SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (the 1963 American dub of the 1962 Mexican film SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO) is perfect fodder for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. It’s goofy, but it’s fun to watch. The absurdity of a masked wrestler (with no superpowers) facing off with the undead is inherently funny – all the more so because the film takes the collision of masked wrestler and vampire genres for granted, portraying its male vampires exactly like wrestler-stuntmen. Except for two lengthy wrestling scenes (the first of which is deleted from the MST3K version), the film moves along quickly if not logically, and there is a decent amount of atmosphere to keep the eye entertained while the ear enjoys the sarcastic comments the crew of the Satellite of Love. The result is one of the best episodes from the Mike Nelson era of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
As in the show’s best episodes, the jokes attack not only poor production values but also dubious attitudes. SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN features a kindly old professor, who lies to his daughter Diana about the danger to her life, in order to “comfort” her, presumably because women just can’t handle the truth. Later, the police use Diana as bait in a poorly thought-out plan that seems to consist entirely of going to a nightclub where previous victims have been attacked, and then waiting around to see what happens. Our hero Samson (Santo in the original Spanish) is not around to help, because he has a wrestling match scheduled that night.
With a film like this, the jokes almost write themselves. The comments fly fast and furious, too many to enumerate, but here are some of the best:
“I visited Manderlay last night.” A reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA, which also began with a miniature of an old mansion. The joke becomes even funnier a few seconds later, when you see a portrait inside the manor, titled “Rebeca” (one “c” only).
“I dedicate thsi song to Thorazine.” During a somnabulistic performance by leading lady Diana, of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
“Some butlers stay inside.” Said as the butler closes the door for a departing guest by following him outside (presumably because the director wanted to get him out of the scene).
“So the Devil’s Minions are cheap thugs!” and “It’s a vampire wilding!” Said in reference to the Vampire Women’s male henchmen, who punch their victims instead of biting them.
“This is what Southern Baptists think Catholic Mass is like.” During the vampires’ blood-draining ritual.
“It’s a Robert Mapplethorpe photo sessions.” As a topless male vampire strangles a masked but topless male wrestler.
“The Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil is goofy!” In reference to Santo wrestling with his male vampire opponent.
“I’ll just mark it in my book as a kill.” Attributed to Santo after one of the vampires conveniently dies in the shadow of the cross, without Santo actually doing anything.
“What good is being the Ruler of the Underworld when you have to live in a dump like this?” In reference to the dusty basement-dungeon, where the Vampire Women reside.
Most of the interstitial bits are not particularly memorable (e.g., Tom talks continuously through a “moment of silence”), but the episode is historically important for MIST-ies because it features the departure of beloved bumbler TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff), one half the diabolical duo that has been forcing Mike and robot friends Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo to watch bad movies aboard their orbiting space ship. Having received a fortune cookie hinting at his impending death, TV’s Frank is visited by Torgo the White (Mike Nelson, doing double duty), an angelic form of henchman from the abysmal MANOS: HANDS OF FATE, transformed a la Gandalf in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS. Torgo takes Frank away to Second Banana Heaven, a magical land for for henchmen and sidekicks, leaving a distraught Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) without an assistant to kick around.
Frank’s farewell is amusingly handled. The ‘bots read some inappropriate goodbye letters, except for Gypsy, who is the only one with something nice to say. An ethereal version of Frank appears to taunt Forrester beyond the grave. Forrester responds to the loss by singing “Who Will I Kill?” Unfortunately, the intended show-stopper falls flat: Beaulieu is not as adept with a song as Nelson and Kevin Murphy, and the lyrics miss the mark (Forrester never wanted to kill Frank, only to slap him around when he screwed up).
SAMSON AND THE VAMPIRE WOMEN was chosen as a farewell gift to Frank Coniff, who is a fan of Mexican wrestler movies.
As MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’S TV’s Frank, comedian and writer Frank Conniff became possibly the most cuddly mad scientist in history. From his debut television appearance that started with the show’s second season — for which he scripted and also pre-screened the “cheesy movies” that would torture host Joel Hodgson and crew — Conniff went on to gigs both behind and in front of the cameras for such diverse genre shows as SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH and INVADER ZIM.
I am, admittedly, an unabashed MSTie, and so when I got the greenlight to go ahead with CFQi, Frank was the first person I contacted and subsequently the first to be interviewed. The talk is wide-ranging, including an in-depth glimpse into to the work on MST3K and other shows, plus discussion of the aborted Joel Hodgson feature project STATICAL PLANETS and Frank’s creation of the satiric, audio musical, THE WONDERFUL PUNDITS OF OZ (which you can download here).
