Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill

RiffTrax Live - House on Haunted HillSynopsis: Is there any possible downside to accepting an invitation from Vincent Price to spend an evening in a creepy mansion that was built on something called “Haunted Hill?” If so, Mike, Kevin and Bill couldn’t find it! In fact they were so eager to join Mr. Price and his terrifying moustache that they riffed the film live, on-stage, and now you can reap the rewards from the safety of home with this live show DVD!

Yes, horror classic House on Haunted Hill provides a mesmerizing walk down “people actually used to find this SCARY?!?” lane. Join the RiffTrax guys as they bring their special brand of rapid-fire comedic commentary to every skeleton-hanging-from-visible-wires, clumsy sexual overtone, and a stunningly inept test pilot whose “heroics” typically lead him to bloody his own nose after locking himself in a broom closet!

The guys are joined by guest riffer Paul F. Tompkins, comedy person extraordinaire and quite a snappy dresser to boot! They also riff two vintage, never-before-seen shorts live on-stage: Paper and I, in which a small boy is haunted by a talking paper bag, and Magical Disappearing Money, about a supermarket witch whose main concern is that you don’t spend too much on rice. No, seriously, that’s what they’re really about!

Join Mike, Kevin, Bill, and Paul for an unforgetttable All Hallow’s Eve of mind-melting comedy!

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RiffTrax Live: House on Haunted Hill 7.75

eyelights: the riffing. the ungodly shorts. the main feature.
eyesores: the lazy presentation. guest riffer Paul F Tompkins.

On October 28, 2010, the RiffTrax crew (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett) headed to Nashville to perform a live riffing of ‘House on Haunted Hill‘, the 1959 cult classic starring Vincent Price. In front of a packed audience (some of whom were of costumed for the occasion), they served up two hours of hilarious irony, sarcasm and pop culture references.

Ever since I started buying the RiffTrax discs (although they’ve started selling downloads only, RiffTrax did produce DVDs and BDs for a while), I’ve been quite eager to watch this show. I’m a small fan of ‘House on Haunted Hill’ and have also enjoyed Mike Nelson’s solo riffing on the Fox Home Video DVD release of the title. So I figured that the three of them would rock it.

But I hadn’t yet written a blurb for the original picture, and though that it might be more appropriate to do that before I did the RiffTrax version. So I bid my time, waiting for the Hallowe’en season to finally watch the film and then the RiffTrax version. Truth be told, I was very eager, and planned an evening of it with a few of my friends well over a month in advance.

I had found a few RiffTrax converts this summer when some of us went out to see the live broadcast of the trio’s side-splitting riffing of ‘Sharknado’ at the big screen. So the response to my invitation was enthusiastic: I had a fully packed couch, a sectional that can squeeze in a good number of people. Trust me, I was very much looking forward to our evening of “live” riffing.

Sadly, as has become tradition with these live RiffTrax shows, it was a no-frills affair: Kevin took care of the announcement himself, and then the three of them walked on the stage dressed in minimalist Hallowe’en costumes (Bill: cat ears, Mike: fuzzy wig and sunglasses, Kevin: Gorgon headdress). Their opening routine, which discussed their costumes, was a bit lame. It felt lazy, improvised.

Magical Disappearing Money

Then they got into their first short, called “Magical Disappearing Money”. Produced in 1972, it takes us to a supermarket, where a witch shows up and pesters the shoppers about their spending habits. The actress is over-the-top and diva-ish, which is annoying, and there’s a dopey kid. Both are great riff fodder. My favourite bits are the “beard completer”, “Witches Gone Wild” and “Powdered milk: not just for wartime conditions anymore!” 8.0

Paul F. Tompkins

After the short, stand-up comedian Paul F. Tompkins was introduced and invited to join the trio on stage for the next bit. As befits the context, he went on a mildly amusing, but ultimately uninspired, routine about scary movies and how there’s always a scene featuring one of the protagonists looking in the bathroom mirror… only to find a creature in it. The chuckles were spare for this one. 6.5

Paper and I

The second short, featuring Tompkins, was “Paper and I”. In it, a tense, psychotic-looking boy is visited by an animated paper bag character, who shows him where paper comes from. The best part is the processing of wood, which is described in nightmarishly violent terms. There’s also a bit when the paper bag makes all the paper in the world disappears and Mike utters “Oh no, someone invented the internet!”. Genius! 7.5

House on Haunted Hill

Tompkins left the stage for the main event, 1959’s cult classic “House on Haunted Hill”. Although I”m a fan of the picture, I recognize its flaws and could easily see why it would be ripe for riffing. One of my friends, who hadn’t seen the film before and can’t see the humour in bad movies suffered a great deal, unfortunately, even though the riffing was very funny.

What’s interesting is that Mike Nelson had already done a solo outing on Fox Home Video’s 2005 release of the picture, and I think that his commentary was much funnier – although some of the RiffTrax bits were also very inspired (for instance, I loved when Bill poked fun at the spare piano soundtrack, shouting “Get the cat off the piano!”. We all laughed heartily at that). 7.5

All told, the show was entertaining, but it lacked spice. The bar has been set very high with their ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space‘, which had an MC, a live act and spoof ads. It felt more like a show, whereas this one and many recent RiffTrax Live presentations are basically the three of them just standing on stage and talking over a movie in front of a live audience.

My big question is, why go see the show instead of buying the studio versions? Why pay a premium price to see them in cinemas or even go in person, if they can’t offer more bang for our buck – especially if their in-between-riffs banter seems largely made up on the spot? I might as well just get the studio versions, which are well-rehearsed and timed. They’re extremely funny as is.

I dearly hope that they get out of this habit of just showing up, almost phoning it in. Based on this summer’s ‘Sharknado’, it doesn’t look like it at all. And that’s a shame, because they’ve proven through the years that they are creative, hilarious people and can really deliver when they’re on top of their game. These live presentation, while funny, don’t make the most of their abilities.

And that’s actually the reason why I didn’t go see their subsequent presentations, ‘Godzilla (1998)’ and ‘Anaconda’. If they put more into their shows, I would be drawn to the spectacle. Because, truth be told, not all bad movies can reel me in – no matter how funny the RiffTrax gang are. And they can be unbelievably funny, as evidenced by the Dr. Who films they riffed, as well as their ‘Psycho II‘.

They do indeed make movies funny, and worth seeing – even the ones you can’t fathom ever enjoying.

Post scriptum: For all my gripes, the blu-ray/DVD release has a few notable bonus features, making it a worthy purchase. They’re not ample, or lengthy, but there’s a spoof pre-show “trivia” reel, some behind-the-scenes pictures and a couple of trailers (lame-@$$ ones, I hate to say…). But it’s enough to warrant waiting for the home video release.

Date of viewing: October 28, 2014

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