This past Thursday evening, thousands gathered in one of 570 cinema houses to watch the latest live RiffTrax performance featuring Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (Crow) as they took a turn riffing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). While the RiffTrax crew were being broadcast from Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, I sat in my local theater in Orange, California in an auditorium of approximately 150 other riffing enthusiasts.
The evening started with the Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett warming their sharp wit on a short called Santa and the Fairy Snow Queen (1951) directed by Sid Davis. References to Mr. B Natural and an annoying Jack-in-the-Box provided some great riffs and prompted several episodes of laughter from the audience, helping us get into the mood of the evening.
Before starting into the feature, Murphy asked Nelson and Corbett their thoughts on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Nelson, who had been head writer when MST3K riffed the movie in 1991, said he was fascinated by the hats that seemed to form part of the Martian's body. Corbett, who later joined the show during its Sci-fi Channel era, discussed the Hollywood connection – Bill McCutcheon (Sesame Street), Ned Wertimer (The Jeffersons) and Pia Zadora – while Murphy, who was voicing Crow in 1991, revealed the Martians guns were really Wham-o Air Blaster Guns (I checked Google images and sure enough, they were!). Then it was on with the movie.
Having watched the MST3K and Cinematic Titanic riffs of this movie, I felt the trio freshened up the movie with new riffs that gave nods to recent as well as older popular culture icons without feeling dated. In fact, there were only three riffs that tread similar ground with the MST3K version. A couple of new riffs stood out to me because they cued in on character actions that I had missed in prior viewings: Voldar's obsessive fascination as one of the other Martians overacted pulling the levers of the landing gear and the "C'mon, Betty! Wait, Betty!" interaction during a couple of scenes between Billy and Betty were excellent riffs that garnered a lot of laughs.
I thought there were quite a few moments that deserved mentioning: "Spiro Agnew" when Santa calls one of his reindeer Nixon; Kenny Loggins' Top Gun "Danger Zone" song variation to "Highway to the manger zone" during the stock footage sequence of jets in flight; the infamous Manos The Hands of Fate Torgo reference for the Martians mechanical robot Torg; the 1969 David Bowie song "Space Oddity" while showing the US launch a rocket; a reference to "lazy screenwriters" when Santa would not reveal how he, Billy and Betty escaped through the air vent; and a naughty reference to "going green" when Santa meets Kimar's wife Momar.
Though this is the third riffing of this movie, I enjoyed the riffing presented by the RiffTrax crew. However, since the draw of the event was that it was being broadcast live, this is where the event fell short of its mark. For instance, for us Pacific and Mountain time zone attendees, the event was taped delayed.
I saw the RiffTrax crew live back in 2008 at the Balboa Theatre during the San Diego International Comic Con to watch another equally bad movie, Ed Wood's 1959 "classic" Plan 9 From Outer Space. Being able to watch Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett interact with each other, the screen and the audience – a packed crowd of MSTies and riff appreciators – was what really made for a memorable experience. I was disappointed that the "live" aspect of this performance was to occasionally flash up live feed of each comedian periodically as if to remind the audience not in the time zone to receive the broadcast live, that this was a live event. Sadly, it just wasn't the same experience this time around.
While my thumbs are up on the riffing, my thumbs droop in defeat regarding the live experience, which was the real reason for going to the cinema in the first place. Otherwise, why not just wait for the DVD and watch it at home? Perhaps next time, there can be live feed of all three men throughout the show to simulate a live broadcast.
Michele Brittany is an independent pop culture scholar and semi-professional photographer currently editing an upcoming anthology on the influence of James Bond on popular culture. She regularly posts reviews and analysis on the spy/espionage genre on her blog, Spyfi & Superspies.