RiffTrax and the Cruelty of Color

Image Source: RiffTrax

Way back in August, I drove (okay, well I don’t actually drive, I was driven) two whole hours south of Los Angeles to a city called Escondido to see a show. ‘Twas a live performance by the RiffTrax boys – Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy – three alums of the cult television series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” also known as MY FAVORITE T.V. SHOW OF ALL TIME. I came to see them do what they do best: riff their way through a hilariously bad movie, which in this case manifested itself as the 1938 marijuana “education” film Reefer Madness (originally titled Tell Your Children, dir. Louis J. Gasnier). While B-movies were the forte of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (and continue to be the forte of series creator Joel Hodgson, who now does live riffing and DVD releases with his troupe Cinematic Titanic), the novelty of RiffTrax is that they release downloadable audio commentaries for big-budget, big-studio, big-deal movies, which frees them of any responsibility to clear copyrights and allows them to do their own hilarious commentary for literally any movie they want. As a kid watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” I imagined a day when all movies would be automatically released to home video with a commentary track by the MST3K guys (Joel or Mike, didn’t matter, as long as the ‘bots were there); I feel RiffTrax sort of owes me for the idea, but since I never actually said it out loud to anybody, we’ll let it slide for now. Last August, in 2009, I went to see RiffTrax’s first live-broadcast theatrical presentation of everyone’s favorite bad movie, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). And tonight, they’re giving the same treatment to William Castle’s House On Haunted Hill (1959). But this time I’ve decided to skip the show, because, despite my usual love for anything MST3K-related, the way both Reefer Madness and Plan 9 were presented and the riffs made at their expense left a bad taste in my mouth, which I intend to whine at you about now.

Michael J. Nelson, head writer and second host of MST3K, created RiffTrax in 2006 in collaboration with a company called Legend Films. As RiffTrax has grown and evolved from mere digitally-released audio commentaries to live stage shows and DVD releases, the site’s reliance on the services provided by Legend has grown. This makes sense, as the whole point of RiffTrax in the first place was that it was only audio commentaries, therefore requiring no licensing of film titles – and yet you need to license film titles to do DVDs and stage shows. The problem with this is that Legend Films specializes in the restorization and colorization of classic black-and-white films for modern home video and theatrical release – and the problem with that is, they do a terrible job of it. Like, really, really terrible. BLASPHEMOUSLY terrible.

Shot from the vandalized colorized Reefer Madness.

Colorization is pretty tacky, and it’s not something I agree with. If you can’t appreciate a perfectly good movie because it’s in black and white, you don’t deserve to see good movies. It would be bad enough if Legend did plain ol’ colorizations. But for Plan 9 and Reefer Madness, they straight-up re-edited the movies. Reefer Madness was done in a completely psychedelic, cartoonish, unrealistic color palette where the men walk around in chartreuse and puce suits, and all the smoke from the marijuana comes out in rainbow colors. LEGEND FILMS, WHY YOU DO DIS. It’s even worse when you learn that, as apparently revealed in their DVD commentary for the film, the Legend creative forces could have easily restored the film to its original quality, but chose not to so as to deliberately make the film look worse. This does not even compare in my mind to their heinous treatment of Plan 9 from Outer Space – wherein they actually AUCTIONED OFF THE OPPORTUNITY TO EDIT CERTAIN PORTIONS OF THE FILM BY DIGITALLY INSERTING THE WINNER’S CONTENT INTO SPECIFIC SCENES. Am I yelling? I’m yelling. IT’S JUST SO NOT RIGHT.

Listen, Legend. Let’s chat for a second. You too, RiffTrax, you get over here. We tried re-editing classic movies before to update them for “modern audiences.” It was called pan and scan, and anybody who knew anything about filmmaking hated it. You think that, just because these are so-called “bad” movies, it doesn’t matter if you go back in and kitsch them up a bit? Not to sound too pretentious here, but they’re still someone else’s work. You think it’s cool to make fun of Ed Wood? It’s not cool, and it certainly ain’t new or original. It’s been DONE. (Oh, and by the way, one of the “special features” on their DVD release is a home video of Ed Wood performing a strip tease in drag, which I’m sure was never meant to be seen by anybody. Stay classy, guys.)

Independent filmmakers who haven’t seen “Mystery Science Theater 3000” might expect a show that takes low-budget movies and makes fun of them to be mean-spirited and cruel, but the thing is, it wasn’t. The whole point of showing those obscure B-movies was to give those films a voice. Yes, the show ruthlessly pointed out the silly bits and picked on the directors, but without MST3K, how many of those awesomely bad little flicks would you have even seen? It was as if they were saying, “No, your film did not succeed in achieving what you wanted it to achieve, but we appreciate the effort, and we can still get enjoyment out of it in a different way.” Box-office hits are fair game for RiffTrax, because in the end, their riffing isn’t going to hurt the enormous profit generated by studio films, and most of those directors have no souls anyway. By deliberately altering Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space to make the films and their makers look foolish, Legend Films – and RiffTrax, too, they’re not off the hook; I seem to remember a particular riff during Plan 9 about how “you can really see Bela Lugosi’s shot of morphine kick in right here” which was SO NOT COOL – is taking organically-bad, kitschy little films which were made in earnest, and turning them into objects of derision and mockery in a way that is forced and unfair. It’s as if they’re saying, “Your work is so worthless that we won’t even give it the dignity of letting it speak for itself.” Now that’s mean-spirited.

It’s not funny. It’s not cool. It’s bullying, it’s disrespectful, and it’s really not classy. Knock it off, guys. If this is the “new direction” of RiffTrax, I’d rather they turn around and go back the other way.

1 Comment

  1. This is one of my favorite things you’ve written. I think your points are totally valid and there is a difference between what MST3k was doing and what Rifftrax is doing and the direction they are going.

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