In the dark days between the end of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and, well, the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000, fans could console themselves with two complementary efforts that continued the show’s legacy: Michael J. Nelson’s Rifftrax and series creator Joel Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic. While Rifftrax has mocked everything from the Twilight movies to National Geographic specials, Cinematic Titanic stuck firmly to the dregs of the filmic universe, delivering the MST treatment to dire finds like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks and Danger of Tiki Island. Featuring Joel alongside J. Elvis (formerly Josh) Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, Cinematic Titanic never had an entirely smooth run and Hodgson closed the door on it for good in 2013 — clearing the way, we now know, to bring back MST3K. But it remains essential viewing for any MSTie, and thanks to Shout! Factory, you can do just that with Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection, which gathers every film the troupe released, along with a couple of bonus features. As ever, Popdose’s Dan Wiencek and Tony Redman divided and conquered to review all 12 films. And so it begins …
#1. The Oozing Skull
In “A Look Back with J. Elvis Weinstein,” one of two bonus features included in the six-disc set, the writer candidly admits that as a concept, Cinematic Titanic was never fleshed out as thoroughly as MST3K. It’s kept somewhat vague where Cinematic Titanic is and why our writer-performers — all appearing under their own names — are there, but that’s a momentary distraction before we dive into the riffing. The Oozing Skull (originally titled Brain of Blood but renamed at the request of the original producers) is a sort-of mad scientist movie with some surprisingly stomach-turning visuals for an early-70s cheapie. (Mary Jo Pehl: “I would be grossed out, but since this movie started, I’ve lost the ability to feel anything.”) In lieu of MST-style host segments, the gang will often freeze the film to perform a short skit, but otherwise it’s just straight riffage, and a strong first outing for the team.
#2. The Doomsday Machine
This notorious production consists largely of stock NASA footage — J. Elvis complains, “If they’re going to use that footage in this movie, I want my tax dollars back” — as well as stand-ins whose faces are hidden by space helmets, brought in to pad the movie after the original cast wasn’t available. It’s like Marooned but even more flat and talky, and the gang struggles to make something watchable out of it, though there are some gems sprinkled here and there; I especially liked Frank responding to a character’s “My God!” with “It’s full of low-grade stars!”
#3. The Wasp Woman
The only black-and-white film the gang tackled, The Wasp Woman is even tougher going than Doomsday Machine despite being (marginally) more watchable as a film. The story of a vain woman willing to do anything to preserve her beauty, it brings out surprisingly little edge in the crew, with a lot of formulaic filler gags (“Meanwhile, back in Gotham City” — come on, guys); the biggest laugh for me was when Joel impersonates a rabbit being injected with drugs: “I swear it’s like kissing God!”
#4. Legacy of Blood
The story of a thoroughly unlikeable family forced to survive the week together in a house in order to claim the patriarch’s inheritance. The head of the house is played by John Carradine in a role he could have literally phoned in. It’s a pretty dreary affair, brightened up a bit by Joel and company. For instance, the butler is an old, insanely muscular man named Igor, who Trace describes as “Body by Charles Atlas. Head by Mel Brooks.” I won’t give away who’s killing off everybody, other than to say that if you paid for Carradine, you might as well use him as much as you can!
#5. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Cinematic Titanic’s only return trip to the MST3K well, this fresh take on the anything-but-classic holiday tale illustrates the harder edge that CT adopted over the more winsome approach of MST during the Joel years. When Dropo binges on food pills, J. Elvis notes, “It’s like watching Judy Garland, Mama Cass and the Great Gazoo all kill themselves at once.” On the flip side, the constant complaints about the hammy acting seem beside the point in a Christmas movie featuring Martians in green face-paint, but maybe that’s just me.
#6. Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks
A sewn-together monster, a dwarf, a caveman(!), and a mad doctor with an almost unintelligible accent (played by South Pacific star Rossano Brazzi no less) make for this crazy muddle of a movie. This also marked the first (and last) appearance of the breast blimp, a zeppelin that wandered into the frame when one of the ladies bathes topless. As was remarked elsewhere, it’s funny that the subject matter and language of the riffers wanders into PG-13 territory, but they still feel the need to cover up boobs, albeit in a funny way.
