“Think About It, Won’t You?”: The Celluloid Shipwrecks of Cinematic Titanic
While the cast of Netflix’s revived Mystery Science Theater 3000 finished their “Watch Out for Snakes!” live tour, Shout! Factory released a new complete collection of a previous live tour and episodes by MST3K alumni: Cinematic Titanic. Created by Joel Hodgson in 2007 and starring Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, Cinematic Titanic continued the movie riffing tradition by roasting turkeys with titles like The Oozing Skull and Danger on Tiki Island. No longer available on Hulu and with single-disc DVD releases out of print, Shout! Factory has rescued an important part of MST3K’s legacy for new viewers.
Twelve episodes of Cinematic Titanic reveal a team of riffers warmly welcoming your nostalgia while working to form their own identity. Early episodes trade the familiar theater seats for full body silhouettes on the sides of the screen—a cumbersome visual, but it’s not like they’re blocking any particularly beautiful cinematography in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks. Though the early episodes play with the format, pausing the movies for short skits and dropping in new silhouettes for visual gags (the Stephen Hawking impersonator is a weird one), Cinematic Titanic truly finds its groove when it switches to recordings of their live shows. The comedians feed on the audience’s exuberant energy, and little unscripted moments provide some of the warmest chuckles.
Comparisons to Rifftrax and even the Jonah Ray season of MST3K are inevitable, but I’m not interested in arguing over which group is the true successor to classic MST3K. Joel vs. Mike flamewars are so 1997, and they all fulfill different niches for different fans. If Rifftrax has made its reputation riffing big Hollywood films like Twilight and Anaconda, Cinematic Titanic digs deep into the dumpsters behind a haunted Blockbuster Video. There’s the obligatory Roger Corman cheapie, The Wasp Woman; and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians wins the bad movie Triple Crown as the only film to be riffed by MST3K, Rifftrax, and Cinematic Titanic. Al Adamson’s plundered filmography supplies a nearly endless stream of oily, lumpy 1970s dudes in cheap leisure suits and women wearing five pounds of false eyelashes. They even riff a film that is, honest to god, also available in the Criterion Collection—War of the Insects, better known in the CC under its original, more ominous title, Genocide.
So, how are the jokes? Cinematic Titanic sees no need to re-invent the wheel, firing a rat-tat-tat barrage of riffs at the viewer that reference everything from The Wizard of Oz to Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet—hey, it was 2007. Al Adamson’s East Meets Watts, a quickie blend of the popular kung fu and blaxploitation genres predating Power Man’s team-up with Iron Fist, gives Cinematic Titanic plenty of material. (How DID Larry take off his jacket while he was handcuffed to Stud?) It’s disappointing then to see the team lean on dodgy accents and lazy, stereotypical jokes about bad Asian drivers. Not every episode is a smooth ride, but there are more hits than misses. (Frank Conniff on one film’s voluptuous vampire victim: “Faye Dunaway didn’t have this many holes in her at the end of Bonnie and Clyde.”)
Among the performers, there is no weak link: Joel Hodgson fans will be soothed by his laconic delivery, “Mads” Conniff and Beaulieu have lost none of their wisecracking chemistry, and as someone who loved despotic villainess Pearl Forrester, it’s great seeing Mary Jo Pehl slide into that theater silhouette. J. Elvis Weinstein, who originated the role of Tom Servo and played Dr. Forrester’s assistant Larry for a single season when he was only 17, finally gets his due as a riffer. His comedic timing has sharpened by his experience as a stand-up comic and a writer for another late, lamented comedy classic: Freaks and Geeks.
Weinstein is also interviewed for the only extra on Shout! Factory’s new collection; he recalls meeting his Cinematic Titanic castmates when they were all up-and-coming comics in Minneapolis, how they reconnected years after MST3K ended, and why they eventually stopped touring. Vague mentions of “dealing with any lingering crap between us” in the years between projects will make viewers yearn for a truly candid MST3K oral history, however. (The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide vol. 2?)
Cinematic Titanic’s legacy can still be felt years after the project went on indefinite hiatus: Joel successfully Kickstarted a Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival, where he served as a writer and recurring performer; Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu riff movies as part of their vein-poppingly funny “The Mads are Back!” tour, and Mary Jo Pehl joined Rifftrax, mocking Cat-Women of the Moon and Angels Revenge (you know, chick flicks) with Bridget Nelson. It’s hard not to hold Shout! Factory’s slim DVD case in your hands and wish that Cinematic Titanic was still sailing, but for comedy and bad movie fans, it’s an unforgettable voyage. And, as always: “Watch out for snakes!”