The Top Ten MST3K Movies (That Really Aren’t That Bad)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was -- and remains to this day -- my favorite television show of all-time. Brilliantly original and accessible to people of all cultural tastes, the show centered around the experiments of Dr. Clayton Forrester, a mad scientist who kidnaps his janitor, Joel Robinson, and shoots him into space aboard a satellite. There, Joel is forced to watch an endless series of horrible B-movies in an attempt to find one that is so unspeakably bad that Dr. Forrester can use it as an instrument of psychological warfare in a quest for world domination. In order to survive his captivity and keep from going insane, Joel cobbles together several robot companions out of spare parts from the satellite. Together, they share in the pain of watching the movies and keep one another’s spirits up by relentlessly riffing on them as they go.
MST3K showed the world the true bottom of the barrel when it came to B- and Z-grade cinema. Tearing down the conventional wisdom that Ed Wood was as low as you could go when looking for bad movies, the show instead introduced the world to the horrors of the likes of Bill Rebane, Rick Sloane, Ray Dennis Steckler, and the most unspeakably putrid director to ever work in Hollywood, the infamous Coleman Francis. The crew of the show reportedly watched each movie 9 times all of the way through in order to write and produce each episode, and it is a testament to their dedication (or their masochism) that they were able to make it on some of them.
However, as with any sample size of movies as large as the nearly 200 episodes of MST3K that were produced, there is some definite variance in quality. Some of the movies featured on the show were not only better than terrible, some of them are perfectly watchable on their own, even without the aid of the crew’s riffing to help you make it through them. I’m not saying that any of these movies are by any means “good”, mind you; merely that among the piles and piles of cinematic garbage that the show brought to the limelight, these are the films that -- if you had some time you had to kill and there was nothing on TV but them in their unedited form -- you could conceivably watch them and not hate yourself afterwards.
#10: Santa Claus conquers the Martians
This movie is on at least once every Christmas, and I always make a point of watching it in its unedited form. Adult fans of MST3K who’ve seen this episode might be wondering why. They could point out that its production values are extremely dated. They could point out that it’s incredibly hammy and over-the-top in its goofiness. And they would be right. But in judging the quality of this movie, it’s important to remember that: a) it was made in 1964, when sci-fi movies were still in their relative infancy, and b) IT’S A CHILDREN’S MOVIE! It is supposed to be incredibly hammy and goofy; that’s how you keep a small child’s attention for a span of an hour and a half. Its camp is one of its greatest strengths; every single adult character in this movie -- from Santa to Mrs. Claus to the nincompoop Dropo to the sinister Voldar -- absolutely OWNS their part, and hits just the sort of note you want to hit when your audience are at the age where Santa is still very much real to them.
It’s pretty much a given that science fiction movie with a low budget is going to have to sacrifice on something in terms of quality, whether it’s visual effects, quality acting, editing, or camera work. A drama, however, is a different story. Without a need for complex sets, visual effects, or complicated props, you can make a decent dramatic movie for a relatively low amount of money. This is the story of Tormented, which tells the story of a genuinely emotionally complicated and well-developed Tom Stewart, a jazz musician who, with his wedding fast approaching, has to break things off with his mistress. The mistress does not take kindly to this at all, but in the heat of their argument atop a lighthouse, she slips off and winds up dangling off of the edge. Tom elects not to save her, and she falls to her death. In the days following the incident, however, he is overcome by guilt and begins to break down, believing he is seeing visions of his mistress wherever he goes. Very decently acted all around, it’s not the best psychological drama ever made, but I’ve definitely watched worse.
#8: I Accuse My Parents
One of the many, MANY crime film/overmoralized-warning-to-parents of the post-War era, this movie tells the tale of Jimmy, a mixed-up (and admittedly fairly dumb) teenager who lives in a family of perfectly functional alcoholics. Jimmy, desperate for love and affection, invents a fantasy world inside his mind where he is happy. However, after spending so much time in this world, he can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality anymore, and things really begin to spiral out of control for him. Unlike many of the more despicable fare showcased on MST3K, I Accuse My Parents actually has very little to hate about it. Most of the characters range from not-off-putting-in-the-slightest to genuinely likeable, the script is actually fairly interesting and well-written, and the production value, through certainly dated, is decent enough for its time. Most of the humor from the episode derives from Jimmy’s parents, who are so over-the-top in their neglectful nature that they actually circle right back around to being funny again.
