My Report of Cinematic Titanic Live in San Francisco, February 13, 2009

Signed by J. Elvis, Trace, J. H----, Sudoku, and Art Carney.It was a cold, rainy Friday the Thirteenth. Fearing the wet highways, my wife begged me not to go, pressing her cell phone on me “just in case” when I told her I was going anyway. She needn’t have worried; I only fishtailed once, sliding down the hill from Sausalito to the Golden Gate. My real troubles didn’t start until I’d crossed the bridge, when my Google map sent me right over the top of the tallest hill in San Francisco during a driving rainstorm, then told me to turn the wrong way onto a one-way street. I wandered, twisted and turned for another half hour before I finally found the garage I was seeking, and I only drove into oncoming traffic once.

Fortunately I had allowed time for that kind of nonsense, and got out of the garage with a half hour to spare. In exchange for a dollar, a friendly woman with no legs gave me directions to the theater. Through the glass doors of the Marines Memorial Hotel, up the stairs to the right, and immediately in front of me stood Joel and Trace, selling photos and DVDs to early arrivals. I didn’t recognize Trace at first. He’s grown a beard and developed a craggy, distinguished Jeff Bridges-esque look. Think of Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane, only thinner, and with hair.

The obvious excuse for going and talking to them would be to buy something, but I already owned at least one of everything on display, making this plan fiscally unsound. I wondered if I should ask them to sign something for me. A nearby young lady thought of this as well; she stepped ahead of me to ask, and was gently informed that they would be signing autographs after the show. Unable to think of any other topics of discussion (aside from the uninspired conversational dead end “I love your work”) I sat down at the far end of the lobby to assure my wife, via her cell phone, that I had arrived in one piece.

I waited while the lobby filled. With twenty minutes to curtain, the theater doors opened and we slowly pushed towards them. I drifted past Joel again; he was nodding patiently to the enthusiastic genuflections of a woman with purple dreadlocks. The usher scanned my ticket and passed me off to some sort of sub-usher, who showed me to my seat.

Marines Memorial Theater was built in the 1920s, when most of the city’s population was, apparently, emaciated and short. I have, in the past, been described as a “beanpole”, so the width was not a problem for me; I just jammed my knees into the leg space sideways and sat down. It was a problem for the flatulent Jorge Garcia-esque man who sat next to me, however. We both apologized, I for the awkward angle of my knees and he for the unavoidable intrusion of his elbow. I leaned onto one cheek and let off a couple of silent ones to make him feel more at home, then turned to people-watching.

Here’s something that surprised me about Cinematic Titanic’s fans: Most of you are older than I am. Oh, there were a handful of nine-to-fifteen-year-old girls (only one of whom was wearing cat ears, thankfully) and my own mid-thirties age group was well-represented, but the vast majority of the attendees seemed to be mid-forties and above. I guess it makes sense when you think about it—MST3K started when I was in high school, got popular in my college days, and now it’s been off the air for nearly a decade—but still, I had not expected to find myself at the younger end of their fandom’s age spectrum.

Once I’d come to terms to this thoroughly obvious revelation, I went on comparing people to celebrities. A man a few rows ahead of me, for instance, looked for all the world like Joe Pantoliano, and his companion very much like a recently reanimated Phil Hartman. While I was casting about for other possible celebrity-look-almost-alikes, the very image of Argus Filch stepped on stage to check sound and do shadow puppets. Then, while we were applauding, a woman who looked remarkably like Mary Jo Pehl appeared. Filch introduced her as Mary Jo Pehl, and she, in turn, introduced Filch as Grouper.

Filch/Grouper did a bit of standup before introducing J. Elvis Weinstein, who joined him on stage for a great impression of a short attention span radio station, as well as a song about how much they hate clowns. (During the preceding, J. Elvis confirmed Filch/Grouper’s real name to be Dave Gruber Allen.) Frank Conniff joined them to sing his new Saturday Morning Cartoon show theme song, Convoluted Man. True to its name, it’s hard to describe, but it managed to be my favorite part of the warm-up act. Then the rest of the riffers came onstage and the movie began.

Blood of the Vampires is a Tagalog horror movie from 1966, in which Filipino actors pretend to be a dysfunctional family of turn-of-the-century Mexicans lording over a Gone-with-the-Wind-esque plantation. Mom is a vampire chained up under the house. Dad suffers a heart attack early on; it lasts for roughly two thirds of the film before he finally expires. By that time, vampire mom has spread her undead affliction to the children. Near the end, the local Catholic clergy get involved, cleansing the plantation of its unholy infestation with horrifying iconography and wanton arson. All the major characters die slow, agonizing deaths, but the good guys go to heaven, so I guess it’s a happy ending.

This has got to be one of the weirdest, most exuberantly overwrought movies I have ever seen. In MST3K terms, I recommend that you imagine the unrestrained enthusiastic badness of Wild, Wild World of Batwoman combined with the deadly seriousness of Werewolf, but that still doesn’t cover it. Give the whole thing the annoying, energetic qualities of Mr. B Natural, and that might about nail it. (In Rifftrax terms, I might compare it to the Star Wars Holiday Special, with vampires instead of wookiees). It’s an intense, ludicrous and barely cohesive film that urgently begs for mockery. Even allowing for the added entertainment value of live riffing and audience participation, the Cinematic Titanic version of Blood of the Vampires is far and away their funniest film treatment yet, and I’m very pleased that it’s the one I happened to see.

(Speaking of added entertainment value, one of the great things about the live performance was that the riffers would occasionally add commentary to the commentary. After the mixed but very strong reaction to the first priest joke, Joel turned away from his stand to warn us, “There are a lot more of these.” Trace jokingly tried to walk off stage when a particularly bad pun bombed, and had to be urged back on by his co-riffers. Frank shouted “We’re topical, people!” after someone worked in a federal bailout joke.)

Too soon, the movie was over, and we began to shuffle back out of the theater. A short folding table had been set up in front of the now empty bar. Four of the five riffers pushed their way through the crowd. Someone shrieked “He touched me!” as Joel brushed past; others assembled (myself included) looked keenly embarrassed by the outburst. Joel, no doubt a veteran of worse displays at prior events, pretended he hadn’t heard. Trace arrived a couple of minutes later holding a beer, at which point it became evident that the folding table was too short. Joel helped a stagehand move the concessions desk up against the far side, and Mary Jo sat behind it while the others remained at the table. There being no room in the tiny lobby for an orderly queue, a huge knot of people began to filter past them one at a time.

Fortunately, my seat near the back of the theater meant I was near the front of the crowd. I dropped my well-worn copy of The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide in front of Mary Jo, who signed it and thanked me for coming. She pushed it on to Frank, who did the same and pushed it on to J. Elvis. At this point the line came to a stop as the man in front of me chatted up Joel and Trace. Seeing that I could not yet leave, J. Elvis tried to make conversation, noting that the ACEG contained some of the most awful pictures of him ever printed. I noted that he looked much better now, and he thanked me for the compliment. While we talked, I wondered if I ought to mention this blog. I decided against it—a remark to the effect of “I write about you on the internet, ACKNOWLEDGE ME, DAMMIT!”, however gently worded, seemed like it would be, well, not the actual height of douchebaggery, but uncomfortably close to that undesirable summit. I thought to ask what people called him in casual conversation. Was it “J”, “Elvis”, “Josh”, or some other nickname as yet unknown? By the time this question had finished gestating in my mind, however, the line moved on. I shook hands with Trace, then Joel. They signed my book. I thanked them for a pleasant evening. They thanked me for coming. It took me half an hour to find my way out of San Francisco, another hour and a half heading north on the freeway to reach home, and then to bed.