Cinematic Titanic


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As a follow-up to my story on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the latest venture from the original creator of that show, Joel Hodgson (aka Joel Robinson). Hodgson, in the 80's, was the thinking man's prop comic, who could have moved to Los Angeles to work in television but instead launched a homegrown public access comedy show in Minneapolis. MST3K ran a year before The Comedy Channel picked it up, and from there the program, with its "movie riffing" from Joel and his robots in silhouette from the bottom of the screen, became a cult classic. Well, after a few seasons Joel did leave the show for Los Angeles, and most recently was working on the Jimmy Kimmel show as a staff writer; J. Elvis Weinstein, the original Tom Servo, had already left for L.A. to pursue a comedy career, and eventually Trace Beaulieu (Crow T. Robot) and Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) followed suit. After Joel's departure, the show nevertheless continued for five seasons with head writer Michael J. Nelson taking over hosting duties. It's been seemingly ages since MST3K breathed its last, cancelled by the Sci-Fi Channel, and Nelson has written a novel, Death Rat, and brought his movie riffing to audio commentaries and the podcast-commentary series Rifftrax, with its money-saving notion of providing only the riffing--the listener has to rent the film on his own. Nelson, with Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo #2) and Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot #2), also started The Film Crew, a movie-riffing group who have issued a handful of DVDs in which they tackle such films as The Wild Women of Wongo. This latest project was the closest approximation to the MST3K of old, but has met with mixed reviews, as some fans have lamented that it just wasn't the same.

Enter Cinematic Titanic, which finally sees Hodgson returning to the format which made him famous. His movie-riffing team also includes Weinstein, Conniff, Beaulieu, and Mary Jo Pehl (MST3K's Pearl Forrester). Cinematic Titanic debuted as a live show performed for members of Lucasfilm on the Skywalker Ranch, a warm-up to their first episode now released on DVD exclusively through the CT website. What you get when you order the DVD is just a disc in a small, square carboard sleeve, with little protection - luckily, mine arrived unscratched. The mastering of the DVD includes the most basic of menus with, head-smackingly, only an image of the DVD you were just holding in your hand a second ago. There are no pretty dressings, perhaps because the website wants to ultimately set up a pay-to-download service so that fans can burn each episode on their own; this is not yet available. The play's the thing, and in this case it's Al Adamson's atrocious 1972 film Brain of Blood, here retitled The Oozing Skull as part of an agreement to allow CT to distribute the film. There are no "hosting segments" such as MST3K had, and copyright infringement with MST3K owners Best Brains prevents Hodgson from using the familiar theater seat silhouettes at the bottom of the screen; instead, through the entire length of the film we remain in the theater with scaffolding at the right and left sides, all 5 members of CT standing or sitting upon it while they address the film. No introduction to the premise: you just plunge straight into the sheer awfulness of the film. And it is a really excruciating work. Adamson, direct of Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1971) and little else you'd remember, made a string of Z-budget horror films through the late 60's and 70's, all of which were directed with maximum incompetence. Brain of Blood--er, The Oozing Skull--has an utterly stupid plot about the leader of an imaginary Middle Eastern nation becoming critically injured, and rushed to a mad scientist who plans to move his brain into another body. But the mad scientist, being mad and all, has plans of his own: he moves the brain into the body of a disfigured simpleton. Why? Because he can! There are lots of footchases and one car chase, and one footchase which ends with the pursued leaping into a car and turning the keys, whereupon the car blows up and a nearby dwarf laughs. Brilliant.

One of the things about MST3K is that half the time you're laughing at the film itself, not just the jokes in the foreground. CT has the same pleasing effect. Ultimately, you're just enjoying watching a bad exploitation movie from the 70's. But the riffing is quite good, if a bit stiff at times, as the team hasn't yet developed the intangible chemistry which comes with doing a dozen of these things together. If anything, it feels a little too rehearsed (which of course it is); it needs more of an improv feel. But it's still Joel, Josh, Trace, Frank, and Mary Jo. It is good to have them back together again, even if they were never together quite like this. And Weinstein's CT theme song, hot jazz in the style of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," is terrific. This is by far the most promising product of the post-MST3K projects that have been offered to fans, a highly entertaining hour-and-a-half if you're willing to spring for the DVD sight unseen (it's $15.94). I'm not sure how often these episodes will be issued, but if there's a Cinematic Titanic-of-the-month club, sign me up.



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