Poor Roger Corman. First Retromedia plasters his face across The Roger Corman Puerto Rico Trilogy, three public domain titles in eye-straining, at times literally out-of-focus transfers, then BCI slaps his puss even more prominently on the cover of The Cult Films of Roger Corman, a ten-film set of unwatchable transfers that might have been mastered in somebody's tool shed. He had nothing to do with either release. Now comes something like the 25th DVD incarnation (no foolin') of Corman's The Wasp Woman (1959), about a middle-aged cosmetics company president (Susan Cabot) and her search for eternal youth. I requested the title naively hoping this extremely low budget but somewhat interesting film might look better than its earlier public domain releases, and to some degree it does; while far from perfect, it's an entirely watchable presentation. If only.
Turns out this Wasp Woman has been adapted as a self-described "movie riffing show" by a label calling itself Cinematic Titanic. It's essentially Mystery Science Theater 3000 in all but name, as it features that program's original cast, also the label's owners: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein, as well as Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff.
The format is in all essentials unchanged: As the movie unspools, this quintet of would-be comics appear in silhouette at the bottom and sides of the screen - not recommended for plasma TV owners; you may be permanently burning them into your TV screen! - cracking wise, almost non-stop, at the action partially blocked onscreen. There are tasteless jokes about Susan Cabot's real-life murder, every lame bee/wasp joke imaginable ("Music by Sting!" says one performer; "Buzzzzzz!" cries another; "Many, many bees were harmed in the making of this movie!" quips a third), and innumerable obvious pop culture references, everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Monty Python's Flying Circus, which someone quotes at length like a geeky fan.
There seems to be no middle ground with shows like this; you either love 'em or hate 'em. DVD Talk's Brian Orndorf is clearly an admirer but for this reviewer, setting aside the ethical problems of such shows for a moment, it's the cinematic equivalent of having bamboo splinters jammed up under the fingernails. I've sat through some pretty dire comedies over the years - Joe De Rita's solo two-reelers, endless Joe McDoakes shorts, Invasion of the Star Creatures, Loose Cannons, Nothing But Trouble (both versions!) - but this was 70-plus minutes of sheer agony, utterly mirthless. Despite its brief length it took me three days to get through it; even in short doses I thought it would never end.
One man's meat is another man's poison, I suppose, but what's so clever about sneering at an old movie, rattling off extremely obvious, condescending comments at the easy targets onscreen? I've watched ordinary "civilians" with no show business ambitions effortlessly come up with funnier ad-libs than this fivesome's scripted material.*
It's as if people like Hodgson et.al., lack the talent to create their own, original comedy, so instead like parasites they latch onto the efforts of others. People like Hodgson prefer to describe what they do as "[riffing] the movies we love," but that's really just a euphemism for contempt-laden mockery. Maybe what I find so unfunny about a show like this is that while on one hand it's a type of humor rooted in an attitude of superiority - We're so much hipper than that garbage - yet the unfunny material utterly contradicts that assertion because it's on such an anti-creative level.**
The movies that serve as the backdrops for these shows usually are in the public domain - if Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz were PD, I guarantee you they'd be "riffed," too - and for this reason the original creators and/or their heirs do not receive licensing fees, nor is their permission required to make fun of their work. (To its credit, though possibly to avoid legal trouble, Cinematic Titanic admits this in a disclaimer up-front.) Some would argue that the movies appearing on these shows are lousy anyway, so what difference does it make? But that's not only missing the point it ignores the facts that a) often that's not the case - The Wasp Woman, for instance, is now generally regarded as a minor but interesting programmer, well-made for its budget, with proto-feminist elements - and b) the vast majority of people working in the world of cheap movies were trying their best with the money and time available to them. (Producer Jerry Warren was a notable exception.) Could the folks at Cinematic Titanic do better under similar circumstances? Probably not.
Another problem I have with shows like this is that they perpetuate unnecessarily negative misperceptions about old movies, the kind of backward thinking that causes some to avoid black and white movies because they're not in color, or silent movies because they don't have "sound." For a while, during MST3K's peak, even less talented imitators were encouraged to try their hand at public showings of old movies, whether invited to do so or not. Making fun of old movies because they don't have exactly the same conventions, technology, and visual style of present-day films is truly odious thinking, and a real disservice to impressionable viewers (pre-teens are probably a big portion of this label's audience) who, partly thanks to shows like these, develop prejudices against old movies generally, except as things to be derided.
Video & Audio
As mentioned above, if you own a plasma TV, this edition of The Wasp Woman is not for you; there's a good chance it'll burn a permanent silhouette of the cast on your TV. (Me, I'd rather have the CNN logo or the "Bilko" on the Sgt. Bilko DVD menu screen.) The movie itself is full frame, and a halfway decent print, not that it matters in the slightest. If you want to see the movie, not the show - don't buy this. The original film in its original form is not available here. If it had been, I might have been inclined to recommend the DVD just for that. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options, and no Extra Features.
The Wasp Woman deserves better. Hell, even Manos, the Hands of Fate deserves better. Skip It.
* My favorite to this day remains something writer Christopher Potter (or maybe Jeff Mortimer) said at an Oscar Party I attended, when Sophia Loren came onstage to present an award. "I remember my first Oscar..." she started to say, when he continued, "'I was 13, he was 15.'"
** I wrote an anti-Mystery Science Theater 3000 column for The Ann Arbor News almost 20 years ago, an article that actually prompted its own so-called MSTing, a "riff" still easily accessible on the Net. Like the TV show its worst offense is that it...just...ain't...funny.
This month Stuart Galbraith IV celebrates his 5th Anniversary at DVD Talk. You can read the very first review here.