When cult US TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was cancelled in 1999, head writer Mike Nelson had to find another way of mocking motion pictures. For those of you who never saw the show, MST3K showcased some of the worst movies ever made with a rip-roaring commentary on top for pure entertainment value.
Due to the financial constraints faced by the show, Nelson and co had to resort to using out-of-copyright movies or films that were cheap to license. Luckily thanks to the Web, the crew managed to come up with a way of mocking even the most recent cinematic releases without angering copyright holders. RiffTrax was born.
How It Works
The three main writers and commentators that feature on the majority of RiffTrax releases are Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. There are also guest releases, known as RiffTrax Presents and while these are also entertaining you just can’t beat Mike, Kevin and Bill tearing a movie limb from limb in perfect synchrony.
A RiffTrax release is little more than an MP3 and text file which is played alongside your current DVD, Blu-Ray or digital edition of a film. There are a number of ways of watching a RiffTrax presentation but the easiest is using RiffPlayer from the official website. It works with both Windows and Mac OS X and automatically synchronises the audio file with your DVD, so you won’t have to worry if you pressed play at the right time or not. Each RiffTrax audio file also comes with verbal instructions for manual set-up, and it’s really not too hard to grasp.
The RiffTrax crew also produce commentary for short movies, which you can download as video files with audio attached. This is possible because copyright eventually expires and these shorts are freely available to anyone. That’s another article for another day though, and today we’ll be focusing purely on the films.
Each RiffTrax audio download (usually) costs $3.99, which isn’t a bad price considering the work that goes into each riff. Shorts are usually much cheaper, many hovering around the $0.99-$1.99 mark.
Without further ado, here are 6 of my absolute favourite RiffTrax commentaries – I’d heartily recommend you watch them all.
This movie probably shouldn’t have been called The Happening. On reflection, The Unhappening would have been a better title due to the fact that very little actually happens at all. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring the ever-wooden Mark Wahlberg and a whinier-than-ever Zooey Deschanel, The Happening is vastly improved with a RiffTrax commentary.
Without spoiling too much, the bulk of the “happening” takes place a few minutes into the movie and the rest of the time is spent speculating, running from an invisible evil and watching Zooey’s face contort at every passing event. Thanks to RiffTrax it’s not only watchable but hilarious.
I’ve mentioned this movie before, and it’s time to give it another honourable mention. The Room is a hilarious comedy about a group of dysfunctional vapid idiots who hang around on a roof. It was meant to be a poignant romantic tale of a cheating fiance, but you know – idiots on a roof, “you are tearing me apart!” and so on.
If you enjoyed this movie before, you’ll find it far easier to watch with a commentary nursing you through some of the more boring scenes. Even some of the already funny scenes (“I did not hit her… I did nahht“) are elevated to new heights with Mike and co jumping on every smirk-worthy incident with reckless abandon.
Difficult is a word I would use to describe the Twilight series, but RiffTrax is the pill that makes the tripe easier to swallow. The crew are currently working their way through each new Twilight release and I’d recommend any of them except perhaps the second, which is tough to get through even with witty commentary.
There’s so much to poke fun at here that it’s almost not fair. Incomplete and trailing-off “dialogue”, a constant look of confusion and mirth on our protagonist’s face and a moody selection of other-worldly creatures keep the laughs coming thick and fast.
The Wicker Man
When a remake of the 1973 British classic The Wicker Man was announced, it was clear there were going to be issues. Not only would the film now be set in the US but it would also star Nicolas Cage – two things that set off alarm bells in my head. Ripping a story out of its intended setting, dropping it onto an offshore American paradise and telling Nicolas Cage try his hand at acting resulted in an unsurprising flop.
What should have been one of the scariest films released that year ended up being one of the funniest. This RiffTrax takes all of that comedy value and adds a subtle mocking tone that will see you all the way through to the infamous “oh God not the bees” scene.
Road House is a film about bar fights, refusing medical treatment and Patrick Swayze’s inability to keep his shirt on for five minutes. It’s easily one of the cheesiest films ever made, and the fact that it was made in the 80’s goes some way towards explaining this.
Sure, it’s not unwatchable without a riff (it’s still funny) but why pass up the opportunity to enjoy one of the earliest and funniest RiffTrax releases if you’re going to put yourself through the full two hours?
I’m going to get this out of the way quickly – Jurassic Park is not a bad film. It’s an enjoyable family classic that terrified children with its massive production values and CGI advancements. That said, this is a very funny riff, and it accompanies a film you’ve probably seen half a dozen times in the past.
Injecting new life into old films is something Mike, Kevin and Bill do rather well. In this case it’s done very well; suffice to say I no longer watch vanilla Jurassic Park.
Watching a film with a RiffTrax commentary is like watching a film with a good friend. A good friend who won’t shut up, constantly makes jokes and has impeccable taste in bad movies. There are a lot more full RiffTrax releases, so if this small selection has given you a taste for more you can check out the full catalogue on the official website.
Have you seen any RiffTrax films? Any shorts? What are your favourites? Have a say in the comments below.