Click on the player to hear the show.
There were no new genre films in theaters this weekend, but there was one old one in a shiny new, 3D coat: THE LION KING 3D, which just so happened to top this week’s box-office. With a prescience befitting a Cinefantastique editor, Steve Biodrowski recognized the film for the hit it was going to be, and attended a screening. In this episode of the Spotlight, he gives his impression of the newly dimensional musical fantasy, after which Dan Persons joins in for a discussion of MST3K VS. GAMERA, the new home video box set that collects all of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s episodes devoted to Japan’s beloved, mammoth flying turtle.
Also in this episode: discussions of Harlan Ellison’s IN TIME lawsuit and of the impending Hannibal Lecter TV series.
Plus: Gamera is friend to all children!
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
Producer-director Bert I. Gordon is most well known for his low-budget 1950s science fiction pics like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR, and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, but this little seen relic from 1960 is actually one of his better efforts. It is also one of the more entertaining installments of the always enjoyable MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his robot pals are on-target with their caustic quips and silly asides, but equally important is that the target of their tirades borders perfectly on the cusp of watchability and absurdity. TORMENTED is not without merit; it simply tries too hard, and layers its melodramatic effects on so thick that you would be tempted to chuckle even without the addition of the MST3K commentary.
TORMENTED plays like a hard-boiled homicide story rammed into a horror film. Jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to Meg, but his old flame Vi (listed in the credits as “VI,” which Joel reads as the roman number for six) refuses to let go, until she conveniently falls off the top of a lighthouse. Unfortunately for Tom, Vi (whose body turns to kelp when he retrieves it from the ocean) returns to haunt him, turning his life into a living hell and generally messing up the approaching nuptials.
The scenario (by veteran George Worthing Yates, whose credits include the excellent 1954 sci-fi effort THEM) is not without interest, wrapped as it is in some moody black-and-white photography and a cool jazz soundtrack. But the whole thing is just a bit over-baked: Tom’s voice-over narration (which Crow likens to Graeme Edge of the Mood Blues, who famously intoned, “Breathe deep the gathering gloom…) tells us more than we need to know, and the supernatural manifestations (though technically competent) are a bit too insistent in their attempts to scare the audience and drive Tom bonkers; many of them would work better as externalizations of Tom’s guilt, but TORMENTED eschews this interpretation, definitely opting for a supernatural explanation. TORMENTED quickly hits a plateau, with Tom repeatedly voicing his defiance to the unseen Vi, despite the tell-tale signs she leaves: a missing ring, footsteps in the sand, disembodied hands. When Vi finally provides a “free-floating full-torso vaporous apparition” (to quote GHOSTBUSTERS), her pose and flowing white dress are less suggestive of a spook than of a hot and sexy femme fatale, as glimpsed on the cover of a paperback novel; also, the staging is a bit static, as if Gordon were afraid that any movement would have ruined the alignment of the composite elements in the special effects shot.
Things pick up a bit when Vi’s ghost sets her supernatural sights on others. TORMENTED even achieves an occasional eerie shudder, as when Meg’s bridal dress mysteriously turns up covered in seaweed or when several characters note the presence of a perfume that Vi used to wear. There is a nice bit with a seeing-eye dog afraid to enter the fateful lighthouse and a fun if slightly melodramatic scene wherein Vi’s unseen spirit interrupts the wedding ceremony, causing all the flowers in the chapel to wilt. TORMENTED is many ways a competent B-movie. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) is an old pro who does a decent job with the guilty Tom. Juli Reding has the right look as the vampy Vi. Susan Gordon (director Bert I. Gordon’s daughter) is fine as Meg’s younger sister, an innocent moppet whose presence acts as a continual prick on Tom’s conscience. Joe Turkel (later the creepy bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING) shows up briefly in a nice turn as a would-be blackmailer, who ironically speaks hipper lingo than jazz-man Tom and suspects the pianist’s affair (prompting Crow to remark “Like there’s never been a sex scandal in jazz before!”). The downbeat ending (SPOILER: Tom and Vi’s drowned corpses end up in a mock embrace on the beach END SPOILER) even elicits crocodile tears from the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 cast, suggesting they are almost impressed by the heavy-handed attempt at romantic fatalism. Unfortunately, TORMENTED never achieves the right dreamlike atmosphere to support its special effects. A sequence in which Vi appears as a disembodied head, sitting on a table, is intended as a gratuitous shock (there is no reason for her to manifest in this manner; it’s not as if she died by decapitation), but it comes across as merely funny, especially when Tom picks up the head, wraps it in a towel, and then drops it down the stairs. (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot recreate the headless scene – to much better comic effect – in one of the host segments.)
