nelson
Rifftrax performs a genuine public service for those stop-motion and/or dinosaur fans who were curious but trepidatious about viewing this uber-lame 1978 sci-fi flick. Originally recorded as a down-loadable podcast that could be synched up with a conventional DVD or VOD presentation of the film, the Rifftrax crew’s alternate soundtrack was released on DVD by Legends Films back in January, and there truly is no other way to enjoy PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (well, except perhaps for getting stoned and watching the film with a bunch of friends, but this is much cheaper and less hazardous to your health).
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS tells the “Gilligan’s Island” tale of a crew in outer space whose ship overheats, forcing a crash landing on a planet inhabited (to the character’s surprise if not to ours) by prehistoric beasts that uncannily resemble dinosaurs from Earth. In fact, the resemblance is so uncanny that they even have our fictional dinosaurs: in a nod to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, the rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS shows up in a cameo, just long enough to get killed by a T-Rex.
With little hope of a rescue ship arriving anytime soon, the characters in PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS embark on a “Swiss Family Robinson” struggle for survival, high-lighted by the notably lackluster dramatic conflict between the ineffectual, wimpy captain (who wants to hide from the dinosaurs) and a beefy, macho crewman, who believes that homo sapiens should be the dominant life form on this planet, regardless of how outmatched they seem to be by the local predators.
Although set in the future, PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS is pure 1970s camp, with hairstyles and jump-suits that evoke unpleasant memories of the horrible disco era. Along with the coifs and costumes, the characters have inherited some startling incompetence problems: they are literally introduced to us as they are crashing their ship, which sets the tone for everything that follows, as their stupidity results in the crew members being picked off one by one. If there is a rock to trip on, it will not go untripped on, and if a laser is dropped, you know someone will run back for it, just in time to become dino chow.
In a special piece of retro-weirdness, the first two victims are women who show too much skin: a radio operator who strips off her clothes to dive into a lake (she is conveniently wearing a swimsuit underneath) and the corporate vice-president’s secretary-girlfriend, whose bare midriff is the only respite during the numerous, lengthy dialogue and walking scenes that separate the few minutes of dinosaur action. Yet strangely, the man who strips off his shirt to dive into the lake with the female radio operator survives to go shirtless throughout the rest of the film and never pays the price for his semi-nudity.
With characters like these, it is no surprise that your only sympathy will be with the dinosaurs – most of whom, sadly, die bloody deaths. In fact, you will end up rooting for rampaging reptiles to eat the human idiots, especially after their first big achievement is ganging up to take out a small, harmless, bird-like dino – after which they whoop it up as if they have just successfully stormed the beaches at Normandy.
Achieved with stop-motion effects in the style of Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien (KING KONG), these dinosaurs may not be the greatest, but they are fun to watch in a nostalgic kind of way. The process shots that combine live-action with special effects are washed out, but the dinosaur models are fairly well designed and detailed. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in particular is a fearsome antagonist, and the effects crew (which includes the familiar names of Doug Beswick and Jim Danforth, among others) pull off some nice shots. My favorite is a clever low-angle of the T-Rex emerging from its lair, with the camera tilting up not quite fast enough to keep the dinosaur fully in frame – nicely simulating the lock of a live-action cameraman trying to follow a fast-moving subject.
In a time before home video had killed off the theatrical market for low-budget movies, filmmakers in the 1970s were still churning out drek that they expected to reach the big screen, at least in a drive in – an assumption that proved false in this case: PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS received no theatrical release, in spite of the fact that it had – well, you know, dinosaurs. This is a testament to how weak the dialogue, direction, and performances are; the film has a vague air of “Let’s make a movie” around it, as if some people had access to enough cash to hire a special effects crew and simply decided to throw together some kind of film to tie the dinosaur scenes together.
Watching every frame of its padded running time in a theatre would have been a true endurance test. Home video, with the fast-forward and chapter-stop buttons, offered some relief – and a chance to get to the only scenes worth seeing. But PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS finally found its place in the world when the Rifftrax crew (former MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) recorded their caustic commentary track, which mercilessly mocks the on-screen ineptitude.
