It’s been nearly six solid months of agony and waiting, speculation leading to momentary bouts of joy and sullen disbelief. With reliable information a rarity, fans had to use every ounce of their cautious constitution not to overreact. Then, suddenly, patience paid off. The announcement came - the gang at Cinematic Titanic were back, and they’ve brought along a real hackwork howler to foist upon us unsuspecting bad movie buffs. For those who don’t remember the origins of this Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled clone, here’s the scoop. Touted last winter as a welcome return to in-theater commentary comedy, Joel Hodgson reteamed with pals J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. With the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff, their goal was to update the original concept and bring the fine art of mediocre movie ridicule back to the masses.
Along with Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy who carry 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 in over a decade. And after half a year, they have finally fashioned a follow-up. Devotees of the collective’s first direct to disc effort, the Al Adamson atrocity The Oozing Skull, wondered how the group would top that celluloid stinker. The answer? The Doomsday Machine, a reconfigured 1967 sci-fi slop job that has the bold faced filmmaking audacity to offer 75 minutes of Bobby Van, Denny Miller, Grant Williams, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers, and Henry Wilcoxon, only to disintegrate into footage shot four years later with none of the original cast.
See, the producers were clearly planning a major speculative epic, an end of the world wonder featuring the destruction of Earth, a hazardous journey into deep space, and an eventual colonization of Venus. Very much of the era - drive-in or otherwise. In the end, a lack of money meant they could only realize a small percentage of their goals. Stock footage replaced the planned F/X and corners were cut toward inventing the film’s future shock vision. Or maybe directors Lee Sholem and Harry Hope were just cheap, unimaginative bastards after all. The film frequently reeks of the Ed Wood School of incomprehensible narratives, the plot quickly de-evolving from a political crisis Apocalypse to an outer space swingers’ party in the blink of a cinema-schlock eye.
It’s 1976, and the world is on the brink of destruction. It seems the Chinese have developed a ‘Doomsday Machine’ located 700 miles below the planet’s surface. At the slightest provocation - which eventually arrives, though we never learn how or why - the Asian Reds will jumpstart the Earth’s core, causing the entire sphere to spontaneously combust. Of course, once the US and Russia get a whiff of this info, they decide to hijack a planned NASA mission to Venus and replace three of the more expendable astronauts with a few fetching astro-babes. Naturally, this goes over like gangbusters with everyone on the crew, except for the highly strung Major Kurt Mason. One look at skirt and he goes from persnickety pain in the ass to psycho-pseudo rapist.
The rest of the motley crew, including foxy flight surgeon Marion Turner, Russian space queen Georgiana Bronski, slightly unhinged meteorologist (and Mason victim) Katie, wisecracking New “Yawker” Danny, and surfer stud boy Colonel Don Price take their part in the procreation quite well. They don’t mind being passengers on this knotty Noah’s Ark, even if the tempers are flaring as often as the hormones. Eventually, people die, analog computer calculations are made, sacrifices are discussed, and one of those Planet of the Apes trick endings is attempted. No, it wasn’t all a simulation or an intricate NASA experiment. It turns out that if Soviet scientists had paid a bit more attention to the previous failed missions to the second closest planet to the sun, they may have discovered a few ‘collective consciousness’ warning signs along the way.
A long time staple of the breast-ically endowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, The Doomsday Machine is a miserable bit of motion picture sickness. Its mood swings are so rampant - serious space saga to stale soap operatics to mean-spirited misogyny - that teen girls are jealous of its irritability. Any film that feels Bobby “Mr. Elaine Joyce” Van and Ruta “HSN Diet Spray” Lee can sell its tech spec sketchiness is definitely dunderheaded. To make matters worse, the four years in the making finale, clearly fashioned out of whatever Sholem and Hope had lying around, has the cajones to recast the important players. As a result, there is at least 15 minutes of pointless stasis as well hidden extras with non-compatible voices try fervently to connect the material and make everything seem meaningful and deep. It ends up rendering the already retarded movie even more insipid.
For the Cinematic Titanic collective, The Doomsday Machine marks a MST3K Season 4 level challenge. At one point, Frank Conniff states exasperatedly that this experience is like “watching someone else watching Manos: The Hands of Fate”. There is an instance when the cast completely clams up, the inability to quip on the inanity they’re witnessing overwhelming even their own masterful mirth making. The rest of the time, their material is spot on, joke after joke hitting the painful plotholes and destitute acting dead on. Hodgson is rather quiet this time around, letting Weinstein, Beaulieu, and Pehl do a lot of the heavy humor lifting. There is one classic moment when Mary Jo stops the film (a developing CT gimmick) to discuss the crisis fallback plan should the group have to decide on who lives and who dies, but overall, there is little of the skit-oriented filler that accented the previous series.
We do get a little more insight into the whole Cinematic Titanic protocol, however. At the very opening of the presentation, two workers discuss the upcoming installment with the cast. We discover that the plan is for the individuals present to record these episodes for “posterity” depositing the final results in a ‘time tube’ for future generations to enjoy. Oddly similar to the Film Crew conceit (adding commentary to all the movies known to man, even the horrible ones), it opens up the entire experience to limitless possibilities. One assumes that, after they get a handle on how to successfully market and maximize their self-sales and distribution network, Cinematic Titanic will become a regular cult commodity.
And as long as they deliver stellar satire like the kind found in The Doomsday Machine, there’s no reason to worry. Fans familiar with the group’s retro-revisionism will find nothing but treasure here, while those new to the whole MST/CT situation should be instantly won over. Way back in the ‘80s, when Hodgson teamed up with Murphy and producer Jim Mallon to produce some local UHF programming for Minneapolis, Minnesota television, they could have never envisioned two decades of celluloid send-ups. While purists wait for the day when all camps make nice and come up with a combined effort to bring everyone back into a single spoofing whole, we’ll have to settle for segmented brilliance. And with Cinematic Titanic, this cast of creative geniuses is back in big style.
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