"The Oozing Skull" is the first installment of the new venture, "Cinematic Titanic," the latest effort to resurrect the rollicking riff world created by the landmark television series, "Mystery Science Theater 3000." For those playing at home, we now have Mike Nelson's "RiffTrax," "The Film Crew" (with Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett), and Jim Mallon's animated Bot adventures at mst3k.com. Heavens, it's a great time to be a fan of cruddy cinema, the Satellite of Love, and wiseacre one-liners.
While the other endeavors try to evoke the far-reaching legacy of MST while maintaining distance, "Cinematic Titanic" on the other hand feels like the logical continuation: slipping back into the comfy sweater of the sci-fi chuckle machine, only removing said sci-fi, taking the action to the bow of a ship, and adding some talent in front of the cameras. Yes, that's right; the silhouettes are back, filled here by richly talented MST alumni J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, and the granddad of the modern riff, Joel Hodgson.
There are plenty of reasons to get excited about "Cinematic Titanic," but tops of the pops has to be the return of Hodgson to the riffing arena. His spiky non sequiturs and head-spinning pop culture references are like gold to these ears, finally ending a 14-year absence from the genre with another creation that's pure ecstasy to behold. I hate to typecast the guy, but damn he's good at this stuff.
Using MST as a template, "Cinematic Titanic" is essentially the same concept: comics on a green-screen set making fun of a dreadful movie. Instead of theater seats blocking off the bottom of the screen, we now spot railings and seats on the sides of the frame, where our heroes set up shop lobbing the riffs from standing and sitting positions. It's not as chaotic as it sounds. In fact, it's pretty nifty, permitting the cast freedom to get up and enjoy more physical set-pieces, which come into play during the familiar "host segments," where chandeliers are lowered and short bits are trotted out, including a vomiting Al Hirt and Weinstein doing his best Pete Townshend impression.
As for the movie, "Cinematic Titanic" could not have been christened by a better title if it tried. "The Oozing Skull" (originally titled "Brain of Blood") is a 1972 stick of schlock that mixes weird science, little people (played by Angelo Rossitto, Master from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"), brain transplants, hick battery-acid-happy bullies, disfigured monsters, popped car hoods, dungeons, car chases, rooftop fights, and intercontinental intrigue all into 80 minutes of wheezy matinee filmmaking the cast delights in pummeling with gags.
The riffing here is outstanding, making use of the newly populated room, allowing everyone their unique opportunity to land a blow. Heck, even Stephen Hawking rolls in to crack jokes. The riffs are lead by Hodgson's aforementioned askew hilarity (he manages to massage in a Howard 100 reference!), but soon the pop culture targets rise up (Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, "Kid Nation"), chased by a solid helping of the MST standard: suburban Minnesota in-jokes. The gags are a bit oversold by the cast, who gesticulate wildly to register onscreen, but those first-time jitters will sort themselves out over time.
I guess if I had any criticism at all it would be the overall stiffness of the episode. The riffing goes to sleep at the midway point for a handful of minutes, and the cast seems afraid to pounce on the silly with the velocity of joy honed at MST. I wouldn't even call these criticisms, just observations, knowing full well once the oil can is applied fully to the "Cinematic Titanic" format, the brand is sure to skyrocket.
The full frame presentation mixes sharply outlined "Cinematic Titanic" props and sets with the severely beaten "Oozing Skull" print, and that's the perfect way to enjoy the program. It's a low-fi endeavor, so expect low-fi results.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also blessedly simple. All that's required is a nice separation of riffs and the movie's original soundtrack, and that's precisely what the DVD offers.
Nothing to be found here, though a special note on packaging: there's none. Shipped in a thin paper sleeve, I hope the "Cinematic Titanic" distribution machine decides to throw in a plastic case for the next release (at the very least to protect the disc during its arduous U.S. postal system journey).
The riff world gets a blast of sunshine with the presence of "Cinematic Titanic," a rousing reworking of MST with just enough new sprinkled in there to further the process and lift the laugh standards. It's unbelievable to have Hodgson back in the riff world, but what makes this new venture such an explosive success is how much the rest of the program matches his intoxicating level of inspiration. I can't wait to see where this ship will dock next.