In general, I have not been a huge fan of this particular trio’s work; although Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett are always funny, their batting average (during the final years of MST3K on Sci-Fi Channel, in the handful of FILM CREW DVDs, and now on Rifftrax) has been a bit lower than during the heyday of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER when it was on Comedy Central. Fortunately, something about PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS brings out the best in them, and they deliver consistently high-quality comedy throughout. Best of all, their efforts here seem effortless: they are seldom stretching for a joke; instead, they capitalize upon the plentiful opportunities for derision, turning a nearly unwatchable film into a must-see viewing experience.
The Rifftrax DVD features a rather worn-out print of PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS – which is a virtue in a way, because it preserves the 1970s aura. There are chapter stops, but they are not listed on the menu, which offers only two options: view the film with the riff-track or view it with the original soundtrack (should you want to hear the uninterrupted dialogue for some masochistic reason). There are no bonus features.
Kevin Murphy discusses Rifftrax in general, including PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS, in this interview.
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1978). Directed by James K. Shea. Written by Ralph Lucas from a story by Jim Aupperle. Cast: James Whitworth, Pamela Bottaro, Louie Lawless, Harvey Shain, Charlotte Speer, Chuck Pennington. Derna Wylde, Max Thayer, Mary Appleseth.
Christopher Smith’s British, comedy, horror, SEVERANCE, is advertised as THE OFFICE meets DELIVERANCE. Mixing genres like this is tricky, as it’s almost impossible to get the balance right: the comedy dilutes the horror and vice versa. Consequently, SEVERANCE is not as funny as THE OFFICE nor as scary as DELIVERANCE, but it still manages to entertain.
Seven colleagues who work for a weapons company called Palisade Defence are rewarded with a team-building getaway weekend in the wilds of Eastern Europe. The team consists of the boss Richard (Tim McInnerny), sexy girl Maggie (Laura Harris), stoner Steve (Danny Dyer), optimistic morale booster Gordon (Andy Nyman), smart guy Billy (Babou Ceesay)], pacifist Jill (Claudie Blakley), and handsome Harris (Toby Stevens).
SEVERANCE begins with a flash-forward of big boss, George [David Gilliam] and two foreign dolly birds running through the woodland. It’s a pretty camp scene, hammed up to ‘B’ movie standards, but the film doesn’t have the look of a ‘B’ movie; it’s too glossy, so we know the ‘ham’ must be intentional.
Smith then brings us back to join our team of work mates on the coach. After encountering a road block on their way to their luxury lodge and being abandoned by their driver, they decide, after some argument, to walk the rest of the way. The banter on route, whilst not hilarious, is amusing, and helps to set the characters.
When they arrive at the lodge what they find is far from luxury; however, with no choice but to use the grotty, old building, they go inside and make themselves at home. It isn’t long before they notice they are not alone. Surrounded by man traps and mines, the team are soon under attack by a gang of psychos with a beef against Palisade Defence….and staff cuts are inevitable.
Whilst this isn’t as gory as some horror movies, it does have its moments, and it’s clear that Smith knows what horror audiences are looking for: the odd severed limb here, the odd decapitation there. He serves up all the things you would hope for, but because a lot of it is done in a comedic way, it isn’t actually scary. Smith adds in all the expected ingredients, even the odd couple of bare-breasted women running through the woodland, but he does this with an invisible wink to the camera that made me smile. He even manages to find room for a pastiche of an old silent film.
Tim McInnerny, who was wonderful in the BLACKADDER series, is well cast as the stuffed-shirt boss.Andy Nyman, who was good in the Big Brother-based comedy-horror DEAD SET, didn’t disappoint in SEVERANCE either. Whilst I was expecting to find Danny Dyer irritating, I was surprised to find his character quite likable and funny. All round, the casting was excellent.
SEVERANCE is short of laugh-out-loud moments, but is mildly amusing throughout. It probably won’t make scare you, but it will entertain you if you don’t expect too much. It’s almost impossible to cross-polinate comedy with horror and engender both belly laughs and screams, but SEVERANCE does a reasonably good job.
