Brad Cook reviews Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection…
The end of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s first run didn’t spell the end of riffing on bad movies. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett continued the tradition with The Film Crew and RiffTrax, and Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Coniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein created Cinematic Titanic. Shout! Factory was previously involved in The Film Crew, and now they’ve put out all 12 movies riffed by Cinematic Titanic in a new Complete Collection.
Hodgson and his fellow riffers play themselves in Cinematic Titanic. The premise is that a mysterious organization, perhaps a corporation or a military force, has kidnapped them and forced them to riff on bad movies as part of a complicated plan that has something to do with a tear in the “electron scaffolding.” It seems a bit convoluted and unnecessary – I have always preferred the brilliant simplicity of MST3K’s early seasons, before they moved to the Sci-Fi Channel and had to start creating storylines.
As in MST3K, the cast is shown in silhouette, although they stand on either side of the screen, rather than sitting in front of it. (There are no robots.) Other characters also show up sometimes, such as Stephen Hawking, who rolls in and speaks in a computerized voice. Rather than walking away to do skits a few times each episode, the cast pauses the movie to do something goofy, such as during Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, when Hodgson decides to hand out presents and Weinstein notes that maybe they’re just really silhouettes of great gifts.
The first episode, The Oozing Skull, has a cold open with the cast taking their places and beginning their riffs. The premise is never mentioned during the episode, but information about it is slowly doled out in subsequent episodes. Weinstein explains in A Look Back, a 13-minute retrospective interview on the first disc, that such an approach was intentional.
His discussion is interesting not only for historical purposes but also because it’s obvious that the cast had to figure out a working relationship, despite their shared past with MST3K. It’s not hard to read between the lines and see that there was some tension, but since I don’t really care that much about such things, I’ll leave it at that.
In addition to releasing Cinematic Titanic episodes on DVD and as downloads, the cast has performed live many times and released some of those events on disc too. They eventually let the discs fall out of print, but luckily Shout! Factory stepped in to put together this set for the fans. The other bonus feature, the 17-minute Between the Riffs, is found on the sixth disc. It includes interviews with the cast members as well as quotes from live performance attendees.
Here’s the complete list of movies in this set. Unfortunately, three movies were riffed live but not recorded – The Doll Squad, Samson and the Seven Miracles, and The Astral Factor – so they will never show up on home video.
The Oozing Skull: This one was released as Brain of Blood but one of its producers asked Cinematic Titanic to change the title. It’s about a dictator who has his brain put in a younger, healthier body and the wacky hijinks that ensue. (By “hijinks” I mean “creepy, bloody stuff.”)
Doomsday Machine: A mission to Venus is en route when the Earth is destroyed, leaving the astronauts to keep the human race going on a new planet. One of the movie pauses features Mary Jo leading a discussion about who would live and who would die if a disaster left them with only enough resources to keep three of them alive.
The Wasp Woman: The owner of a cosmetics firm tries an experimental serum made from the enzymes of wasps. Surprisingly, dabbling with science in her quest for vanity backfires on her. Comedian Dana Gould appears as jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
Legacy of Blood: Four heirs to a fortune must spend the night at the family estate, but someone tries to kill them off one by one. This episode begins to reveal some more information about why the cast has been forced to riff on bad movies.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: This one is the gift that keeps giving. It was previous riffed by MST3K and RiffTrax (a live presentation), but why not do it again?
Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks: This Italian film features Count Frankenstein experimenting with more human subjects. His Icarus-like pursuit of science is complicated by his raging libido.
Blood of the Vampires: This Filipino movie is about a family whose mother is actually a vampire who lives in their basement. Alcohol helps the riffing go down in one of the paused segments.
East Meets Watts (live): A 70s Blaxploitation/karate mash-up that was performed live. The live performances dispensed with the storyline in the previous episodes. I suppose anyone concerned about that can pretend that the cast escaped their predicament but enjoyed riffing so much that they took their show on the road.
The live performances that make up the rest of the episodes in this set are curiosities. There’s an energy to the cast members’ delivery that feeds off the audience’s reactions and creates a unique effect. It’s worth experiencing after so many years of watching MST3K at home.
The Alien Factor (live): Creatures attack the residents of a small Maryland town after their spaceship lands nearby.
Danger on Tiki Island (live): Known originally as Brides of Blood, this one is about a tropical island where the natives must deal with man-eating plants and mutant animals. A group of travelers stumbles across them and joins the fun.
War of the Insects (live): Insects around the world begin attacking humans. Fun fact: This one was originally called Genocide and was released in a set of four films from Criterion Collection’s Eclipse label, so obviously someone thought it was bad in a good way.
Rattlers (live): A leak of military nerve gas causes a colony of rattlesnakes to start attacking people nearby.