RiffTrax is a company whose motto is “We Make Movies Funny!” Founded a decade ago by the guys who made Mystery Science Theater 3000, a cult cable-television favorite, RiffTrax provides humorous alternate-audio commentary tracks as downloads, streams and DVDs to everything from B-movies and industrial shorts to big-budget blockbusters and, of course, stuff like the Patrick Swayze camp classic Road House.
RiffTrax also has higher-profile live events, like the upcoming Carnival of Souls, that feature Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett as they amusingly “riff” on movies in front of a live audience while the proceedings are simulcast to theaters across the country. The trio’s first live event, in 2009, centered on filmmaker Ed Wood’s notoriously bad Plan 9 from Outer Space, and they’ve since presented more than a dozen live events, riffing on movies that seem suitable for a send-up from Starship Troopers to, most recently, Mothra.
But, with Carnival of Souls, have they gone a riff too far? The 1962 horror movie seems a curious choice. It’s generally considered a cult classic, an odd anomaly of a movie about a young, small-town Kansas woman who, after surviving a car crash, moves to Salt Lake City to begin her career as a church organist.
Shot in stark black-and-white, Carnival of Souls is rich in atmospherics, a late-night chiller set apart by its crafty, low-budget production values and distinctive tone — or, as is quoted in the notes of the recent Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of the movie, “the look of a (Ingmar) Bergman and the feel of a (Jean) Cocteau.”
“Carnival of Souls was one of the horror genre’s earliest gems of independent regional filmmaking, and I think its impact has as much to do with it being crafted outside the usual Hollywood mold as with director Herk Harvey’s substantial visual imagination,” says Tim Lucas, Cincinnati-based editor of Video Watchdog, a magazine dedicated to fantastical cinema. “Whatever the reason, it hit the Baby Boomer generation with the force of a Twilight Zone episode, and generations later it’s still discussed in the manner of an urban legend.”
Yet Murphy, one of the three guys who will riff on the movie during the live event, isn’t so sure about its reputation. (RiffTrax will be using a colorized version.) “Some people consider Carnival of Souls to be a cinematic classic,” Murphy says by phone from his home in Minneapolis. “I don’t know if I agree with that attitude. There are several reasons. First of all, the movies that we really like to dig into are movies that take themselves really seriously, and Carnival of Souls takes itself really seriously. It is a dread-filled, dreamy nightmare-scape of a hallucination. You’re not supposed to know what’s going on. It’s sort of like an Eraserhead that’s easier to follow. So with all of this gloom and seriousness, for Halloween it seemed just fine — almost perfect.”
Murphy says he, Nelson and Corbett, along with their team of writers, watched Carnival of Souls multiple times while crafting the script they’ll deliver during the live show.
“These live shows are like a train heading downhill with no brakes,” Murphy says when asked if much improvisation occurs. “So once we get going, we’re on this ride until it coasts into the station at the end. We rely on our scripts, because we’re much funnier scripted than we are as improvisers.”
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t impacted by what’s happening in the moment. “The most interesting thing is that with every show the audience sees something that we didn’t see, and they react to it,” Murphy says. We feed a lot off the audience, and the audience of course feeds off of us.”
To find area theaters showing RIFFTRAX LIVE: CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and for tickets, visit fathomevents.com.