When "Mystery Science Theater 3000" was kicked off the air in 1999 after a mesmerizing ten-year run, it left a colossal void in the comedy world. Where would we get our sarcastic comments thrashing trashy B-moves now? Our liberal dose of strange and obscure literary and pop culture references testing the limitations of the viewer's intellect and geekdom? The enchantment of occasional song stylings between robot and human? It was a dark time for fans of the beloved television program.
In what can only be described as an MSTie miracle, the current rebirth of the show, or more specifically the format, has resulted in two worthy additions to the kingdom sure to please anyone hungering for professional cinematic sassmouth. The first is Mike Nelson's RiffTrax experiment (rifftrax.com), which allows the public to purchase "riffing" audio tracks that sync up to films that would never undergo the treatment willingly ("Battlefield Earth," "Star Trek V," and "Eragon" are great examples). The comedic quality of the selections has varied wildly, but Nelson (often with crony Kevin Murphy, along with a wild assortment of guests) has done a superb job keeping the riff dream alive and ticklish with his scrappy DIY moxie and fan-pleasing principals.
If "Rifftrax" is the low tech way to huff "MST3K" fumes, "The Film Crew" is the closest fans will ever get to the Satellite of Love without being jettisoned into space.
The concept is this: Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett (perhaps better known as "Crow Deux") are working-class stiffs, stuck in a basement awaiting orders from their boss, Bob Honcho. It seems the Film Crew's job is to lay down audio commentary tracks for feature films that would normally never see the attention, so they dutifully go about business in their matching uniforms, strapping themselves into Howard Cosell-era audio headgear to rake the movies offered to them over the coals. Hey, it's a living.
"Hollywood After Dark" is the inaugural title of Shout Factory's "Film Crew" DVD series (three others will see release throughout the year) and it sends the boys off in grand fashion. 1968's "Dark" defies most description, but let's just say it features Rue McClanahan as a stripper and yes, you read that right. Rue McClanahan. Stripping. There's some utter nonsense about a heist, a pair of classic daddy-o bad guys, and an honest stab at addressing the perils of wannabe stardom. However, all that pales in comparison to the fact that the future Blanche Devereaux drops her kit in the picture. I've officially seen everything now.
"The Film Crew" plays out in the same fashion as "MST3K," only now the boys generally perform as themselves (emphasizing the corporate workday drudgery), no silhouette is used, and the riffing content, as well as the film itself, contains a more adult edge, allowing for mild cursing and, in the case of "Dark," a more liberal deconstruction of the sexual themes present. Otherwise, it's the same comedic mastery fans have come to expect from these talented actors and their boundless imagination for insults and satiric banter.
The riffs are acerbic, smutty, and near perfect in "Dark;" imagining a Darren Aronofsky-inspired strip routine, spotting a young Condoleezza Rice doppelganger performing a spastic dance number, making the requisite West Hollywood jokes, trying to process the unforgiving visual of a sweaty, thrusting Rue, and returning to the fertile ground of "Lord of the Rings" jokes and "Narnia" references.
Perhaps the largest deviation from the "MST3K" formula is the Film Crew's usage of only one breather during the DVD, branded here as a "Lunch Break." Taking five minutes out of the middle of the program to focus on Bill's attempt at a brainstorming session, the results are lackluster; absent the wit and natural goofiness that informed the "MST3K" host sequences. When the riffing is going this well, it's almost criminal to halt the fun for something comedically deadly.
Imagine Rhino's presentation of the "MST3K" DVDs, and you'll have a close approximation of what the new "Film Crew" brand offers. While suffering from a low-budget video softness, the disc is without any visual hiccups. "Hollywood After Dark" is appropriately grainy and well-worn, adding to the fun.
Presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital, audio is crisp and clear in both the host segments and the riffing arena. It's a limited presentation, but all the basics are covered -every comment is easily understood.
A poem by Bill Corbett, entitled "An Ode to Lunch," is the DVD's only extra. A two-minute love letter to everyone's favorite midday meal, "Lunch" is strictly for lovers of language.
"Rifftrax" has the benefit of being timely and versatile. "MST3K" had the legacy and the quality that made it a classic television program with timeless appeal. "The Film Crew" falls somewhere in the middle, bringing back the ecstasy of a carefully planned riff session with three guys well versed in the genre, yet falling just short of the impossible expectations that lord over this endeavor like the "2001" monolith. Still, it's outstanding to see Mike, Kevin, and Bill fighting bravely to keep the concept alive, and the "Film Crew" DVD series is a sweet treat for the faithful who've missed watching these affable B-movie slayers in front of the camera, entertaining the pants off viewers like nobody's business.