By Chuck Francisco
September 08, 2012 Source: Mania.com
Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans (MSTies) have a wide assortment of options available to them, when it comes to riffing. With Shout! Factory putting out dynamite MST3K episode releases, Cinematic Titanic performing live around the country, and Riff Trax giving us rapid fire content, it would be easy for to have overlooked Incognito Cinema Warriors XP (ICWXP to its friends). That, however, would be a huge mistake. As a long time MSTie who attends Cinematic Titanic shows several times a year, and who has used Riff Trax to survive accompanying his wife to the rerelease of Titanic this year, I felt as though there might be a key component missing from these alumni riffing groups which brings the whole flower to bloom: sassy robot puppets.
The alumni projects of the MST3K stars are both fantastic; I love them to pieces. Yet, like many, I'm looking for something that recaptures the magic of the original show itself. Enter Incognito Cinema Warriors XP. It is, without exaggeration, the most important name in film riffing that isn't attached to the originators. This new cow town puppet show isn't a carbon copy though. Instead, it's taken the blue prints and then drawn on it in crayon. It's best explained as a heavy metal, zombie apocalypse flavored MST3K, and if you enjoy any of those things, then you're getting on the right boat.
ICWXP is the story of Commander Rick Wolf (series creator Rikk Wolf); highly trained member of CORPS, a government zombie response organization. As the theme song so eloquently puts it, Rick's squad is overwhelmed and he is forced to barricade himself in an old movie theater. There, he finds two robots who were built to maintain and work the theater by Dr. Blackwood, a mad inventor. In exchange for not opening the steel shutters to let the zombies in, Rick and the bots are forced into the theater to watch bad movies, and thus the skeleton of the show is established. But it's been a long journey from episode one (which featured Bride of the Gorilla) in 2008, to now. Many casting changes, conceptual redesigns, and advances in production quality have transformed the show from season one to season two (where we currently reside).
Here's the series' theme song, which does a better job describing the show than I did, since it's quite metal.
Being an independent production meant that there would be longer periods between releases. With the demand for more back story on the characters growing, the team decided to break from the comfortable MST mold, then rework the show into a combination post apocalyptic sitcom and short subject riff show. This gave them far more time to expand on the show's plot, while at the same time retaining the core heart of the series. The change hasn't been without bumps, as some fans want a return to the MST formula, while others love the new turn the show's take on. With the third episode of the second season just over the horizon, (possibly releasing in October), I interviewed Rikk regarding the ins and outs of cow town puppet show production. He was kind enough to share some interesting insights.
Q: For MSTies that aren't familiar with Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, what episode would you recommend they introduce themselves to your show with and why?
That’s a surprisingly tough question. The most obvious answer is to start at the beginning, with Episode 101 – Bride of the Gorilla, but we discontinued it for a multitude of reasons. I want to recommend the other Season One episodes so they can ease into our style and get familiar with the characters, but Season Two’s episodes have far superior production value. Yet still, the story might be tough to follow jumping in there. I suppose I’d recommend Episode 103 – Bloody Pit of Horror. It’s what I consider our funniest to date, it’ll be closer to what MSTies are used to and while its production values are still humble, it’s not riding that line of embarrassment like Episode 101 [laughs]. In our defense, we had no idea anyone would ever see our first attempt at this and we were just having fun.
Q: What's the most difficult part of producing an independent riffing series?
That’s an easier question! Funding. We’re always struggling, especially now that we’ve raised the bar and turned the “host segments” into a story-driven post-apocalyptic sitcom. We have incredible fans that send in massive donations and pre-order episodes to keep us afloat. We’re not the byproduct of a well-off production company or TV studio. We’re a poor puppet-show that exists only because of deeply loyal fan support.
Q: Joel Hodgson has been known to liken the role of the riffer as that of a companion to the audience. Would you agree or do you have a different take?
That’s definitely my take on it. What I miss about MST3K is that feeling of camaraderie the audience gets from watching along with the riffers. I think the live action segments gave tremendous reinforcement to that on MST3K and thusly we really go all out in ours.
Q: What's the most important part of a successful riff show?
Good, well-timed riffs with a wide variety are paramount. We always spend the most time on finalizing riffs. I tend to agonize over them more than I perhaps should, and there’s something to be said for not over-thinking them, but MST3K’s gold standard is something we strive for. However, we try not to emulate them and to keep developing our own voice. It can be a challenge at times, since we went to riffing school via Professors Hogdson and Nelson.
Some may disagree, but I feel establishing a world outside the films that allows viewers more access to the characters is also important.
Q: You've made some pretty impressive robot riffers. I think most MSTies have thought about making robot puppets at some point. Where did your inspiration come from?
Japan. No, seriously. More specifically, a guy by the name of Keiji Inafune. All of us are children of the 80’s & 90’s, born with NES controllers in-hand. We’re all big Mega Man fan-boys. So, subconsciously, when I start penciling concept art for ‘bots, my mind slides back in time and I’m that kid sitting in front of his NES playing Mega Man III grooving to 8-bit melodic metal again.
Though not done consciously, Topsy seems to have features inspired by Top Man (go figure), Flux seems to pull some characteristics from Guts Man, and an obscure character from TMNT actually inspired Cylon a bit (hint: his name starts with an “F”). They’re born out of some serious nerdom.
Q: Topsy, Cylon, and Flux all have working reactive lights or motor controlled moving parts. Some of your special features showcase the wiring and soldering that goes into making them. Where did you learn your bot making skills?
