Yelling Back at the Movie Screen
There are few things as annoying as sitting through a bad movie. Not the enjoyable kind of “bad” film, but one that insults your intelligence. Whether it’s atrocious dialogue, awkward action scenes, or foreshadowing so clichéd that you can see what will happen a mile away, your can’t wait for this movie to end or perhaps your thoughts drift to building a time machine so you can go back and prevent yourself from ever going to the film in the first place.
For many years, that was about the only way folks “got back” at a bad movie. More recently there has been a few successful outfits that have built their business off “yelling back” at the screen. For most, the Mystery Science 3000 series which ran mostly in the 1990’s comes to mind, but you do have to go back a bit further to find the origins.
What's Up Tiger Lily?
After making a big splash with “What’s New, Pussycat”, what Woody Allen did for a follow-up was, at the time, unthinkable. He took a previously made film, the Japanese James Bond rip-off, “Key of Keys”, stripped out the entire soundtrack and changed the entire story from some kind of “spy-thing” to a flat-out comedy filled with new dialogue, music, and sound effects.
This new effort, “What’s Up Tiger Lily” proudly featured a “No Star Cast” and lots of witty dialogue as our hero, the now redubbed Phil Moscowitz, takes on an international spy ring to recover the recipe for the “Great Egg Salad”, a salad so tasty you could “Plotz”…so to speak.
In all honesty, this is a one-joke film that’s stretched pretty much as far as it can go. The film is also padded by incorporating two original songs by “The Lovin’ Spoonful”, a band that was just starting to gain an audience. Woody Allen had objected to their inclusion because he felt it disrupted the comedy and perhaps he was correct, although without the Spoonful, the film only lasts an hour, far short of what is expected with a feature release.
“What’s Up Tiger Lily” did become a hit and is now a sort of curious classic, reflecting the new direction of comedies made in the late 1960’s (though as of this date, very few films have been released that are subsequently re-edited and their soundtrack replaced). I saw a relatively recent interview of Woody on TCM a few years ago (he doesn’t give interviews that often) where he seems to have come to terms with the studio’s interference with “Tiger Lily”.
After that film, we jump ahead 30 years to find another film that used a different approach, but achieved a similar result.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 - The Movie
This film was founded on a popular cable series, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K for short), which ran first on Comedy Central before moving to the Sci Fi (now Syfy) Channel for a total of 10 years.
Each week, the crew of the “Satellite of Love” consisting first of Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgsen, the creator of the series), then Mike Nelson (who took over in the middle of the fifth season) and two of his beloved robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot sitting in the front row of their movie theater, watching a bad film (usually a poor sci-fi genre from the 1950’s, but they did a wide variety of movies) and throwing insults at it.
As with most long running TV series, some of the episodes were hysterical (“Mitchell” or “Space Mutiny” comes to mind), some were so-so, but most were fairly funny as the crew added contemporary insights on the current pop or political culture, but mostly just hammered the poorly made film they were viewing.
In 1996, MST3K got enough funding to make a feature release. The movie mirrors the TV show, but the film they chose to skewer was an unusual choice, the 1955 sci fi classic “This Island Earth”, a big budget film with better sets, story, and even acting than MST3K’s usual targets.
Despite that, it was still easy enough for Mike ‘n the bots to come up with enough gags, insults, and funny dialogue to make “MST3K – The Movie” a funny, enjoyable ride, especially when the target was the lead actor of “This Island Earth”, the somewhat stiff Rex Reason, who plays his role like he did most others, using his deep, booming voice to project as if he was a thousand miles from the microphones.
“MST3K – The Movie” bombed badly at the box office, no doubt in part due to its regional release (i.e. it was only shown in parts of the county at a time, instead of a normal nation-wide release) and zero advertizing budget as Universal, the distributor for the film, decided to spend all the money on promoting another low-budget effort, Pamela Anderson’s “Barb Wire”…which also flopped.
Rifftrax Live: Reefer Madness
After the demise of the MST3K television series in 1999, there were a few efforts to revive the concept by either releasing movies directly on DVD, such as the “Film Crew” series. This was four really, really, well, just awfully bad films featuring Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (who played Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) hurling insults on the secondary audio track. Unfortunately, by the time the DVDs were released, the three actors had already moved on to other projects, so no follow-up films were ordered.
Around the same time, Joel Hodgsen gathered together other former members of the MST3K TV series such as Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow), J. Elvis Weinstein, and Frank Conniff to create “Cinematic Titanic”, where they have released a series of DVDs hurling insults as such timeless classics as “The Oozing Skull”, “Blood of the Vampires” and “Doomsday Machine”. Today, they travel the country putting on live performances of their work, which has garnered a lot of positive reviews.
Mike Nelson on the other hand, helped form the company “Rifftrax”, which is based around a brilliant idea, creating separate audio tracks (or “riff tracks”) for newer, more popular films and sell them for a small price (usually $2 - $4) over the internet to those who already own the DVDs of films like “Road House”, “The Star Wars Trilogies”, and the “Twilight” saga. This had the advantage of bypassing pesky ownership laws and Mike, along with Kevin and Bill have created a wide variety of “riffs” for recent DVD releases and complete movies for which they own the rights, mostly the short, informational subjects that are primed for a good skewing like “Billy’s Helicopter Ride”, “Voices in the Forest” and a huge favorite, “At Your Fingertips: Grasses”.
The DVD release of a live performance, “Reefer Madness” is particularly enjoyable as Mike, Kevin, and Bill rip apart the 1938 bomb which preaches against the use of marijuana. The preaching is bad enough, but according to the film, the effects of marijuana mimic those found in psychotic drugs that exist only in sci fi films. “Reefer Madness” is the proverbial slow-pitch-over-the-plate for this crew and they make the most of it. The DVD also includes three very funny shorts…well, very funny as in what Mike, Kevin, and Bill do to them, that includes “More Dangerous than Dynamite”, which informs us that using gasoline indoors to clean clothes may be a bad idea, “Frozen Frolics”, a disturbing cartoon from the early 1930’s, and the aforementioned “At Your Fingertips: Grasses” which asked the question, “Is Corn Grass” and then doesn’t answer, driving Bill to near hysteria.
The success of Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax insures that those of us who may want to hurl insults at a movie are not alone. And that even the worst films can be recreated or just riffed hard enough to become an enjoyable…or at least tolerable experience.