Part 5 - Incognito Cinema Warriors XP and Mel Welles
Incognito Cinema Warriors XP
This is the part I hate doing. RiffTrax began to die off a little for me somewhere in the neighborhood of their one-hundredth movie riff. I stayed with them for quite some time and still attend a few of their live shows, but, as one of the crew mentioned in one of their interviews (if I recall correctly, it was Mike Nelson speaking with Dennis Miller), this new venture was a business and had to follow a slightly different kind of formula to succeed. They needed younger writers to speak to younger generations, and they also needed recent big budget blockbusters to help sell riffs. Maybe it is just that I am getting older, not unlike the MST3K cast themselves, but many of these riff outings felt less and less like they were for me. They felt less timeless and more rooted in a limited demographic. RiffTrax continues to put out some very funny stuff, but I do not keep track of it as much as I used to. Additionally, there is a limited number of movies in their past catalog that I go back and watch again. Their riffs of Birdemic, The Room, the Twilight saga, Paranormal Activity (which I watched again this October), the Star Wars Holiday Special, Glitter, Casino Royale, The Incredible Hulk TV series, Planet of Dinosaurs (which I also watched this October), and even Transformers are some of the funniest material they have ever produced and are the only way I would dare watch at least half of the cases a second or third time (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon especially... ugh).
On the other hand, there are outings like Psycho II that stick in my craw a little bit. I consider Psycho II a solid sequel, but the RiffTrax commentary is among my least favorite experiences. It is too easy for some criticism of a "bad movie" to become repetitive and bitter after a while, and I felt a bit of that here. Perhaps I have a little bias, but I did not feel the same way about some of the riffing for the other movies I mentioned. They felt broader in comedic scope. As I mentioned in my previous entry, my first impression of MST3K was not particularly good. I was only twelve years old at the time, but I soon discovered that it was all in good fun. Older and hopefully wiser that I am now, I do not think that I have grown more sensitive in my years to say that a few RiffTrax outings feel a little... mean. I still support what they do, and I am not a comedy critic of any sort. I just feel most of the balance of comedy that MST3K had does not exist outside of the original MST3K itself, and some of that self-reprimand and air of "we're only kidding" has gone away a bit in favor of repeating how awful a movie is in every possible permutation of a repetitive running joke. A Nick Nolte joke in every single movie ceases being a joke and becomes easy filler, and a supercut of all the RiffTrax Nolte references runs over fifteen minutes long. Not fifteen minutes of diverse references to a show like Star Trek or The Mary Tyler Moore Show that were foundations for referential humor in MST3K, but fifteen minutes of what is essentially the same Down and Out in Beverly Hills-come-to-life Nick Nolte joke over and over and over again. It has become a drinking game reference, and I don't drink. I would make the same complaint about how much of a crutch Joe Don Baker became as a target of humor in Final Justice as opposed to Mitchell. Both are good episodes, but the fat jokes especially begin to run themselves into the ground and push other potential observations aside. I don't mind fat jokes, but MST3K prided itself on a varied assortment of highbrow and lowbrow material. They were a collection of smart and witty comedians, and it was beneath their talent to focus for as long as they did on the number of things that contributed to Joe Don Baker's waistline.
I suppose that when I say that some outings feel a bit "mean" from an emotional standpoint, what I truly intend to say is that they are below the "mean" from a data analysis standpoint. The average joke tends to shoot for something a little higher. Has anyone broken down a general episode of MST3K or a RiffTrax comedy by the type of jokes used in a particular episode or movie? It creates an interesting diagram of movie references, TV references, music references, historical references, puns, distaste of puns, callbacks, self-riffs, name drops, observational humor, non sequitur, and situational comedy. Those are just a handful of the different types of jokes that come to mind with regard to almost any single episode of MST3K, and I know that the list is not complete. RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic had strong beginnings, but that feeling of slight unbalance still goes for the both of them as well as the newly revived eleventh season of MST3K. They all have their moments and solid gems, but MST3K, for me, at least, kept almost flawless consistency from beginning to end.
|Left to right: Johnny Cylon, Commander Rick Wolf, and Topsy Bot 5000.|
Today, when I look at the material being produced post-MST3K and seeing anything remotely close to the consistency that MST3K kept through most of its run, I have been able to find it from only one project: ICWXP. Over the years, I have watched a few carbon-copy MST3K fan homage productions. Ryan K. Johnson, Media Center Theatre 3000, and Mystery Fandom Theater 3000 come to mind quickly, and I wish that MFT3K had produced more episodes because they captured the spirit of the original series. ICWXP, however, was a special kind of animal. I was hesitant to delve into the higher-priced iRiffs, but I stumbled upon them accidentally through a little site called FreeUndergroundTV.com, which showcases a livestream of a number of public domain horror movies as well as contemporary horror host shows featuring some live chats with members of the horror host cast. Among their selection, at the time, were the first two or three episodes of ICWXP's second season. Not only did I get to preview their talent firsthand, but I also got to do so while chatting with a couple of people who made the show. I fell in love with the show immediately and had to go back and see their first season. This was not only a love letter to MST3K but also to Resident Evil, Mega Man, and the gaming classics I grew up with.
