It’s been almost 10 years since the final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired, but I’m happy to report that the legacy lives on. Not just through a dedicated community of fans trading episodes, but through the creative forces behind the series. There are actually two post-MST3K projects kicking around these days – Cinematic Titanic features MST3K originals Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu (Crow #1 & Dr. Clayton Forrester), J. Elvis Weinstein (Tom Servo #1), and Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), as well as later addition Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester). I’ve never seen any of their stuff to be honest, but then again I was never a huge Joel fan.
I have seen a fair number of works by RiffTrax, headed by former MST3K host and head writer Michael J. Nelson, as well as Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo #2 & Observer) and Bill Corbett (Crow #2 & Professor Bobo). It’s pretty much a continuation of latter-day MST3K in terms of humor, just without the iconic silhouettes and skits.
RiffTrax also differs from both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic in that it is available as audio-only tracks, which means they don’t have to pay any licensing fees for the movies they make fun of. This gives them the freedom to stray from the usual B-movie fare riff on more mainstream films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or, more recently, Twilight. But during last night’s special live performance of RiffTrax, the gang went back to their roots and brought forth a colorized version of the godfather of all awful movies – Ed Wood’s immortal Plan 9 from Outer Space.
So how did the whole thing work? Well it went down like this – the trio convened at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee and read their lines in front of a live audience. This was broadcast via satellite to hundreds of theaters throughout the country (sorry west coast, you got tape delay). Fortunately, though, the evening was more of an entertainment event than just a movie with commentary. The festivities were hosted by Veronica Belmont (yeah, I had never heard of her either) and featured a few hilarious “ads” produced by Rich Kyanka of Something Awful, as well as a performance by internet troubador Jonathan Coulton (who played “The Future Soon” and “Re: Your Brains”). Coulton was later joined on stage by Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy (as the RiffTones) to perform an original number called “Plans 1-9”.
This was all very entertaining stuff, but the big highlight of the pre-movie warmup was the debut of a new RiffTrax short, “Flying Stewardesses”. Shorts like this, which were produced in the ’50s and are high in unintentional comedy value to start with, seem to be custom made for Nelson and company, and they hit this one out of the park. I guess you had to be there to get it, but all I can say is “sorry, Fort Worth”. The only downside was that the satellite feed to our theater was a little glitchy at times (think DirecTV during a storm), meaning we missed some lines. It could’ve been worse, as I’ve read reports that some theaters lost their feed altogether. Bummer, dude.
So anyway, how about that Plan 9 from Outer Space? I had never actually seen it before and now that I have I long for the days before I did. Don’t get me wrong, the riffing was high quality and the nearly full theater was laughing the whole time. It’s just that the movie…
See, there are basically two categories of B-movies. The first are films that are bad but still have some redeeming qualities. The writers and producers had a definite vision and a story to tell, but lacked the budget and (usually) the skill required to bring a fully realized picture to life. These movies are cheesy and groan-inducing but ultimately fun to watch. They also make great MST3K-esque fodder.
Plan 9 from Outer Space falls squarely into the other category – the one where it’s never clear just what the hell anyone was thinking or why the film needed to exist at all. There’s no “it’s so bad it’s good” going on here – it’s just plain bad. I know there was something about an alien plot to stop earthlings from creating some terrible superweapon that could destroy the universe. I’m a little less certain as to how they planned to accomplish this by reviving three dead bodies (two of whom mysteriously turned into vampires).
More than anything, though, I felt bad for the late Bela Lugosi. Plan 9 features the last filmed footage of Lugosi, who by the time of his death in 1956 had become fairly desperate for work and struggled with a long addiction to painkillers. He doesn’t have more than 5-10 minutes of screen time and was poorly replaced by a few different body doubles, which was probably for the best.
Given the rather severe handicap of this painful movie, the RiffTrax crew delivered some great lines and made it as watchable as possible. All told, it was money well spent and a very enjoyable evening. I hope the attendance across the country was high enough to warrant future live events, as I’d definitely be up for more.