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The Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark   B

Shout! Factory

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directors: Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy
Writers: Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy
Cast: Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy.

Review by Rob Vaux

B-movie lovers everywhere died a little bit when the long-running Mystery Science Theater 3000 went off the air. The show set a very high bar for pure unfiltered snarking, which professionals and amateurs alike have struggled to live up to ever since. But like Sinatra and Ali, the show's creators are just too damn good at what they do to stay on the sidelines for long. The comeback began with RiffTrax: an online site that provides MP3 commentary tracks for various bad (and quite a few good) contemporary A-list movies. But longtime MST3K fans know that these guys really hit their stride with the fourth-rate drive-in fare of yesteryear: films full of rubber monsters and scantily clad girls, intended to fill the bottom half of some micro-budget double feature. For that, they have developed a new line of DVDs under the banner The Film Crew, which once again drags out cinema's long-forgotten turkeys for a first-class pasting.

The initial DVD in the series, Hollywood After Dark, exemplifies both the durability of their basic formula and the dangers that arise when they stray too far. Unlike MST3K, the premise is flimsy and utilitarian: providing the most basic excuse to get the Film Crew's trio of pranksters (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, for the uninitiated) in front of the target du jour. They play low-rent wage slaves in an unnamed studio, hired to add DVD commentaries to older films that don't yet have them. Every morning, their boss sends down a new movie --invariably dreadful -- which needs a second-track audio commentary to help it sell. They oblige in their usual manner: mocking the bargain-basement production values, riffing on the horrendous dialogue, and engaging in a general postmodern free-for-all at the movie's expense.

That aspect works extremely well. The film in question is a true stinker from 1968, featuring future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan as an L.A. stripper with fading dreams of stardom. The wafer-thin story includes plenty of shameless padding from extended bump-and-grind sequences -- featuring human oddities whose bare flesh would put a carnival barker off his lunch -- along with a half-assed armored-car robbery presumably intended to demonstrate how "dark" Hollywood really is. In short, it's prime rib for the Film Crew's unique brand of spot-on savagery. While their comments don't quite match the very best of MST3K, they make up for it by pushing more risqué boundaries than the TV show did. As a DVD release, Hollywood After Dark is less beholden to corporate censorship and the boys take full advantage of the loosened leash with help from the film's ready-made sleaze. (Parents should be warned: rarely have we heard such gratuitous use of the word "wang.") But the added spice doesn't change their vintage class-clown iconoclasm, transplanted intact and still firing on all cylinders.

They're less assured, however, when straying from the brick-and-mortar basics. The surrounding scenario lacks the charm of MST3K, where the goofy robots and mad scientists brought plenty of manic energy to the proceedings. The Film Crew is much more stripped down, with fewer props and a dearth of even remotely endearing characters. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett essentially play themselves, and while their banter comes easily enough, they have nowhere to go with it when the movie isn't on. The opening and closing sequences contain a lot of dead space, and a mid-screening "lunch break" -- featuring a limp parody of corporate doublespeak -- feels like improv theater gone dreadfully wrong. The faster they get through those moments and back into attack mode, the better the experience becomes.

One could presumably chalk such flaws up to a shaky early outing, however, and with three more films slated for the Film Crew treatment, they'll have plenty of opportunities to improve. In that sense, it really does feel like MST3K is back. The low budgets mean that they don't need much to keep going, and the increased creative freedom of the format might give them a chance to push the envelope in new directions. Even if they don't, however, Hollywood After Dark offers more than enough to satisfy longtime fans (and maybe make a few new ones in the bargain). Not many formulas out there are that reliable: it's nice to know that this one has plenty of gas still left in its tank.

Review published 08.22.2007.

Read the Q&A with Kevin Murphy & Bill Corbett.

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