Has it really been 20 years? Was it really just two decades ago when a local Minnesota UHF station, desperate for some cheap weekend programming, hired a few provisional stand-ups and gave them access to a few minutes of programming and their b-grade matinee movie archives? And was it really the tale end of the Reagan era when Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and behind the scenes studio technicians Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon, got together with some hastily cobbled together puppets and a crappy piece of schlock and made the practice of talking back to a bad movie screen cool? Indeed, the KTMA phase of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on 24 November, 1988, and the rest is, how they say, basic pay cable channel history.
It’s definitely been an unusual and uneasy legacy: A few station switches; a cult phenomenon; a rumored acrimonious breakup between the original partners; the ascension of head writer Mike Nelson into the show’s new star, critical acclaim; the final gasp of Sci-Fi fandom; the rebirth as competing entities Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic; a few DVD releases. Indeed, for anyone who has worshipped the efforts of what used to be known as Best Brains (or a close collective facsimile thereof), keeping track of all the continuing comedy has been a chore in and of itself. While Nelson, Murphy, and current co-conspirator Bill Corbett deconstruct every new release in their audio only format, Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu have recruited Mary Jo Pehl and (TV’s) Frank Conniff to jumpstart the silhouetted satire routine.
And with its fourth independent installment, the lamentably awful Legacy of Blood, Cinematic Titanic finally finds its groove. Previously, the quintet battled between reverence to the past and placating the present. Fans wanted backstory, clear indications of what the group were doing and why they were returning to familiar territory. What was the Time Tube, and why the weird warning light “skits” in the middle of the movies. Well, all those who wondered about the internal workings of the CT situation, pay attention. Before the horrific thriller from 1971 unravels, the collective have a conversation with the crew which may fill in many of the blanks. While not 100% satisfying, it sets us up for all the underground bunker commentary to come.
As for Legacy, it’s beyond horrific, the kind of And Then There Were None rip-off that made Agatha Christie cry in her Mousetrap. When the patriarch of the rotten Dean family dies, the siblings all show up for the reading - or in this case, the listening - of his will. They are joined by their respective spouses, repressed memories, and the most unhelpful set of servants ever. Naturally, the dead man’s estate stipulates that they all must spend a week at his home, and that if any of them should die, the other’s split the money evenly. Before you can say “Miss Jane Marple”, relatives are reeling, freshly killed corpses pushing up the alcohol fueled daises. Eventually, one remaining Dean is left, and when the murderer is finally revealed, we get a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. Or maybe it’s just gas.
Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the standard story set up legalese, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking and scandalous into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Director Carl Munson was clearly a fan of the Method style of acting. He lets every member of his ‘Where Are They Now’ cast crow and carry on like mourners at a New Orleans wake. And then they REALLY start to overact. As part of the onscreen interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan’s over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on.
Instead of terror however, Legacy of Blood is all talk. Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and sordidness will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop. Naturally, this makes for perfect Cinematic Titanic fodder. The gang can’t ignore the unctuous sexual sleaze pouring out of every character, and their quips about said horniness are classic. Sure, some of the material crosses over into the more “adult” oriented element of their demographic, but it’s nice to hear some borderline blue humor from the gang. Equally funny are the fill-in bits, with Trace offering up a goofy game show were Josh must guess which item WON’T kill him, while Frank is busted for that most heinous of show etiquette violations - gum chewing!
But it’s the back and forth between cast and celluloid that keeps the Cinematic Titanic series fresh and fun. The sequence where the chauffer character Frank is seen lounging among his collection of Nazi paraphernalia (including a lamp made of human skin - yikes!) is one of the series’ best, and nothing says ‘stupidity’ like the bad indecipherable accent attempted by Munson pal (and exploitation titan) Buck Kartalian. While most of Legacy of Blood - a retitle from the original Blood Legacy, go figure - is antiquated e- performers pitching fits of hopeless thespian histrionics, there are small moments which remind us of why films like this are just asking for a sassy dressing down.
With 20 years comes a lot of history - of missed opportunities, of unofficial classics, of times when it seemed the subject and the subjected meshed in perfect comedy clarity. Cinematic Titanic provides glimpses of such splendor. It reminds us of the reasons we fell in love with Hodgson’s homespun experiment in the first place. It’s the kind of entertainment that speaks to a specific ideal, that angers some purists while pleasing those with a much smaller motion picture axe to grind. As they continue to create their own unique revamp of the pristine MST format, there will probably be stumbles and struggles along the way. And anytime you take on the distribution yourself, you’re bound to get lost in the self-produced melee. But fans both young and old understand that there’s nothing better than the original. With Cinematic Titanic, and Legacy of Blood, you get the closest of reproductions.
// Notes from the Road
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