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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Cinematic Titanic’s Bad Movie Tour

Mystery Science Theater alums take the concept live

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Citing a disinterest in performing in front of the camera, in 1993 Joel Hodgson stepped down from the show he created, “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” His explanation seemed feasible. The soft-spoken comedian always came across as a bit too reserved to be a TV star, and while “MST3K” continued without him for another six years, Hodgson remained mostly out of the spotlight, seemingly happy developing ideas behind the scenes.

Over time, though, Hodgson became more forthcoming about his real reasons for leaving “MST3K.” He’d been clashing with the show’s executive producer, Jim Mallon, and wanted to leave before those tensions destroyed the show.

“We were fighting, and it wouldn’t have been good for the people who stayed if I kept making the show,” Hodgson says. “At the time a Mystery Science Theater movie was looming. I didn’t want to be part of the movie since we weren’t getting along, so I said I didn’t think I wanted to be on camera anymore. Really, it was just an excuse for me to get out.”

In 2008, 15 years after Hodgson’s bittersweet departure from “MST3K,” he launched Cinematic Titanic, a new project built around the same basic premise: comedic riffing over bad movies. The project reunites him with much of the show’s early cast, including Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester) and Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), as well as Mary Jo Pehl, who played Pearl Forrester in the show’s post-Hodgson years.

Competing Shows

In 2006, along with the program’s late-period cast, Mike Nelson, who replaced Hodgson on “MST3K,” debuted a similar service called RiffTrax, quipping on downloadable audio commentaries to mostly modern films like Twilight, Iron Man and Lord of the Rings. Cinematic Titanic, on the other hand, sells DVDs that tread closer to the traditional “MST3K” template, with the cast filmed as silhouettes watching B-movies like Roger Corman’s 1959 relic The Wasp Woman or 1974’s Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks.

Though fans have speculated about bad blood between the two factions of the show’s cast, both camps have had only kind words about the other, and each stresses there’s enough room in the market for both projects (while politely affirming their preference for their own).

“What I like about movie riffing is that the audience comes in and they’re seeing a movie they’ve never seen before,” Hodgson says of Cinematic Titanic’s obscure selections. “That’s part of the adventure, wondering what’s going to happen. If it’s a famous movie, like Lord of the Rings, then everybody knows what they’re getting.”

Cinematic Titanic also distinguishes itself with its emphasis on tours and live screenings. The troupe’s initial DVDs were recorded in the studio, but their most recent, a viewing of the 1974 blaxploitation kung-fu flick East Meets Watts, was filmed in front of an audience. They’re now planning future live DVDs.

Through these live performances, Cinematic Titanic picks up one of the lost threads of “Mystery Science Theater.” Hodgson had long wanted to perform the cable show on stage, but the pressures of producing 22 episodes a season precluded it.

“It’s more state of the art for us,” Hodgson says of performing live. “It’s got more of a feeling to it. You really have to sell the material more to get laughs. You get a little bit competitive, because you want to do as well as everybody else. Performing in front of people really is the fastest way to improve.”

Cinematic Titanic does a double feature at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 20. The 7 p.m. screening is sold out, but tickets are still available to the 10:30 p.m. show.


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