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FILM
Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo
September 2018
Gabriel Ricard

 Image © Nathan Alan Schwartz 

Image © Nathan Alan Schwartz 

Let’s do MORE DIFFERENT THINGS DIFFERENTLY IN 2018. In SEPTEMBER. HELL YEAH.

Sorry, I just wanted to get you fired up. Messing around with the structure of this column for the record-setting second time this year, and I wasn’t sure how to get starting. Screaming is almost always the default, which is probably something I would discuss with the therapist I can’t afford.

I’ve mentioned Mystery Science Theater in this column at least a couple of times. I’ve probably mentioned RiffTrax, too. There are many, many, many other riffing groups/duos/individuals that are worth your time, if you really dig snarky/insightful comments made by strangers during movies. At Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo, we did a whole column around movie commentaries, as well. I guess there’s just something I really like about people talking over the movie.

Do I talk over the movie? I’m not answering that.

Nonetheless, one of the most incredible things about RiffTrax and MST3K is the mountainous collection of bad movies that fall under either (or both) of those umbrellas. We have 11 (soon to be 12) seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which translates to more than 200 fairly shitty films. RiffTrax, which has enough connections to MST3K to warrant inclusion in this column, currently stands on a pile of several hundred movies and shorts. Any seasoned B-movie pro will tell you that from a quantity standpoint, all of these movies are just a drop in a very deep bucket of what’s actually out there in the realm of terrible movies.

Still, MST3K and RiffTrax can give you a good education in crap cinema, if that winds up being something you want to do with your free time. Obviously, a lot of us do. I’ve seen this stuff at least a couple of times at this point. Few things work as well as compelling background noise than Jonah Ray or Mary Jo Pehl talking about some insane, largely forgotten sci-fi “masterpiece.”

Over the course of watching this stuff, I’ve started to wonder if all of these movies are really that bad. The answer more often than not is yes, but this is naturally a subjective subject anyway. Several MST3K episodes include films that a number of people actually enjoy. There are also a lot of movies with good ideas and elements, but perhaps not enough in the way of talent or budget from the people involved.

Regardless, just for the sheer giddy hell of it all, this month’s column will choose 5 Mystery Science Theater 3000/RiffTrax films and review the movie itself. These were chosen randomly, or as randomly as I can make it with minimal effort. So, random enough to be fun, I assure you. 

Any of these episodes/movies can be watched on things like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Pluto-TV, DVD, or even YouTube in certain cases. You can also buy MST3K episodes and RiffTrax stuff at www.rifftrax.com.

Much like the new practice of reviewing theatrical double features for the column, this whole idea is designed to be fun. I understand that this remains to be seen.

Oh, and Rifftrax’ “Just the Jokes” riffs (audio-only commentaries you sync up with big Hollywood films) are exempt from being chosen for the column. Big Hollywood films in this instance aren’t going to be much fun to review. I also didn’t want to run the risk of possibly having to write even a single fucking sentence about The Day After Tomorrow. We’re sticking solely to Rifftrax’ lengthy catalog of Video on Demand releases (the commentary is already synced up with the film) and anything featured on seasons 1 through 11 of Mystery Science Theater. As far as Cinematic Titanic is concerned, I also wanted to focus on movies you could find easily enough online in riffed or unriffed form.


 Image © Comedy Central 

Image © Comedy Central 

Squirm
Released: 1976
Featured On: Mystery Science Theater (Season 10/Episode 12)
The Riffing: A+
The Film: C+

Watch it riffed or unriffed: You may just be able to get through this without the exceptional riffing from Mike and the bots, in what would be the second-to-last episode of MST3K’s original 10+ season run. Squirm is a weird example of 70s killer animal movies. Filmed in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which is decently close to where I lived in Savannah many years ago, Squirm isn’t particularly scary. The low budget atmosphere is inescapable, and the amateurish-but-earnest performances from a cast that includes Don Scardino (whose ongoing director resume includes, bizarrely, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) and Patricia Percy (who has gone on to several film/TV/stage roles) doesn’t really help things. 

Squirm also offers ample, natural, and intensely creepy Georgia backwoods atmosphere. Makeup work from a young Rick Baker gives the movie some memorable moments, as well. There is also no question that director Jeff Lieberman (who also directed the cult classic Blue Sunshine) had some intense plans for the film’s wriggly climax. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy, and even remember fondly, the punch this film saves for its final minutes. Fun fact: This is the one MST3K film that creator Joel Hodgson actually saw during its original theatrical run.

