We all know Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the show in which a human host and a couple of robots make fun of bad movies. According to in-universe lore, the movies come via mad scientist members of the Forrester family, who test the sanity of a human subject by forcing them to watch terrible films. The humans — beginning with Joel Robinson (series creator Joel Hodgson), followed by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson), Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), and Emily Connor (Emily Marsh) — fight back by riffing on the films, a task made easier not just by the robot sidekicks Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, but also by the genuine awfulness of the movies.
But MST3K didn’t always have mockery in mind as its central premise. As seen in the recently-unearthed early episodes recorded for Minneapolis public access channel KTMA, Joel spent more time enjoying Invaders from the Deep and Revenge of the Mysterons from Mars than he did making fun of them. Those first episodes established a (mostly) constant but oft-overlooked part of MST3K: the riffs often came from a love of cheesy movies, not anger toward them.
For others who share this enthusiasm for trash, the riffs are an added bonus to some of MST3K’s best movies, not a requirement.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (Season 2, Episode 12, 1991)
The original Godzilla from 1954 effectively captures the lingering terror of American atomic attacks on Japan, but with only a few exceptions, most Godzilla movies succeed by embracing cheese, pitting the titular monster against other people in rubber costumes to stomp across toy sets. So when Joel and the ‘Bots poke fun at 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, it’s hard to tell how much they’re laughing at the movie and how much they’re laughing with the movie.
Few of the big green guy’s outings invite laughing like Godzilla vs. Megalon, which introduced the world to the robot hero Jet Jaguar. Directed by Jun Fukuda, who helmed the excellent Rodan but also the regrettable Son of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Megalon leans hard into the goofiness of kaiju of the era, making for a wonderful, and wonderfully cheesy, time at the movies.
Time of the Apes (Season 3, Episode 6, 1991)
Time of the Apes is a true MST3K all-star. A production from frequent series punching bag Sandy Frank, the source of all our pain, Time of the Apes was the subject of not just one, but two episodes of the show, first during the KTMA season and then again in season three. It’s easy to see why Joel would return to the movie (actually several episodes of a tv show strung together). Time of the Apes features some of the most irritating things known to man, including badly-dubbed kid actors and a plucky monkey sidekick called Pepe.
But Time of the Apes also has a solid premise, one that borrows from Planet of the Apes but goes in its own direction. Yes, it follows a group of humans who travel to a future in which apes have conquered Earth, but the ape effects look pretty great and the costume design is interesting enough to make Time of the Apes an entertaining enough flick.
Gunslinger (Season 5, Episode 11, 1993)
Look, there’s no other way to say this, but Gunslinger absolutely rules. Sure, it’s directed by Roger Corman, never a sign of quality, but it has an awesome premise that overcomes occasional dull parts. Beverly Garland stars as Rose Hood, a woman who takes over the role of Marshall from her murdered husband. When Rose’s regulations ruffle the feathers of the criminal element, she becomes the target of saloon owner Erica Page (Allison Hayes) and gunslinger Cane Miro (John Ireland).
Gunslinger is a perfect example of the Corman style at its best. Clocking in at 77 minutes, the movie skips straight to all of the pulpy good stuff, including a fight between Page and Hood. Gunslinger has no pretensions. It knows what it is and it sticks to its guns, even in the face of constant robot mockery.
Mitchell (Season 5, Episode 12, 1993)
Do you know who watches Joe Don Baker movies? Everybody watches Joe Don Baker movies! If you only know Joe Don from Mitchell and Final Justice, then you should go ahead and watch some of his other films, including several Bond films and the great exploitation flick Walking Tall. While Mike and the Bots like to mock Baker’s slurred speech and less-than-Olympian physique, he landed all those film roles for a reason.
Strangely, Baker’s sloppy appearance and lackadaisical on-screen persona work for Mitchell, a movie that is explicitly about a slob of a cop who gets caught up in a larger conspiracy. And even if Baker doesn’t completely work for audiences, Mitchell has the always great John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and the New Hollywood mainstay Martin Balsam (Psycho) on hand to class up the joint.
Night of the Blood Beast (Season 7, Episode 1, 1996)
Another Corman classic, Night of the Blood Beast thrives on its nasty little premise: what if an alien monster implanted embryos inside of an astronaut? And what if that monster comes to Earth to get its embryos back? To help sell the story, Night of the Blood Beast comes with a fantastic poster, featuring a shrieking woman in a state of undress, a giant hairy hand grasping a severed head, and lots of blood.
