As I’ve written before (and before that), one of my great pleasures is watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K). Created by Joel Hodgson, it’s a TV series about a man shot into space – initially Joel, then Mike Nelson in later seasons – and forced to endure the worst movies imaginable. He builds two robots, Crow and Tom, to help him cope. The three of them spend their time on the Satellite of Love mercilessly making fun of bad films.
MST3K aired on Comedy Central for a time, and during Thanksgiving, the network celebrated Turkey Day by running back-to-back episodes. The last two years, these marathons have streamed on the web. So what better time to talk about some of my favorites! I’ve even roped in a couple friends of the blog, Ben DeLoose and Ben Raymond, to share theirs as well.
First, you’ll hear from me.
The Giant Spider Invasion
Season 8, Episode 10
I joke with my wife that the best MST3K episodes have titles that sound like they belong on the show. And that’s certainly true of “The Giant Spider Invasion.” From its title onward, it’s B-movie goofiness (C or D even). We’ve got a “wisecracking” sheriff who takes calls about strange occurrences and conveniently repeats them for exposition. A dysfunctional couple living in squalor — “You want a piece of milk?” — who discover coconut-shaped rocks containing spiders from outer space. Two scientists, who occasionally roll on each other, attempt to unravel the mystery. There’s giant spider that looks like a prop from a bad high school play. “A spider the size of a Buick’s attacking his Buick.” And a riot that ensues after the spider’s appearance, because…why not? “Packers won the Super Bowl!”
Season 8, Episode 21
What I find most endearing about “Time Chasers” is that it’s really striving to be a major Hollywood production. It’s high concept, telling the story of an inventor who creates a time-traveling airplane and sells it to a corporation with nefarious plans. There’s adventure and romance, one-liners aplenty. “You wanna fly? Let’s fly!” And it even manages some setup and pay off involving skydiving grandmas. Mike and the bots spend a lot of time ribbing the low budget and unappealing characters. We’ve got a Jay Leno-chinned hero who’s a poor man’s Richard Dreyfuss, a marbly mouthed villain, and a love interest with no fashion sense. “Two different kinds of plaid?! Man, I’m a naked robot and even I know that’s a no-no.”
The Final Sacrifice
Season 9, Episode 10
Ah, “The Final Sacrifice”…or as I like to call it, “Star Wars in Canada.” A young man finds a map that belonged to his late father. He’s pursued by a cult leader clad in black, and he even has a mentor of sorts named Obi Wa–I mean, Rowsdower. Zap Rowsdower. Yep. Wow. An overwhelming amount of the episode is spent making fun of our ineffectual hero -– “I haven’t read Tolkien in weeks!” — and his hilariously named cohort. “Rowsdower mobile away!” I could fill this space with just jokes about the character’s name. Oh there’s also a fugitive who sounds like Yosemite Sam!
Now let’s hear from Ben DeLoose.
Manos: The Hands of Fate
Season 4, Episode 24
If there’s one MST3K episode in the public consciousness, it’s “Manos: Hands of Fate.” It is the perfect bad movie. Crummy camerawork, bad dubbing, no discernible plot progression, excess characters, and a nonsense ending — a storm of terribleness.
It’s daunting to write about this one, as so much has already been said, so here’s a new take: “Manos” is not the be-all end-all of MST3K. There’s not a “before Manos” and “after Manos” in the show’s run. It’s not the most essential episode. It’s not the best episode to show a new viewer.
Fanboys love to scream and shout about their shiny toy of an episode, “This is the one, this is the one!” But they’re usually wrong. “The X-Files” has “Home,” “Buffy” has “Once More with Feeling,” and “Doctor Who” has “Blink.” MST3K has “Manos.”
And “Manos” is certainly hilarious. It’s a top ten episode for sure, but free your mind and consider other gems MST3K has to offer…
Season 3, Episode 3
There are no pod people in this movie. There really aren’t any pods. And I’d hate to classify the characters in it as people. I don’t know where to begin with this, much like the film doesn’t seem to know either. There are three concurrent and uninteresting plots — each highlighted by uninteresting people doing uninteresting things, dubbed by uninterested voice actors. When the threads collide, it’s not a revelatory narrative experience, but rather an eye-rolling collapse into tedium.
