1999 was an eventful year for movie fans. The boom of the independent films was coming to an end (we didn’t know it at the time). American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project were creating huge buzz. And Mystery Science Theater 3000 was airing its final season.
Sure, we’d been told this before. Back in 1996 the show left Comedy Central after seven seasons. Sure we got Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, but it seemed like small conciliation. The series seemed to be going strong and Comedy Central just lost interest in it, focusing more on South Park (which is still a favorite around our house). Then the Sci-fi channel came on board and picked up Mike and the bots, and fans of movie riffing breathed a sigh of relief.
But things were changing. There were new cast members. Some folks still dislike Bill Corbett’s take on Crow and Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester. There was also a meaner edge to the riffing, with Mike and the bots unleashing some barbed riffs in addition to the usual fare. The final season of the show was a mixed bag, with the later episodes lacking the energy of the second half of Season Eight. It seemed like the cast and crew was ready to move on.
In some ways, I was too. I admit that during that initial run of the Sci-fi years I felt something was missing too. While I started out watching each new episode, partway through Season Eight I started to lose interest. Something seemed to be missing in these final seasons, and the harsher tone just wasn’t as funny. These days, I have a much longer list of favorites from the final three years, and I’ve come to appreciate the darker more vicious tone the series took. It’s just another choice I have when picking an episode, do I want Joel’s more good-natured approach, or do I feel like hearing Mike and bots tear into the idiocy of Space Mutiny again.
It was just odd that the final episode of one of my favorite shows just didn’t have the impact I expected. Diabolik was an average riffing session at best, and while some of the host segments were entertaining, they weren’t nearly as memorable as the finale to Laserblast or Mitchell. It just felt like the show ended on a whimper and that was it. We could enjoy Rhino’s VHS (and eventual DVD) releases, but that was it. The cast and crew moved on to other things, Mike writing some amusing books, Trace becoming a writer for television.
Then in the mid-2000s the creators of Mystery Science Theater came back with new projects all based on movie riffing. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett joined forces for the entertaining Film Crew series. In only lasted four episodes, but is well worth seeking out. Mike also provided some solo commentaries for Legend films. At first these were low key riffing and observations. Then everything changed with the creation of separate audio tracks that could be synced to a movie – Rifftrax was born. Mike, Kevin and Bill have been cranking these out ever since. They tackle short educational films (some of the best material from the MST3K years), as well as Hollywood blockbusters and little known B-films.
But the rest of the crew has not been idle. Joel Hodgson got together with Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff and J. Elvis Weinstein to create Cinematic Titanic. CT focuses on riffing B-films, and performing live shows. These have been a big hit with fans. Best of all, the CT group is always around after the show to sign autographs and talk with fans. I haven’t had a chance to pick up their DVDs yet (or attend a show), but I’m looking to rectify that this year.
But an interesting side effect has occurred because of MST3K - movie mocking has gone viral. Sure there were movie mocking crews before MST3K. I remember a short-lived show called Mad Movies that basically replaced an old film’s soundtrack with their own dialogue (I remember them taking on Cyrano de Bergerac from 1950 starring Jose Ferrer). But MST3K made this type of entertainment more popular and refined it. This has inspired plenty of other riffers to try their hand at the comedy with mixed results.
It seems that internet is teaming with this type of comedy, especially in a time when anyone can make fun of anyone else with impunity. In many ways, it’s a natural progression in tone from the meaner riffing style of the final seasons of MST3K, but with a lot more colorful language and in your face antics. And I’ll readily admit that I find a few of these folks very funny.
My first exposure to this new breed was with The Angry Video Game Nerd played by James Rolfe. Essentially he reviews old video games, spanning from early Pong consoles to Nintendo 64. He usually finds some of the worst games in existence and unleashes a torrent of anger and frustration on them. I admit a lot of the humor comes from his creative language as well as commiserating with him on some of the games he tackles (especially some of the low budget 8-bit Nintendo games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s). Rolfe can be very abrasive, but you can tell he really does love retro games, and his collection speaks for itself. The Angry Nerd is really a persona, and if you catch any of Rolfe’s other short films and reviews (he has a fun and interesting horror movie retrospective out there) he comes across as a knowledgeable and funny guy.
In the same league is Doug Walker of The Nostalgia Critic. Again, this is an angry persona who reviews movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s and pretty much rips them apart. His observations range from spot on to over the top and he obviously is having fun playing the ranting reviewer. Again, if you catch some of Doug’s other work, you can see he’s a movie lover and knows his stuff, but uses the angry character to generate laughs. Doug has gathered a team of reviewers spanning all kinds of genres and this group can be found at That Guy With Glasses. Not only does this allow you to find many of these folks in one place, but allows them to do crossovers and cameo appearances in each others work. Great way to cross promote Doug!
Another reviewer who follows a similar style is the Nostalgia Chick aka Lindsay Ellis. The Chick tends to come at the target with a bit more of an analytical path, often going into themes or portrayals of women in her reviews. She keeps things cynical and angry, as well as funny. She also has plenty of cameos from her pal Nella. They even created their own silly storyline that pops up in the reviews.
Thing is, most of these reviewers are pretty one note when it comes to the reviews and the comedy. They go on and on about how much pain the reviewing experience causes them and go over the top in unleashing their hatred upon it. Yeah, its funny, but its also a little too negative. Sometimes, I miss the more good-natured humor.
And then I found Obscurus Lupa (Allison Pregler), a gal who loves watching cheesy movies. Yes, she points out issues with plot, acting and has some riffs of her own. But she tends to review movies that she enjoys watching, because they are so silly they’re fun. She focuses on direct to video action films of the ‘90s (especially anything with Cynthia Rothrock) and low budget horror films. Lupa always seems to have a good time with her reviews and always lays it down at the end – is the movie a cheesy good time, or is it not worth seeking out. She also has some mini-story lines and cameo appearances in her reviews. Both Nostalgia Critic and Nostalgia Chick have teamed up with Lupa to make some hilarious episodes.
So my favorite television show did come to an end way back in ’99, but its legacy lives on. I’ve got plenty of Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic to explore. And if I want a quick riffing fix, I’ll give Angry Video Game Nerd, Nostalgia Critic, Nostalgia Chick or Obscurus Lupa a watch.
Rifftrax - Drugs are Like That (sample featuring edits from the educational short)
Cinematic Titanic - East Meets Watts (sample live performance)
Angry Video Game Nerd - Godzilla games
Nostalgia Critic - Congo
Nostalgia Chick - Dragonheart
Obscurus Lupa - City Dragon