Oct. 24--The television run of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ended at the turn of the century, and legions of fans known as MSTies wept wistful, nerdy tears. But the witty concept of the show -- poking fun at awful movies -- has survived, and it returns tonight in a live event screening at movie theaters around the country.
For those who missed out, Mystery Science Theater started small at KTMA in Minneapolis in 1988, then graduated to the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) and later the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy).
The concept: A man is held captive on a spaceship called The Satellite of Love, where he is forced to watch terrible science-fiction movies and short educational films. Series creator Joel Hodgson initially starred as the lone human, then Mike Nelson moved from writer to star in 1993. Robots Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy) and Crow (Bill Corbett) joined the movie-mocking, and the silhouetted heads of the trio were inset on the screen, so the viewer watched them react to the film in front of them.
And man, those movies. No human (or robot) should be forced to watch such horrifying efforts as Manos: The Hands of Fate, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and The Brain That Wouldn't Die. But these awful cinematic efforts inspired hilarious commentary, and the show quickly earned fans, Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award. In 2007, Time magazine named it one of the 100 best TV shows ever.
"I'm constantly surprised by the amount of people that come up to me and say, 'This was an influence on me,'" says Murphy by phone from Minnesota. "And I am gratified and happy and humbled every time I hear it. The coolest part for me now is it's people who grew up with us, and now their kids are growing up on us. So we're working on our second generation of smartasses here, which is kind of nice."
Nelson, Murphy and Corbett have continued the idea -- sans robots and space props -- with RiffTrax. They still take on old sci-fi oddities, but they also skewer modern blockbusters. Since they don't have the broadcast rights to, say, The Avengers or Inception, they sell the audio files of their banter on rifftrax.com. The site provides a player that syncs the MP3 commentary with a DVD of the film.
And the trio performs occasional live shows, as it will tonight, riffing on George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The show originates at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, and will be broadcast in theaters around the country, including Cinemark Movies in College Station.
Romero's 1968 film is regarded by many as a ground-breaking classic. Its depiction of zombies was an original source of fascination with the undead, which quickly became a horror mainstay, all the way to the current television hit The Walking Dead. Some interpreted Romero's work as a statement on race and politics, not just dead people searching (slowly) for a human snack. The movie has been honored by the American Film Institute and it's included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Murphy acknowledges all the accolades, but adds that it's ripe for humor.
"There were no films like it before, and a lot of films that came afterward weren't nearly as good," he says. "It's the first of its kind, but the acting is really kinda bad. The characters are very wooden. They spend a lot of time in one room yelling at each other. When you go back and see it again, you say, 'Oh, OK, I guess it's a classic.' But it does take itself very seriously, which is always good for us, because that makes it easy to make fun of."
Murphy notes that Night of the Living Dead "seems sort of sweet and innocent" in comparison to today's CGI spectacles and the blood-splattered horror genre. And he emphasizes the RiffTrax goal is to have fun with the film, not to spew hatred for it.
"We're not going to ruin any sacred cows," he says. "We're not going to break the film. It will still be available in its pristine form if you want to watch it. We're just going to take it out for a night and give it a roast."
So what makes a good film to mock, beyond absurdly bad sci-fi movies and strange instructional shorts? Murphy recalls watching the first Twilight installment in a theater, and knowing it was ideal for the RiffTrax treatment.
"As it started unfolding in front of me, I started getting really excited," he says. "It was the perfect kind of bad: dreadfully serious but good production values, really stiff and uncomfortable acting, and this melodramatic plot about teenage vampires that was just irresistible for us. I called everybody afterward and said, 'You guys, you guys, we have to do Twilight!' And it ended up being one of our most successful riffs, so I'm very happy about that."
For someone who has made a living making fun of movies, Murphy says he makes every effort to not blurt out anything in actual movie theaters, because he expects (or at least hopes) audience members will do the same. At home, however, it's a different story.
"I find sometimes it's uncontrollable," he says. "I get really ticked off at something I'm watching and I throw it right back. I think that's healthy. I think that's good for you to sit there and not take it. And I encourage that -- at home. All caps: AT HOME."
As for his former alter ego, the beaked-gumball-machine robot Tom Servo, Murphy says he only keeps a small memento of those heady days aboard the Satellite of Love.
"My primary rule is never take the puppet home with you," he says. "It's just a bad idea. You're going to end up like Anthony Hopkins in Magic. You're not going to be happy with that. I do have this little memorial Tom Servo statuette. That's the only remnant of Tom Servo I keep around the house. I've got those memories lodged in my brain that I'll never get rid of, and that's enough for me."
DETAILS: RiffTrax Live: Night of the Living Dead is at 7 p.m. at Cinemark Movies, 1401 Earl Rudder Freeway South, College Station. Rated PG-13. $9.50-$11.50. cinemark.com. rifftrax.com.
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