One of the things that make you really appreciate the talent of professional movie riffers and former Mystery Science Theater 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett is attending one of their live Rifftrax events. The trio plucks a movie and a few shorts out of public domain, jump up on stage and rip right into them, simulcasting their performance to theaters across the country. The model seems to work pretty well for the beloved wiseacres—based on the screenings I’ve attended I’d wager that they do better than The Met or the Prairie Home Companion’s simulcasts, at least. After all, Garrison Keillor’s folksy charm and mediocre singing might work on radio, but the dude still looks like Garrison Keillor and that is not a face that needs to be blown up on the big screen all across America.
What makes the talent of the Rifftrax crew apparent isn’t their successful latter-day career or even seeing their sharp wit and timing live; it’s hearing the schmos in the audience trying to get in on the action. Riffing is harder than it looks, lord knows I couldn’t do it, and that’s never more apparent when some guy fancies himself a wit and then goes and makes an idiot of himself. You know what’s worse than a dullard making lame cracks during a movie? A dullard making lame cracks during a movie that’s being ripped on by experts.
I think what sets apart the Rifftrax crew from their imitators is the misconception that they’re there solely to ridicule the movie, which is really only part of what they do. When it comes to something as dumb as William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, it’s easy to rip on its cheap effects, bad acting, and bonkers script, and it’s the easy jokes that the peanut gallery folks glomp on to. If Mike and the boys spent the entire running time snidely picking things apart, Rifftrax would be a pretty joyless affair.
What Rifftrax does (and they did this in MST3k too) is make bad movies more palatable. Part of that comes from goofing on the film’s poor quality, but most of the life is from them inventing a wild new world within the movie. When Frank Lloyd Wright’s Aztec-themed mansion appears during the opening moments of Haunted Hill, rather than saying “Man, that’s an ugly house” as my neighbor rather loudly chuckled to no one in particular, Kevin tore into the rather unfortunate looking building by imitating the architect as if he were an indignant drunk leaving slurred messages on critics’ answering machines. “I don’t care what you want! I’m Frank Lloyd Wright, dammit, I’ll do what I want!” See the difference here?
While there were plenty of laughs during last night’s Rifftrax Halloween special, the show as a whole felt weak compared to some of the group’s more recent work—especially last year’s raucous Christmas Shorts Spectacular. Its best parts were during the two shorts that aired preceding House on Haunted Hill. With the help of guest-riffer Paul F. Tompkins, they explored two terrifying educational films that send supernatural beings to educate children on the intricacies of saving money at the grocery store and the magic of paper production. The talking paper bag of the latter is truly a frightening creature, one who comes to children in the night and then sweeps them away to rural Georgia like some demented, paper-obsessed Jiminy Cricket. With shorts as inherently inane as this pair, extra commentary was hardly necessary. So by the time House on Haunted Hill started, it was an uphill battle to match the ridiculous farce of the opening half.
Both Mystery Science Theater and Rifftrax work best when scraping the bottom of the cultural barrel. It showcases their unparalleled skill at making the unwatchable watchable. But when faced with something as blandly inoffensive as House on Haunted Hill the boys suffer from a lack of material. The best episodes of MST3k were the ones that probed deep into B-movie Hell, like with Manos: The Hands of Fate or Space Mutiny, while the worst were ones where when the movie lacked a distinct enough personality to warrant ridicule. House on Haunted Hill has its ridiculous moments, but it probably wasn’t the best choice for Mike and the gang this time. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to settle for the kagillion other Rifftrax those guys churn out.
Tune in Monday for the 31 Days of Horror Grand Finale! What will we watch? Wait and see!