With this kind of source material, it is almost inevitable that the crew of the Satellite of Love would have a ball, resulting in one of the better episodes of the always funny MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Verbal references to “body surfing” while Tom tries to retrieve Vi’s corpse from the crashing waves are worth a chuckle, and there is a running gag about “Sessions Presents”: the over-used establishing shot of Tom’s beach-front cabin suggests a commercial for a K-TEL type record collection of pop hits. During one of TORMENTED’s many lighthouse scenes, Joel notes the echoes of Hitccock, remarking, “An aging Kim Novak recreates this scene from VERTIGO.”
The host segments offer fun as well, such as TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff) wearing a “drinking jacket” that comes equpped with the D.T.’s (i.e., a rubber snake). There is a hysterical bit recreating Vi’s death with a miniature lighthouse and dolls, which stand in for pop musicians that Joel and his robot pals would like to see plummet to their deaths (Kenny Loggins, Michael Bolton, etc). “That felt good,” Joel sighs, when it’s all over. Perhaps the funniest segment is a brief throw-away, with Tom Servo and Crow debating whether Lyndon B. Johnson’s presence on the presidential ticket really helped Kennedy win the White House.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s riff on TORMENTED is currently available via Video on Demand through Netflix Instant Viewing. It is also available on DVD as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 11, which also includes RING OF TERROR, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, and HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Rhino’s four-disc box set offers theatrical trailers for several of the films, including TORMENTED. There are interviews with director Bert I. Gordon, his daughter Susan, and co-star Joseph Turkel. Bonus features not directly related to TORMENTED include Mystery Science Hour wrap-around segments, hosted by Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins, and an “MST3K Jukebox” (a compilation of the musical numbers sung by the Satellite of Love crew.” MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Season 5, Episode 14 (originally aired September 26, 1992). Directed by Kevin Murph. Written by Michael J. Nelson, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chaplin, Frank Conniff, Bridget Johnes, Kevin Murphy. Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff. TORMENTED (September 22, 1960). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, from a story by Gordon. Cast: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, Juli Reding. Joe Turkel, Lillian Adams, Gene Roth, Vera Marshe, Harry FLeer, Merritt Stone.
This Tuesday, June 13, finds us scraping the bottom of the barrel, searching for new horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles being released on DVD or Blu-ray. The only item of interest is MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: XVIII. This four-disc DVD box set offers four episodes of the classic television show, in which Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, and the ‘bots spoof such sub-par far as THE LOST CONTINENT, CRASH OF THE MOONS, THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, and JACK FROST. Bonus features include:
Introductions by actors Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank) and Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo)
Original Mystery Science Theater Hour Wraps
A Look Back at The Beast Of Yucca Flats
Original Trailers & Promos
4 Exclusive MST3K Mini-Posters by Artist Steve Vance
After that, this week offers only a handful of obscure direct-to-video titles. Those who cannot resist a bargain may be tempted by the FEEDING THE MASSES HORROR COLLECTION, a four-disc set featuring such sterling productions as NECROVILLE, SPLATTER DISCO, FEEDING THE MASSES, and CREATURE FROM THE HILLBILLY LAGOON.
In case you missed Fathom Events’ nationwide presentation of RIFFTRAX: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE last month (mentioned here), there will be an encore presentation in 285 theatres around the country on Thursday, October 8 at 7:30pm local time. The original live broadcast originated on August 20 from the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennesse, with former MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett offering caustic commentary on Edward D. Wood’s infamously bad sci-fi stinker.
According to Fathom Events (a company that beams concerts, movies, and other events into movie theatres, rather like a big-screen version of pay television), the re-run of the Rifftrax PLAN 9 event was the result of “high demand from fans.”
A URL and code will be revealed following the event to encore audiences to download free exclusive digital extras including the “Flying Stewardess” downloadable short; an autographed digital photo of Nelson, Murphy and Corbett; three songs by the RiffTones; and an animated short of the failed “Plans” 1 through 8.
The Rifftrax website (RiffTrax.com) offers podcasts of commentaries by Nelson, Corbet, and Murphy, which you can download onto your computer and synch up with DVDs or VOD. In June, they released their first batch of DVDs, including PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. For more information visit www.FathomEvents.com.
MYSTERYSCIENCE 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, TheBrain 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.
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!’
KEVINMURPHY: [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 Crewto 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?
KEVINMURPHY: 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?
KEVINMURPHY: 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.
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.