With the revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as Rifftrax and The Mads, it feels like we’re in a golden age of movie riffing. But 10 years ago, there was also a mini riffing renaissance going on.
Back in 2007, Rifftrax was really hitting its stride, The Bots Are Back cartoons launched on the revived MST3K site (not every renaissance work is the Mona Lisa) and late that year Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and J Elvis. Weinstein announced their return to movie riffing with Cinematic Titanic.
On August 8, Shout Factory will put out a box set of the 12 commercially released Cinematic Titanic titles. Over the next few months, I’ll be taking a look at this project, along with a few other titles that fit into the Cinematic Titanic umbrella.
“The Oozing Skull”
Release date: Dec. 21, 2007
Cinematic Titanic’s maiden voyage was the 1971 horror film “The Oozing Skull,” which was originally released as “Brain of Blood.” CT initially riffed this film for employees of Industrial Light & Magic, a few weeks before the commercial release.
There was a storyline going through the studio-riffed Cinematic Titanic films, but we don’t really get a hint of that here. The riffers enter and are off to the riffing races.
In case you were unsure, left to right the riffers are: Josh (J. Elvis), Joel, Mary Jo, Frank, Trace.
The film starts with a countdown (with Josh’s jazzy earwig of a theme song playing over it) with scenes from “The Oozing Skull.” The film scenes would change to match each new episode’s film. It feels like a hint of what we would get in the Robot Roll Call portion of the revived MST3K.
Josh delivers the film’s first riff “Independent International Pictures: making movies you’ve never heard of for over 40 years.” For the record, it was 17 years since Josh’s last movie riff in The Black Scorpion.
I’m not sure if it was intentional, but it feels like Cinematic Titanic was trying to differentiate itself from MST3K early on with this film. Early on there’s a bloody, seemingly never-ending surgery scene that probably wouldn’t have made it past the censors on Comedy Central or Sci-Fi. “The Oozing Skull” is more in the vein of a grindhouse film than the B-movies of MST3K.
During the surgery, Stephen Hawking rolls in saying he’s “got next” if the brain transplant works. A bit odd, maybe this is just a bit more of trying to differentiate from MST3K. For the record, Hawking was portrayed by Cinematic Titanic director Tim Ford.
Another “We’re not in MST3K anymore” moment: with a heavy Minnesota accent, Trace says a shot of some closet doors reminds him he needs to head to the Home Depot on the way home. Not Menard’s? But one of the follow-up riffs does mention Menard’s “Save Big Money” slogan.
We’ve got Break Sign: About 20 minutes in, Frank pauses the film for “Frank Conniff’s Hollywood Entertainment Cavalcade.” Two chandeliers lower into the frame and “deceased musician” Al Hirt comes out to play trumpet and vomit into a bucket at the sight of a bowlful of bloody brains. Again, mostly odd. Frank follows Al off stage, offering to hold his hair while he vomits. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that Frank disappears slightly before he’s all the way off screen. The cuts aren’t super noticeable in Cinematic Titanic films, but clearly they did happen.
A familiar face in silhouette: Al Hirt was portrayed by actor Steve Bannos, who worked with Josh, Trace and Joel on Freaks & Geeks. He also plays Cinematic Titanic buddy Dave (Gruber) Allen’s roommate on the Netflix series “Love.”
Then timely reference: Mary Jo says “It looks like Lindsay Lohan is going to be spending another 84 minutes in jail.” Remember when Lohan spent a ridiculously short time in jail for drunk driving? Remember when people cared about Lindsay Lohan?
Random observation: Joel is partially obscured by a railing, but if you keep an eye on his silhouette, he’s one of the more animated riffers. He’s oddly fidgety, with his head moving around a lot. For those keeping track, it had been 14 years since Joe’s last riff in Mitchell.
It seems like a good time to mention that it had only been 11 years since Trace’s last riff in “Laserblast”
We’ve got Break Sign: Around the 33-minute mark, Joel pauses the movie for a conversation about the disfiguring of Gor with battery acid.
Joel’s take on the Slinky theme as the dwarf drags a body down the stairs is great, probably because of how much he commits to it. Between this and the “These Boots Are Made for Walking” riffs, they get a lot of mileage out of people going up and down stairs.
We’ve got Break Sign: Trace pauses the movie around the 1:03 mark to get on a cherry picker and clean up Regina Carrol’s make-up.
Then timely reference: After Trace’s make-up work, Frank says “If that doesn’t get us on the Bravo network, I don’t know what will.” Remember when Bravo had a bunch of makeover shows? Now it’s mostly rich people drinking and fighting.
We’ve got Movie Break: Around the 1:09 mark, Josh pauses the movie and brings out a guitar to compose a young lovers theme song. Then he gets frustrated and smashes the guitar.
Obscure reference: In one of the field scene’s, Trace says “Christina’s World. Look it up.” So I did. It’s an Andrew Wyeth painting I instantly recognized, but I don’t know that I ever knew the title. Once again the MST3K crew has taught me something while entertaining me.
Forward thinking: Frank drops a Doug McClure reference. McClure featured in two season 11 episodes: “The Land that Time Forgot” and “At the Earth’s Core.” He also had a part in the KTMA film SST-Death Flight.
As the film ends, the crew goes into visual gag overload, with Mary Jo exiting in the “Brain of Bloodmobile,” which seems to hint how quickly before release that the film was retitled. The chandeliers come back down, Al Hirt and Stephen Hawking are back and Josh smashes another guitar.
MST3K references: Forgive me if I miss any, but Trace’s “Pepperidge Farms remembers” calls back to the oft-mentioned “Pepperidge Farms remembers” riffs. Josh throws out a “Dickweed” at one point. We get a take on the Benny Hill theme, which was used on MST3K many times. Trace also references the Wisconsin Dells ducks.
Favorite riff: “How come you almost never see a smart person’s belly?”
Other riffing connections
“The Oozing Skull/Brain of Blood” was directed by Al Adamson, who directed the season 11 episode “Carnival Magic.” He also directed “Dynamite Brothers,” which Cinematic Titanic riffed as “East Meets Watts.” If you’re wondering why “Carnival Magic” seemed so inappropriate for what was supposed to be a kids movie, it’s because he spent most of his career directing movies like these.
Actress Regina Carrol was also in “Carnival Magic.”
Actor John Bloom played the giant who had a criminal’s head added to his body in “The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant,” riffed by Rifftrax. He also had a part in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered country,” which was also done by Rifftrax.
Actor Grant Williams was in the MST3K-riffed film “The Leech Woman,” as well as the next Cinematic Titanic experiment, “Doomsday Machine,” and was riffed by The Mads in “The Monolith Monsters.”
Writer Samuel L Sherman also produced “Dynamite Brothers/East Meets Watts.”
Actor Kent Taylor was also in MST3K episode “The Crawling Hand.”
Actor Angelo Rossito was also in the MST3K film “The Corpse Vanishes,” the Rifftrax film “Mesa of Lost Women” and “The Magic Sword,” which was riffed by both MST3K and Rifftrax.
Actor Reed Hadley was in the MST3K-riffed films “Jungle Goddess” and “Last of the Wild Horses.”
Actor Margot Hope was also in “Dynamite Brothers/East Meets Watts.”
Actor Irv Saunders was a production designer on “Dynamite Brothers/East Meets Watts.”
Set decorator Mike McCLoskey also did special effects and production design for the Cinematic Titanic-riffed film “The Doll Squad.”
Bob Dietz, who did production sound, also did sound for “Dynamite Brothers/East Meets Watts.”