Universal Studios Hollywood officially premiered the newest attraction on its famous theme park tour, a live stage musical titled THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: A RAGING, ROCKIN SHOW. This twenty-five minute show condenses the plot from the 1954 classic, starring Richard Carlson and Julie Adams, adding a bunch of songs and dialogue heavy with pop references and laced with irony. The running joke is that the submerged sexual subtext of the original film is here all out on the surface, with the Creature cast as a sort of bad-boy rock star whose dangerous air is part of his appeal.
The embedded video is from Universal preview of the show for the press, which took place yesterday, with a staged event depicting the Creature’s arrival (he broke free to menace the crowd, natch). The cast of the show spoke to the press, and – best of all – actress Julie Adams, who starred in the 1954 film, made a personal appearance, expressing amazement at the little B-movie she mad over 50 years ago had inspired a new incarnation.
You can see it all in the video, or check out a review of the show and the event at Hollywood Gothique.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – the goofy show about an astronaut and his robot friends, forced to watch bad movies aboard an orbiting satellite – was cancelled ten years ago, but thanks to the miracle of home video it lives on. For years, fans circulated home-made videotapes, which helped the cable show reach viewers in cities where the local cable service did not carry it (which included Los Angeles for far too long). Legitimate VHS tapes trickled onto the market place at a frustrating rate, slowed down by the necessity of securing not just the broadcasting rights but the home video rights as well. After the 1996 feature film version (a riff on the colorful 1950s sci-fi opus THIS ISLAND EARTH) made its way to both laserdisc and DVD, episodes of the television finally started showing up on disc in early 2000. The first two DVD releases featured EEGAH and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE. Although not necessarily the pinnacle of the show’s achievement, these episodes were representative of what MST3K could achieve, and the DVD presentation was solid if unspectacular, lacking much in the way of bonus features.
Rather conveniently, the two films break Mystery Science Theater 3000 down into its two eras: the first featuring the show’s original host, Joel Hodgson: the second featuring his replacement Mike Nelson, the head writer who stepped in when Joel moved on to develop other projects. Up first, Joel and the ‘bots take on a cheezy sci-fi stinker invovling an ape man.
Eegah stars Richard Kiel (known to Bond fans for his role as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) as a prehistoric man who has survived into the 20th century by…well, we don’t know how—it’s just a bald fact in the film that he’s running around out in the desert. There are ample opportunities for laughs, mostly at the expense of leading man Arch Hall, Jr., a sort of pudgy, would-be rock idol, and at least one of the sketches (involving an experiment to make Joel look like Hall) is a riot.
As always, the jokes run the gamut from the silly to the profound to the outright obscure. Under the later category, my personal favorite comes when a camera angle reveals the ceiling of one room in a long shot, and Joel remarks that the film looks as if it were photographed by Gregg Toland. (For those of you who didn’t sit through Film History 101, Toland photographed Citizen Kane, often (and incorrectly) identified as the first film to use low-camera angles that required ceilings to be built on top of the sets.)
The disc has not been re-edited to disguise the commercial breaks, but these brief fade-outs are hardly intrusive now that the commercials are gone. The image and sound are fine, although the source print of the actual film is not in great shape (does anyone really care?). The disc contains both the MST3K version and the original uncut film, in case you really want to judge for yourself how bad it was before the Satellite of Love crew began slinging barbs at it.
If you’re not that dedicated, the disc offers an option whereby you can watch the MST3K version and also access the scenes cut out in order to fit into the two-hour television slot. When a logo of Crow T. Robot appears in the lower left corner, you press “Enter” on your remote and view the missing footage; pressing “Enter” again takes you back to where you left off with the MST3K presentation.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for extras. The menus, backed by the show’s theme song, feature some nice graphics and computer-manipulated imagery, but the “Special Features” button takes you to a screen with nothing more than a button for the disc distributor’s website (Rhino.com) and a list of other MST3K titles available on tape and disc. Not very special, but the episode itself is special enough to compensate for any disappointment.
