For all its brilliance, the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 lacked two elements that can only be properly experienced via Rifftrax Live, a series of one-night only live theatrical events where MST3K alums Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett “riff” a movie. The first is a shared communal experience. A television show, by its very nature, is designed to be enjoyed by either individuals, family units, or small groups of friends. But a movie in a theater is meant to be seen with a large crowd. As a devoted fan of the show, I was surprised by how much more I enjoyed laughing with a massive group of strangers than I ever did watching it at home. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself, a feeling I never truly got re-watching old reruns of MST3K ad infinitum. It also confirmed a certain suspicion I have harbored about comedy for years: there is nothing more inherently funny that other people laughing.
But the second element that Rifftrax Live provides that MST3K could not was the experience of watching a magnificently terrible movie on the big screen. Many of the films featured on the show have become retroactive cult classics: Juan Piquer Simón’s Pod People (1983), the collected works of Coleman Francis, and Harold P. Warren’s infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). But I would wager a guess that the vast majority of MST3K’s audience had never heard of these movies, let alone seen them, before they were featured. And I would also wager that for many people the idea of these films being shown in movie theaters to paying customers was downright unthinkable. We have long laughed at the carpet-slug monster from Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), but how many of us could truly believe that at some point that ridiculous creature was projected in full 35mm, 1.33:1 glory to hapless teenagers all over the United States?
And so we have René Cardona’s Santa Claus (1959), a truly bizarre Mexican Christmas movie where Santa Claus teams up with Merlin the Wizard to stop one of Lucifer’s demons from ruining Christmas. A dubbed and edited version was featured in the fifth season of MST3K and quickly became one of the most beloved classics of the Mike Nelson era. The episode is also one of my personal favorites, so I had many of the original riffs on the tip of my tongue throughout the entire Rifftrax Live event. Until that night, I had only seen cheap recordings of the episode that were full of static, audio gaps, and fuzzy picture quality. Imagine my amazement at seeing the film in its complete, unabridged lunacy via an astonishingly clear print! The experience was nothing short of surreal. If I thought the hokey special effects (including mechanical reindeer and scientific equipment in the shape of giant lips and eyes) were stupid looking on a little screen, they were even more incredible on a big one. Numerous sequences that had been edited out of the television version were restored including a downright Lynchian sequence where a group of life-sized dolls dance and cavort around the film’s young heroine Lupita.
There was only one thing that I didn’t like about the evening. And upon reflection I realize how petty it is considering the fact that the producers of the event had no real control over it. Quite simply: Santa Claus is a difficult film to watch in one sitting. Though only 97 minutes, it feels well over two hours because of its unfocused plot prone to unnecessary filler scenes (organ solo anyone?), a contempt for traditional narrative techniques of rising and falling actions, and an abundance of shots of people either walking slowly from one side of the screen to the other or people climbing slowly up and down ladders or ropes. More than once I found myself almost nodding off from the film despite the fact that the riffing was some of the best I had ever heard in my life. Regardless, Rifftrax Live was a wonderful comedy event that nobody should miss out on. I look forward to the next one!
This post has been edited to correct the statement that the original SANTA CLAUS episode of MST3K was, in fact, a Mike episode, not a Joel one. The writer got the episode mixed up with SANTA CLAUS CONQUERED THE MARTIANS and is currently being fed to the same spider that ate Dr. Laurence Erhardt.