Thursday, June 9, 2011

On DVD: "Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill"

All right guys, enough is enough. Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill is the latest release from Rifftrax, the trio of former Mystery Science Theater 3000 performers who found success after the show creating downloadable mp3 MST3K-style commentary tracks for popular movies. But over the last couple of years, they have expanded their mini-empire to include standard DVDs of the crew “riffing” on public domain titles and doing live shows—both lucrative revenue streams for the other group of MST3K alums, “Cinematic Titanic,” though the CT crew takes their show on tour, while the Rifftrax guys have partnered with Fathom to do live performances that are beamed into movie theaters across the country as one-time events.

So far, so good; I’m a fan of MST in all of its iterations, and the Rifftrax films—both the downloads and the DVDs—have provided me hours of entertainment. But the trouble is, us hardcore MST3K fans will buy just about anything, and it seems that the Rifftrax guys are succumbing to the temptation to sell us just about anything.

Which brings us to House on Haunted Hill. For all intents and purposes, Rifftrax began with MST host Mike Nelson’s solo commentary tracks for Legend Films, a company whose primary concern was the loathsome business of colorizing these old public domain tiles. Thankfully, however, you could watch them in restored black-and-white versions, and Nelson’s commentaries were a nice addition—and one of those titles, by the way, was their 2005 release of House on Haunted Hill. Soon thereafter, the online version of Rifftrax started to take off (if I had to, I would guess that Legend Films figured out that MST-related product was a far more lucrative business than colorizing neglected old movies). In 2009, the first wave of Rifftrax DVDs hit—and many of them were “three-riffer” versions of the films Nelson had already done solo commentaries for. One of those films was House on Haunted Hill. Later that year, the live, beamed-to-movie-theater shows began—and, aside from an enjoyable collection of holiday short films, all of the “Rifftrax Live” shows to date (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Reefer Madness, and House on Haunted Hill) have been titles that were previously released as Rifftrax DVDs, and before that as solo Nelson commentaries. And then, of course, the company put those live versions out on DVD too.

So if you’re a faithful MST3K consumer, as I have been, Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill could very well be the fourth time you’ve bought this movie from them—if you add up the Nelson/Legend colorized disc, the original DVD, the ticket to the live show, and now this live DVD. (It was also available in a fifth form, as a downloadable mp3 “three riffer” commentary on their site, offered before that version was released on DVD.)

To be fair, it’s not exactly the same material every time. Since I’m one of the schmucks who’s already bought this thing twice, I did a little experiment, watching the first five minutes of the 2005 Nelson/Legend colorized disc, the 2009 “three-riffer” DVD, and this “new” live DVD back-to-back. I’d say about half of the material in that portion of the live disc was recycled from the 2009 disc, and more than half of that material was from the 2005 commentary. So yeah, some of these jokes are six years old, and we’re hearing them for (at least) the third time.

That said, there is some other stuff here to create at least a semblance of added value. After some strained and awkward opening banter from hosts Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, we have the first of two shorts, “Magical Disappearing Money.” It concerns a strange “grocery witch” who appears in a supermarket to chastise shoppers for overspending on fancy labels (Bill: “Her hatred of fanciness cannot be overstated!”) and convenience products (Mike: “Powdered milk: not just for wartime consumption anymore”). Wrapping up with an already-dated (but still funny) Christine O’Donnell reference, the program continues with the appearance of the disc’s “guest riffer,” comedian Paul F. Tomkins, who does a couple of minutes of “panel”-style standup material before joining the guys for the second short, “Paper and I.” It’s a truly bizarre piece, in which a paper bag comes to life to show young “Willie” how paper is made, in painstaking detail (“And you end up as Dilbert stationary—can we speed it up?”).

Then it’s on to the feature, which starts rather weakly and picks up steam as it goes (in contrast to many other Rifftrax and MST3K titles). The film’s glacial pace gets a ribbing (after a sequence of people opening doors and walking hallways, Corbett notes, “We call this part ‘How to add a minute to your movie without advancing the plot in a single way’”), as does star Vincent Price (Price: “If I should die—“ Nelson: “Please save my mustache for forty years and give it to Bob Dylan”) and his character’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife (“Ike and Tina: The White Years”). So yes, the feature is funny—for someone who hasn’t seen them do it before. Those who have might feel differently.

Look, it pains me to write anything critical of the Rifftrax guys—they’re talented writers and performers, partially responsible for one of the funniest shows in television history, and kudos to them for parlaying that success into a continued livelihood. They’ve got bills to pay, we get that. But don’t take advantage of the fans by recycling the same product, over and over and over again. By all means, do the live shows, and put them out on DVD for those who don’t live in the cities that get them. But when you’re doing a live show, take the time to find a movie you haven’t already done twice before. That’s all we’re asking here.

"Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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