The film follows no-talent musicians on a camping trip, two evil poachers, and a barely-functioning family living in the middle of nowhere — with a newborn alien thrown into the mix. Joel and the bots try to keep track of what’s going on in Movie A and Movie C, but the real fun is when they (especially Crow) mock the titular pod person/E.T. rip-off, Trumpy. The long stretches of quiet in the creature’s scenes provide a canvas for the Satellite of Love crew to blurt out anything they can to fill the silence. And it’s genius.
Season 10, Episode 1
One of the constant fears in television production is extending a show past its shelf life: dramas with recycled plots or comedies with stale humor. But that was never the case with MST3K. The writing staff’s riffing and the characters’ rhythm came to a boiling point of excellence in the last two seasons, and thus we have the final season premiere: “Soultaker.”
This might be the funniest episode of MST3K. Truly. Other episodes have a higher joke count, but the belly laughs I get from “Soultaker” are immense.
And I think that’s partially because this is not a terribly-made movie. Many of the films in the MST3K oeuvre are 50’s B-schlock, poorly dubbed Japanese imports, or shoddily made cash-grabs. But what happens when they tackle a film that could have easily been good? It forces the comedy to come from a deeper place than “Oh look at the crappy ____ the filmmakers did.”
And finally, Ben Raymond.
Season 8, Episode 20
Splint Chesthair. Thick McRunfast. Punch Rockgroin. Big McLargehuge. These, friends, are the many nicknames of Dave Ryder, a squealing bicepted pilot/stool pigeon who quells Calgon’s poorly-planned but chisel-jawed mutiny aboard the Southern Sun spacecraft. At the behest of the holly-jolly Commander Jansen and his slutty grandma-daughter Lisa, Ryder punches henchmen in the mask, neck, chest, and frequently groin before throwing them off a shaky railing and saving the day. Shot on-location in an abandoned factory not at all festooned to look like a spaceship, “Space Mutiny” boasts some of the absolute finest intra- and extra-filmic humor in MST3K history. Some jokes tell themselves, and Mike and the boys take care of the rest. When it comes to the best episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I put my faith in Blast Hardcheese.
Season 9, Episode 4
With the possible exception of William Sylvester (“Riding with Death,” “Devil Doll”), Martin Sheen’s less talented and creepier cousin, Joe Estevez, is the Satellite of Love’s favorite pin-cushion. Exhibit A: the atrocious and endlessly re-watchable “Werewolf.” Some Guy digs up a werewolf skeleton in Arizona. Another Guy punches him in the face. Some Guy cuts himself on the skeleton and is escorted to the hospital. While Some Guy begins lycanthropizing, Some Guy and Another Guy’s boss, Boss Guy, enlist a fellow archeologist, Eastern European Titty Bar Girl, to help uncover the secrets of the exhumed werewolf skeleton. Boss Guy and Eastern European Titty Bar Girl meet Hero Guy, who is writing a book and wants to bang Eastern European Titty Bar Girl, who’s also pursued by Another Guy. When Hero Guy and Another Guy fight, Hero Guy is transformed into a werewolf, who then, of course, gets Eastern European Titty Bar Girl in the sack, lycanthropizing her as well. And Joe Estevez. He’s there, too.
Make sense? Course not. Fuck cares! See it.
The Touch of Satan (1971)
Season 9, Episode 8
“This is where the fish lives.”
I must call upon the American Film Institute to rethink its list, “100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes.” With all due respect to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” the single greatest line in the history of cinema came not from the sprawling epic “Gone with the Wind,” but the inane and noxiously ‘70s “The Touch of Satan.” Jodie Lee Thompson doesn’t care for the “Lee” part of his name and stumbles upon a nice piece of bucolic ass in Melissa Strickland, who turns out to be a 300-year-old witch and caretaker of her decrepit, homicidal child-grandmother, Lucinda. When Lucinda’s rampage of violence nearly costs Jodie Thompson his life, Melissa must make the fateful decision to save her beloved grandma-sister, or the man she loves and met 36 hours ago.
Spoilers: We never know how the fish came to live there, his name, his goals, why there is only one of him, or why there’s so much palpable sexual tension between him and Melissa.
Big thanks to Ben and Ben for helping me out this week! Are you fan of “Mystery Science Theater 3000?” Comment below with your favorite episodes.