The second Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode released on DVD skewers The Brain That Wouldn’t Die -a perfect choice for the MST3K treatment, because much of it openly invites derision, which the SOL crew are more than happy to supply. As bad as it may be, the film is (in its own weird, perverse way) interesting to watch—it’s no good, but neither is it boring. There is a certain undeniable effectivenes. If the intention was to be horrifying, then the film certainly succeeds—although “appalling” might be the better word.
The plot is rife with absurdities, yet at the same time the script seems eager to say something about the ethics of science and experimentation, and the cast is more than eager to dig into the high-minded speeches they are given. For all the alleged seriousness, however, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die takes a right turn when the mad scientist rescues his girlfriend’s head from the burning wreckage of a car crash and sets about finding her a new body. The film almost endorses the character’s point of view, looking at the other female characters only as potential sources for a replacement, and the camera never grows tired of ogling the prospects.
“Sleazy and lurid” only begin to describe the effect, and the image of the revenge-crazed head (as ridiculous as it is) is certainly disgusting. Combined with some rather graphic (for ther time) moments (the thing in the closet rips off one character’s arm and bites a piece off the mad doctor’s neck), this imagery packs a punch. Not enough to redeem the film or even make it a guilty pleasure, but enough to hold your attention so that you’re not just sitting bored while waiting for the next joke from the on-screen peanut gallery.
And those jokes do fly, at a nice clip that makes this one of the show’s funnier outings (even more amusing than Eegah). There’s the inevitable football take off when the hapless fiancé races through the woods with the titular head wrapped in his jacket: “He’s at the twenty, the ten…nothing can stop him!” (Of course, real audiences at bad movie marathons have been using this joke for decades, but it always works, so why not let the MST3K preserve it on disc?)
Even more amusing is a running gag regarding the film’s sloppy use of insert close-ups, which are shot against a neutral, non-descript background illuminated by vague lighting patterns (presumably because they were filmed later, after the real sets had been struck). The actor’s expression never match up with the establishing shots, and the effect has a hazy, almost Twilight Zone quality to it, provoking the SOL crew to yell at every opportunity, “I’m in another dimension!”
This was Mike Nelson’s first time in charge of the Satellite of Love. For fans of Joel Hodgson, Nelson took some getting used to. He didn’t have that same laid-back persona that lent Joel his charm and kept him from sounding smug, but Nelson did a good job of delivering the acerbic one-liners. Of course, this particular episode offers an opportunity for humor based on his “new kid on the block status,” which is fully exploited.
As with the Eegah disc, this DVD offers both the MST3K version and the original version. Unlike Eegah, there is no function to access cut scenes while viewing the MST3K version, the entire film having apparently been squeezed into the two-hour television running time. Otherwise, the presentation almost exactly duplicates the other MST3K DVD: cool graphics for the menu (this time backed up by music from the film, rather than the show’s theme song), including film clips, but no added features despite a “Special Features” button. This just takes you to a screen with a button that gives you the distributor’s URL (Rhino.com) and another button that brings you to a display of other MST3K titles on tape and disc.
This makes the DVD a bit less of a valuable collector’s item than its companion piece, Eegah, which in a sense could be considered to contain “additional footage” from the complete version of the uncut film, which could be accessed while viewing the editing MST3K version. It’s a nice touch to include the complete version of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, in case there are any purists or completists out there who believe the movie should not be completely supplanted by the MST3K version. But if any more of these episodes find there way to DVD, it would be a nice idea to enhance them in some way.
Cast biographies (for both the film and TV show) would be nice. In the case of this particular episode, some background information would have been helpful for those casual fans who won’t understand that this is Mike’s first orbit on the Satellite of Love. Maybe some background information on the film would be nice or some notes on the writing teams reactions to their first screening of it.
And while we’re at it, why not an audio commentary? The whole gimmick of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is characters talking about a film unspooling before them. Why not take the concept to the next level, with the actors talking about their characters talking about the film unspooling before them?
