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Praising the 'Titanic'

Noel Coward once noted "how potent cheap music is." The old boy never saw "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" or he might have observed how enjoyable, how amusing and even how comforting a lousy movie can be.

It's no sacrilege to quote Coward in a story about a television series that celebrates bad movies: "Mystery Science Theater 3000." To the dismay of its truly devoted fans, the show is gone now but then again, not entirely gone. Old episodes, including the one featuring "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," are available on DVD; a special 20th-anniversary collection is just out. Even better, the show was reincarnated in late 2007 as "Cinematic Titanic," a series of videos available on the Web and reuniting most of the original cast.

That includes, most critically, Joel Hodgson, 48, the brilliant boomer who created the series 20 years ago and hosted it on Comedy Central.

His high concept: An astronaut, stranded in space with a bevy of wacky robot pals (puppets assembled from odds and ends found on the spacecraft), is forced to watch terrible old movies by a mad scientist who controls their environment from Earth. To keep themselves sane, Hodgson and his puppet crew make the movies entertaining by pelting them with wisecracks.

There was nothing on TV like it, and it was wonderful. Al Gore was one of the show's fans — and admitted it. In its day, it received the prestigious Peabody Award, and much more recently, it popped up on Time magazine's list of the 100 best television shows ever.

In "Cinematic Titanic," the robots, sadly, are gone, but the basic format and the show's essence remain — an indoor sport that Hodgson calls "riffing on movies" and thus turning such sow's ears as "The Wasp Woman" or "Earth vs. the Spider" into hilarious silk purses. He is joined by four colleagues from the original cast and writing crew. In stark silhouette against the movie screen, they watch the nearly unwatchable and poke fun aplenty.

Fourth and most recent of the releases is, in a break from usual practice, a title previously lampooned on "MST3K" but with all-new smart-alecky remarks: Joseph E. Levine's presentation of "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," a 1964 monstrosity that features little Pia Zadora as Girmar, a green Martian child who watches too many lousy TV shows from Earth, thus bringing the concept full circle, sort of.

Reached in Chicago, where he and his cohorts had just finished a live stage version of "Santa Claus" — to the laughs and cheers of "MST3K" fans and their kids — Hodgson says that as a rule, he doesn't want to revisit films in the new episodes. But "Santa Claus" posed too many tantalizing possibilities, had holiday allure and offered the challenge of coming up with fresh material.

"It's kind of been our top-selling new title so far," Hodgson says. "And we didn't repeat a single joke."

Yes, he misses the robots, but "this is a little more direct, kind of like a play. We can kind of be ourselves. We all met in stand-up originally, so everybody's got that performer instinct."

Hodgson apparently could not have simply put "MST3K" back into production, because the copyright belongs to a former partner. They split partly over the partner's insistence on directing a feature-film version of the show that flopped in 1996. The movie, which Hodgson sat out, made the mistake of ridiculing "This Island Earth," a 1955 sci-fi film that was just a little bit too good to lampoon. Three years later, the TV show ran out of steam and was canceled.

Hodgson left the series several years before it ended because he became disenchanted with what interlopers were doing to his baby. The final collapse of the original partnership essentially divided the gang into two camps. Those who were faithful to Hodgson joined him on the new project.

"I'm super-proud of 'MST3K,' " Hodgson says, "and of all the really talented people I work with. I say that because they're nearby and can hear me talking."

As before, the topical quips and pop-cultural references are cheerily flung about throughout the five-person commentary that accompanies the film du jour. Many are references that would have been meaningless back in the "MST3K" days — everything from Lipitor to digital converter boxes, from John McCain to Jar Jar Binks.

There are also intentionally obscure references designed to test a viewer's memory for trivia. Those include "This is Carlton, your doorman." Remember? It was heard regularly from an off-screen voice on the vintage sitcom "Rhoda," a spinoff from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

For Hodgson, riffing on movies again is somewhat bittersweet. "I feel like I was cheated out of five years of 'MST3K,' " he says, "so I'm thrilled about this. When I left the old show, I made it sound like I had something else I wanted to do, but I didn't. I just felt like I needed to go. I really thought about it, and I went through a lot of therapy later because it was kind of a personal tragedy for me." From the new venture he hopes to get "five good years, that's all," and then he'll be happy.

While away from "MST3K," he worked for a year on the then-new "Jimmy Kimmel Show." He was in charge of comic special effects, such as a dog that appeared to fly off the stage and zoom over the studio audience with blue sparks coming out of its butt. Otherwise, he has been kicking around Hollywood.

Hodgson says the plan for "Cinematic Titanic" is to release eight more titles in 2009 to supplement the first seven, released in 2008. It takes a day to shoot an episode in Los Angeles, he says; otherwise, the five writer-actors communicate by e-mail from their homes in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, wherever.

"What's the next movie we're doing?" Hodgson asks his colleagues as they head for their Chicago hotel. "Is it 'Blood of the Vampires' or 'Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks'?" (It's "Vampires.")

Most of the films reviewed, on the new show and on the old, don't qualify even as B pictures; they're sub-B, maybe X, Y or Z pictures, although the roster has included such seemingly reputable big-budget Hollywood features as "Marooned" (1969) starring Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna and Lee Grant, and directed by John ("The Great Escape") Sturges. For all that, it was a suffocatingly insufferable stinker.

Hodgson and the puppets chopped it gently into mincemeat and served it up to appreciative viewers. Most of the derision, then and now, really is temperate, even affectionate. Bad movies are a kind of unifying phenomenon anyway; they bring us together in common apoplexy and serve as reminders of human fallibility.

Old "MST3K" titles were previously released by Rhino home video, but Hodgson says "Cinematic Titanic" episodes and additional "MST3K" shows are available via Shout home video, a company he thinks will pay more attention.

Asked to name his favorite episode of the old show, Hodgson cites "Hercules Unchained," another Levine production but this one fairly respectable. Hodgson admires the way an entire fake temple was built for the film and then torn down by Hercules (Steve Reeves) as part of the finale.

He also has fond memories of your critic's personal favorite episode, "Manos: The Hands of Fate," a riotously uneventful 1966 horror movie about a family captured by a maniac who has a harem of lady wrestlers in party dresses. The director, Harold P. Warren, made his debut and swan song with this picture; though he was often referred to as a fertilizer salesman, he was really an insurance salesman.

Almost nothing happens in the movie, which is poorly shot, edited, written, scored, acted and directed. Voila, a bizarro-world masterpiece.

" 'Manos' is kind of considered the worst movie ever made now," Hodgson says.

Awful, yes, but in the transforming hands of Hodgson and his friends, also kind of wonderful.