If I were to calculate the total number of hours of my life that I’ve wasted watching bad movies, I’d probably make myself cry. However, I can take comfort in the knowledge that a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 exists, which completely understands the mindset of people who like to torture themselves this way. If you’re not familiar with the show, the premise of MST3K involves an evil mad scientist who wants to rule the world by frying everyone’s brain with bad movies. He prepares for this by kidnapping a man from Earth and placing him on the Satellite of Love in outer space, where he can perform experiments on him by subjecting the guy to one horrible movie after another. However, the subject fights back by building two robot sidekicks named Crow and Servo and the three of them maintain their sanity by constantly poking fun of the movies they are forced to watch and delivering a running commentary of wisecracks. In the first 4 1/2 seasons, the human subject was played by Joel Hodgson, the show’s original creator. When Joel decided to leave, he was replaced by Mike Nelson, the show’s head writer, for the rest of the show’s run. For over a decade, MST3K provided a winning formula of forcing Joel/Mike and his robots to watch a different terrible movie every episode, which they always countered with their hilarious banter.
MST3K was the very definition of a cult TV series as its loyal fanbase helped keep the show going for a really long time. You can almost say that MST3K was one of the very first TV series to be greatly affected by the invention of the Internet as this is where word-of-mouth about the show really started to spread and built MST3K a larger following than they ever could have dreamed of. Let’s face it, the show works so well because who HASN’T felt the desire to yell smart-ass remarks at the screen during a really bad movie? Some of the bad movies featured on MST3K are the biggest abominations in the history of cinema and would be utterly unbearable to sit through without the benefit of their hilarious commentary. I became a huge fan of the show several years ago and although many of its episodes are not available commercially, almost all of them are posted for viewing on Youtube. I’ve written here about my obsession with watching old Unsolved Mysteries segments on Youtube this summer, and went through the exact same phase a few years ago with MST3K episodes. In this column, I’m going to rank my top ten favourite MST3K episodes and, for your viewing pleasure, each of them is accompanied by a “best of” Youtube compilation that showcases the most hilarious highlights of each episode.
Push the button, Frank!
10. Pod People:
This is one of the all-time classic MST3K episodes in that it represents when the show really started to hit its stride and had its formula absolutely perfected. It’s also the point where the show would go from featuring movies that were simply bad to movies that were an insult to the word “bad”. Pod People is an indescribably weird movie from Spain that’s an uneasy cross between being an alien horror film and an E.T. ripoff. In fact, it had originally been intended to be a much darker film until E.T. became such a massive hit and the producers demanded that a subplot about a boy and a “cute” little alien named Trumpy be shoehorned into the plot. The end result is bizarre and confusing beyond words, but that’s what makes it perfect fodder for MST3K. For the first season or two of the show’s run, the MST3K commentary was completely ad-libbed, which is why most of the early episodes are pretty lackluster and poorly paced. However, once they hit upon the idea to carefully script all their zingers beforehand, the show began to enter the realms of hilarity. Pod People was one of the episodes where it was clear that the show had gotten their formula and their comic timing down pat, and the riffing from Joel and the Bots is just hilarious from beginning to end. Major highlights include their spoofing of a gratuitous sequence in the film where an awful rock band record an equally awful song which sounds like it’s titled “Idiot Control Now”, and Crow’s dubbing in of a pretentious-sounding British voice for Trumpy the alien always manages to put me in stitches.
9. Future War:
You know you’re in trouble when a movie is titled Future War, but doesn’t take place in the future and doesn’t feature anything resembling a “war”. This 1997 effort is the most recent film that wound up being featured on MST3K and with good reason. It’s amazing to think that a movie this inept could actually manage to get a release in the year 1997. Where else are you going to find a film that simultaneously rips off Jurassic Park, The Terminator and Jean-Claude Van Damme kickboxing movies?! The hero of this film is a JCVD wannabe (labelled “Jean-Claude Gosh Darn” by the MST3K crew) who battles the phoniest-looking dinosaurs you’ve ever seen and gets into a climactic fight with a cyborg where his shirt is literally punched off his chest! This movie is so hilariously bad that it’s entertaining to watch in its own right, but the MST3K riffing is constantly priceless and only enhances the experience. Some of the funniest riffs occur in the scenes that feature a former-prostitute-turned nun living in a house with a couple of really fat guys (just TRY not to laugh when one of the fat guys bends over to give the hero his breakfast and they dub over a farting sound), and Mike and the Bots get a lot of mileage out of the movie’s inexplicable decision to stage many of its fight scenes in locations that are stacked with lots and LOTS of empty cardboard boxes (“He’s boxed in” “Well, I’m card-bored!”).
