Tag: Bad Movies

The Return of MST3K -- Part 3: Behind the Camera

The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.

Shooting Yourself in the Hoof

You know how a single ill-considered comment can overshadow absolutely everything else you say in an interview?

Well, if you've read the news today you can probably think of a pretty good case-in-point, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

Last Thursday I went to a Rifftrax presentation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, which ended with a fan video entitled Take It Easy, Torgo Style which I duly posted here.

The fellow in the video is Rupert Talbot Munch, who runs the site torgolives.com and who is working on an honest-to-God sequel to Manos, featuring as much of the original cast, and their families, as he could find.

The other night I poked around his (turn-of-the-century throwback red-on-black Flash) site and, after a series of dead-end "Coming Soon" links that directed me back to the main page with its autoplay music, eventually ran across a link to a Fangoria interview with Munch.

Now, Munch seems like a neat dude. Clearly he's an über fan; he's got a good costume, a sense of humor, and has shown legitimate dedication in getting the band back together and getting this sequel made. Plus a documentary. Plus...well, this is where everything goes wrong.

And if that wasn't enough, Munch and co. have been busy spiffing up MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE for high definition. "We, the people who represent the original cast and all things MANOS, have been working on the HD restoration for over 14 months," he says. "Recently, some kid who found a print of MANOS at an auction is trying to cash in with the same idea. Myself and Joe Warren do not acknowledge, recognize, or approve of what this kid is doing. In the end, we just ask that the fans hold onto their money and wait for our version. It will include tons of never-before-seen footage, plenty of extras, cast and crew commentary, interviews...plus surprises. And the proceeds will go back to Joe Warren and the MANOS faithful."

Now -- possibly due to how legitimately difficult it is to find the link to this article from the torgolives site -- there are only 5 comments at the bottom of the article. And four of them are eight months old and the fifth is from me. But I do think it's telling that four of them (including mine) are negative responses to that one little paragraph out of the entire article.

Let's back up a bit. The "kid" he's talking about is Ben Solovey, and the restoration project he's talking about is Manos in HD.

Solovey, as Munch notes, got his hands on a work print of Manos and decided to restore it; he wrote about the experience.

Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60′s, a contemporary of 1962′s Carnival of Souls and 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him.

[...]

If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. [...] It's all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it's memorable.

[...]

So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I've resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.

[...]

In addition to making a digital restoration of Manos of sufficient quality to produce a new print or digital projection files, I will be creating a limited run Blu-ray and making the restoration available for repertory screenings. While it remains to be seen if this film is for anything but a niche market, I also feel that if I don't restore it no one else will.

Film restoration is something that too often falls by the wayside in troubled economic times. Though it's doubtful I will change anyone's minds about Manos, I would like to send a message that every film, regardless of the place it holds in movie history, deserves a fair shot to be maintained and presented in the best way possible.

Now does that sound to you like "some kid trying to cash in"?

Because, okay, first of all? If a guy were looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and he told you he had a plan to release Manos: The Hands of Fate on Blu-Ray...well, look, that's a pretty fucking terrible get-rich-quick scheme, is what I'm getting at.

Yes, Solovey wound up exceeding his Kickstarter goal by some $38,000 -- but he had no idea that was going to happen when he bought the print. Even with the extra money, it's not clear if he's turned a profit or simply put that money back into making the project better than he had originally planned.

Point is, this sounds a lot more like a labor of love, born of a genuine desire to preserve a historical curiosity. And Munch kinda just pissed all over it.

And here's the thing: Manos has a pretty fucking small fanbase. If "fanbase" is even the right word. There is a whole hell of a lot of overlap between Munch's audience and Solovey's audience.

And I can relate to Munch realizing this and being upset -- to him, Solovey is unwelcome, unexpected competition, and threatens not just his bottom line but the exposure of a project that, to him, Joe Warren, and the rest, is also a labor of love.

But dude, one fan dumping on another fan? Very bad form. And incredibly off-putting to the fellow fans who you are trying to convince to buy your product instead of his.

