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Bad Movies Are Bad: A Few Comments (and Criticisms) on MST3K and Rifftrax

July 10, 2014 - 7:56 am   |   By 

It seems appropriate that I’m sitting here with a VHS copy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode The Hellcats by my side (and not with the express intention of mentioning it for this article).  Upon the day of the release of the Rifftrax Live show of Sharknado, I felt the urge to throw some of my thoughts and opinions about MST3K and its spin-offs out there just to have a little bit of perspective on the sudden growth in popularity of riffing on movies.  And I already went into a pretty solid amount of detail about the show’s history when I reviewed the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of the movie of MST3K, so I won’t bother doing any sort of a recap.  Chances are high that if you’re reading this article, you’re a fan of the show. So let’s just dive into it. [Read on here...]

 

A Love of the Worst

Mystery Science Theater 3000 celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, as well as the return of the classic Turkey Day Marathon that was streamed live on YouTube (which was a tradition during the show’s original run).  It’s hard to believe that a show this smart and funny has been off the air for nearly fifteen years.  As for me, I’d consider myself a novice when it comes to how long I’ve been associated with the show.  I’ve spoken to several fans who have been followers of the show quite religiously from its humble beginnings at KTMA.  Truth be told, I’ve only really been watching the show for about four years or so, which isn’t really enough to consider myself a super-fan (if you want to revoke my fan card, then by all means you can have it).  But ever since I began watching it, I’ve had it on heavy rotation, and that includes its spin-offs Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic.  I watch an episode of the show a couple of times a week, so I think I’m pretty well-educated on it.

Joel MST3K

I’m also a lover of unintentionally bad movies, so the two things go together well for me.  The proof is in the pudding that many movies have been given a second life by pointing out how awful and poorly put together they are and finding enjoyment in them because of it.  The lack of film language, poorly-written dialogue, stories that don’t make much sense, poor lighting and poor cinematography are a recipe for an unintentionally bad movie.  Other internet shows like Best of the Worst from the folks at Red Letter Media (another favorite of mine) have really helped to further popularize finding the fun in watching the failures of others, namely, filmmakers.  In the age of everything in a media form becoming self-aware, coming under extreme scrutinization, or just being lampooned or referenced for the sake of it, it’s no surprise that MST3K still has a devoted, and continuously growing, fan base.

However, the simple days of MST3K are long gone.  There wasn’t a TV show like it at the time, and nay before or since.  The crew behind Rifftrax, which includes Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, have had some great success by continuing the legacy and riffing on a variety of different movies and making them available for download or releasing them to DVD.  But the show is boiled down to its essence, however, as they're only interested in the actual riffing of the movies and not worrying so much about the sketch work (in other words, no bots, no theme songs, and no characterizations).  It’s just three funny guys talking about movies, essentially.  They had previously attempted some sketch work with the ill-fated Film Crew series (which only racked up four episodes), but it didn’t really work in their favor.  It felt forced and unnecessary, which is most likely the reason why they didn’t try to do it again.  After all, the reason that everyone watched MST3K in the first place was to hear the riffs on the movies.  Sure the sketches were well done and very funny, but it’s not the main draw of the show.

It’s also important to discuss why Rifftrax is just as enjoyable as MST3K.  For me, it’s not just the riffs themselves; it's also the people involved in the making of it.  These particular groups of people (including the folks from the now-defunct Cinematic Titanic) are the reason why MST3K worked in the first place.  That’s why riffing done by other groups of people has never worked for me.  It isn’t fun or even particularly funny watching an imitation of something that’s being done much better by someone else.  I try to give everything a fair shake, but it just doesn’t work as well with different people behind it. A fter you’ve watched the original show for a while you start to feel a kind of kinship or bond with these people.  They’re enormously funny and talented, and they’re the entire reason why it works.  What doesn’t work, however, is when the integrity of the material and the impetus behind the original idea are forgotten or just missing altogether.

 

When Bad Becomes Commercial

Now I’m not going to get overly dramatic on this next point, but it’s a sore one for me and it needs to be addressed.  After all, I’ve just spent several paragraphs covering my love for MST3K, as well as Rifftrax, so attacking them outright won’t do.  That was why I brought up the fact that I’m not a super-fan.  I can see the flaws when they appear and understand when something’s not working, which a lot of fans can’t do because of how blinded their love for it is.  It gives me a bit more of a perspective.  And this isn’t condemnation by any means, but more of an observation.  I can choose my entertainment and leave the rest for others to enjoy if they so choose.

While the crew at Rifftrax have done a very fine job at keeping the riffing alive and digging up some new trashy cinema to take jabs at, they've also decided that everything else is fair game.  They’ve riffed on big blockbuster movies like the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series, as well as film classics like JawsRaiders of the Lost Ark and The Wizard Oz.  They even riffed Casablanca, one of the most respected and well-loved movies ever made.  From a monetary perspective, I can understand why they would do this. Riffing on bigger movies might bring in larger audiences (which it probably has) to their website for more economic purposes, but the integrity of the material now stands on shaky ground, where as before, it held its own.  That’s not to say that every piece of material that MST3K ever did was a winner either, but it at least stayed true to its original notion of making fun of bad movies to make them more enjoyable.  Now it’s sometimes backwards wherein a movie that’s generally accepted as good or even great is being poked fun at, and it just doesn’t work, at least for me.

