Rifftrax DVDs: The First Wave
by Jason Bailey
The conspiracy theorist in me has started to believe that the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was an intricately plotted plan to maximize productivity and profits and make everyone who had ever been involved with the show rich. Follow this logic, IF YOU DARE: In 1999, MST3K is cancelled by the Sci-Fi Channel (its second home), in spite of its boisterous cult following. Over the next few years, old episodes are slowly released on DVD, keeping the fans opening their wallets. In 2002, Rhino Video begins releasing four-episode sets, priced at a robust $59.99 MSRP, and continues to do so for six years before Shout Factory takes over the show. Meanwhile (there's always a meanwhile in a good conspiracy theory), the show's second cast (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) begin recording downloadable MST3K-style commentary tracks for the Rifftrax website, and creator Joel Hodgson and several other cast members launch the direct-to-video Cinematic Titanic series. And because MST3K fans are completists, we keep buying, and buying, and buying... and everyone involved with Best Brains gets rich!
Okay, I'll admit--it's a bit of a stretch. But some fans might wonder if the recently-released Rifftrax DVDs would qualify as double-dips, designed to grab fans' dollars twice. You see, many of these public domain titles were released by distributor Legend Films in the pre-Rifftrax days with commentaries by Rifftrax's Mike Nelson; those tracks were then repurposed as so-called "three-riffer" tracks with Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett. The new versions were first sold on their website, and now have been made available as stand-alone discs for $7-$10 a pop. However, riffer Kevin Murphy assures DVD Talk that there's little recycling going on--"There's a whole ton of new material," he says, and notes that the things that Mike did, although very funny and observant, they're truly meant to be more like commentaries. And these are real riffs, honest to goodness riffs now." As far as the trio's entry into physical media goes, Murphy says, "Legend Films already had them in their library, and there are a lot of people who, believe it or not, are not inclined to do the little bitty technological leap there is to do a Rifftrax."
DVD Talk was lucky enough to get the entire batch of 10 discs from the good folks at Rifftrax, and several of our crack staff gave them the once-over. How did they stack up?
Shorts Volume 1 and Shorts Volume 2: The highest marks went to the two discs compiling the crew's best "educational" short films. These ancient schoolroom shorts--advising impressionable youth on personal hygiene, social interactions, safety, nutrition, and the like--were frequent highlights of MST3K (often used when the low-budget features weren't long enough), and showcase the crew doing what they do best: mercilessly mocking straight-faced morality, wooden acting, and atrocious dialogue. Nick Hartel gives the full five stars to Nick Hartel gives the full five stars to Volume 1, noting, "I've seen many short films done by the guys during the MST3K years and these ones here are just as good if not better than the best of the best from that bunch." I also highly recommend Volume 2, particularly the fifties high school short "Are You Popular?" and the befuddlingly goofy "Safety: Harm Hides at Home."
Reefer Madness: One of the most notoriously incompetent movies of all time provides a nice, big bulls-eye for the Rifftrax crew; for my money, it's the best feature of the bunch. Made in the 1930s as a stern warning to parents and rediscovered in the 1960s as a giggle for stoners, Reefer Madness is jaw-dropping in its stilted, melodramatic badness, and this disc finds Mike, Kevin, and Bill in fine form. The riffs fly fast and furious, with a continuing stream of laugh-out-loud punch lines and well-aimed mockery of a highly deserving target.
Plan 9 from Outer Space: One of the few films with a worse reputation than Reefer Madness is Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, considered by some (perhaps unfairly) to be the very worst film ever made. Nick Hartel found Rifftrax's take on it a little disappointing, however; he wrote that while Plan 9 is a "worthy entry into the RiffTrax catalog," the "repetition of broad humor doesn't make this an instant classic and will hamper replay value." (For what it's worth, I've seen this one and found it about as good as Reefer Madness).
House on Haunted Hill: Ian Jane is a fan of this William Castle-Vincent Price film with or without the commentary, and got the feeling from this disc that the Rifftrax guys were fond of the picture as well: "The three commentators are having a good time with this material ...There's an affection for the material that periodically shines through here, as buried behind goofy jokes as it may be, and that's when these guys are at their best."
Missile to the Moon: Glenn Erickson (aka "DVD Savant") isn't quite as big a fan of MST3K as some of the rest of us; in his eyes, "the basic joke of lobbing snarky one-liners at helpless old B-pictures tended to run dry after awhile," though he grants that "Of course MST3K was funny, often hilariously so." He found Rifftrax's take on Missile to the Moon to be "fairly amusing, if only intermittently funny."
Carnival of Souls: Herk Harvey's moody, atmospheric, low-budget 1962 horror picture is one of the more respected films of this bunch (it has even received the full Criterion treatment), though Ian Jane thinks they find the right balance, writing that "the Rifftrax guys do a pretty good job of poking some well-intentioned fun at the film," finding the final product to be "a pretty tight and consistent entry in their growing catalogue."
Swing Parade: I found this poverty-row musical comedy (only remembered today for the supporting work of the Three Stooges) to be funny enough, particularly in the well-aimed shots at the often goofy songs and dance numbers. But it's not as strong as some of their other efforts because, quite simply, the movie being targeted isn't all that bad--it's no masterpiece, but it has its moments and the Stooges add some flavor.
Night of the Living Dead: The most-respected of the "sacred cows" in the bunch, George Romero's low-budget horror classic doesn't make for the easiest riffing target, according to Ian Jane's review. He notes that Living Dead "still holds up well despite its low budget origins," and finds that, though "the track does build up some good steam as it progresses," it is ultimately "moderately amusing in sporadic bursts, rather than consistently funny throughout."
Little Shop of Horrors: Lower marks went to Rifftrax's take on Roger Corman's black horror comedy, which Paul Mavis found lacking in new laughs. A fan of Little Shop, Paul argues that "the jokes that Mike, Kevin and Bill have to come up with should be on par - or better - than the ones they're denigrating. And frankly, that just doesn't happen here." He did find some laughs on this one, but, in his words, "a handful of notable one-liners do not a RiffTrax make."
So the first wave of Rifftrax DVDs may be a bit of a mixed bag, quality-wise, though our MST3K-friendly reviewers found all but two of them worthy of at least a "recommendation." The highest marks went to the Shorts compilations and Reefer Madness, but if we know one thing about fans of this crew, it's that they'll probably pick up the whole batch anyway. At least, that's what I'm planning to do...
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