We’re close to the 9th anniversary of Rifftrax! For those who don’t know, Rifftrax is one of several creative continuations of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that has a premise as insane as the belief that it would last the ten years that it did. Mad scientists shoot a man into space and force him to watch bad movies. To maintain his sanity, said man riffs the movies with the help of two robot companions. The set-up and even the characters changed over the course of those ten glorious years, but this isn’t a history of the show.
This about what the show, and Rifftrax, has done for my family.
I’ll be the first to admit that I entered the fandom well into the Nelson Era when MST3K moved to Sci-Fi before the channel lost its damn mind and became Syfy. I’d heard of the show before but had never caught an episode until I sat through Revenge of the Creature with Mike and the Bots on full power. Sadly, MST3K would only have three more seasons before Sci-Fi canceled it once more.
Of course, this wasn’t the end. I tracked down tapes, videos, DVDs, and soon also found the MST3K Digital Archive Project. I eventually got to know Joel, Doctor Forrester, and the rest of the first half of the show’s cast and crew.
But Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett were my first introduction to the show, and so they have a special place in my heart. Fast-forward to 2006 and Mike Nelson started Rifftrax, an ingenious idea wherein he would provide the riffed audio track for a movie while the customer provided the DVD. It was brilliant, and soon Kevin and Bill would join Mike for what is, at least in my heart, MST3K 2.0.
It’s hard to think that I started watching this show while I was still in middle school…
And yet the show, and these three men in particular, are very dear to me for many reasons.
When I first started watching MST3K, I was just entering my love of writing and seriously beginning to train myself to be an author, to be a writer, to join the greats. I was beginning to realize that stories were something I needed to tell, that science fiction, fantasy, and horror would be my bread and butter. I would learn from the best, the masters of the genre, and be the best I could be. The Holy Trinity of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy, though, showed me that there was much to learn from the not-so-great entries into the genre. Sure, I could learn a lot from watching Kubrick’s work, from studying the classic paranoia of the 1950s invasion movies, and certainly could benefit from analyzing Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror… but I also had something to learn from the likes of Mansquito, Space Truckers, and Friday the 13th Part 8, the one where Jason dies by becoming a baby. I learned that I could laugh at these movies, not in a mean-spirited way, but as a way to learn what doesn’t work.
This led to the second revelation. I could enjoy even the bad moments in life. MST3K and Rifftrax showed that it was possible to find humor even in something horrible. Future War could in fact be a treat. Even fraking Twilight became an amazing cinematic experience when filtered through the likes of these three men. Engaging with the film, despite the social convention against speaking while a movie is playing, became a more intellectually engaging process. Even something as horrible as Hellraiser Bloodlines suddenly became an opportunity for fun. This was the key word.
No longer would we just accept the work on the screen. No longer would we be slaves to what others gave us. If the movie itself was terrible, we would and could make it better by virtue of riffing. Drinking games help, too.
Finally, and this couldn’t have happened at a better time, it’s important to not take yourself too seriously. Part of the humor in many of these films comes from the fact that, for example, someone thought it was a good idea to give Michael Bay the reins to the Transformers movies. On the other hand, some of these movies, such as Future War and Soultaker, clearly didn’t think things through enough. There must exist a balance between taking the work seriously and being able to laugh at yourself. You have to realize, at some point, that some parts of your life are absurd. Take me, for instance. Five years ago, my wife and I would go to bars, game every week, and watch horror movies while laughing our heads off. Now, the most gruesome thing we encounter is the host of eldritch horrors our baby summons into her diaper on a daily basis, more if she has curry.
MST3K was also present for another important time in my life. When my wife and I first moved in together, we didn’t have cable, let alone internet. The only television or movies we could watch were whatever DVDs we had or anything we had saved on our computer. I’d saved several episodes of MST3K to my hard drive. Before I even had a desk, the monitor would sit on one of our packed boxes and we would have dinner on plastic plates, while sitting on the ground, and I introduced Mary to the Satellite of Love just as I was introduced to it, through the Season 8 episode Revenge of the Creature. She became a devotee ever since then.
That was how we spent our first few weeks in that apartment, before we even had a couch, and before we set the apartment up how we wanted. Now, five years later, we watch Rifftrax and continue the tradition. If I knew a place to get plushy Tom and Crow dolls, you bet my baby would be snuggling up with one. I mean, she already has a Cthulhu plushie.