I can’t take too much credit there. My father was one hell of an engineer and a certifiable genius. Electrician is just one of the many hats he wears. Some kids’ Dads buy them expensive cars; mine helps me wire robotic puppets. I conceptualize the puppets, track down the parts and oversee development, helping where I can, but the really intricate stuff is all him.
For instance, Flux’s mouth is operated using a solenoid buried in his torso and what was once an electric drill is used to trigger it via simple RCA cables. I think we have some video that might popup soon of Flux pulled completely apart during an emergency operation at a shoot. Never work with kids, animals or robotic puppets.
Q: You guys really give it to modern pop culture on ICWXP, especially soulless, cash-in remakes. Are there any re-imaginings or remakes that you'd say worked or were good?
[laughs] That’s always a source of irony for us. We’re quick to point out that ICWXP is perhaps a cousin of re-imaginings, but hopefully we fall more into “spiritual successor with a heart of gold” territory, so take this with an ounce of ectoplasm.
I can only speak for myself, but I for one enjoyed the remake of “Total Recall”. The original was fun, campy and inarguably a classic due its respect, but it was hardly sacred ground for me – maybe that’s why the remake didn’t piss me off? I think it would have gone more unscathed by critics had the Arnie version never happened - can you imagine? - but comparisons are unavoidable.
It was far from Shakespeare, and I’m no Collin Ferrell fan, but it managed to keep me engaged and invested, which is more than I can say for other nostalgia outings.
I think cataclysmal remakes like what Michael Bay was / is up to with TMNT (or “Ninja Turtles”, since screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec had the stones to drop the “teenage” and “mutant” parts) are far more cause for concern.
The Hollywood phenomenon of people who lack a modicum of respect or understanding for the source material continually getting handed the reigns to beloved franchises is a target of much heckling on our show. It doesn’t take a rocket-surgeon to separate what elements are mutable (bad pun intended) and what elements fundamentally destroy what a property is if tampered with. I’m sure they seem like nothing more than semantics to someone that doesn’t know a Foot Solider from an Utrom, though. Then you end up with unholy abominations like “Colonel Schrader”.
I’d rather see more from “Fight the Foot” director Richard Krause than anything Bay has to offer.
To tie my digressive turtle rant in, it’s a good sign Paramount has pushed the film back. Hopefully, they banish Bay to Dimension X and other studios follow suit and actually start listening to the people they’re supposedly making these films for. Maybe there’s hope yet.
Q: Fans of the show know about your love of the Resident Evil games (and dislike for the films). Would you, given the chance (and money), lay into the film series? Would you ever consider riffing the film series ala Riff Trax (released audio track to play along with the film)?
As avid gamers, there’s some serious distain on our staff for the disconnected Resident Evil movies. Some films we can riff on and while they’re bad, they don’t fill us with bottomless malaise and loathing for our fellow man. Please note that I didn’t despise the first RE film – as someone that’s played through every numbered RE, I for one DIDN’T want a silver screen carbon copy of the original game. We don’t condemn them simply because they’re off on their own tangent.
The sequels, however… I feel like I’m given cancer after watching. The games may be far-out themselves, but how anyone thinks super-powered Maybelline-models kicking zombies in slow motion belongs in anything branded “Resident Evil” is beyond me. Zombies aren’t scary if the protagonist is a super hero.
So, if I could muster the endurance to sit through the films multiple times and we could afford it – yes - we’d love to give them the full ICWXP treatment. As you mentioned, we’ll never be able to afford the rights, but I AM going to have to force myself to sit through “Resident Evil: Retribution” later this month, or as we like to call it, “To Ada Wong, Thanks for Everything – Resident Evil”.
We’re going to be offering up a free webisode for mass-trolling on YouTube next month, where we give a comedic review of the film on location from Kansas City’s historic Uptown Theater. We unfortunately can’t riff in real time, but fans can expect the same ICWXP send up – you’ll just get to see my face while I’m saying mean things about the film in question. I hope it doesn’t affect my friendship with Milla.
An audio-only riff is tempting so we could really sink in the fangs, but we’d probably go broke since we couldn’t charge but a few bucks for them and our interest is to always be doing the full show, malfunctioning puppets and all.
Q: Everyone always asks "Joel or Mike?", so I won't. Instead, tell me who you'd rather hang out with: TV's Frank or Dr. Forrester.
[laughs] Thank you! Probably Frank if only for safety’s sake, but there’s also no denying that Frank is the best Frank that's ever happened to me.
This clip will give you a nice taste of their riffing style. If you're interesting in sampling some more, ICWXP's YouTube page has a plethora of quality clips.
I'd like to thank Rikk again for taking the time to chat. If you consider yourself a MSTie, you're really doing yourself a disservice if you haven't seen Incognito Cinema Warriors XP. Check out their website, where you can preorder episode 203. As Rikk mentioned, those preorders really help keep the hits coming. If you'd like to dig into their back catalogue, I recommend you start with episodes 103 - The Bloody Pit of Horror and 202 - Soapy the Germ Fighter.
Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions
Want to watch something schlocky right now? Try on a few of these suggestions, available right now from the listed service (most of which are FREE!).
Turning a little off the beaten path, this week's suggestion is solely YouTube based. If you haven't heard, Hammer Films has launched their own YouTube channel, offering up a number of their lesser known film as free streaming deliciousness. Wade into these fine free waters; enjoy.
And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).
Chuck Francisco is a columnist for Mania writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights and Colonial Cult Cinema.You can delve further into his love of all things weird and campy on his blog, The Midnight Cheese or hear him occasionally guesting on eminent podcast You've Got Geek.
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