I thought we’d do something a little more ambitious this week; our first feature length Rifftrax. While the shorts are fun and tasty, it’s the feature films that are Rifftrax’s bread and butter, as with Mst3k before it. Among other releases, they periodically do live shows with the guys riffing on films up on stage before an audience. These often lend a whole new level of fun to the proceedings.
Like most of their live performances this show comes with an introductory short, in this case an odd bit of ’60s…something called What Is Nothing? (“a film about the actual content of a Michael Bay movie?”), which has two young boys discussing the title question. I don’t know why anyone would make a film about two eight year olds having an extended philosophical discussion about the nature of non-existence, but they did. I mean, who would be the target audience for this? When would this film ever be shown? I get the impression that the filmmakers were largely as stoned as these kids appear to be (Kevin speculates the kids wrote the last two seasons of Lost).
The pointless faux-philosophic musings naturally makes for great fun from the Rifftrax crew, and a strong opening act to the main event.
It’s followed by a pair of short cartoons narrated and written by the five-year-old daughter of an internet animator. They don’t even bother riffing the cartoons as they’re too insane and (obviously) childish to even need it; the stream-of consciousness child storytelling is enough (though the second one features a cartoon Jesus prominently and in ridiculous situations, which is kind of uncomfortable, despite this being a child’s imagining. They’re easy to skip, though).
The main feature is, of course, Jack the Giant Killer, a 1962 fantasy adventure film that is very clearly trying to cash in on the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Apparently, producer Edward Small had been one of the potential backers Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer had pitched that film to, but had turned them down. After it became a huge hit, Small belatedly tried to make a duplicate film for himself, right down to hiring the same director and two of the same stars (Kerwin Matthews and Torin Thatcher) playing essentially the same roles they played in the earlier film.
One thing it doesn’t share is Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. Instead the effects are provided by a crew of less prestigious names, including fellow stop-motion artist Jim Danforth (who eventually collaborated with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans). The results dramatically illustrate just why Harryhausen remains so respected in the field. There are a lot of special effects in this film, of many different varieties; a bunch of stop-motion creatures, lots of matting on the witches and ghosts, and plenty of 2-D animation on the magical spells and such. The sheer scale is rather impressive, but unfortunately the effects are pretty lackluster for the most part. The stop motion figures look very rubbery and generally have lame designs (in stark contrast to Harryhausen’s intricately detailed and solid-looking creations), as well as being very jerky in their movements. The matting is pretty terrible for the most part, especially the witches’ assault on the ship, which goes on for a long time and is just rough to look at, with its deep blue filter and negative color animation (though the creature design on the witches is pretty good). The giants are very, very clearly inspired by the cyclopses from Sinbad, right down to the satyr legs (“Oh, thank God; he carries his own pants”). And the 2-D animation is nothing short of embarrassing at times.
The plot of the film is also much less engaging than Sinbad, revolving around the evil wizard’s plot to take over the Kingdom of Cornwall by turning the princess into a witch (“And Lady Gaga is born!” “Born this way, of course”) and forcing the king to abdicate so that he can rule from behind the scenes, raising way too many questions about how this whole witch thing works in this world. In Sinbad it was nicely straightforward: the sorcerer wants his lamp back, greedy for its power, so manipulates Sinbad into taking him to the island by putting a spell on the princess. Also, the genie is more than a plot point, but serves as both a useful ally and occasion for Sinbad and the princess to show their nobility in contrast with the sorcerer by taking the chance to set him free, despite still needing his help. His equivalent here, a leprechaun in a bottle, is only a device to get Jack through his obstacles (Sinbad was also much less dependent on the genie), and isn’t released until after the heroes are already safe.
All in all, it might be an interesting study to examine why Sinbad works so well and this film doesn’t. Not that it’s terrible really; there’s certainly enough going on that you don’t get bored, and the fairy tale story is enjoyable at least. If nothing else, the film commits wholly to its fantasy tone and setting. Torin Thatcher is particularly enjoyable to watch, of course, hamming it up with as much gusto as before (though without the charisma and character of the earlier role). His sidekick Garna (played by veteran character actor Walter Burke) is even more fun, and whenever the two of them are on screen it’s a wonder there’s any scenery left.
“Garna’s job satisfaction must be, like, 300 percent”
It’s evident that the Riffers are enjoying the film as much as mocking it. It’s a light-hearted, innocent romp that’s hard to dislike for all its faults. They have a lot of fun mocking the absurdities at hand, or obsessing over minor details (“Herla the Wizard is dead?! No!”). The riffing remains strong throughout, while the film itself is entertaining enough to keep your attention. Among other running gags are naming one prominent witch ‘Phil,’ imagining Sigurd the Viking cheerfully telling tales of pillaging and murder (“And my favorite part was the women weeping while we disemboweled their husbands.” “I don’t like spending time with you!”), and gags on how annoying and repulsive they find the imp in the bottle (“Even the leprechaun from Leprechaun thought this was offensive!”). As usual the monsters are given hilarious voices and dialogue (“So, ‘Giant Killer.’ Family name, I assume?”). The Riffers perfected their ‘monster’ voice back in Mst3k, and it’s pretty much remained unchanged since: a kind of high, nasal rasp that just makes every line funnier.
The film is just so crazy by the end that it doesn’t take much riffing, to the point where they speculate that the girl from the opening cartoons may have written it.
A few other favorite riffs:
-“Text from Admiral Ackbar: says ‘It’s a…’ eh, I’ll read it later.”
-“If we knew that, we would know what to do.” “Well, thanks! You’re fired.”
-“Avast and whatho the scuppers! I’ve got no idea what I’m sayin’ lads.”
-“I knew we should have used mortar to build our castle instead of pure evil!”
Overall, this is one of my favorites of the live shows; the audience reactions lend an extra sense of watching the show with an enthusiastic company. The fact that the Riffers occasionally flub their lines and improvise freely adds to the good-natured tone of the whole thing: the guys don’t take themselves too seriously and it’s all just about having fun. If you’d like to branch out into longer-form Rifftrax content, this is a good place to start.