I have to say that this list still has crossover with the original, gut-instinct choices of my original post. In earlier years I caught the reruns and perhaps a handful of original airings on Comedy Central, and saw nearly all of the SciFi-era episodes. It wasn't until adulthood that I went back and refreshed my memories of the old and introduced myself to just about the entire library of MST3k. Most of these episodes I saw came from friends' DVDs or rentals at the time, and one could consider those the high-tier ones. I had seen well over 90% of all aired episodes when I wrote the first list, but time and a few straggler episodes helped me form a more defensible set of choices.
That said, I had a hard time compiling this list, so much so that at times I feel it'd be easier to make a list of episodes that aren't on par with the others. Seriously, aside from a couple here and there (e.g. I laughed once in The Black Scorpion, one of the lowest-rated episodes from season 1), they're all worth a watch if you haven't seen them. If your schedule is tight, I would highly recommend the collection of the short films they riffed on. Occasionally, a movie was either too short on its own, or had to be edited down for content, and thus needed more material to fill the time slot that might not have been suited with overlong host segments. In fact, I think that some of the shorts stand on their own better than some of the full-length movies. But a promise is a promise. So, without further a'do, here are my top ten episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Top Ten MST3k Episodes of All Time:
You could look up "hyperseriosity" in the dictionary I just wrote and the definition would be a screen cap from this movie. Or you could look in a real dictionary and find the same screen cap over the definition of "overacting." Okay, maybe there's no screen cap there either. Riding the waves of earlier, better monster/creature features, this travesty takes contrived, post-high-school angst and mixes it with monster murdering. Wait, what? Want to make it cooler? SCIENCE! There may even be proto-conservationist sentiments in the origin story of the monster…or it could just be the Godzilla origin story, only lamer. Aside from the toxic waste birthing of the creature, this kind of tale was told better in Tremors. And the science was more believable, too.
Imagine every 1950s B-Sci-Fi-Movie trope. Now throw them into a single movie. That is Teenagers From Outer Space. At the very least, its movie poster is one of the more accurate ones of that era. I'm lookin' at you, Night of the Blood Beast! Derek, a teenager from outer space, betrays his conquistadorian cohort and befriends the most '50s girl you've ever seen on screen. Hilarity and bizarre deaths ensue as the daft captain rants about "TORCHA!" while the belligerent Thor pursues Derek in fish-out-of-water fashion. Things come full circle when a Maryland steak comes out of a cave and starts to wreak more havoc than the Giant Mantis.
What do you get when you cross Richard Kiel, Arch Hall Jr., Arch Hall Sr.? Probably just another B-movie. Now add in on-screen, awkward sexual tension between Jr's love interest and Sr…who happens to portray the dad of said love interest? You get EEGAH! It's so weird and bad it's almost exploitation, sans the full-frontal-nudity. It's almost Harry and the Henderson's with a Bond villain playing a caveman…at puberty. "Watch out for snakes!"
Starring Tommy Kirk, of Old Yeller fame, watch the whitest group of teenagers get serenaded by Little Richard on the way to Catalina island. There's a nefarious Greek art thief, bumbling accomplices, and a ne'er-do-well dad, determined to turn over a new leaf. Oh, did I mention Little Richard? "Tell 'em about it, Lawrence!"
While this was Joel's last episode, and so carried a bit of weight and angst that we didn't know at the time, it was noticeable that the whole crew was still invested in the show. We all thought it was business as usual. The jokes were funny, plentiful, and the segue between hosts, I think, could not have gone smoother. I think the only semblance of phoning anything in was the invention exchange segment. Still, maybe that was the best thing Joel could have done. Many fans were shocked and hurt when he left, and no one, up until recently, knew exactly why. Some folks were doubtful that Michael Nelson could come right in and make things smoother. The long-time fans, however, probably noticed his name in the credits as head writer … for the entire run of the show. I actually remembered when this episode aired, and didn't really think much of it. Mike was instantly funny the next three weeks, especially with High School Strangler. Although the transition was smooth, I still felt that the invention exchange became awkward when they still had Mike doing it, if only for the remainder of the 5th season. But I digress. Mitchell is a terrible cop thriller—a poor Dirty Harry copycat—made no better with the lead, Joe Don Baker, and his spastic methods: sometimes goofy, sometimes straight, sometimes stupid, but mostly stupid. Joel and the bots deliver all the right lines and give the movie what it deserves.
I later discovered a large body of B-Movie work from the late Robert Ginty and was even more surprised to find out how much he loved his work. Unfortunately in this movie he doesn't seem to give a damn. In fact I thing he was stoned or just permanently jet-lagged throughout the whole production. The only time you see him emote is after being shot at by the Omega, and that might be because they weren't using blanks. There are so many bad scenes in this movie it's a wonder it got released at all. Nothing makes sense, and in the end the guys start cheering for MegaWeapon over the protagonist! Seriously! "Rough way to start a day." "Rough way to start a movie!"
