[9 July 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When it broadcast its final episode on 8 August, 1999, fans feared they had seen the last of their beloved cowtown puppet show. After 10 seasons, 198 installments, and a major channel switch, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was offering up its last original take on bad movies – in this case, the Italian spy spoof Danger: Diabolik. As with all last shows, the series tried to wrap up various storylines, explain away certain elements, and end on a proper note of closure and nostalgia. While MST3K as it was otherwise known went on to last in reruns for three more years, the company behind the production, Best Brains, slowly folded up shop and dismissed any future potential projects. It did indeed seem like we’d never see the likes of Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo ever again.
Fast forward to 2006. Former MST head writer Mike Nelson has been making a name for himself as a solo satirist, helping fledgling DVD distributor Legend Films sell copies of crappy public domain titles like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Thanks to his clever commentaries, similar in style to his old days on the Satellite of Love, Nelson was renewing interest in old films, while providing hope to fans that a Mystery Science revival is around the corner. Adding fuel to the fire was RiffTrax, an MP3 service started by the company that allowed Nelson, along with fellow familiar faces Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to crack wise over contemporary movies. The popularity of these downloadable comic criticisms, hitting on such well known classics as The Matrix, Battlefield Earth, and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, proved that there was an audience eager to experience more bad movie bashing.
Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, The Film Crew is here. Picking up almost directly where Mystery Science left off, and losing none of the previous show’s wit or audacity, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy are back, playing loveable losers working for an obsessed media mogul. Their job – provide a commentary track for every movie (bad or good) lacking same. After an online poll allowed fans to choose the first film to be tackled, the 10 July release of Hollywood After Dark shows incredible product promise. While the backstory and skit material make up a much smaller portion of the overall presentation, the quintessential quipping we’ve come to expect from these fully seasoned pros is provided in slaphappy spades. For Mystery Science devotees, this is an undeniable dream come true.
For those unfamiliar with how the process works, here is a short rundown. As a movie plays in the background, our three heroes use the hackneyed plotting, pathetic dialogue, and obtuse directorial choices as fodder for their funny business. They make jokes. They crack wise. They provide a plethora of pop culture allusions, and frequently fall into surreal, self-absorbed inferences – all in the name of mockery and merriment. During the MST days, it was a human (Mike, or series creator Joel Hodgson) and two robots (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, Corbett, and Murphy) doing the ribbing. Now, it’s in the guise of three bumbling archivists, hired by Bob Honcho (seen and hear via portrait and telephone only – Charles Townsend style) to provide his much beloved alternate narrative tracks. There are no silhouettes on the screen, no scientific experimentation subplot. Just grade-Z films and grade-A funnymen.
And Hollywood After Dark is the perfect picture to start off with. Culled from the days when exploitation could make hundreds of sow’s ears out of a couple of cinematic silk purses, strippers and Navy seamen take an unbelievably bum rap as future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan proves that even noted television stars had to get their embarrassing start somewhere. Yes, crazy as it seems, everyone’s favorite oversexed sitcom matron actually began her career in the low-rent films of the grindhouse circuit. Long before she became a small-screen staple in shows like Maude, she was churning out crap like The Grass Eater, Door-to-Door Maniac, and How To Succeed with Girls. Yet two of the films she made with journeyman John Hayes—1963’s Five Minutes to Love (originally entitled The Rotten Apple) and 1968’s Walk the Angry Beach (later called Hollywood After Dark)—represent the nadir of her reputation with the raincoat crowd. Talky, trashy, and just a little too turgid for most genre fans, both films represent over-processed scripts with nearly incoherent consideration for cinematic basics like narrative and characterization.
For its part, Hollywood After Dark is just a heist film welded to a melodrama and spiced with a pair of strip scenes to give the debauchery demographic something to sneer over. At the core is a lover’s triangle between Rue’s Sandy, Jack Vorno’s Tony, and clinical depression. Both of our leads have personas baked in hopeless melancholy and each one expresses it in a decidedly different way. Tony gets liquored up, argues with complete strangers, and sulks. Sandy sashays her fanny, gets molested on the casting couch, and teases her paramour. Together, they’re about as much fun as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a marriage retreat. But writer/director Hayes is obviously not out for levity and hi-jinks. He wants to sell this film as a frightening exposé, a chance to see how Tinseltown tears apart, chews up, and spits out people like Tony and Sandy every single day. Unfortunately, instead of just making a documentary about the local bus depot, he decided to forge ahead with a scattered script full of lame action scenes and half-started heart-to-hearts.
Thanks to the direct to home video dynamic, which keeps the nasty standards and practices pundits at bay, The Film Crew can take on the baser elements in the narrative – burlesque, sexual battery, criminal intent – and lay into them with equally off-color comments. There is no cursing here, but fans not used to hearing their favorite armchair critics talking about genitalia and horndogging may be thrown off a bit. Similarly, these new installments sound less rehearsed than previous MST style strafing. Murphy and Corbett frequently break up over their own gags, and there are several moments when the choice of a particular word or slightly crude comment has the gang backpeddling in obvious disbelief. Yet for the most part, this is quality old school slamming, the mockery a minute amusement we’ve come to know and love. While McClanahan is barbequed quite nicely, her co-star Vorno get’s more than his fair share of static. And it’s even worse for big league bad guy Nick (played by Paul Bruce). From his oil slicked hair to mouth full of tantalizing teeth, the guys can’t get enough of his manic mobster.
About halfway through the presentation, a standard work siren goes off, and soon the Crew is on a “lunch break”. It’s interesting that the DVD would employ such a conceit, since one thing MST3K fans will notice right off the bat is how weird the concept plays without the standard commercial break every few minutes. Back during the original series, these pauses acted like rib tickling rest stops. Not only did they give the creators a chance to offer up themed skits and songs, but the audience was allowed a moment to compose itself before the next onslaught of silliness. Here, after 30 straight minutes, one feels the need for some downtime. For their part, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett hold an “eat and meet”, where bizarre corporate spin speak substitutes for easygoing meal talk. Perhaps a tad too clever for its own good, it may be more inside than Office Space. Here’s hoping the next few installments in the series offer up less mannered material.
Indeed, Shout! Factory will be releasing future “episodes” including Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and the bad movie classic Wild Women of Wongo. If Hollywood After Dark is any indication of the quality we can expect, one suspects that the Film Crew could be around for a very long time. DVD has helped redefine the rights issues that used to plague Mystery Science, and with a wealth of available public domain/easily obtainable material at their disposal, one imagines that the series is subject to the interest of the participants. Anyone who has longed to hear those mighty Midwestern voices once again violating the sacred vow of silence during a stagnant cinematic cesspool can now fully rejoice. While Rifftrax may have the marquee value, The Film Crew is coming up fast. This essential digital diversion is the answer to many a MiSTies prayers.