#7. Blood of the Vampires
This cinematic stinker takes place in Mexico but was filmed in the Philippines. A man keeps a mysterious secret from his grown kids: he keeps their fanged mother in a coffin and periodically chains and whips her. (Mary Jo remarks that having a mom as a vampire “takes the whole idea of bloodthirsty demons and makes it kind of creepy.”) Mom laters bites her son and chaos ensues, eventually saved by the prerequisite horde of villagers who burn down the castle. The oddest thing about this already odd movie is the slaves played by people in blackface, who Joel refers to as “the Jolsonettes.”
#8. East Meets Watts (aka The Dynamite Brothers)
This Asian/blaxsploitation film was their first recorded live show, and it is by far my favorite of all the Cinematic Titanic outings. The rapport with the audience made a great riffing job even better. While there was a smattering of jokes some might consider racist, it still was hilarious to see them do a collective spit take when a white guy uses the n-word.
#9. The Alien Factor
This movie seems to me to be the most like an old MST3K episode: cheesy monsters, horrible acting, and inept effects. Heck, the CT gang even joke about the cars used. (Trace: “Has there ever in history been a two-door cop car?”) The monsters in question were supposed to be part of an intergalactic zoo, but the spaceship transporting them crashed to Earth. These guys have had a lot of experiencing riffing films like this, and this is one of their funnier efforts.
#10. The Danger of Tiki Island
If Cinematic Titanic had a weak spot, I’d suggest that the movies they chose often struck an unfavorable balance between good-bad and out-and-out bad-bad. The Doomsday Machine is Manos-level unwatchable and The Danger of Tiki Island is close behind, with an appallingly racist premise, scenes that seem underlit even in broad daylight and a loud, murky soundtrack. There are virtually no laughs to be had in the first act, and the jokes that do land are surprisingly louche: As a little person gazes up at the beautiful heroine, Josh quips, “I’d like to go up on her!” Ba-dum-bum.
#11. War of the Insects
You know this movie is going to start in hot and heavy when the first thing they show is a mushroom cloud, when causes Trace to quip, “Michele Bachmann’s first day as president.” In this film, an airman’s PTSD kicks in at a most unfortunate time, as an errant bee in his plane makes him go crazy and prepare the H-bomb they were carrying to drop. A huge swarm of insects finish the job as the plane explodes and the bomb drops. A mad search for the bomb (and bugs biting everyone they can) causes mass havoc.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: skewering ’70s drive-in flicks always brought out the best in MST3K, and it’s no different with Cinematic Titanic. This is the most easily enjoyable film in the set for my money (though East Meets Watts is a close second), with a bland, slab-like leading man; a strident women’s-libber who nevertheless goes completely to pieces as soon as trouble starts; and an awful lot of rattlesnakes. The sight of the previously antagonistic leads kissing on a Las Vegas dance floor prompts Joel to wonder, “Did they cut out the reel with the personal chemistry?”, and when the disgraced Army colonel lobs a grenade, Mary Jo asks, “Who doesn’t steal office supplies when they’re fired?” It’s a shame Cinematic Titanic only lasted long enough to knock down a dozen movies, but wittingly or not, they picked a good one to go out on.
This is a great set to pick up, especially for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. Speaking of which, Shout! Factory is preparing to release their next (and unfortunately probably their last) volume of the MST3K box sets. Featured in the set will be Girls Town, The Amazing Transparent Man, Diabolik (the last episode), and an entire disc of host segments from the movies they haven’t been able to get the rights to. Between Rhino and Shout!, there were 39 volumes and numerous one-offs, and considering that all but 11 episodes were officially released, that’s not too shabby. Rest assured that Dan and I will be back to review that last box set as soon as we can get our hands on it!