I was lucky enough to meet Mike Nelson back in 2007 when he spoke at DePauw University. I was also lucky enough to walk him from the hotel and have him sit in on our Comedy class to give his own insight on the genre. We had a short Twitter conversation back in February 8, 2012, where Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett also chimed in on the idea of the Greatest Canadian Hero. If I could have their attention for just one minute again, I would tell them that what they do is, under nearly any standard, absurd. It’s the kind of thing people have been doing since movies were first invented, and even then I’m sure people in Victorian England would sit around the latest novel and mock it as it was read to them.
And yet you turned it into an art form. Speaking to everyone who worked in MST3K, from the earliest days of public access, to the movie, and finally to its last hurrah on Sci-Fi, and to the various projects from Cinematic Titanic to Rifftrax, I want to say thank you. Thank you for more than twenty years of laughs.
Specifically, today, congrats to Rifftrax for continuing a tradition that has shaped lives and changed the course of pop culture. Movie makers are on notice. The audience knows it can laugh. I am who I am because of my family, friends, and teachers, but a part of this crazy mind is due in part to spending my youth, and now my adult life, with the Satellite of Love’s crew, wherever they may go.
And I’ve had a cherished part of my life now passed on to the love of my life. Trust me when I say that when the Little One is old enough, she’s going to laugh along with us too as we keep returning to the Satellite of Love. At least for a moment, know you’ve changed my life for the better.
Here’s to the next thirty years and beyond, gentlemen.
And now, a reminder that even if the premise is absurd, just acknowledging it and having fun with it are better than pretending you’re making Hamlet. Embrace the cheese.
June 23, 2013
Last night’s Dungeons and Dragons game had perhaps the weirdest in-game use of liquor, shapeshifting, and seduction I’ve ever seen.
The party was investigating a town recently overcome with cultists of Orcus, the Demon Prince of Undeath. Naturally, such cultists are prone to things like sadism, insanity, and, I figured, occasional necrophilia. The last one was not overtly mentioned, but makes sense.
As the party snuck around the ruined town, they happened upon a tavern being used as some sort of torture chamber for the town’s survivors. Manny, playing the drow wizard Vician, decided he had a plan. He convinced the elf bard Vittoria to go along with it. Confident, he cast a spell to make both of them appear as ghouls so they could sneak into the ruins and free the two men being tortured by a necromancer.
After some routine questions from the necromancer, Manny, still in ghoul form, decided to gift the necromancer a bottle of liquor he had “found” outside. Seeing this, the necromancer took it and threw some of its contents at the very cut and very bloody men hanging on the rack. Their screams of pain filled the room as the rest of the team looking in through a window and wondered what Manny was doing.
As the DM, I too wondered what the hell he was doing.
I then had the necromancer take a swig of the bottle.
“So… he drank it?” asked Manny.
I looked at him and said, “Yeah. Why?”
“Because I bought something… It’s called Love Philter. He’s going to fall madly in love with the first creature he sees-”
“STOP!” I said.
I rushed out of the dining room and to my computer to check the online database. From the dining room, my players counted down as I accessed the site and verified this wild claim.
“Five… four… three… two… one-”
“SON OF A WHORE!”
I stomped back and conceded that, yes, the necromancer would now fall in love with the first creature it saw, but there were six people around him, including Manny, the bard, and a smattering of ghouls and demons. I then had Manny roll to see which one would become the object of his affection… and Manny rolled the number for himself.
Fine… He wanted to play like that? He wanted to make the necromancer fall in love with him. The NECROMANCER.
As in, he “loves” the dead?
At this point, another player pulled out his phone and proceeded to play some background music.
The necromancer, being the sick bastard that he is, took what he figured was a ghoul and began leading it to the back of the bar for some… alone time.
“I… didn’t consider this,” he said as a horny necromancer guided his character.
All I could think of was this…
Manny thought quickly and managed to pantomime something to the effect of “I can’t do this with an audience.” The necromancer, eager for some cold lovin’, instructed the demons and other ghouls to wait outside. Meanwhile, the rest of the adventuring party is watching this comedy of errors through the window and wondering what to do about the monsters outside. Vittoria the bard took the hint and untied the two men, carefully leading them through the tavern while the necromancer disrobed of his armor and weapons.
Ever the sick puppy, Manny asked the necromancer, “Do you like violence?”
Also ever the sick puppy, the necromancer agreed. Manny whipped out a pair of manacles and tied the necromancer down, who at this point could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
Leaning in, many blasted the far wall and killed five ghouls before blasting the necromancer’s head into a fine red mist.
The rest of the session involved some more bloodshed and sleuth-work, but the point is that one of my players magically seduced a sadistic necrophiliac and managed to wipe out half his undead posse, thus giving the other players the chance to go after the demons.
Not sure if I should be proud or worried this plan worked.
