By Todd Ciolek
Theater 3000 remains one of most brilliant creations in television history.
True, anyone can make fun of bad movies, but MST3K did it with wit, charm, and an amusing premise: mad
scientists launch a man into space and force him to watch terrible films,
seeking the one cinematic aberration that will destroy the human mind. To help
him survive one awful flick after another, the victim, played by Joel Hodgson
and later Michael J. Nelson, has only a crew of robot puppets, consisting of
the snarky Tom Servo, the deranged-yet-childlike Crow T. Robot, the innocent
Gypsy, and the largely unseen Cambot. Tom, Crow, and their human partner heckle
the movie to no end, whether it’s a Roger Corman Western or a horror film about
an evil ventriloquist’s dummy.
In a truly just world, MST3K
would be available to own on DVD in convenient, affordable, season-based box
sets. However, we do not live in a just world. We live in a world where the
licenses for MST3K-mocked movies
expire and must be re-negotiated for DVD releases. That’s why Rhino and Shout
Factory’s MST3K discs, though
excellent in quality, come in box sets of four judiciously chosen episodes
each. While they’ve delivered beloved selections from Pod People to Space Mutiny,
there remains a mass of hilarious MST3K episodes
foaming and burbling just out of DVD range. It broke our hearts, but we
narrowed those DVD-less episodes down to the ten most deserving. Then we
cheated a little.
10) Master Ninja I
On the run from assassins, an early-career Demi Moore finds
shelter with a greasy young man named Max, his van, and his dashboard-mounted
hamster. Max then runs across a ninjitsu-powered Lee Van Cleef in a barfight,
and is so impressed that he demands to be schooled in Cleef’s Americanized
ninja arts, all the better to help Demi and her dad fight off a corrupt
sheriff. Once that’s resolved, the two head across the country, searching for
Van Cleef’s daughter as slightly menacing, suit-wearing Japanese men pursue
As movies cobbled together from a canceled TV series, the Master Ninja films aren’t quite as
budget-deficient as some MST3K
targets, but they’re still hokey trinkets of the 1980s ninja craze that mapped
out Japan as a warren of underground ninja clans. This means lots of scenes of Lee Van Cleef and Lee Van
Cleef’s stunt double throwing smoke bombs, dropping onto cars, and calling
wheelchair-bound women “gimps.”
Crow’s rabid Dick Van Patten-based conspiracy theory.
Why it’s not on DVD:
The Master Ninja TV show is owned by
Paramount, and Paramount properties ain’t cheap.
9) Escape 2000
Mad Max and its
sequels set the tone for countless bleak, ugly cinematic visions of the future
in the 1980s. Escape 2000 is a fine
example of this school of low-rent cinema, staging itself in a run-down Bronx
that’s being forcibly gentrified by corporate “disinfestators” who wear
motorcycle helmets and astronaut suits, carry flamethrowers, and march through
filthy urban streets chanting “Leave the Bronx.” Their arguments fall flat
before Trash, a rock-haired, monosyllabic punk who starts his own little war
against the Bronx makeover after his parents are lightly singed (and somehow
killed) by disinfestator flames. After all, he’s the only man in the Bronx who
can blow up a helicopter full of dummies.
You could see the roots of some Robocop-ish dystopian commentary in Escape 2000, but there’s no reason to be that nice to it, not when
you’ve got Trash joining forces with a rodent-faced news reporter and a jovial
revolutionary leader who’s quickly nicknamed Toblerone. Continuing the
tradition of the best MST3K movies
having slumming actors, Henry Silva shows up to play a sneering mercenary who
shrieks at his underlings for putting sugar in his coffee. There’s nothing in Escape 2000 that can be taken seriously,
and Mike, Crow, and Tom let everyone know it.
riding his motorcycle up and down stairs just because he can, Toblerone’s
hammy, ceaselessly upbeat approach to violent insurrection, and the ineffectual,
easily killed, silver-suited disinfestators.