Looking back on these two episodes over a decade after they originally aired, it is amazing to note how well they hold up. Back in the days when Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on Comedy Central (before the move to Sci Fi Channel), their batting average was amazingly high: they picked the right films to target, and they went after them with enthusiasm and flair – ruthlessly when warranted but also with a good-natured sense of fun. Consequently, the laugh-levels remain high, and the humor has not dated at all. Both of these DVDs can be enjoyed again and again, and any true fan of the show would be glad to have them in their collection.
RiffTrax – the Internet successor to the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRER 3000 television show – has just released its first batch of DVDs, featuring the familiarly irreverent commentary from Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy. Here is an excerpt from one of the ten discs available, featuring MISSILE TO THE MOON, a low budget 1958 opus in which two escaped convicts are forced to join the crew of the titular rocketship when they are caught by a scientist (who turns out to be alien trying to get home – E.T., indeed!)
This is one of the best comedy-horror spoofs ever made. Not only is it riotously funny; almost as important, the humor is never used as an excuse for feeble work. The special effects are as technically good as anything seen in a serious film; the plot is almost as tightly structured as genuine thriller; and director Ivan Reitman does a good job of conveying atmosphere — he even manages a few genuine scares along the way. In effect, this is a textbook example of how to handle a genre parody: do it as well as (or better than) the target, and then add the laughs.
There are lots of great scenes: the Ghostbusters’ initial encounter with a ghostly old woman in a library; their first successful trapping of a phantom (“a real nasty one!”) in a hotel; and of course, the climactic appearance of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, striding down Broadway like King Kong. (The scene is not just funny; it is also one of the most perfectly realized giant-monster-attacks ever filmed.)
In the leads, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis play off each other like a classic comedy team. Providing support as the serious scientists of the group, Aykroyd is the enthusiastic boy at heart, and Ramis is the stoic, logical one (a New Age Mr. Spock, in his own words). First among equals, Murray is the under-achieving mouthpiece of the group, the one who relies on charm and/or wit to compensate for his weak academic credentials. Sigourney Weaver is great as the damsel in distress, a role that starts out as almost a thankless “romantic interest” but which mutates into a hilariously seductive vixen, along with a parody of THE EXORCIST. Moranis gets lots of laughs as the nerdy accountant who constantly locks himself out of his apartment. And Atherton is fantastic as the man you love to hate, the officious EPA official who shuts off the Ghostbusters’ power grid, precipitating the release of their captured spooks.
To some extent, the straight-man role in this film is played by the ghosts: the special effects throw a variety of monstrous apparitions at the titular heroes, whose characteristic reactions then provoke the laughter (for example, when Gozer’s sky-high back-flip evasive maneuvers prompts Murray to quip, “Nimble little minx.”) But some of the effects are quite amusing in and of themselves, particularly the green “Slimer” ghost seen in the hotel (rumored, though never verified, to be based on John Belushi’s Bluto character in ANIMAL HOUSE).
Filled with spectacular apparitions and lots of laughs, GHOSTBUSTERS is a career highlight for most of the talent involved. Unlike many comedies from the period (STRIPES, CADDYSHACK), it does not work in fits and starts, stumbling from one comedy set piece to the next in search of the next big laugh. It really does work as a movie. If only most serious horror films were this good…
2003’s single-disc DVD of GHOSTBUSTERS has some interesting bonus features, but it is not quite a must-have. There is a “video” commentary (that allows you to see the commentator’s silhouettes [a la MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000] by using the multi-angle function on your DVD player); subtitled trivia, production photographs, featurettes, storyboards, and deleted scenes.
Presented in isolation, the storyboards are only mildly interesting. To the average viewer, this kind of thing is only notable when framed by an article discussing the development of the project from script to screen. You do see that the accountant Louis was drawn as a much heavier character, but nothing in this section explains why (John Candy was planned for the role before Moranis stepped in). Likewise, you see that Gozer was originally conceived as a man in a business suit (not the New Age punk woman seen in the film), but you will learn nothing about why the change was made. Fortunately, some of the storyboards are of some interest because they represent scenes that were not filmed. Also, a few of them are presented as before-and-after comparisons, with a split screen showing the boards above the finished sequences. Again some kind of audio commentary explanation of why changes were made would have made this more interesting.