May 22, 2013
As I looked through horror movies to watch this week, I came across Fingerprints, a low-budget horror movie based on a Texas urban legend regarding a train crash. The legend goes that a school bus stalled on a set of train tracks as a train was about to pass. A few kids managed to escape, but most died when the bus was hit by the train. Now, if a car stops near the tracks, the legend says the car will move, on its own, past the tracks. If you put talcum powder or something similar on your car, you’re supposed to be able to see the fingerprints of the ghost children who push you to get you to safety.
This being a state legend, and since I’m still buzzing from Charcoal Streets and those stories, I decided to see what this little film did with the legend, so I pulled it up on Netflix.
And the first thing I see?
…Comic sans? Really? Okay, so it’s not EXACTLY comic sans, but it’s pretty close. Maybe it’s just the first card.
Nope. They just keep going.
So, what about the title card itself? Surely they were smart enough to at least put in some weird effects. Or maybe they wanted the titles to look like a little kid drew them, just to hammer the point home that there are going to be creepy ghost children in this film?
…Wow. They just didn’t care.
First impressions are very powerful, and if my first impression of this movie is that the designers didn’t even bother to find a creepy or even serious font, I’m not even going to bother with the rest. Sorry, Fingerprints, but you actually lost me in three title cards. Bravo.
February 22, 2013
Do we really need to change the horror movie?
I just spent the last two articles talking about all the things that need to happen in order for horror movies to be fun and scary again, but do we really need all this?
The point of going to any movie is to be entertained. Do bad, cliché-ridden horror movies still provide that? Yes, in a way. Riffing and watching with a large group can still be highly enjoyable experiences. In fact, riffing the film is the best part of a bad movie. There’s certainly appeal to laughing at the misfortune of dumb kids getting hacked like Thanksgiving dinner or the general mistakes of someone who just didn’t care to make a movie the right way…
I guess this is where we start to veer into the difference between “great film” and “good movie.”
Wit was a great film. Trick ‘r Treat was a great film. The Dark Knight was a great film.
Feast, The Last Lovecraft, and Dredd were good movies.
What’s the difference? A great film stands the test of time. It can reach a wide audience and has layers upon layers of meaning that only get better with each successive viewing.
A good movie is fun. You may not necessarily watch it again, but it did its job.
I want great horror films again. I want the kinds of movies that get the crowd so quiet that you can hear your own heartbeat. I want real terror, not the endless gore of a slow death with no sympathy for the victim. I want to actually care about the victims so that I can feel something. I want horror with layers of meaning.
…But I also love movies that are good just on their own. For example, one of my favorite horror films, Feast, is a straight-up closed circle monster movie where the characters don’t even have names. It’s gory and so over the top it loops around and comes back to “plausible.”
And it has fun with it.
Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong. Not every movie can be The Shining, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Some of my favorite memories watching movies involved movies that weren’t all that great but were obviously having a good laugh at themselves while we, the audience, laughed too.
Bad movies serve a purpose much like bad writing. They serve as examples. Eventually, the market gets so saturated with the bad that the good comes out. It’s strange. That’s not to say every movie on Netflix Instant should be a must-see, but it does mean that we get more examples of what doesn’t work. It’s like I said regarding drawing with charcoal. When you make enough mistakes and wipe the slate clean, eventually, you get something much better than the original work.
You know what? I changed my mind.
Bad movies can keep coming. They have a purpose. Good movies? Take note and learn from their mistakes.
And now, in celebration of this revelation, let’s bask in the glory of cheese that will be Spiders 3D.
November 26, 2011
How long is long enough for “too soon” to be long ago enough?
More specifically, when can we start using real-world events for fiction? I recently managed to catch a piece of the film Iron Sky, a dark satire of modern world events, American attitudes, and racism that tells the story of Nazis on the moon who have decided to finally invade Earth after hiding for 60 years.
Yes, Nazis. On the moon. With spaceships. Just try to not make too much sense of it.
The movie has its moments, such as the gorgeous space battle between weaponized space satellites and the Nazi fleet, the Sarah Palinesque American president and her shallow bid for reelection, and one moon Nazis conflict with her own morality after learning the true history of Nazism. Overall, not perfect, but it did get to me wonder.
When did Nazis become acceptable as comedic villains? As dark as the movie could get, the villains were over-the-top and as comical as villains on any old movie serial. Nazis have been fodder for pulp action for decades now, and Mel Brooks led the charge, I believe. He once stated that his goal was to make Hitler so ridiculous that no one would take him seriously as a leader. Maybe it’s worked. Brooks, though, is also a World War 2 veteran and was at the Battle of the Bulge, so as far as rights to mock Hitler, Brooks is covered.