Who doesn't love this episode? It is one of Reb Brown's best pictures, besides Captain America—yeah, Reb Brown (go look him up) of Uncommon Valor fame made this mess watchable. Besides the reused Battlestar Galactica model shots and battles, this film is a office complex boiler room train wreck. A lovable, hilarious, continuity-error-ridden train wreck! A space-faring group of people—oh I can't even begin to explain the plot of this thing! Can you count the many names given to Brown's hero? "WAAAAAAUHG!"
tHe maStER wouLd NoT a-proOove … tHis lOw rAnkINg
I'm sure that this riff will appear on nearly every top 10 MST3k list somewhere. I mean, it's the epitome of a bad movie. Granted, Plan 9 is pretty dang bad, but it's a different plane of bad and not fair to compare the two. Plus, it never aired on MST3k, but I digress. The story is…actually pretty straight forward. In fact, some folks think that although Manos technically bad (I'm talking the literal technicals of filmmaking), it's nowhere near the worst film ever made. But these technicalities, eccentric performances and poor dubbing make it one of those movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that can, and has been, riffed multiple times. I saw the RiffTrax version in the theater, and loved them both. So many quotable jokes, so much awkward scenery, not enough Torgo! Michael Nelson's portrayal of Torgo in the host segments is the best I've ever seen! It kills me through and through every time.
This movie is …amazing! As of this writing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians will have been riffed three times (all new material each time). That tells you how incredible it is. It is so delightful to watch, even without a stream of commentary. You can tell the makers of this film had a fun time doing what they were doing, and didn't take themselves that seriously. Well, less seriously than Space Mutiny, anyway. It's charming, it's goofy, it's absurd, ITS NAME IS SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS.
Oh my goodness. If you ever wanted to sum up everything horrible about public television production values, it would be this "movie." Originally a mini-series, the episodes were compiled into a single helping of WTF for this particular Sci-Fi Channel-era episode. The late Raul Julia stars along side Linda Griffiths, a white person named Djamilla, a cut-price HAL-9000 computer voice, a terrible sycophant, and his overfed, gin-blossomed bobcat--I mean the Chairman. This movie has every ingredient of a bad movie, but it's just enough to make it hilariously awful, watchable, and laugh-out-loud funny. A work-a-day whipping boy with a wild, wandering imagination gets sent to mental rehab and instead ends up on a crazy, bad-digital-effects journey. It's a race against time, as our "hero" tries to save his own life and free the minds of his complacent coworkers. I have to justify putting this episode above Manos. Originally, Manos did indeed take the top spot, but it's one of those episodes I can't watch over and over—and this one is! Every time I sit down and press play, I get a flood of laughter in anticipation. Also, I really can't get over the conceptual similarities between this movie and [non-specific 1999 science fiction masterpiece starring Keanu Reeves]. "Mom, 'm I nuts?" "Never reference a good movie in the middle of your bad one!"
Honorable Mentions-An Abbreviated List
I have a hard time revisiting this episode. Even with the riffs it's mighty cringeworthy and difficult to watch. So how is this even on the list? Because the riffing was amazingly funny, as were the sketches. In fact, this is one that I watch almost solely for the Mikey Glasses sketch—I die every time.
* 12 to the Moon - Season 5 Episode 24
The short in this one is downright bonkers. These ad people must've been smoking Lucky Strike spliff or something. Plus, Nuveena (lady from the short) in the host segments is played by Bridget Jones…Nelson—yup, Mike's real-life wife—and it's funny to see them interact with each other.
* Radar Secret Service - Season 5 Episode 20
Check this one out if only for the short. Never has a level crossing railroad death prevention PSA been so funny…yeah. As for the main feature, I love it when the crew gets to poke fun at a film like this: a cheesy 1950s technology-exploitation and "action" film. RADAR!
*The Thing That Couldn't Die - Season 5 Episode 13
If it had been taken further into the dark and less into the camp, this would almost have been a good movie…except for the actors. Seriously, the delivery of nearly every line is awful or very '50s and overdone.
*The Deadly Bees (The Killer Bees) - Season 9 Episode 5
This is a quirky yet rather bland English "horror" film from the 60s that really tries too hard. Maybe it's my love for the dry British wit, but this film is very British indeed. The Dusty Springfield-wannabe lead is the typical pop of the '60s, but still feels like she was written in the '50s. "Do stand still, won't you?"
*Godzilla vs Megalon - Season 2 Episode 12
As funny as the dubbing in a movie can get (see Prince of Space or Invasion of the Neptune Men), it usually isn't the butt of the MST3k crew's jokes, mainly because there are so many other things wrong with the film that poor lip-sync would simply fly under the radar. It's been some time since I've seen this one, but I remember how goofy it was, particularly the end-of-movie song. This episode has so many well-written jokes right out of the gate, it almost makes you think you're not watching a terrible, boring Godzilla movie. I about pee myself during the final fight between the tag-team giants Gozilla/Jet Jaguar and Megalon/Gigan. No, seriously, it's like monster-suit pro wrestling.
*Final Sacrifice - Season 9 Episode 10
This one nearly made it onto the list…A young man is on the run from a cult determined to offer him as the titular "final sacrifice", and is aided and thwarted by Zap Rowsdower, a Butkus lookalike…yes, that's actually the character's name. Is director Tjardus Greidanus Uwe Boll's long-lost twin brother?!
Christian is a reclusive, insular critic who relies on his inane knowledge of TV, movies, and music that the young kids don't care about. He can be found blogging at Electric Musings and is on Twitter as @The_CBJ.