Okay, nothing actually in the film pays off the promises of the poster, certainly not the main monster, a reused costume from Corman’s Teenage Caveman. But the film does carry a suggestion of sleaze, the feeling that, at any moment, something truly unspeakable will appear on screen. Night of the Blood Beast overcomes its low budget by using your imagination as its greatest special effect.
This Island Earth (MST3K: The Movie, 1996)
By now, every MSTie knows about the trainwreck that is Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Not only did the insistence on a feature film from Bad Brains co-head Jim Mallon eventually drive series creator Joel Hodgson from the series, but the picture came in at 74 minutes, a full twelve minutes shorter than the feature’s experiment, This Island Earth. But the absolute worst part of the film, one not lost on the creatives involved, is that This Island Earth isn’t a bad movie at all.
Like most sci-fi movies of the 50s, This Island Earth features straight-laced scientists standing in labs and trading technobabble. But unlike its contemporaries, the movie gets off-planet quickly, where the heroes battle with memorable movie monsters in the form of a mutant guard. Is it high drama? No, of course not, but it’s exactly the type of movie that made sci-fi such a phenomenon, prompting studios to make the stinkers that test subjects usually cover.
The Final Sacrifice (Season 9, Episode 10, 1998)
The Final Sacrifice regularly tops lists of all-time best MST3K episodes, so you know it’s bad, right? Well, Final Sacrifice does team the world’s most annoying kid and average Canadian Zap Rowsdower against a mildly smug cult leader. And the cult does largely consist of pudgy dudes in black sweats who couldn’t think of anything scarier than a triangle tattoo for their logo.
But despite these decidedly bland elements, The Final Sacrifice has enough looniness to be entertaining, even without some of the world’s greatest riffs. The plot takes unexpected leaps every fifteen minutes or so, climaxing with the revelation of a lost city, which somehow looks surprisingly good, despite the limited budget.
Danger: Diabolik (Season 11, Episode 13, 1999)
The final episode of the original run, MST3K went out with the stylish Italian crime flick Danger: Diabolik. Based on the comic book by Angela and Luciana Giussani, Danger: Diabolik portrays the adventures of the titular super thief, who would later become the inspiration for Grant Morrison’s X-Men character Fantomex. It’s easy to see why Pearl chose this movie for the outgoing experiment for Mike and the Bots, as Danger: Daibolik features all the bloated, sexy cheese you’d expect from a late 60s Dino de Laurentis production.
Beyond its dated elements, Danger: Daibolik is a pretty entertaining watch. Italian cinema staple John Phillip Law works as the titular thief and Michael Piccoli is fun as his nemesis Inspector Ginko. The plot doesn’t really make sense, but the movie has style to spare, which puts it over plenty of modern comic book adaptations.
Starcrash (Season 11, Episode 6, 2017)
Starcrash was just one of the many sci-fi epics put into production after Star Wars broke out, and it’s hardly the worst. So why does it deserve so much mockery? Sure, there are a lot of over-the-top visuals and the usual lore-based techno-babble that comes with the genre, but really, the only consistently baffling aspect is the affable Marjoe Gortner as hero Akton, a guy who seems just really happy to be there.
Outside of Akton and his “aw, shucks” energy, Starcrash is a delightful piece of late-70s excess. Caroline Munro dominates the screen as swashbuckling rogue Stella Star and Christopher Plummer can’t help but bring gravity to his performance as the Emperor. Even better than the performances are the candy-colored visuals, which feel like they come from a kid playing with their action figures after reading a bunch of Flash Gordon comics.
Doctor Mordrid (Season 13, Episode 5, 2022)
For late Gen Xers and Millennials, one of the most exciting things about the MST3K revival is the opportunity to see newer movies become experiments. As much as we loved seeing the Satellite of Love crew joke about 50s sci-fi schlock, those of us who were kids when we found the show don’t have the same nostalgia for The Crawling Eye or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as Joel and Mike. When Jonah and Emily came on board, we got to watch them mock Mac & Me and other flicks we grew up on.
That’s certainly the case with Doctor Mordrid, a 1992 flick from the schlock-producing Band brothers. For a short while, the Bands had the right to make a movie about Dr. Stephen Strange but had lost it by the time they were ready to shoot. Always ready with a backup plan, the Bands simply swapped out a few names, replacing “Strange” with “Mordrid” and “Mordo” with “Kabal.” Doctor Mordrid may not be as enjoyable as either of Strange’s MCU outings, but it’s far better than the 1970s tv movie, thanks to the great Jeffery Combs in the lead.