Shout! Factory’s release of Cinematic Titanic brings together all of the team’s previous releases in one DVD case, but does the riffing of strange Philipino horror movies, incomplete sci-fi wrecks and technically challenged low-budget films hold up? Let’s find out.
Back in 2007, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson reunited with his original collaborators Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein, and MST3K alums Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Coniff, to return to movie riffing as Cinematic Titanic. Initially a live riffing show, Hodgson made an attempt to create a fictional contain for the groups direct-to-TV releases. And as seen in Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection, it is easy to understand why he abandoned the container. Instead, Hodgson chose to switch to recording the live shows for the final five episodes.
The Studio Episodes
The first seven episodes in the set are studio-bound productions with Joel and his fellow riffers appearing in shadow at the corners of the 4:3 video frame. The loose premise suggests the participants are meant to be themselves in a world where the “electron scaffolding” is breaking down and their riffing of bad movies is key to the future. Hodgson never develops the idea much beyond that. Which is okay as the concept never feels more than secondary.
By this point Rifftrax proved the fictional container was no longer needed to explain why people riff movies.
The films riffed during the studio episodes run the gamut from Al Adamson’s off-kilter monster-infused conspiracy flick Brain of Blood (called The Oozing Skull on this release for licensing reasons) to a repeat performance of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians; a film everyone but Weinstein previously suffered through for MST3K. Of the studio episodes, Doomsday Machine is probably the best version of Hodgson’s initial concept for the show. It introduces the premise and features host segments built out of events in the movie and the riffers own personalities. The film’s reach-exceeding-its-grasp quality also helps the riffing as wavering Russian accents and a terribly unfunny comic relief become great fuel for jokes.
Which isn’t to say there’s a stinker in the studio episodes. Some make for better riffing than others. And even when the riffs are not as fast or funny as they could be, the movies themselves are so mind-boggling strange that they entertain in their own right. Legacy of Blood‘s mishandled tone and fourth-wall breaking punchline are perfect examples. To say nothing of the craziness that is 1970s Filipino horror. In Blood of the Vampires, there’s a presumption that you understand the localized mythology. Which makes its notion of life after death stranger for the lack of context.
The Live Episodes
With the eighth episode, Hodgson abandons the “electron scaffolding” concept for the thing which really excited the group anyway: the live shows. Now produced in 16:9, the riffers appear face front on the edges of the frame. The energy, naturally, is different. Laughing fits break out as riffers miss cues. “Five: what a crappy number!” becomes a running joke as the films begin and the MST3K Season 11 running gag of “Bang!” makes early appearances thanks to Coniff. The films themselves are much slower than the studio-bound episodes, so the natural spontaneous laughter of the audience — and occasionally the riffers — is a welcome addition.
Adamson makes another appearance with East Meets Watts (originally called The Dynamite Brothers). Like The Oozing Skull and the MST3K Season 11 episode Carnival Magic, Adamson proves a worthy source of riffable movies. He’s right up there with Coleman Francis or Roger Corman in this regard. East Meets Watts, a martial arts/blacksploitation hybrid, might be the platonic ideal of movie riffing if it wasn’t so gosh-darn slow.
One of the live episodes also features another Philipino horror flick, Danger on Tiki Island, and is the better-riffed of the two. It’s also probably the better film for being much more ambitious and out there. It’s sort of like The Island of Dr. Moreau with some sort of atomic horror bolted on and a side-order of murderous trees. Add a terrible monster costume and you get great riffing material.
If there’s any great flaw in all of the Cinematic Titanic episodes, it is a sameness to the picture quality. Most of the films were made in the late 1960s and early ’70s, which means they are uniformly washed out and dreamlike. With the exception of Corman’s B&W The Wasp Woman, the desaturated colors from poorly preserved prints have a sedative effect. I know I started Legacy of Blood and The Alien Factor over a couple of times because I kept falling asleep.
The special features are simple, but revealing. The first disc contains a recent interview with Weinstein. He looks back on his time with Cinematic Titanic fondly and even alludes to it healing wounds from his MST3K departure.
The other is an archival behind-the-scenes look at the group on tour. Typically in pairs, the group riff on each other and the typical sort of questions asked in electronic press kit materials. The exuberance of Coniff and Pehl is particularly infectious.
If you like movie riffing and never picked up Cinematic Titanic in its earlier single-disc release days, this set is a must. The riffing is funny and Hodgson’s familiar voice is a welcome addition to the proceedings. The movies may have more visual and thematic similarities than a single season of MST3K generally allows, but they provide great sources of cheesy movie comedy.
Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection is available from Shout! Factory.