I promised a new format for Make the Case, and here we are. For nearly 5 years and 57 consecutive columns, I have used this column to profile some of my favorite actors in film history. I genuinely didn’t think the column would last a year, so it’s weird to think about that to begin with. Nothing against Cultured Vultures, or its peerless Editor-in-Chief Jimmy Donnellan. I just have a hard time sticking with things sometimes, even if I enjoy doing them. Making a schedule of things occasionally, inexplicably, ruins the experience for me.
Yet here we are. That’s pretty neat, I think.
Yet at the same time, I feel like the column is due for expansion. If not in volume (one thing I’ve lost in bushels over the past five years is time), then at least in what we can talk about.
From here on out, the column will not be limited to actors. Hoping to get the idea train out of the station soon, I’m going to broaden the reach of the column. I’ll still write about actors, but I may decide to cover a theme, a director, a franchise, a country, or even just an object. My optimistic plan is to jump from one idea to the next from one month to the next.
I’m genuinely excited to see if this works out the way I want it to.
For the first Make the Case of 2019, I’ve decided to spotlight the deep library of RiffTrax’s Video-on-Demand releases (these are the movies in which the commentary/riffing is included with the film). For well over a decade, the MST3K-alumni company (in addition to very funny people like Janet Varney, Cole Stratton, Matthew J. Elliot, and Ian Porter) has riffed a stunning range of bad movies. They have gone back to MST3K classics like Space Mutiny and Manos: The Hands of Fate, but the bulk of their oeuvre has seen them tackle some truly fascinating movies. There are dreadful Italian rip-offs, slasher movie classics, surreal westerns, cult film classics, low-budget sword and sorcery titles, and much more.
At this point, Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Bridget Nelson, and Mary Jo-Pehl have riffed hundreds of feature films and short subjects. I’m going to go through the feature VODs (Video on Demand), and pick 5 I honestly think make for pretty good movies on their own merits.
Barring the movie being good, I will also settle for simply entertaining. However, between the riffing from RiffTrax, and the quality of the movies themselves, the bar for entertaining is pretty high.
In other words, the riffs for anything featured here are phenomenal all-around. At the same time, the movies themselves are interesting, or even good, entirely on their own. We’ll be focusing more on the second point.
The 5 Best RiffTrax VOD Feature Film Releases
1. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Director: Herk Harvey
Lawrence, Kansas filmmaker Herk Harvey had a long, successful career making educational/industrial short films. One of those has since become one of RiffTrax’s most popular shorts. It is more of a coincidence than anything else that they also riffed the one original feature-length film Harvey made in his lifetime.
Besides being in the public domain, Carnival of Souls is also widely regarded as a minor classic. Enough that Criterion released it a number of years ago, complete with fascinating extras. While the movie is easy enough to riff on (especially in color, which strips the film of its foreboding tone and sinister energy), it is just as easy to appreciate how chilling this movie remains.
Something otherworldly hangs over not only the head of a young woman (Candace Hilligoss), who miraculously survives a serious car accident, but the movie itself. Harvey’s talent for keeping us compelled to watch along to the very end is fascinating. Like a lot of people, I wish he had made at least one more film. Carnival of Souls continues to suggest film missed out on a singular talent.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Also available as a live show, RiffTrax has had a lot of fun with George A. Romero’s iconic start of what is now one of the most crowded subgenres in horror. Shot on a budget of roughly $114,000, Romero’s first zombie film remains a genuinely unsettling, atmospheric classic. The movie also continues to benefit from excellent performances by its cast. In particular, Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea (whose meltdown after the beginning of the movie also gives the RiffTrax crew a lot of material).
The low budget trappings are there, as are moments that were written and filmed because no one stopped to think that they were starting an entire chapter in horror cinema. There’s your fodder for any riffing. However, Night still offers a creeping dread that builds to a bleak conclusion—which remains every bit as brutal as it must have felt to audiences over 50 years ago.
3. Tourist Trap (1979)
Director: David Schmoeller
Calling Tourist Trap a rip-off of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps technically true. However, saying so, and leaving things at that, robs Tourist Trap of its more unique components. Directed by David Schmoeller, who went on to direct films like the very first Puppet Master (as well as a film about his working relationship with Klaus Kinski on the set of Crawlspace), Tourist Trap has all the makings of a satisfyingly weird supernatural horror me.
At the top of the weird list, besides all the stuff about people turning into mannequins, would be Chuck Connors as the warm, slightly maniacal, and somehow psychic Mr. Slausen. Connors, a macho cowboy hero from such classic TV shows as The Rifleman, has enough fun with the role to keep the movie engaging through its slower parts. He is also one of only thirteen athletes in history to have played in both Major League Baseball and the NBA. It’s an interesting life that takes you from the Chicago Cubs to a deranged redneck psychic, who pretends to be his own brother, while murdering a woman with an abundance of plaster.
These are the kinds of thoughts and rabbit holes that come with Tourist Trap. It is substantial in its entertainment value, which is also peppered with a few truly creepy moments. The more ridiculous parts worked well for the 2012 RiffTrax release.
4. Miami Connection (1988)
Directors: Y.K. Kim and Richard Park
One of the reasons why Miami Connection is among the most popular RiffTrax releases of all time is because the movie itself is kind of amazing. Perhaps, because you are likely to enjoy this story of a rock-and-roll band of martial artists, who also wage war on drug dealers, on two levels.
There is the part where the movie’s ambition is overshadowed rather spectacularly by the reality of what actually made it to the screen. Silly side stories, ridiculous dialog, and a parade of awkward, over-the-top performances are among the movie’s most notable qualities. You also have a soundtrack provided by the film’s fictional band Dragon Sound. The movie’s almost surreal sincerity is easy to mock, and the live RiffTrax release proves that.
Yet Miami Connection also has this part where it somehow wins you over anyway. At least, on the merits of entertainment value that is both ironic, and genuine amazement at what the movie aspires to offer.
5. Samurai Cop (1991)
Director: Amir Shervan
Samurai Cop is another example of a low-budget movie that certainly tried its best to change that through sheer force of will. Besides giving the late Robert Z’Dar (Maniac Cop) what I assume is the only sex scene he had in his long career, Samurai Cop is a stunning example of a movie in which everything doesn’t come across as it clearly desired to.
The samurai cop in question (Mathew Karedas) is a confusing mass of dumbstruck humanity under a bad wig. The poor guy who has to play his partner (Mark Frazer) is subjected to baffling reaction shots and even-more-confusing racism. Nothing technically works out for this story of two cops who go up against a Japanese gang. Nothing. It’s a mess from bell to bell.
Which is somehow fine. Samurai Cop is supremely enjoyable with either of the available RiffTrax commentaries. However, I think the movie, particularly in a group setting, has a lot to offer all on its own. Its dumbness is absolute and consistent, and yet it has the capacity to surprise you with its efforts to be a much, much bigger movie than it actually is.
The 2015 sequel coasts on the unintentional fun of the first film and is best avoided.
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