8. Manos: The Hands of Fate:
Like many other people, the first episode of MST3K I ever watched was the infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate. This was the one major episode where word-of-mouth about the show was most likely to spread from, as it showcased that the people behind MST3K were not only comic geniuses, but miracle workers as well! To put it mildly, watching Manos: The Hands of Fate is one of the most painful experiences a human being could ever hope to endure. Manos establishes its credentials by starting off with a non-stop driving scene that runs nearly ten minutes, and the whole movie is so technically inept (“Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph”) and painfully slow that it redefines the term “unwatchable”. I wouldn’t officially call Manos the worst movie of all time (that honour goes to the infamous Monster A-Go-Go, which was also featured on MST3K), but it may be the most unbearable one to watch. Yet because of MST3K, I’ve sat through Manos numerous times. The quality of the movie couldn’t be more disproportionate to the quality of the comedy in this episode, as the riffing from Joel and the Bots is constantly hilarious and somehow manages to make watching Manos a very enjoyable experience. A lot of comic mileage comes from the infamous character of Torgo, the movie’s ultra-bizarre giant-thighed villain, who is the source of some of MST3K‘s all-time greatest zingers (“Been hitting the Thighmaster, Torgo?”). I’ve never been a real big fan of the skits and host segments on MST3K, but the closing sequence featuring Mike Nelson playing Torgo as he attempts to deliver a pizza, is just priceless.
Werewolf joins Future War as one of those rare recent films that got riffed by MST3K only two years after its initial release. Werewolf is a movie where the filmmakers kept running out of funds during shooting, so they had to keep starting and stopping the production several times. This pretty much ensured that any semblance of continuity in the finished product would be non-existant, as perfectly demonstrated by the film’s villain, whose hairstyle changes at least a dozen times! Nothing in the story makes any sense at all, the werewolf makeup is laughably bad, and I’ve already posted my thoughts on leading lady Adrianna Miles, who has to be the worst actress that’s ever appeared in a feature film. In movies like this, the jokes practically write themselves, but it takes true geniuses like the MST3K crew to turn the experience into comic gold. This is one hysterically funny riffing of an hysterically funny movie, and some of my biggest laughs come from their hilarous imitations of Adrianna Miles’ stilted line readings (think of their imitations of Tommy Wiseau in The Room and you’ll know what I mean). I think the utter nonsense and incoherence of this movie is summed by this classic line from Mike: “So, his plan is to rid the world of security guards by changing them into werewolves one-by-one and then having them crash their cars?”
6. The Starfighters:
Have you ever watched the opening credits of Dr. Strangelove, which features footage of planes refueling in mid-air and thought: “Man, I hope the WHOLE MOVIE is like this!”? If so, then you’d probably love The Starfighters! When people watch a movie they find boring, it’s common for them to exaggerate by complaining that “nothing happened”. Well, with The Starfighters, that’s no exaggeration. NOTHING EFFING HAPPENS! This movie is literally two minutes of plot stretched out to 78 minutes, and features nothing more than scenes of planes refueling in mid-air, people talking on telephones, planes doing practice bomb runs, pilots and women mindlessly flirting with each other, and more planes re-fueling in mid-air. I can’t imagine who this movie could have possibly been intended for unless there are people out there who have a fetish for airplane porn! As much of a miracle as it was for MST3K to make Manos into something entertaining, I’d say their Starfighters episode is an even greater work of divine intervention, as Mike and the Bots manage to turn scenes of absolute nothingness into utter hilarity. The scenes where they manage to riff the endless plane refueling sequences and turn them into metaphors for sex and premature ejaculation provide some of the biggest laughs in the history of the show. As hard as this movie must have been to riff at times, when they feature a scene where pilots are being trained on how to put on a protective suit called a “poopy suit”, the jokes pretty much write themselves. Mike sums everything up perfectly at the end when he says: “I really think there’s more nothing in this movie than in any other movie we’ve seen”.
5. Space Mutiny:
This is one of the all-time classic MST3K episodes in that the movie looks like it would be a big enough blast to watch without their commentary, but the riffs by Mike and the Bots only make the experience ten times better. Space Mutiny is one hilariously cheesy sci-fi movie where almost nothing in the story makes sense and simple things like continuity are non-existant. At one point, a major female character is killed off, but then she is very clearly seen in the background of a later scene! Add in some very slow, unexciting chase sequences involving vehicles that look like floor buffers, and about five thousand death scenes of people being shot and falling over safety railings, and you’ve got a movie with a great big bullseye on it for the MST3K treatment. Thankfully, the crew are more than up to providing hilarious riffs that are worthy of the material and this is one of those episodes that only gets funnier and funnier on repeat viewings. This episode also features one of the show’s all-time greatest running gags as Mike and the Bots constantly shout out macho-sounding names whenever the macho-looking hero is on screen (“Big McLarge Huge! Thick McRunfast! Crunch Buttsteak!”). It never gets old.
