Rifftrax live makes delicious mincemeat of Plan 9
Last night's Rifftrax Live lampooning of Plan 9 From Outer Space, classically regarded as the worst film ever made, was a monumentally surreal viewing experience. The show was simulcast across the nation in hundreds of theaters, and what viewers saw on the silver screen was Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Brian Corbett perched on a theater stage, against a silver screen of their own, riffing away on the schlockiest of the schlocky, occasionally ceding the stage for some dud musical numbers and forgettable short films created by the fellows at Something Awful.
The short film which opened the night, The Flying Stewardess, was prime sirloin for Nelson and the crew-- and absurdly chaste and naive look at air travel in the 1950s-- and the riffing was on point. But it didn't take long to realize that here was something more than mildly distracting going on-- the absence of the silhouetted movie seats, and of Mike and his puppet pals from MST3k glory, made the voice over oddly hard to follow and startling for much of the short.
Odd how important those movie seats, Servo's bubblegum head, and Crow's hockey mask net are to absorbing MST3k's humor. With them before you, you can fixate on them when the humor becomes too heady, when the jokes fly too fast, or when there's nothing much else going on. There's a comfort to their presence on screen even if they add virtually nothing to the experience.
Without them, though, the riffing was a chorus of disembodied voices (save those moments where Nelson, Murphy, and Corbitt would appear in a sidebar, asides that proved more distracting than their total absence from the screen), and there was a definite period of adjustment before the Rifftrax rhythm really sank in.
The short and the feature were separated by a much-too-long variety show interim, in which a nerd-core folk strummer sang songs about robot wars in the future, where Kevin Murphy humiliated himself by pantomiming zombie lurches during a tune about brain eating, and where the Something Awful shorts turned the Brooklyn Center AMC into the world's largest YouTube screen. Internet humor already has an uphill battle when it's free. Paying $12.50 to watch some bored kid's snarky infomercial? Pass.
But Plan 9 From Outer Space was a pure joy. In an age when compiling worst-of lists is more fashionable than compiling best-of lists, and where there appears to be a 10,000-way tie for worst movie of all time, it's easy to forget just how truly terrible Plan 9 From Outer Space really is. Manos, the Hands of Fate, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians-- these are all terrible films. But nothing really comes close to the the blatant half-assery of Plan 9-- a movie so glaringly bad that it's hard to believe it wasn't made so on purpose.
The riff material was outstanding. Going in, there were doubts about how exactly one would lampoon such a film-- so much has been said about Plan 9, and it is already so laughable to begin with, that it was hard to imagine how Nelson and crew would improve on it. But their commentary was astute, fresh, and hilarious, and in keeping with the spirit of the original show.
One of the things that made MST3k such an enduring experience was its approach to the movies it featured. Yes, the show is little more than an hour and a half of derisive commentary on Z-grade flicks.
But there was an obvious affection, a tenderness, a near love for this material that made the whole viewing experience more than just funny. Finishing an episode of MST3k was also somehow affirming-- for, despite the snark with which MST3k devoured its films, there was still the pleasant knowledge that the films were being given second life, being seen once more, resurrected from their ignominious graves to be, at least to some degree, appreciated.
That spirit has made its way into Rifftrax, and was evident during last night's live show. The critique was exceedingly good-natured, and the viewing imparted a sense of wonder at Plan 9. It's like the duckbilled platypus of the cinema world-- it's almost unfathomable to believe that it exists in the first place. But it does, and all we can really do is sit, marvel, and laugh.