#7: I Was a Teenage Werewolf
A movie whose entire premise is pretty much given away by the title. A very young Michael Landon (of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie fame) plays Tony Rivers, a teenager with an anger management problem that seems to be getting worse day by day. After his latest schoolyard fight, he is sent to a psychologist, Dr. Brandon, to try to work out his problems. However, Brandon’s therapy sessions consist of a regressive hypnosis technique, in which Tony is taken closer and closer to his primal state in order to find the source of his anger. Little does Tony know, but this regression causes him to unleash a long-dormant werewolf curse, leading to a murderous rampage. This movie would be your typical forgettable 1950s monster movie but for the strength of the acting chops of Michael Landon, who brings out an amazingly realistic amount of the genuine, unexplainable drastic changes in mood that are all-to-frequent during the teenage years. To an extent, this is unsurprising, as unlike most “teenager” movie casts of the time, Landon was actually only 19 when it was made.
#6: This Island Earth
OK, let’s get this out of the way right now. This movie is pure, unadulterated sci-fi cheese. Its plot of not-even-close-to-well-disguised aliens farming the finest scientific minds on Earth for help with their planet’s impending destruction requires a level of suspension of disbelief that most will not be able to muster. The exterior shots of the aliens’ craft are Ed Wood-level in their lack of technical sophistication. The prosthetics and costumes used to make the two warring alien races look like nothing more than Halloween masks. The scientific explanations for the alien technology don’t even hold up to a 3rd grader’s understanding (“They’re magnetized.” “And if your hands were made of metal, that would mean something.”) Yet, despite all this, This Island Earth is a film with some genuine talent. Rex Reason (of "Man Without a Gun" fame), "Union Pacific" star Jeff Morrow, and B-movie perennial Faith Domergue combine to head up a cast that seems determined to take the ham-and-cheese-fest they've been handed and make the absolute best they possibly can out of it. The result are absolutely ridiculous scenarios and circumstances that are played with absolute conviction ("I command you...STAND BACK!") and a movie that actually was fairly well-known before MST3K decided to use it in their own feature-length film.
#5: Danger: Diabolik
The series finale of MST3K, this film is well-known even outside of the series’ fandom. Based on a long-running Italian comic book, it tells the story of Diabolik, a pastiche of Roger Moore’s James Bond and Adam West’s Batman with the charm of neither. He is a ruthless and unrepentant thief who serves as the movie’s protagonist solely for the reason that the people from whom he steals are usually worse. Despite Diabolik’s glaring lack of appeal, however, the rest of the movie is genuinely good. The supporting cast is well-developed and fun to watch, the dialogue is well-paced and legitimately funny at times, and the camerawork, set design, and lighting are all surprisingly above-average. In fact, the only thing that keeps this from being a really good movie is Diabolik himself, who is purposely -- and in accordance with the source material -- a very difficult character to like. Unfortunately, as he takes up the majority of the screen time, this serves as a lead weight around the neck of the movie, dragging it down into “not that bad” territory.
This movie was a hard-fought labor of love, and it really shows. Vivian Schilling, who would go on to later fame as a screenwriter and novelist, wrote, co-produced, and starred in this tale of supernatural beings who ferry deceased souls into the afterlife. Joe Estevez, the least well-known member of the Sheen-Estevez acting family (although Emilio is quickly catching up), plays the character known only as The Man. He is one of many Soultakers, human beings who have killed people in their lives and are condemned to serve as the afterlife’s courtesy shuttle drivers, capturing people’s souls at the moment of their deaths and transporting them into the afterlife, until such time as their debts are paid. Presumably, the punishment part of this is that the Soultakers can’t enter the afterlife themselves, and are stuck in limbo until their service is complete.