The deleted scenes are disappointing. The film went through some fairly major pruning from script to screen with several sequences never completed (for example, the dream scene with Aykroyd and the beautiful blond floating ghost was originally supposed to be an actual haunting), but none of this is represented. What we get instead is mostly trivial little transitional bits that seem to have been edited out at the last minute. These clips look as if they were preserved on videotape, so the image quality is poor.
The featurettes include a promotional film made when GHOSTBUSTERS was released in 1984. There is also a cast-and-crew featurette with several of the stars looking back on the film and discussing its impact on their careers. And finally there is a special effects documentary that starts out rather stiff and stodgy before getting into some amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. There is also a before-and-after feature that allows you to use the multi-angle function to view a handful of scenes with and without the final optical effects.
The “Video” commentary for GHOSTBUSTERS (provided by director Ivan Reitman, writer-actor Harold Ramis, and co-producer Joe Medjuck) is amusing and often informative, but not completely satisfying. Even with three speakers, the conversation goes dead a couple times early on, before they hit their stride and begin relating a series of fun anecdoates. After this point, the only real drawback is that they sound a bit like insiders discussing material they all known so well that they do not necessarily explain it to us. For example, during the climactic confrontation with Gozer (Slavitza Jovan), they begin joking about “Jews and Berries.” No one bothers to explain clearly that this line was a Bill Murray ad-lib in response to Jovan’s Hungarian accent, which distorted Gozer’s line “Choose and Perish!” into what sounded like “Jews and Berries.” (Murray’s ad-lib didn’t make the final cut, and Gozer’s voice was dubbed by another actress to make it more intelligible to the audience.]
The GHOSTBUSTERS Double Feature Gift set released in 2005 is basically a repackaging of the old GHOSTBUSTERS DVD along with GHOSTBUSTERS II. The film is presented in widescreen only, and the menus have been slightly changed. Except for the subtitled trivia and the “video” commentary (which is now audio only), the new disc includes most of the old bonus features, plus a 26-page “Ghostbusters Movie Scrapbook.” This contains profiles of the cast, storyboards and stills, and a few tidbits about the making of the movie. It’s a nice souvenir, but it’s no replacement for Don Shay’s book “Making GHOSTBUSTERS.” Perhaps the best thing about the booklet is the back cover, which features a full-page mock-up add for Stay Puft Marshmallows (“Melt ’em! Roast ‘Em! Toast ’em!)
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski
You have to give the RiffTrax crew credit for nerve if nothing else. Back when they were aboard the Satellite of Love, as part of the cult television cable hit MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett targeted the worst of the worst cinematic slime, the oozing putrescence from the lowest depths of the cinematic vault. Here, they take the old, patented formula (cracking wise on the soundtrack while the film unspools) and apply it to a classic horror film, George A. Romero’s brilliant 1968 debut, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s a risky gambit, one that risks alienating fans. The result could have been either an epic failure or a monumental, surprise hit; instead, it falls somewhere in between.
For those of you out of the loop, RiffTrax is an Internet venture, not a television show, and it consists only of audio commentary, with no host segments showing the gang doing skits based on the film. The RiffTrax website sells these down-loadable audio tracks that you can synch up with your DVDs. This allows RiffTrax to take on movies without securing the broadcast or DVD rights, so they have extended their reach quite a bit beyond what they could do as MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 (or the interim project, THE FILM CREW). Instead of going after only the worst movies ever made, they also take on more high-profile films, including the occasional classic.
The problem with this approach is just MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 was at its best when targeting films that were absolutely ridiculous or insufferably pompous. Movies that were simply bland or dull didn’t yield particularly funny results, and really good movies (e.g., Mario Bava’s DANGER: DIABOLIK) could be rendered unwatchable when subjected to the MST3K treatment.