So Mr. Munch, if you're reading this? (Not implausible, really; I'm often surprised by what kind of searches pull this site up.) Here's how I think you should handle it:

"We are aware of Ben Solovey's unofficial restoration project; he is not affiliated with myself, Joe Warren, or the Search for Valley Lodge team. We wish him the best but believe our restored version will be the superior product, as we have access to a higher-quality print, a larger restoration team, and many of the original cast and crew members."

Something like that. Make your case, explain why you think people should buy your version instead of his -- by all means! Nothing wrong with some friendly competition! But don't insult the guy. Don't mock his skill or his motives.

And I also get that Joe Warren may have a sense of ownership over his father's film. That's totally understandable! But the thing is, he doesn't own Manos. Manos belongs to all of us -- and that's not in some fanboy "Star Wars belongs to all of us" sense; Manos is public domain and legally belongs to all of us.

Somebody besides you and Warren wants to restore Manos? He has every right to. Somebody else wants to adapt it as a Zelda 2-style iPhone game? Totally acceptable too. And -- not to put too fine a point on it -- some guys from Minnesota want to put it on a show where a couple of puppets make sarcastic remarks about it? Yeah, that's legal too.

And so while, again, it's totally understandable if Warren has a sense of ownership toward the property, and is miffed when somebody else exploits its public-domain status without his family's blessing -- well, if somebody hadn't exploited its public-domain status without his family's blessing, we wouldn't be having this conversation. If Manos hadn't entered into the public domain and wound up in a box of movies that eventually made their way to Frank Conniff and MST3K, there would be no Manos sequel, no Manos restoration, no Manos documentary -- because nobody would know what the fuck Manos was.

All of this may seem a little harsh, but really, if you ever read this, Mr. Munch, I'd like to repeat that you seem like a cool guy, I love what you're doing, and I look forward to seeing your finished work. I just think you've made a pretty unfortunate misstep on this -- unfortunate enough that it overshadows all the cool stuff you talk about in that interview -- and in the future I'd advise a couple of things:

  1. Remember that Ben Solovey is a fan just like you and me, and just like you and unlike me he has put a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making something lasting out of this silly-ass movie.
  2. And dude, seriously, do something about that website.

A Frank Frazetta of Frank Zappa

Image: Portrait of the Master
Image courtesy of manosinhd.com

Caught the Rifftrax of Manos: The Hands of Fate this evening. It was great fun; all new riffs, plus two fun new shorts.

Also, it closed with this:

Back to the subject of Zappa: Zappa, because he appreciated things that were awesome, was an MST3K fan. Purportedly he once described the experience of watching the show and suddenly hearing a reference to himself as "unsettling". (Unfortunately I can't seem to find the interview where I originally read that at the moment...)

Ephemera: The Day the Clown Cried

The other week I went to Phoenix Comicon with some family and friends.

On the train ride home, my uncle commented that cons aren't like in the old days -- it used to be this was your only chance to connect with other fans, your only chance to see the movies that were screening. Now, he said, everything's on the Internet.

I got to thinking -- are there any famously obscure movies that are so obscure they aren't on the Internet?

Yes. The Day the Clown Cried is not on the Internet.

Appropriately, I first heard of the movie from TV's Frank Conniff, in his blog on the Cinematic Titanic site. (I'd provide a link, but the old blogs don't appear to be up anymore.) CT is, of course, dedicated to mocking bad movies, and Clown is something of the Holy Grail of bad movies.

It's a Jerry Lewis flick about a clown in a concentration camp. It's supposed to be a Serious Film. It spent years in development hell and, when the rights reverted to the authors of the book it was based on, they refused to allow its release.

Lewis has a copy. He screens it for friends sometimes. Harry Shearer saw it in '79 and said, in a 1992 Spy Magazine article,

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presense of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. Oh My God! - thats all you can say.

Aside from that, there are some tantalizing bits about the film on the Internet. There's a Wikipedia page, of course, and Film Buff Online has a review of the script. The most exhaustive fan site appears to be Subterranean Cinema, which has multiple revisions of the script, footage from the set, the above-linked Spy article, and pretty much everything there is to satisfy your curiosity on this curiosity.

I can't help thinking that some day, the complete film will be on the Internet.