RiffTrax Live: Jack the Giant Killer

RiffTrax Live - Jack the Giant Killer Synopsis: The stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax.com are pleased to bring you more laughter and mayhem with the release of their Jack the Giant Killer Live! Show.

If you’re into cheesy stop-motion dragons, leprechauns in bottles, drunk Vikings, and Giants-Who-Need-Killing, then Jack the Giant Killer is for you! Actually that’s an odd set of things to be into, hypothetical person reading this, and frankly it’s about time you let us get to the point. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett riffed this vintage 1962 epic live in Nashville, and now you can enjoy the show in the comfort of your own home, castle, or bottle you share with a leprechaun!

Also! The guys riff the supremely weird short What Is Nothing? (spoiler: we still don’t know what nothing is). Plus two hilarious cartoons from Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka of somethingawful.com, a Behind-the-Scenes slideshow, and movie trivia slides done RiffTrax style!

Make sure all these giants didn’t die in vain – join Mike, Kevin, and Bill for a full evening of great live comedy.

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RiffTrax Live: Jack the Giant Killer 7.0

eyelights: the awesomeness of the riffs. Giants. Killers.
eyesores: the minimalism of the show. the comparable weakness of some riffs. Jack.

“Sharknado is coming!!! Sharknado is coming!!!”

As The Critical Eye’s dear readers have no doubt surmised, I’ve become a fan of RiffTrax of late. I ordered a few of their titles, but limited myself to key titles, like ‘Psycho II’ (because it’s a favourite of mine) and the live ones – based on the strength of the trio’s ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space‘.

I decided to pace myself, and even held off from watching one of the Christmas ones during the last holiday season because I was waiting for a few friends to free up. It never happened, but guess what’s on next Christmas’ wish list, girls and boys? Haha! I’ll give you three tries!

When they announced that they were doing a live broadcast of ‘Sharknado’ on July 10 (check your local listings!), and that there would be Canadian showings for the first time, I was really excited! I don’t much want to see a tornado with sharks in it – but, with Mike, Kevin and Bill, I sure do!

So excited was I that I really wanted to watch another one of their shows. I couldn’t wait ’til July! One of the films I was keeping on the back-burner was ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (while I was far more eager to watch ‘House on Haunted Hill’, I decided that I would keep it until October, for Hallowe’en).

And so it is that I chose to watch ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.

Honestly, I knew nothing about this film going in. Based on the artwork  for the RiffTrax DVD, it looked like crap – like some of those dollar bin titles that stores can’t get rid of because, even at a dollar, they can’t appeal to anyone. And maybe that’s the point; perhaps that’s what they’re aiming for.

All I could do was to pray that the content, the live show, was far superior to the packaging. And, given the RiffTrax record thus far (‘Psycho II’ was terrific, and their two Doctor Who commentaries were side-splitting!), there was very little doubt of it. I just had to make a leap of faith, that’s all.

For those unfamiliar with the RiffTrax concept, Mike, Kevin and Bill (who were once on MST3K)take movies that they deem risible (in one fashion or another) and poke fun at them by acting as a sort of peanut gallery while it plays. In the context of the live shows, they perform for the audience, but often also introduce other segments before the main feature.

For ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, they treated us to one short film and a couple of animated bits. There was no musical guest, no contest winner, no interaction with the crowd, …etc. This was the case with ‘Reefer Madness‘, but I had really hoped for something along the lines of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, which was their first show and which set the bar very high.

Again, they weren’t even introduced by an MC – they just walked on stage and introduced themselves. While I had found the ‘Plan 9’ MC pretty weak, I liked that the event was a sort of variety show. Anyway, after a brief introduction, the RiffTrax gang came on stage and got right into it. The only frills was a nautical-themed stage set up (with barrels, a mast and sail, nets, …etc.)

The first bit was a short film called ‘What is Nothing?’, in which two boys are trying to figure out what “nothing” means. Imagine that: nothing happens. The Riffers had a blast with the kids’ existential crisis: there were lots of pot jokes, and sarcastic comments about what nothing is ensued. Geez… who made this short film? Too funny! 8.5

As with ‘Reefer Madness’, they also showed us a couple of animated bits written and narrated by Lauren Kyanka, the young daughter of Rich Kyanka of Something Awful. These bits are extremely compact and insane – they are clearly the product of a child’s imagination stoked with speed. Kidding, of course, but she’s surely been ingesting too much sugar.