Fortunately, the RiffTrax take on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, now available on DVD, is not the disaster one might have feared. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett never convince you that Romero’s little black-and-white opus deserves their sarcastic treatment, but they do milk more than a few laughs out of the action.
As effective as it is, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD does have its share of lapses that provide some fodder for the RiffTrax commentary, such jump cuts, continuity problems, and the classic moment when Ben (Duane Jones) claims he has the farm house pretty well boarded up – while a completely open and unguarded window is clearly visible over his shoulder.
The thing is: long-time fans have already heard the cast and crew of the film itself point out this kind of flub on the Millennium Edition DVD audio commentaries. So, if you have already heard actor Karl Hardman say there was “nowhere to go with” with his performance as Mr. Cooper because it started tense and stayed that way, hearing the RiffTrax gang make the same point sounds a bit like beating a dead horse.
At times, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett seem to be struggling against the classic status of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which remains effective despite its flaws. Consequently, the commentary track ends up resorting to tangential remarks (instead of riffing about what’s on screen, the crew imagine other things happening off screen or behind the scenes).
All reservations aside, the RiffTrax crew do come through with some zingers. Even if you are vaguely offended by their choice of target, you will have to laugh when they note that the television news reporters seem to have been cloned from the same source or accuse one spastic ghoul of doing a Joe Cocker impersonation.
The DVD offers the option of viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with or without the RiffTrax commentary, so if you don’t already own the film on disc, here’s your chance to have it at a discount price, even if you don’t want the added jokes. Unfortunately, the video quality is not as good as it should be. The image looks compressed, like a low-res video Internet file or a Video Compact Disc; at times, the motion even looks slightly stroboscopic. There are no bonus features.
The RiffTrax NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD DVD is one of a set of ten RiffTrax titles being released on Tuesday, June 16, marking the first time that RiffTrax has been made available for home video. Other titles include CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, MISSILE TO THE MOON, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
Welcome back to kaiju world: big, honkin’ monster attacks Japan, big, honkin’ hero comes around to kick butt. Only in this case, the hero, Dai Nipponjin (literally “Great Japanese”), is a pudgy, lumbering klutz with an electrified, fright wig hairdo that makes him look like a cross between Jim Belushi and Eraserhead. He’s reviled by the public (one person hilariously grouses that the national savior has “lost his edge”), and, off duty, lives as the hang-dog Daisato, an unmotivated schlub with cross-generational family problems and an insatiable appetite. Where’s Gojira when you really need him?
Director Hitoshi Matsumoto — who also stars in the title role and co-wrote with Mitsuyoshi Takasu — alternates BIG MAN JAPAN between mockumentary footage of Daisato’s travails as reluctant hero (the transformation scene, complete with gigantic Speedo, is one for the books), and surreal battle scenes that tease the line between rubber-suit tradition and visionary, cojones-out CG (my favorite adversary: the Strangling Monster (Haruka Unabara), a sort of ambulatory scallion with a comb-over). The feel is appealingly dead-pan, and the structure is loose, at times more resembling sketch comedy (Matsumoto — a self-proclaimed hyoi-geinin, or “spiritual entertainer” — got his start as part of a comedy duo). When that leads to sequences like those where Dai Nipponjin argues with a petulant “stink monster” (Takayuki Haranishi) or consoles an endearing/repulsive child monster (Ryunosuke Kamiki) — with disastrous results — that’s all to the good. It’s pretty damn funny, actually.
But it can also be a trap. When the film eventually devolves into a full-on satire of cheapjack kaiju television, you may be left wishing that Matsumoto had orchestrated a more emotionally satisfying finale for his protagonist, rather than leaving his audience wondering whether the director’s budget, patience, or both had just run out. Stay, in any case, for the closing credits, which answer in perhaps too-painful detail what happens when superhero teams get together for a nice family meal and post-battle analysis. You’ll never again dread Thanksgiving dinner.
BIG MAN JAPAN (Magnet, 2007; 113 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.) Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto. Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, UA (sic), Ryunosuke Kamiki.