For almost all of the 1990s, I was glued to a quirky show shunned by many and beloved by a few called Mystery Science Theater 3000. When creator Joel Hodgson left in 1993 and headwriter Mike Nelson took over, I was a little skeptical of the future of the program. By the time the next season had started, I was on board with Mike and found the chemistry between him, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu and later Bill Corbett) to be more comfortable fit. When the show left the air in 1999, I thought it was the end of an era.
But the core group of Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett surfaced again (after a couple of false starts) doing what they do best – “riffing” on movies – under the name RiffTrax with commentaries available in mp3 format. Expanding the experience, they started taking their performances on the road and to live venues. The latest effort is a live reworking of one of the greatest (meaning worst) movies to receive the MST3K treatment – Manos: The Hands Of Fate. I saw the RiffTrax crew in San Diego at Comic Con last month and I was excited to see their retake on what was already a hilarious effort on this film.
The first and most important question is does this type of humor translate to the theaters? The show was built as a TV show and existed in most of our brains as something viewed on a TV screen for eleven years. They released a film to theaters in 1996. I saw their take on This Island Earth but it felt like just an episode of the TV show on a big screen. Would this be the same? Is paying money to see something in the theater that is usually free on TV going to work?
I’m happy to say that this new take on the concept is perfect for future releases. The live format – broadcast to theaters from the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, TN gives it a concert feel. Even with only about 50 people in the theater I attended, there was a constant laugh track from the audience in Nashville. Updating the old tracks felt fresh too. Doing this live gave them the immediacy of working in references to current events like the Olympics.
The show started with two shorts. One short that seemed to be a business film and one short that was an educational film on cylinders. I’ve always enjoyed their riffs on short films – the jokes tend to be more rapid paced and the awfulness of the films doesn’t wear on the characterizations the way it can over a 90-minute film. Both shorts and a commercial for prunes showed off the performers talents for voice characterizations and clever pop-culture references. I don’t know who does a majority of the writing but from reading Mike Nelson’s film reviews, I know his pop culture knowledge is very underrated.
The actual movie is bad. It’s bad in a legendary way. The voices are terribly overdubbed, the plot has long stretches of painful silence, and the actors are awkward in their best moments. Few movies have ever had a cast that had less chemistry between actors. Perfect for riffing. And this one outshined the original. Having had years to mull over their original commentary is like Lucas going back to clean up Star Wars: A New Hope. But here it’s more like going back to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and cleaning up the whole mess with the benefit of a decade of hindsight.
There’s an October RiffTrax program coming from Fathom Events for Birdemic. I hope word spreads and larger crowds start showing for these events. Fathom Events sponsors the TCM Event Series too with showings of The Birds, Frankenstein/Bride Of Frankenstein, and To Kill A Mockingbird coming this Fall. These are great events that are just one-time showings but well worth seeking out. I’m glad to have my 1990s love back in my life.