Cinematic Titanic

A cast of American comics riff and pun on 1968 bugsploitation B movie, War of the Insects

Belfast Film Festival’s Cinematic Titanic show at the Black Box doesn’t directly concern the city’s ill-fated liner, which comes as a relief to some. Instead, it focuses on cult 1990s comedy series, Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

MST3K was the mother of all kitch late-night movie shows. In it, a stranded man and his robotic cohorts delivered steady streams of comic commentary on an assortment of the schlockiest B movies from the 1950s and 60s. It was movie fan geekery of the funniest kind.

Cinematic Titanic is a direct descendent of MST3K, and retains many tropes of the original. The American cast of commentators – Joel Hodgson and company – return to deliver cutting witticisms on celluloid shockers that don’t so much scrape the bottom of the aesthetic barrel as smash it to smithereens.

This evening’s screening is the 1968 Japanese bugsploitation flick, War of the Insects. Released in the UK as Genocide and in Italy under the wonderfully trippy title, The Hallucinatory End of Man, this deep cut B movie is extremely obscure and for good reason.

It has an unfathomably nonsensical plot that is ripe for ribbing. In the film a buxom blonde femme fatale plots the end of the world. A specially bred swarm of killer insects should help with that. It is, as your average film studies tutor might observe, as unsubtle metaphor for post-Second World War global tensions as you're ever likely to come across.

Stereotypes abound, with a philandering male lead, a bumbling bartender and a doctor-cum-hero arriving to save the day. But the real star of the show is drug-addict pilot Charly, who’s only advice from director Kazui Nihonmatsu appears to be to scream like a loon and flail his arms. All of this – the hammy acting and horrific direction – provides material for rib-tickling observations from our commentators.

Whilst the MST3K set-up had the spoofers sitting in front of the screen – the silhouettes of their heads against the action is one of the most iconic images of 1990s cult television – the Cinematic Titanic team screen the film themselves in front of a live audience and make their gags from stage left and right.

Unfortunately, this set up makes the sarcastic commentary seem a little less off-the-cuff and more scripted. Luckily, however, the vocal talents of cast members Trace Bealieu, J Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl are sufficient enough to ensure plenty of laughs. The caustic critics leap from deadpan observations to absurdly silly voices with the greatest of ease.

While the razor sharp pop culture references of old abound – one character even remarks during a psychedelic scene that he ‘must – listen – to – Iron Butterfly’ – there are plenty of 21st century gags here, with Twitter, Pixar, World of Warcraft and Jersey Shore all getting a mention.

The crew aboard the Cinematic Titanic also showcase their knowledge of ‘highbrow’ cinema with puns on lines from Chinatown and Citizen Kane (‘GenocideGenocide was the name of his sled’). Granted, the jokes don’t always hit home, and there are occasional lulls in the laughter, but the quips come so thick and fast that it is never too long before a real zinger is pulled out of the hat.

It is unfortunate that there is such a poor turn-out for this event, with no more than seven or eight people at the show. Thankfully, though, the insertion of a canned laughter track goes some way to fleshing out the chuckles from a disappointingly small crowd in the Black Box.

Hopefully the rest of the many B movie themed events scheduled as part of the 2012 Belfast Film Festival will fare better than this. Cinematic Titanic proves that, while such films may be utterly laughable, they definitely have a unique charm often lacking in mainstream cinema.

The Belfast Film Festival runs until June 10. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide for more films and events.