"They're not meant to be artistic at all. And if they are, they almost always fail. They're really sort of there to drive home a lesson or a purpose, so they're really screwed down and very intent in that. And sometimes they try to scare you into doing something better, and sometimes they try to teach you a moral lesson, and they always seem a little bit oppressive. And so you really get that delightful feeling of sitting in the back of the classroom and making fun of the movie that the teacher put on and then she went out and had a smoke while, you know, the kids in the back of the room are making fun of the movie. That's how it feels to me. It oddly enough takes me back to about fourth grade, when I used to actually watch some of these things, and snicker with my friends in the back of the room." -Kevin Murphy, on why educational shorts work so well for Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000
That sense of bad kids laughing and lobbing verbal balloons from the back of the classroom permeates the educational films assembled on Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2. The nine shorts (totaling nearly two hours) run the gambit of expected topics, from safety to hygiene to manners to social interaction, and they represent some of the strongest material that the Mystery Science Theater alums have yet produced; while some of the Rifftrax commentaries have been hit and miss, these shorts hold their own (along with some of their better features, like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space) against the best episodes of MST3K. (For a more detailed examination of the progression from MST to Rifftrax to the 10 stand-alone Rifftrax DVDs being released this month, see my Reefer Madness review.)
The collection gets off to a strong (if peculiar) start with "One Got Fat," a truly strange bicycle safety short where a group of kids, made up with creepy ape faces and tails ("a bicycle safety film where apes evolve from man?") , take a bike trip for a picnic and are, well, presumably killed along the way for various infractions of bicycling rules. The riffing is strong in this weird, weird, weird short; Bill Corbett constantly calls out the the goofy narrator as the "fractured fairy tale guy," (which he was, in fact) there's a good running joke about Kevin's insistence on multiple poo-throwing jokes, and when the film arrives at its morbid conclusion, Mike (correctly) sums it ups with the thesis, "Remember, safe bicycling leads to morbid obesity."
The next film (from Coronet's "Beginning Responsibility" series) is "Lunchroom Manners," in which a group of school kids view a Punch-and-Judy-style puppet show and allow its vulgarian villain, "Mr. Bungle," to make them thoroughly paranoid about their hygiene and behavior at lunchtime. The stifling conformity encouraged by these kinds of shorts always provides fertile comedic fodder for the crew, and this short provides many instances of what Murphy described to me as shorts being "the perfect straight men," because their narrators will solemnly intone their points and then leave long pauses for the guys to crack wise. That same kind of rhythm is present in the next film, "Every Child Is Different"--at one point, the narrator notes, "Dad knows his son has trouble reading," and their response is, "His co-workers remind him every day." This short, presumably geared towards teachers (it's hard to tell) is an epic (over 15 minutes) tale of five kids in a classroom and the (mostly depressing) lives that they lead outside of school. Favorite riff here: "Ruth's classmates voted her Most Likely to Inspire the Book Carrie."
The befuddling "Why Doesn't Cathy Eat Breakfast?" has been a favorite of mine since its appearance on one of those "Educational Archives" DVDs; they get some good one-liners off (some by giving voice to young Cathy), and can't make any more sense out of its non-conclusion than I could (Mike protests, "No Country for Old Men had better closure!"). "Cathy" is paired with the equally perplexing "Petaluma Chicken," a film so strange ("I see they're following David Lynch's omlet recipe") and ineptly assembled (the chunky sound cuts cause them to surmise that it was "edited by Rosemary Woods"), so odd and nonsensical, that it becomes one of their funniest achievements.
In "Act Your Age (Emotional Maturity)," a young man commits the unpardonable sin of carving his initials into his desk ("Sorry, son, we're going to have to hang you"); the short then explores the idea of shaming young people into maturity. Some good throwaway laughs here (Narrator: "You've seen the girl who always has to win an argument..." Bill: "Tucker Carlson?"), though it does highlight the crew's occasional tendency to ride a weak joke too hard (there's way too many lines about the principal's mustache). Without question, the goofiest short of the bunch is "Safety: Harm Hides At Home," in which a crossing guard/"free-lance architect" (kudos for the Art Vandelay reference) is made into a lame, Mylar-suited superhero ("Guardiana, the Safety Woman") by aliens. Yes, you read that right. Enjoy the odd editing ("Did you enjoy the poster I beamed into your mind, Miss Kingsley?"), the strange writing, and the peculiar characterizations ("She's like a browbeating, joyless Santa Claus").
"Coffee House Rendezvous" is some kind of a low-budget documentary about coffee-house culture, which provides the opportunity for merciless send-ups from the guys; they mock the bad musicians and square sixties look of the groups (dubbing one The Charles Grodin Trio), while coming to the conclusion that "If this is what coffee does to people, I'm glad this generation discovered acid." Shorts that advise the youth on how to interact with each other are always a hoot, and "Are You Popular?" is no exception; of the title, Mike notes, "The answer, if you're watching this film, is no." As with many of these films, the teens are played by hopelessly over-aged actors ("I'm 47, I've pretty much done it all"); the best part comes at the end, as they provide play-by-play for the film's dramatization of a particularly goofy date. The final short, "Good Health Practices," is a particularly detailed health and hygiene short. I might complain about the amount of gross-out humor in this one, but the short brings it on itself; in addition to "good eating practices," "good cleaning practices," and "good rest practices," the jive narration includes multiple references to, God help us, "good toilet practices." So all bets are off at that point.
As anyone who has seen these shorts on previous compilations or at archive.org can tell you, they haven't exactly been well-preserved; the extent of the damage varies from short to short, but most have a multitude of lines, scratches, dirt, specks, and skipped frames (sometimes commented on: "The film has the hiccups!"). Those glitches are expected and, indeed, often part of the charm. The trouble here is that two of these shorts ("Safety: Harm Hides at Home" and "Are You Popular?") have been badly transferred--they're way over-compressed, and suffer from choppy, distracting interlacing issues. I'm not sure if this is the same issue my colleague Paul Mavis noted on Rifftrax's Little Shop of Horrors disc, but it's definitely a problem.
The basic 2.0 English audio is perfectly adequate; again, some of the shorts are pretty beat-up, and there are occasional pops or hisses, but they don't distract from the overall presentation. The new Rifftrax audio is clean and tight, with no audibility issues.
Nothing in the way of special features--not even the original audio tracks offered on the Rifftrax feature film DVDs. Not sure why you'd want to watch them clean, but it's a nice option to have.
The insert gives the viewer a promo code for a free download of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets from the Rifftrax website. I praised this inclusion on the Reefer Madness disc, but I was presuming that they were giving out a different free download with each disc. However, the three that I got for early review are all for the Potter film; as there are plenty of fans who are going to buy many, if not all, of the ten discs in Rifftrax's first wave, it seems like a rip-off to stick them with ten downloads of the same track.
Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2 offers plenty of big laughs and the chance to watch Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett doing what they do best--unsparing mocking of really terrible films, replete with smart-ass humor and countless pop culture references. The uneven quality of the transfer is disappointing, but that blemish is minor when weighed against the pleasures to be found here.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.