|Rob Atwell as the original Dr. Harry Blackwood. He's Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank rolled into one.|
Originally created by Rikk Wolf (Commander Rick Wolf and currently Dr. Blackwood), Rob Atwell (formerly Topsy Bot 5000 and Dr. Blackwood), and Kyle Chestnut and featuring the additional writing and performing talent of Bethany Woods, Zach Legler (Johnny Cylon) and Nick Evans (several season 1 characters and currently Topsy Bot 5000), to name just a few, ICWXP houses a crew of natural comedians and writers including the hilarious creator of Fun With Shorts, Josh Way, who began working his magic on YouTube before RiffTrax began doing shorts and still has some of the funniest commentary I have ever heard. RiffTrax eventually released their own riffs for many of the movies and shorts that ICWXP and Fun With Shorts did first, but even RiffTrax does not make me laugh as much as these guys do.
|In one of the funniest segments of the series, the theater is infested with awkward pop-up ads.|
Whereas I spent much of my middle to late twenties tracking down every episode of MST3K and enjoying them on a daily basis, studying their art of comedy, I have done the same in the last ten years with the small-but-plentiful catalog of Fun With Shorts and, especially, ICWXP with both their DVD episode releases and their YouTube channel's Incognito Gaming Warriors "Let's Riff" entries for video games such as Resident Evil HD Remastered, Resident Evil 7, Fallout 4, Mega Man, and Hitman. The imagination and production values in any given episode of the series make it difficult to believe that the series is fan-funded. They have the formula down pat in both their theater commentary and their host segments, and the series quickly becomes something unique and not simply a fan copy of MST3K. Despite several delays in production, ICWXP has delivered a series that is just as timeless for me as almost any given classic episode of MST3K. They are always funny, and at this point I am just repeating myself as I gush over how great I think they are. I wish that I could bankroll them, they deserve much more appreciation than they get, and nothing I say about them can do them proper justice.
|If you've never heard of or experienced ICWXP, then JUST GOOGLE IT!!!|
|"Behold Stripper Claus! Santa's stuffing your stockings with something else this year, ladies."|
Lady Frankenstein remains a favorite of mine for several reasons, most of them sentimental. At the top of that list (I told you I was going somewhere with this) is Mel Welles. If you have gone back in the entries of this blog at any point, then you will notice the work of Mel Welles sprinkled throughout it, most notably his work on a defining television show of my childhood, the Japanese superhero Spectreman. Welles was largely responsible for the English dubbing and the voice cast of Spectreman, but he might not have had that opportunity if not for his extensive work in importing and dubbing European films, even directing a few of them in the late '60s and early '70s including Maneater of Hydra and, you guessed it, Lady Frankenstein. I have enjoyed Welles' work in virtually everything he has ever done, and he is a face (and voice) that pops up in many of the movies that made me a movie fan in the first place. Mushnik in the original Little Shop of Horrors, Digger Smolkin in the underrated and MST3K-dissected The Undead, Caedmon in Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (which was featured on the revival season of MST3K without so much as a callback to The Undead), Jules Deveroux in Attack of the Crab Monsters, Iben in Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy, Tank McCall in his final directorial outing Joyride to Nowhere, and the genius Dr. Vince Hinkle in another favorite I watched again this October, Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.
For Lady Frankenstein, Mel Welles got to direct the fine talents of Joseph Cotten and Rosalba Neri, and this would be Rick and the Bots' first encounter with Mickey Hargitay in ICWXP season 1, episode 2.
|Mickey Hargitay, admirer of big men.|
If you pay close enough attention to the dubbed voices, you can hear Welles himself providing a few key character performances. Even with his gruff voice, Welles is adept at a number of characters and personalities, which is no surprise with the enormous volume of TV and movie character roles he performed. His direction adds something to Lady Frankenstein that I think is overlooked: Mel Welles spent a lot of time on both sides of the camera, and his work with Roger Corman is only a small fraction of his career. No doubt Corman helped him to study and hone his potential to some degree, but Welles spent much of his life both on the screen and behind the scenes.
|Frankenstein's daughter takes her father's work to the next level in Lady Frankenstein.|
Welles' sense of humor played a large part in the American syndication of Spectreman, particularly in his role as the voice of the evil Dr. Gori's right hand space ape Karas, and I wish that he had been able to share more about his work on the series than the short interview he provided for G-Fan magazine #58 shortly before his death in 2005. I wish that scripting and production material for Spectreman's localization was floating around out there, and I wish that there was even a glimmer of hope that the series could see a remastered DVD release. In general, I wish more of Welles' work, even as a B-movie actor, was appreciated for his talent, but everyone goes on and on about that other Welles guy all the time. What was his name? Orson, I think? (snicker)
|Just a few of my favorite Mel Welles performances.|
Some might say that I still look at Mel Welles' work with the same starry eyes I had when I was four years old and watching a random episode of The Lone Ranger, some Roger Corman monster movie on a Saturday afternoon, a late night network broadcast of a movie like Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype, or Spectreman every day after Kindergarten. I am perfectly okay with that opinion. I love a lot of the things I love for sentimental value, but Mel Welles was there more often than I realized as a child, and his work came to mean a great deal to me as he became more and more recognizable for his background character and voice roles. He was in a little bit of everything from Captain Midnight to Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Peter Gunn and even animated series from my later childhood like Lazer Tag Academy and Phantom 2040. Seeing some of his work featured on both MST3K and ICWXP only helps to put those riffing episodes higher on my favorites list.
Up next, I begin to wind down toward the final October highlights post with more on Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype and a few more broadcast television memories.