The Man is tasked by the Angel of Death to capture the souls of four young adults fated to die in a car crash. However, through a phenomenon referred to in the movie only as “displacement”, the four victims’ souls are separated from their bodies in the accident, leaving them in a non-corporeal state, invisible to living beings, and leaving their bodies biologically alive but completely comatose (just go with us here). The Man must track down and recapture the wayward souls before they are lost forever, something he accomplishes by killing them (again, just go with us). The supernatural premise lends itself to a LOT of problematic plot points that the movie just doesn’t have enough time to explain, such as how souls are vulnerable to strangulation and having their necks snapped, but can dive out of a sixth-floor window without any damage, or how they’re invisible to living beings but can interact with physical objects in the world. For all of the film’s problems, however, it has a lot going for it. With the exception of The Man and The Angel of Death -- who have very few lines -- the cast is for the most part very likeable and have good on-screen chemistry together. Director Michael Rissi, who would go on to direct the excellent adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee, makes very good use of framing, transitions, and editing to improve the pace and flow of what might otherwise be a very confusing premise. And when you consider how little money this movie was made for (just over $200,000), the finished product is much better than it has any right to be.
#3: Jack Frost
Russian culture is filled with fairy tales that more westernized audiences might consider surreal. This 1965 Soviet-Finnish production draws on a number of them to create a story of two young lovers who must overcome a number of magical trials in order to live happily ever after. Incorporating elements of the Baba Yaga, Father Frost, Hunchback Fairy, and Father Mushroom stories into a single tale, the plot is very straightforward and fun to watch (even more so if you have familiarity with the original stories). The cinematography is beautiful, alternating between lush green hills and valleys to pristine snow-covered forests. For what it is, it’s actually a pretty good (if very dated and culturally obscure) adventure movie. Why it works so well as MST3K fodder is that every single solitary character is absolutely 100% batshit insane. From the heroine’s hilariously domineering stepmother and spoiled rotten stepsister to the wizened old wizard who slips into bouts of gleeful juvenile taunting to the kindly old Lord of Winter who beats himself silly whenever he forgets something he was supposed to do to the ham-fisted, jig-dancing witch whose default solution to any problem is to shove it into an oven, this cast is as over-the-top nutty as they come. Or as Mike puts it, “I enjoy watching people’s mental illnesses.”
#2: Girls Town
This is one of my perennial favorite episodes. It’s another entry in the true crime/juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, and more proof that passable dramas can be made on a budget. Mamie van Doren stars as Silver Morgan, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who becomes a suspect in the death of her ex-boyfriend and is sent to a Catholic reform school while her case is being sorted out. After immediately butting heads with the nuns who run the school and her fellow students, Silver eventually becomes entrenched in the day-to-day struggles of the other girls, particularly her roommate Serafina, who has a dangerously obsessive (to the point of stalking) crush on a very young Paul Anka. Simultaneously, it emerges that Silver’s sister Mary Lee was present at the scene of the crime, and eventually becomes entangled with a group of rival gangs led by 1950s crooners Mel Torme and Dick Contino. Tensions explode as all of the characters have to deal with the consequences of the lives they’re leading, and in typical Hays Code fashion, everyone comes out better for it. Except Mel Torme, who gets his ass kicked by a nun.
This movie is not bad in the slightest. It has interesting characters, a well-written (if clichéd at times) script, some genuine star power, and entertaining action sequences. The humor for Mike and the bots comes in the form of Mamie van Doren’s VERY buxom physique (dammit, Twiggy, why did you have to ruin women’s bodies forever?), Serafina’s WAY over-the-top obsession with Paul Anka, and the cast full of crooners.
#1: The Magic Sword
I am amazed they got the broadcast rights for this. To this day, this 1962 MGM fantasy movie still pops up from time to time on cable. Gary Lockwood (star of 2001: A Space Odyssey) Basil Rathbone, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in the many film adaptations of the novels in the 1940s, and Estelle Winwood (of The Producers fame) star in this Bert I. Gordon-directed story of a young son of a sorceress who leads six magical knights to save the princess whom he has loved from afar for many years from an evil wizard. By today’s standards, it is a very generic plot. However, the movie is still well-acted and produced, and accomplishes some very reasonable effects with its limited budget. The story is well-paced, the action sequences are fairly good, and the dialog hits all the marks it needs to. How good was this movie? It has the distinction of being the only film that Joel and the bots actually thank Dr. Forrester for sending them.