The first one, ‘Doorknob!‘, is the story of a peculiar superhero. I have no idea what happened there – it’s so nutty and incoherent. And cute. And very funny. 7.5

The next one was ‘A Pretty Love Story (The Jesus House)‘. I was surprised to discover that Jesus married a bearded frog. He was married? Scorsese likes to think so, but I’m not sure if the frog is canon… 7.0

By the time the Riffers got going on ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, only 17 minutes had passed. That was very disappointing to me, because what initially grabbed me about the live act was that it was a full scale show. This particular production is virtually indistinguishable from the regular Rifftrax DVDs, except for being recorded live. What’s the selling point, exactly?

Well, at least it was pretty funny. Of course, with a movie like ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ as its focal point, it’s hardly surprising.

‘Jack the Giant Killer’ is a large-scale United Artist production from 1962, loosely based on the English fairytale.  It’s a live-action film mixed with stop-motion animation of the Ray Harryhausen variety, meant to cash in on the success of  ‘7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (in fact, the producer even enlisted the skills of the same director, lead actor and villain!).

I don’t recall ever having seen ‘7th Voyage of Sinbad’, but apparently this film is so close to the original that the filmmakers were threatened with a lawsuit. So, to avoid the legal entanglements, they eventually filmed musical numbers and wedged them into the picture. Thankfully, the film being riffed on this DVD is the original, non-musical version.

It’s pretty much what you would expect for this type of film, and from this era. It begins with a shot of a large storybook, and an off-screen narrator reads a few passages before we plunge into the movie – a terribly clichéd approach even by 1962. Unsurprisingly, the film sputters downward from there with a pathetic damsel in distress action-adventure.

It’s such an inept film that, halfway through the movie, a huge chunk of the film went missing: Jack transported from the Viking’s boat, where he was passed out and being tended to by his friends, to Pendragon’s castle, chained up. I checked, and the original is officially listed as having the same length as the RiffTrax version – so it wasn’t trimmed for RiffTrax’s convenience.

Wow… the filmmakers had no clue, did they? I can’t even begin to imagine what this thing looked like all cut up to include musical numbers. Thankfully, the Rifftrax guys were there to save the day. Unfortunately, more jokes died than usual; there was an awkward silence from time to time. But all the ones that did hit their mark had people in stitches. It was two extremes.

What I found most interesting was that they inserted enough brand names (Aspirin, Delta Airlines, Quiznoz, …etc.) that I started to wonder if they weren’t doing product placements. Even some of the pop culture references sometimes made me wonder. I mean, we know that authors and filmmakers do this, so… what was the intention here? Spoof? Or a quick buck?

Speaking of which, I also wondered how it was that they could afford to throw money at their stage set-up, but didn’t use that money to bring in guests and flesh out the show like they did with ‘Plan 9’? At the very least, one has to conclude that the showmanship is seriously lacking. I couldn’t help but feel as though they were either being lazy or too self-centered to share the stage.

Even the DVD itself shows a certain lack concern for presentation, what with its paltry special features:

  • a 4-minute “behind the scenes” montage, which, ironically enough, was mostly not behind the scenes, but on stage. Uh… what? 3.5
  • an 11-minute trivia reel that they put together, presumably to entertain people before the film. Actually, this was one of the best part of the whole DVD: it was a terrific send-up of what multiplexes show these days, but without pictures and graphics (likely due to copyright issues). I laughed my head off. It included outrageous “quotes”, fun “facts”, Real Life Giant Killers, Fairy Tale Facts, Movie Mistakes, a few stabs at celebrities and even references to the Riffers’ previous works. 8.0

But an 11-minute slide reel isn’t justification enough to buy a DVD. Obviously. I just wish that the riffing for ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ had been slightly better. Or that they’d given us so many extras on the DVD that it would make it easy to forgive their lapses (in all fairness, almost none of their DVDs have any bonus features worth mentioning, so this isn’t exactly out of the ordinary).

I just hope that they will put a little bit more effort into ‘Sharknado’. Because, if they don’t, there’s a good chance I may just stick with what I already have and start to focus on getting the ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’ episodes I don’t have – and delve into the ‘Cinematic Titanic’  films (which feature most of the other comedians who were  on MST3K through the years).

I love RiffTrax and I find Mike, Kevin and Bill deliriously funny – they’re a great comedy team. However, I don’t like this nagging doubt that they’re coasting in some way. When I spend money to see them or buy their product, I want to know that they are giving me my money’s worth. And, funny or not, if it looks and feels like a lackluster effort, then I feel disappointed.

‘Jack the Giant Killer’ had its moments, but it didn’t meet my expectations.

Date of viewing: April 18, 2014

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