4. The Final Sacrifice:
Now, of course you knew I was going to include the episode featuring the worst thing to come out of Canada since Bryan Adams. This low-budget Canadian oddity is based around some stupid storyline about a cult in the woodlands of rural Alberta planning to take over the world and features the greatest Canadian action hero of all time: a beer-bellied, mullet-haired hoser named Zap Rowsdower! The Final Sacrifice is one of the all-time greatest MST3K episodes for me when it comes to sheer belly laughs, as the riffs by Mike and the Bots on the unappealing, alcoholic Rowsdower (“I wonder if there’s beer on the sun”) and his annoyingly geeky teenage sidekick (“Mike, is there any way I can hop into this movie and dump his books”) are just priceless. This episode also has some great riffs about Canada (“No wonder Quebec wanted to separate from all this”) and an hilarious skit where Servo sings an angry song about how much he hates our fine country. The Final Sacrifice also contains one of my all-time favourite MST3K characters: a grizzled old Yosemite Sam-esque mountain man named Mike Pipper, who looks like Red Green and sounds like Rowlf the Dog, and nearly made me die with laughter the first time I saw him.
3. Cave Dwellers:
“How much Keefe is in this movie anyway? Miles O’Keefe!”. This hilariously awful fantasy picture starring prominent B-movie actor Miles O’Keefe may be THE episode where MST3K finally showed the world that they had found their groove. Like I stated before, the MST3K crew spent the first two seasons trying to fine-tune their formula and comic timing, and once the third season started, they wound up delivering two of all-time classics: Cave Dwellers and Pod People. Cave Dwellers isn’t just a major turning point in the show’s history, but also remains one of their funniest episodes. The film is a ridiculously stupid rip-off of Conan the Barbarian that doesn’t contain one moment of intentional humour, so of course, it’s a prime target for riffing and Joel and the Bots do not disappoint. They have a field day poking fun at the stupidest elements of the film, from the scene where the hero fights some invisible monsters (“Oh great, they were too cheap to hire villains!”) to the indescribably ludicrous climax where the hero goes off to formulate a plan to infiltrate the villain’s fortress and returns a few minutes later with a convenient hang glider! Quite simply, this is one of the all-time great episodes that ushered in a new era for MST3K and helped pave the way to many years of greatness.
2. Santa Claus:
I often wonder where MST3K digs up some of the more bizarre movies they feature on the show, but I don’t think they ever found anything weirder than the Mexican import called Santa Claus. The episode that featured the infamous Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a classic, but in comparison with Santa Claus, that movie seems like a model of normalcy. Nothing in the filmographies of David Lynch or Luis Bunuel could even come close to matching the weirdness of this so-called “kids movie”. According to this film, Santa’s workshop is on another planet, he employs child labourers from every country to build his toys, and often has to spend Christmas Eve fighting off the evil schemes of one of Satan’s minions! While Satan exists in the world of this film, Jesus does not get seem to get any mention at all. Santa Claus definitely provides an awful lot of material for the MST3K crew to work with and they really take the ball and run with it! Without a doubt, this is one of the most laugh-out-loud and consistently funny MST3K episodes as there are many moments where you wind up laughing twice: once at the surreal weirdness displayed by the movie, and then at the on-target riffs from Mike and the Bots. Their commentary during the opening sequence showcasing all the children in Santa’s workship delivers more laughs than the entire combined filmography of Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer! The preceding ten-minute Youtube clip doesn’t even begin to showcase all the huge laughs that are contained in this episode. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life; this MST3K classic is an annual Christmas viewing tradition in my household.
If you know me well, you know there could be no other possible choice for #1 on this list. Very rarely does a day go by where I don’t quote this episode at least once. The late sixties and early seventies contained a lot of cop films where the title was the name of the lead character and while some of these movies (Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Shaft) featured characters that became cinematic icons, Mitchell was not one of them. The title character here is a lazy drunken slob who has to go down as one of the most unappealing, unlikable heroes in cinema history, and while I generally like Joe Don Baker as an actor, this was not exactly the most ideal role for him. Mitchell is a very lackluster, unexciting cop thriller that is FAR from the worst movie ever featured on the show, but the brilliant riffing from the MST3K crew makes this my all-time favourite episode. Hell, they’re able to garner huge laughs just from yelling “Mitchell!” at random points during the movie. The character of Mitchell is such an awesome target for riffing and Joel and the Bots make the most of it. Some of their hilarious drunken imitations of him (“Booze and I are buying a house together, we’re gonna move in”) are enough to bring you to tears with laughter, and one of the major highlights of the episode is their horrified revulsion at having to see Mitchell partake in a sex scene (“Why would anyone want to DO this with Mitchell, Joel?!”). Mitchell is also an important episode from an historcial perspective since it marked the final appearance of Joel Hodgson, as the final scene involves Joel leaving the Satellitle of Love and being replaced by Mike Nelson. Overall, I’ve always liked Mike as a host more than Joel, but Joel does hold the distinct honour of hosting the greatest MST3K episode of all time and he couldn’t have gone out on a better note. Whenever I’m in the mood to pop in some MST3K or just laugh in general, my solution is a simple one-word answer: Mitchell!