Basically what these fellows are saying is that films like Troll 2The Room and The Apple are just as worthy of jabs as movies like the X-Men series, and they’re wrong.  It’s gotten to the point where I’ve began to question the riffers' tastes themselves.  Are there ANY movies that they watch that they can enjoy and NOT make fun of?  Movies are all about the experience; you’re experiencing a piece of cinema, and you get something good out of it, so why would you want to ruin that?  It’s a valid question, because that’s a sad movie-watching life for anyone who can’t draw any kind of pleasure from something that, while it may have flaws, is enjoyable and worth someone’s time to not just watch, but absorb and take home with them.  It sounds a bit pretentious, I know, but that’s the way a good movie works on its audience.  There’s sometimes a fine line between enjoying a movie and finding the flaws in it that take you out of the movie, and the truly good ones rise above that line.

You also have to take a step back and ask yourself this question: would the original crew from MST3K (from both the Joel AND Mike years) riffed on Casablanca?  Obviously, due to the rights issues involved with something like that, the answer is, of course, no, but it’s also no because it would have been against the whole idea of, again, watching bad movies and making fun of them to make them more enjoyable.  And I’m not just ranting and raving here.  I sat down and watched the riffed version of Raiders of the Lost Ark all the way through just to give it a chance, and I didn’t laugh once, not even a little.  You know why?  Because there’s nothing funny about a well-made, well-executed movie that does everything that it’s supposed to do and not be a complete mess.

But on the other hand, you have a movie like Sharknado, and the many other movies like it.  There now seems to be a market for making intentionally bad movies, mainly for people who don’t know, don’t care or don’t understand the difference.  Personally, I think it’s misguided and, more often than not, a useless idea, but the popularity of these movies makes me wrong, I suppose.  You could also argue that something like Transformers is a terrible movie and is being marketed in much the same way as Sharknado, but that’s a whole other can of worms that I don’t want to open right now.

Movies like Manos: The Hands of FateSpace MutinyDevil Fish, and pretty much anything made by Charles B. Pierce, Ed Wood or Coleman Francis, are guaranteed slices of a rotten, but somehow tasty, pie.  And that’s where the humor springs from.  If you have a sense of humor and understand how movies SHOULD work, then watching them without the riffing should yield plenty of laughs for you.  The riffing just makes it better, but riffing on an intentionally bad movie like Sharknado?  I’m not sold on that one.  The idea of it just seems wrong to me.  But I should point out that I haven’t seen the film and that I WILL be attending the live riffing of it, so we’ll see how it goes.  Maybe I’ll add an addendum to this article or something.*

All I’m trying to say here is that unintentionally bad movies, while they have a smaller audience and do not figure into something more lucrative, are what work aesthetically.  I can’t be on board with riffing on a movie that’s good, mainly because I’m too much of a film fan for that.  It should be noted that Rifftrax DOES still riff on bad movies while still tossing a riff out for something like Spider-Man 2, so I can’t just disregard them completely.  They’re still making material that I’m interested in watching that fits the unintentionally bad bill, especially the short films that they riff on.  I just don’t understand their process of riffing the good movies, but to each their own.

There’s also an audience of people who believe that riffing on movies in this way is detrimental to the films themselves.  They believe that everything is valid, no matter how egregious.  People like Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, in particular, aren’t fans of MST3K for that very reason.  And I can see their viewpoint, but I don’t totally agree with it.  Everything IS valid, of course (and my entire argument about which movies SHOULD be riffed on might seem invalid upon what I’m about to say), but In the age of audio commentaries for DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as massive film festivals where groups of people get together to watch movies and, most of the time, talk all the way through them by repeating lines or interacting with them in some way, then riffing on movies is just another form of enjoying them.  There may be some disgust on the surface, but underneath, there’s something more important going on.

 

Loving Bad Movies in the Future

It may just be a job to some of the people who do it, but there’s always some genuine love involved in riffing on bad movies.  It sounds crazy for an outsider looking in, but no one spends as much time talking about or watching movies of a very low caliber over and over again without deriving some enjoyment from them.  The people that do it (for the most part) love doing it, and in a way, love the movies themselves, warts and all.  I’m actually a big fan of The Room, and I would consider it one of my favorite films, despite its being labeled “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.”  And I’m not trying to be ironic about it either.  I genuinely love the movie, as well as movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate.  Manos, in particular, is NOT one of the worst movies ever made in the way that most people have touted it to be, in my opinion (the same goes for Plan 9 From Outer Space).  It may seem that way upon your first watch, but once you’ve seen it a couple of times, you begin to realize that it’s NOT completely incompetent after all.  It has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and how many bad movies can say that, not to mention the Hollywood blockbusters of today?

And If anything was evidenced by the previous MST3K Turkey Day Marathon, it’s that there’s still an audience for MST3K.  Rumors have been circulating that the show’s creators might be attempting to bring it back in some form (most likely online).  Whether it succeeds or fails will likely depend on the cast, but then again, some do settle for less.  As I stated previously, it was the show’s original line up of people that made it worth watching.  All these years later, it’s still one of the main reasons why fans continue to watch the show, and why Rifftrax continues to thrive.

And on that note, push the button Frank.

-Tim Salmons

 

* I DID see the live Rifftrax Live show of Sharknado and "I liked it very much."  I think those riffers realized something about the movie, which is something I realized while watching it for the first time.  While it's an intentionally bad movie, it's also full of unintentional comedic moments that make it highly enjoyable.  I won't go into detail for those who haven't seen it, but if you're a fan of bad movies, I say give it a shot.  And yes, I'm eating a little bit of croooooooooooow on this one, but I'm trying to keep it honest, as well.

 

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