It’s literally like going back in time. Three voices, long silenced, have returned from entertainment exile to remind us of why we fell in love with Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the first place. When a local Minnesota TV station took a chance on comic Joel Hodgson’s unique vision for a combination matinee movie/satiric space take-off, five now familiar faces were there, establishing the foundation for what would end up being the best TV show in the history of the medium. Along with the famed stand-up, young J. Elvis Weinstein, the snarky Trace Beaulieu, and two station employees - Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon - they honed a rather scattered scheme to make fun of really bad movies. Establishing such soon stalwart ideas as The Satellite of Love, robots Servo, Crow and Gypsy, and a pair of mad scientists running the show, these MST makings would remain solid memories for die hard devotees.
That’s why the first few minutes of the new Hodgson created enterprise Cinematic Titanic are so spooky. Hearing the talented man and his former collaborators (minus Murphy and Mallon) is like a late night on the Comedy Channel back in 1991. It’s like standing in the doorway of your one bedroom apartment’s kitchen and craning your ear to hear what wonderful quip was going to come next. Announced last winter as a return to form, Hodgson has paired with Weinstein and Beaulieu, and with the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to bring the fine art of movie mediocrity back to the masses. While Murphy, along with Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson have carried on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format for over a decade.
And it was well worth the wait. Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the horribly dull Al Adamson splatter stiff The Oozing Skull
, is vintage MST
filtered through a slightly more adult ideal. Like Nelson’s download only offerings, the jokes can get a bit ‘blue’, but never venture into territory that would insult the intelligence, or the sense of age appropriateness, of the established fan base. Without much initial context (there’s no setup, no ‘us vs. them’ villainy, or sketch comedy insert material - at least, not yet) and an unusual construct that finds five people interacting with the film (two standing, three sitting) there’s an initial adjustment period that lasts about 10 seconds. Then we hear the sonorous tones of our former heroes, and the hilarity comes reeling back.
This is outstanding stuff, the kind of rapid fire revelry that sends a satiric chill down your funny bone. While it’s hard to top the artistic triumph that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, what’s clear is that none of the former participants have lost an ounce of their wonderfully witty edge. The ‘all over the map’ spirit is still intact, jokes running the gambit from unusual references to the very essence of lowbrow. Unlike the original show, Hodgson has incorporated a small amount of physical comedy, letting Conniff take point for a glitzy guest star showcase (all done in silhouette). Beaulieu also gets a make-over moment for Skull‘s leading lady, and on at least two occasions, a wheelchair bound individual comes in and cracks wise, Stephen Hawking style. It’s all very wacky, but within a controlled entertainment environment.
As with most MST product from the past, an episode of Cinematic Titanic will more than likely be judged on the success or failure of the film being mocked - and in the case of The Oozing Skull, they couldn’t have picked a better slice of schlock. Al Adamson, as bad a Z-movie maker as the often mocked (undeservedly so) Ed Wood, steps up and spews his aimless point and shoot stool sampling all over the audience. When the benevolent dictator of a small fictional Middle Eastern empire is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he resorts to a rather extreme backup plan to stay in power. With the help of his peroxide blond gal pal Tracey, the experimental brain transplant operations of Dr. Robert Nigserian, and the protection of attending physician Dr. Lloyd Trenton, Abdul Amir will get a new body. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Gor, an acid scarred retard whose brutish strength hides a baby’s mentality.
So corny that hominy grits are jealous of its maize like properties and so hackneyed that a picture postcard of an Indian Taj stands in for a real location, The Oozing Skull is all gory head surgery and undeniably illogical plot pointing. Adamson, who never met a sequence he couldn’t shatter with his innate lack of mise en scene, delivers his standard 80 minutes of mediocrity, lots of close ups substituting for coverage, and insane ramblings replacing ideas. Dogs dying of rabies-induced dementia are more cogent in the ways of science than this operation-oriented dung. During the first act dome cracking, we get a nice amount of scalpel to fake flesh bloodletting. And the finale is fun in a fumbling, drunken uncle sort of incomprehensibleness. But for sheer boredom and genre junking, this is some very dumb dread.
Luckily, the CT squad is around to address the dilemma. Punching away at all the story chasms, reasoning quagmires, and pizza dough quality effects, the quintet’s quipping is masterful. There is never a missed opportunity, no one performer overriding or dominating the proceedings. Conniff gets off a couple of classic drug jibes, while Hodgson occasionally calls on other cast members to give their talented two cents. The movie is actually paused four times - once to introduce a nauseous Al Hirt, another to let Trace touch up bimbette Regina Carrol’s clown-like face, then for a discussion of battery acid, and finally to hear Weinstein croon a plaintive ballad (kind of) - and during these moments, we instantly recognize the brilliance of these comedians. Even when faced with the daunting challenge of making a sloppy ‘70s drive-in exploitation turd manageable, they are consistently clever and right on the money.
Even better, the movie seems to inspire a kind of chemistry and camaraderie that’s been missing from other MST-styled offerings. Taking nothing away from the radiance offered via Rifftrax and the Film Crew, but seeing all five together, outlines contrasted against Adamson’s bile like cinematography, is morphine for the memory. It reminds us of that classic trio, sitting at the bottom of the screen, providing enjoyment where there definitely was none, smiles where only depressive tears once appeared. Some may think this is nothing more than trading on the past for the sake of a quick buck. But there is much, much more to Cinematic Titanic than traveling back down bad movie memory lane. And with mysterious elements like the Time Tube and other mythology left to explore, the series can only continue to grow.
While we all tend to bark at technology for making life a lot harder than it needs to be, science should be snogged for allowing one time talents, stifled by bumbling broadcast feebs unable to see their inherent value, to take control of their own creative destiny and deliver amazing experiences like the Cinematic Titanic. It will be disorienting at first, a pro-MST mentality unsure of how to react to the satiric specter of the former masterwork. But after a while, after the novelty wears off and the intelligence sinks in, the spirit is lifted and the soul assuaged. The Oozing Skull is just another of those long festering celluloid sores that should have been lanced with some manner of corrosive and cast aside. But in the capable hands of the CT crew, it stands as the start of something wonderful indeed.