The RiffTrax crew are back to fill that empty hole in your life that's been missing since MST3K left the air. Only this time, they've decided to revisit those short films that sometimes preceded the feature turkey of the week. You may remember seeing many of these unintentional masterpieces of comedy during your school years. Obviously the guys did and they spare no expense into mining the laughs so densely packed in these brief (10-15 minutes each) short films. As a fan of MST3K, I find these short collections a great place for non-fans to start as there is not a time where any of these films start to drag and cause lulls in the laughs. However, unlike the other feature film releases of this new line, there's no option to watch the films by themselves, so keep this in mind, if for some reason you just wanted a budget release of goofy educational films.
When you're a major fan of movies, sooner or later you're going to run across something so awful, it becomes too funny to ignore. During the 90s a group of like-minded individuals capitalized on this fact and made a little program called "Mystery Science Theater 3000." The format in nutshell revolved around three guys (in character as men and wise-cracking robots) providing a running, mocking commentary of whatever awful movie they could find. While the show changed cast members during the course of its run, it ended with three very funny, talented men at the helm: Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.
Nelson returned to the "riffing" scene a few years back, providing downloadable commentaries for major motion pictures through a website called RiffTrax. Soon after, he was rejoined by Corbett and Murphy and things for MST3K fans were getting good again. Recently, RiffTrax and Legend films have been able to release a series of DVDs featuring these commentaries added to the disc. While the majority of these releases are older films, two volumes feature short educational films, which many MST3K fans will remember as being a major source in pure unintentional and often mind boggling humor. This first volume aptly titled: "The Best of RiffTrax Shorts Volume 1" collects nine short films that are bound to both scare and amuse.
SHORTS: VOLUME ONE
The disc begins with "Down and Out" which appears to be a standard workplace safety film, but quickly devolves into a primer for the clumsiest people to ever stumble the face of the earth. I wasn't aware until now that sidewalk chalk was such a common source of debris on the factory floor. This piece is a great opener to the collection as it provides some very broad obvious laughs for the guys to run with. The next piece "Patriotism" would have been a classic on its own due to the incessant promotion of mundane daily tasks as ways to be patriotic, but if this truly baffling piece wasn't absurd enough, it's hosted by the late, but still creepy Bob Crane. My reaction to Crane's appearance was the same as the RiffTrax gang: instant laughter, as a joke comes flying within microseconds of Crane's face coming into frame. If you're not sure why Bob Crane hosting a school film on patriotism isn't funny on its own, you're a fortunate soul.
"Buying Food" continues the trend of just plain odd subject matter and I'm still not clear what the intended age of the audience is. Apparently there are two kinds of shoppers in this world: frugal women who stretch every dollar, and clueless men who buy gallons of oysters and mystery vegetables the size of boulders. "Skipper Learns a Lesson" is the harrowing tale of a racist dog that loves Lou Dobbs. However, it racism isn't the focal point of this short, instead it takes a backseat to...poster paint. Will the other dogs chase Skipper out of town? You'll have to check this one out for yourself.
"Right or Wrong?" is your standard tale of a troubled, window breaking youth. The sweeping generalizations lead to some more broad humor from the gang. Thankfully things get more interesting with "Drugs Are Like That." Nothing tells kids to not do drugs than mixing drugs and Legos with an up beat drug jingle that never really says drugs are bad. Over the course of this 16-minute piece you'll find out that drug addiction is just like a baby who loves a pacifier or the "step on a crack" sidewalk game. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the two kids talking about drugs while building Legos were one some magic pills of their own. "The Trouble With Women" lets us in on the biggest concern facing supervisors in the workplace: women. Yes, women do nothing but slow down modern society with their inability to operate oscilloscopes, move desks when asked, and pesky penchant for getting married and needing time off from work. Sadly this film gives us no solution for these women and the trouble they cause, men will just have to put up with them.
The disc concludes with two final shorts "It Must Be the Neighbors" and "Shake Hands with Danger." The former may sound like a McCarthy era propaganda film, but in reality, it tackles the serious issue of lazy neighbors, standing water, and mosquitoes. Don't worry though, everyone is saved from malaria due to the ingenuity of young nerds and their hero worship of a local health inspector. "Shake Hands with Danger" is presented differently than the other eight shorts, as it features the gang as animated characters in a theater (an obvious nod to the MST3K days). While I loved the short since it provided the gang with fuel for some rapid-fire mockery, I could have done without the animated characters. It was too distracting compared to the classic MST3K outlines. Frankly, I'm just fine without any sort of visual nod to the guys watching these.
Simply put this set truly lives up to its title. 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. The humor ranges from broad to obscure (there was one short that featured a recurring jab at Kelsey Grammar that I had to really think about to get), some may find the more obscure stuff frustrating, but that's what makes the RiffTrax guys so appealing to film geeks like myself. They are able to reach all audiences and despite a few racier jokes, nothing exceeds the PG-13 level. If you have an idea of what the source material for these videos are like and that piques your interest, than you'll likely be entertained by this first volume of shorts.
The original full frame presentation is not pretty. Since all of these films are in the public domain and 35-50 years old, the source material is flat out ugly. The films are littered with print damage from start too finish. Oddly this actually adds to the charm of these films, but nothing is bad enough to make them unwatchable my any means.
The 2.0 English audio serves its purpose. Like the video quality the audio on these shorts is what you'd expect for an educational filmstrip. You'll hear tinny hollow voices and the semi regular pop and hiss, but the riffing itself comes through with pure clarity.
If you have a couple hours to spare and want don't mind laughing nearly the entire time, "The Best of RiffTrax Shorts: Volume One," is a great place to enter the brilliant world of Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy's unique brand of humor. Fans of the group will likely buy this site unseen along with the second volume, due out the same time as this disc. These guys roast these turkeys justly, but never hit below the belt (they leave that for the shorts themselves). It's all good spirited fun and the humor is likely to hold up strongly on repeat viewings. Highly Recommended.