Firehead
Released: 1991
Featured On: RiffTrax
The Riffing: B+
The Film: F-

Watch it riffed or unriffed: Watch this without the fine riffing from Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy at your own risk. Firehead isn’t even going to please fans of cheesy low-budget 80s/90s action flicks (there are SO FUCKING MANY).  We have a soviet agent with telekinesis (the aforementioned Firehead) played by a somewhat meaty man named Brett Porter. We also get Chris Lemmon, and his unique ability to sound like his more famous father. In fact, if you happen to be in the other room while this is playing, you might even believe it’s Jack Lemmon himself, who was no stranger to crappy movies in his long, deservedly-celebrated career.

Chris does his best, and we should at least acknowledge that. Nonetheless, you’re going to be praying for a horrifying death of his character early on. If you try to get through this without riffing, I applaud your desire to make sense of the mangled plot, terrible performances, and painful efforts to hide the film’s low budget. If you haven’t done a few shots of actual paint thinner by the end, you can at least say Martin Landau provides Firehead with its one redeemable moment. Christopher Plummer, who also shows up in this, spends a lot of time trying not to look off-camera, where I suspect someone was waiting with his $500 in cash.

Carnival Magic
Released: 1981
Featured On: Mystery Science Theater (Season 11/Episode 12)
The Riffing: A+ 
The Film: C-

Watch it riffed or unriffed: By the time Carnival Magic is finished, poor Jonah and the bots (and Jonah Ray is doing an excellent job as the host in the new Netflix-exclusive episodes) are close to the point of absolute emotional/spiritual bankruptcy. That’s not unreasonable. Not only is Carnival Magic pretty terrible in every imaginable way, but it is also aggressively strange.

Somehow, I can imagine a certain breed of weirdo being able to watch, or even appreciate, this madcap shitshow that features a talking chimp who saves a magical carnival. There is an ensemble element to this, with a varied cast slogging through different plot threads, but that talking chimp part is probably one of the least implausible aspects of Carnival Magic. If you don’t want to watch it with the riffing, settle in for a movie that was allegedly made for children. There is a time capsule appeal to this movie, particularly if your childhood is steeped in Tom Waitsian-carnivals and fairs. If you’re currently using drugs recreationally, bring them along for this one.

Angels Revenge
Released: 1979
Featured On: Mystery Science Theater 3000/RiffTrax
The Riffing: A+
The Film: D+

Watch it riffed or unriffed: While Mystery Science Theater did an edited version of this film for the series during its sixth season, I’d recommend the vastly-more-enjoyable 2017 RiffTrax release that gives an uncut version of this nightmare to MST3K alumni Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Nelson. I would also strongly advise against trying to make it through this movie without any riffing at all. Angels Revenge was a feeble Charlie’s Angels rip-off when the Greydon “Inexplicably Long Career” Clark-directed cheapie was released. It was a horrifying relic when Mike, Tom, and Crow took it on in the mid-1990s, and it has only gotten uglier and more desperate with age.

If there is any appeal to be found in this movie, it’s in watching the depressing parade of has-beens (Jack Palance, Peter Lawford, and Jim Backus) who lend their weary talents for what I would imagine was a few dollars and a sandwich. Palance would see better days, but the same can’t be said for anyone or anything else that comes near this painfully unpleasant film. Mary Jo and Bridget have been brilliant on a slew of sexist cinematic antiques. This is their best outing to date, and it is probably the only way to survive this wretched curiosity.

I Accuse My Parents
Released: 1945
Featured On: Mystery Science Theater 3000
The Riffing: A-
The Film: C-

Watch it riffed or unriffed: Exploitation movies promising to expose juvenile delinquency are a genre unto themselves, even if you stay firmly in the 1940s and 1950s. Everything about I Accuse My Parents, which was featured on Mystery Science Theater during Joel’s last season as host, offers a solidly hilarious fretting, combined seamlessly with absurd 1940s melodrama, about the problem of kids that are just up to no damn good. I Accuse My Parents is perhaps most unique for taking the somewhat-unique standpoint of suggesting that it’s all mom and dad’s fault. Robert Lowell, who plays the titular accuser, is delightfully white bread, awkward, and kind of a weenie. That works against the film’s tedious-but-oddly-compelling story, but it works beautifully for the riffing from Joel, Tom, and Crow. 

I Accuse My Parents has that time capsule appeal, combined with the obvious earnestness to tell its story with some semblance of sincerity. There is almost always unintentional comedy to be found in such sincerity, which is probably it worked so well on MST3K. Finally, if nothing else, I Accuse My Parents offers a cavalcade of B-movie regulars from the era. If you’re anything like me, those faces, careers, and lives are endlessly fascinating. Someone ought to try and remember they ever existed at all.


Gabriel Ricard writes, edits, and occasionally acts. His books Love and Quarters and Bondage Night are available through Moran Press, in addition to A Ludicrous Split (Alien Buddha Press) and Clouds of Hungry Dogs (Kleft Jaw Press). He is also a writer, performer, and producer with Belligerent Prom Queen Productions. He lives on a horrible place called Long Island.