But when can we start making fun of modern-day despots and terrorists? The Film Four Lions tried to do this and was met with positive acclaim. The sting of terrorism, though, it very much fresh for many people. Nazism pretty much died with Hitler, and although modern-day Nazis still exist, they are labeled as nuts and whackos, radicals without a home who have been fought and defeated, yet they still cling to an ideology that sent the world into war.
Terrorism, though, is much more complex. It still exists today, and between drone strikes and invasions, there are many who view it as a legitimate tool to fight oppression and bring vengeance upon the enemy. American imperialism is also very much tangled with exceptionalism and other extreme patriot movements.
The key is that comedy is aimed at the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, not the victims or the crimes themselves. For example, I’m not sure anyone would seriously think a comedy about the holocaust would be either appropriate or funny. Comedy based around terrorists, then, must be about the perpetrators, not their crimes.
Unless you’re racist.
Likewise, it seems we’re not too preoccupied about making movies based on recent events. How long did it take for 9/11 movies to come out? A few years? Television shows set in the modern world obviously had to address these concerns, but how soon is too soon to make a drama about terrorism? 24 was well into production when 9/11 occurred. Now, we have Homeland.
It’ll be interesting to look back on this time from twenty, maybe thirty years from now and see just how our entertainment dealt with a dark period in our history. Will we groan at our dash to capitalize on tragedy or see terrorists reduced to inept, albeit scary, movie monsters?
Just something to think about.
In any case, here’s a group of people who really wish they’d stayed in bed. See you later, and keep sharing posts!
March 16, 2012
I don’t really play video games. The last video game console I owned was a Super Nintendo. That doesn’t mean I don’t play Wii or Xbox games when possible, and don’t think I won’t snipe you from across the map if I get the chance. It’s just not something I invest a lot of time on these days.
Others, however, do, and that’s fine. I have my entertainment, they have theirs. Nothing wrong with that. I do, however, have a few questions for people who are furiously up in arms about the Mass Effect 3 ending.
I haven’t played Mass Effect. In any way shape or form. The last modern game I played was Arkham Asylum almost a year and a half ago. I’m asking this as a storyteller and a writer.
Was the ending so bad that players needed to start a campaign to change the ending?
I’m no stranger to franchises that have spiraled into the crapper. Star Trek Nemesis and the Star Wars prequels left me feeling hollow, like their writers had abandoned me for a round of masturbatory filmmaking that left me feeling sticky and alone. Sliders left such a foul taste in my mouth that I almost gave up on science fiction television. I almost wanted to pretend the first season and a half contained the only episodes. I know what its’ like to have something you’ve cared for turned into crap.
I understand all that, but is there really any point to having the designers and writer change the ending?
Think about it. What would that accomplish? They made an ending you didn’t like and you’ve made your anger known. To keep going, just stop buying games from the company. They’ll be forced to listen. That’s the standard procedure whenever someone makes a bad product, right? Of course, I understand games have changed. It’s not a matter of looking for your princess in this castle or just getting to the end. Today’s games have a story. They are immersive in a way my generation couldn’t have seen twenty years ago. That changes things. You’re part of the story now. You have a personal interest in things.
Unlike watching a show, you’re knee-deep in alien guts… but are there really that many different options available to you? How many possible endings can there be in a game? This is one reason I love tabletop games more than video games. Last night’s game, for instance, I could make things up on the fly to keep the story going and still keep my players happy. A game designer, whether in print or a video game, has to come up with as many combinations as possible to keep the players interested. There’s no improvisation.
Like I said, I haven’t played the game. Based on some of the reviews, I’m sure players feel cheated. It’s entirely possible. You should be angry. But a call to change the ending? That means you would have to return your games and wait for new ones and play the whole thing again and see the new ending. Or you would have to watch the new ending on YouTube or elsewhere anytime you finished the game and wanted the “better” ending. Maybe you could download it, but going from complaining to demanding a better ending from the designers seems like a waste of time.
If Super Mario Brothers had ended badly, I would have just not bought future games. But maybe that’s me. I wasn’t invested in the gripping story of a plumber and his lost love as much as gamers today are invested in stories of alien invasion.
And now, let’s cringe at another bad idea: Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
March 6, 2012
Over the last month or so, I’ve pretty much dropped off the map… and managed to miss the BIGGEST clusterfrak in the history of the GOP. Ever. The whole debacle with Limbaugh and contraception and the hearings with nothing but men talking about ovaries when none of the have been near a vagina since birth…
It’s like when I missed meeting R. L. Stein because I had to work on Saturday. Only worse. And this involves vaginas.
