Once upon a time, a company called Legend Films, who specialize in colorizing old movies, decided to put out a DVD of their version of Reefer Madness. In their infinite wisdom, they hired Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to do a humorous commentary track. And it was funny. The project proved successful, so more DVDs followed. Soon, Mike was joined by Bill Corbin and Kevin Murphy, also of MST3K. As the commentary tracks were proving to be very popular, RiffTrax was born, which allows you to purchase commentary tracks for a wide variety of movies, including the public domain fare Legend was releasing.
Soon, the old commentary tracks were remade with all three of the MST3K alumni. These tracks were available for download and synced to the appropriate movie as video on demand. But then someone had the idea to issue new DVDs with the so called "three riffer versions" of the old films as well as two collections of short industrial films the RiffTrax crew had been doing as well. You can buy these discs individually for $9.99 or as a ten pack, which I got for around $60 on Deep Discount.
The only of these I'd seen prior to these DVDs were the shorts and the original Reefer Madness with Mike solo. The shorts are absolutely hilarious. When films like this were shown on MST3K, they were always one of my favorite features and the RiffTrax crew hasn't lost its touch. Reefer Madness is also a hit with few jokes being repeated from Mike's version (or at least few that I can remember.)
After that however, the laughs slow down. I'd passed on Mike's versions of Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead as I'd read some mixed reviews on these. The new versions are pretty mixed as well. The laughs are sparse and I'm not sure why that is exactly. My hunch is that those two movies, aside from being low budget, are fairly well constructed and among some of the best horror films ever made. It's not as easy to riff on something that doesn't give you much to work with.
On the other hand, Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of those movies that bad movie fans know so well, there aren't going to be too many jokes that haven't been thought of already. In an official MST3K FAQ, they said something to that effect in response to the question of why they hadn't done Plan 9. I think this RiffTrax disc proves it was a pretty wise move. Plan 9's jokes practically write themselves and unless you haven't seen the movie before, or if you have no imagination, there's not a lot of new chuckles to be had.
And then there's Swing Parade and Little Shop of Horror, which show the difficulty of riffing on comedy, even when the film is so threadbare as Swing Parade is. You just can't make that much fun of a film that isn't taking itself seriously.
On top of that, these DVDs are pretty barebones. You don't get the colorized versions and, in some cases, it looks like you don't even get the restored prints Legend used to make their colorized versions. Night of the Living Dead and Little Shop of Horror in particular approach streaming web video in quality. Other than that, you get a new song over the menu (meh) and a download code for a Riff on one of the Harry Potter films. Unfortunately, it's the same card in all the DVDs, so once you've downloaded it, there's not much point to the other nine codes you have.
As much as it pains me to slag anything MST3K related, I have to this time. It's pretty difficult to recommend buying all these. The Shorts are really funny and so is Reefer Madness, but if you buy just those, you're halfway to the ten pack in cost. On the other hand, I really can't see myself re-watching any of these other than those three and, my life would be no poorer having skipped the other seven. It's really a toss up. I think I'd say the smart move is to try to score those three used and do a video on demand rental of the rest if you must see them.