Enough has been said on Current, The Young Turks, Maddow, and everywhere else. Let me just say this.
If you identify as a Republican, please consider that the man who called a woman a slut, a prostitute, a whore, is the de-facto leader of your party. Your political leaders are afraid of him. Even after he mischaracterized birth control and insulted a young woman for wanting nothing more than for her health insurance to cover a medicine that helps balance hormones, he stuck to his guns and insulted her character, insulted women, and made his case that femenists are nothing more than man-hating harpies. Insurance companies, after all, cover things like erectile dysfunction, so why not birth control pills?
An erection, after all, has no point other than to bone. Let us now use bone as a verb…
If a man is allowed to bone on insurance money, why can’t a woman receive a medicine that helps balance hormones and prevents a battalion’s worth of medical problems without being called a slut and a prostitute? GOP candidates were unsurprisingly soft on Limbaugh regarding his statements and subsequent non-apology.
Maybe they need erectile dysfunction medicine for the spine.
Ladies, you don’t deserve this. Limbaugh is not a man. He is a semblance of a person made of oxycotin and lard. He is a man-child who would not know how to treat a woman if you showed him a manual written by the combined forces of 3 billion women. He is everything that is wrong with the Republican Party. He is a misogynistic, racist piece of crap that deserves no pity. Once he is gone, conservative Americans might actually be able to move past this windbag’s rants and actually say something substantial.
As much as I rail against the GOP, it’s not that conservatism by itself is a bad thing. Holding on and remembering the past is a good thing. I think the past should be looked at fondly, but it should not be the only thing that matters. Conservatives of old might have had some points, but today’s GOP is run by Fox, Limbaugh, and the voices of unrelenting hatred.
Maybe this vitriol, as painful as it was, will serve to topple that trinity of evil conservatism.
With that in mind, here’s a video of our medicated puppy trying to get through the day.
November 8, 2011
Guess who has to drop several pounds gained over the last year? Yeah, it’s going to be a fun month cutting back on caffeine, sugar, pounds, AND getting ready for the holiday season. Woohoo?
With that in mind, let’s get some links out of the way.
- Assassin’s Creed may be making its way tot he movies, but some insiders are shocked, SHOCKED I say, that Ubisoft has virtually total control over story, casting, everything. What does a video game company know about making movies, they ask? I’d ask instead what the hell Hollywood knows about adapting video games to movies. Bloodrayne, anyone? Prince of Persia? Doom? I could go on…
- Speaking of which, the president of Universal admits his company makes “shitty” movies. His words, not mine.
- Rachel Maddow has a theory about Herman Cain. He’s an actor. He has to be. The entire presidential run has to be some sort of massive art project. She explains her reasoning and, frankly, it makes sense.
- I did not and will not talk about the Kim Kardashian divorce. Just like I didn’t talk about the wedding. However, this article lays out how the divorce, at the same time the show is still showering us with images and video of the happy newlyweds, is actually good for America. In a nutshell, the dissonance between seeing the couple just a few weeks ago and the reality of today shatters the illusion of “reality” television. It’s staged, we all know that, but this is the most glaring example so far.
- If you find yourself complaining about the MTV Generation… you may be TOO old. Older than you think.
- Another moron from Jersey Shore got paid good money to lecture, this time at Columbia University. Thankfully, the students he spoke to were less than pleased he was there and let him know it.
- James Marsters, aka Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer answers some questions and makes a holiday picture like only Spike could make.
- I once asked if someone could make a chart of how many explosions Michael Bay could fit into a movie and still make money. Amazingly, someone did just that. It seems there is a point at which the explosions cannot save a movie, but beyond that point, more boom means more cash.
- Do you know someone who is against gay marriage? Here’s a handy set of pictures and text to explain the concept of gay marriage (what they gays refer to simply as MARRIAGE).
- I already knew the patron saint of hopeless causes and the patron saint of beer, but I was surprised to learn there is a patron saint of ugliness. Check out the other saints you may not have heard of.
- I love sleeping with some nice, semi-fluffy pillows and a warm comforter, but this is probably the best place to sleep EVAH!
- Adam Savage had a small role in a zombie flick. Short and sweet. Check it out.
- We have new images of the construction of the Death Star.
- There can be an argument that some people have TOO much money. They buy things that no one needs. Things like, well, anything in the Skymall catalogue. Or they go and do crap like THIS.
- Neil Gaiman will be on The Simpsons. Also, he gets roped into trying to do an American accent. Hilarity ensues.
- Here is a headbanging bear.
- And finally, here’s the trailer to Denzel Washington’s new movie, Safe House. Enjoy, and I’ll see you tomorrow.