Why it’s not on DVD:
Anchor Bay might sell the rights to Escape
2000, but it hasn’t happened yet.
MST3K truly hit
its stride in its third season, which tackled five complete Gamera movies, from
the original 1965 film to the mind-controlling-space-shark slugfest of Gamera vs. Zigra. Originally a
competitor for Godzilla, the tusked, tortoise-like Gamera may be less
groundbreaking in the rubbery-monster-suit world of kaiju, but he’s still a friend
to all children and a source of much unintended comedy, particularly when Joel
writes him a theme song and has his robots build Gamera-based dioramas.
Dubbed by cheap-import king Sandy Frank and others, the
Gamera films are all showcases for the sort of completely straight-faced
schlock born when a movie takes a giant, fire-breathing turtle and turns him
into the best friend of a shrill Japanese boy. It’s hard to pick a front-runner
among the Gamera films, but one would be best served by the first of them,
which introduces the adorable little monster and then blasts him into space.
Don’t worry; Gamera returns for many more movies, and he’s referenced
throughout MST3K‘s future seasons.
completely limp conclusion of Gamera’s battle with humankind, Joel tearing off
Crow’s puppet arm and beating him with it after some especially awful quips.
Why it’s not on DVD:
Gamera is owned by Daiei, and the English dubs of the movies are too. Gamera
may not be as expensive to license as Godzilla, but he likes to think he
7) Jack Frost
MST3K turned its
gaze on several hokey Soviet fantasy films: The
Sword and the Dragon, The Day the
Earth Froze, and so on. Jack Frost
stands above them all. It’s so gleefully, self-assuredly nuts that it’s a
hilarious movie even without the MST3K
silhouettes beneath it. This Russian (or is it Russo-Finnish?) film slaps
together a wealth of different folk-tale staples. A cutesy-wootsy peasant girl
named Nastenka is terrorized by her evil stepmother, a self-important hero
named Ivan sets out on a quest with the foppiest hair ever, and the Santa-like
Jack Frost shows up to sing and dispense wintertime justice. Even half-crazy
Jack is an island of sanity when a mushroom-wearing hobbit turns the
orange-haired Ivan into a bear or when a hideous Baba Yaga (or “hunchback
fairy,” as the film dubs her) summons an army of tree puppets after Ivan takes
control of her chicken-legged house.
The English dubbing only plays up the movie’s bizarre
fairy-tale melodrama, and the MST3K
crew runs with it, delivering some of most packed commentary ever. There’s
rarely a misfired joke, and even when the quipping goes silent, the movie
itself is weirdly compelling with its kitschy effects and completely off-kilter
atmosphere. They don’t make films like Jack
Frost any more, and its MST3K
treatment almost makes you regret that fact.
ugly stepsister shoving around a bewildered Jack Frost, Ivan spending half the
movie in a bear costume while yelling about doing good deeds.
Why it’s not on DVD: Unknown.
There’s a dollar-bin DVD version of Jack Frost (featuring two musical numbers
cut from the MST3K version), so it
can’t be all that expensive to license.
John Norman’s increasingly misogynistic line of Gor fantasy novels exists for no reason
other than to present a vicious barbarian land where men are men and women are
(and even want to be) enslaved possessions. The two hokey 1980s Gor films tone down the novels’ overt
women-hating, leaving only a ridiculous, cornball story of half-naked amazons
and burly heroes. Burliest of them all is Tarl Cabot, a college professor who’s
transported from Earth to the world of Gor, bringing what passes for civilization
to a local kingdom. In the sequel, Outlaw
(of Gor), he returns to Gor with Watney, an insufferable load of a fellow
professor who trills “Cabot?” constantly. But all is not well. An elderly king
is murdered by his duplicitous young queen, Tarl’s Gorean girlfriend is jailed,
and Tarl himself escapes into a desert with only a midget for company. And
everyone starts saying “Cabot,” even Jack Palance.
Easily the best thing that ever resulted from Norman’s
insulting, thinly veiled bondage-fantasy books, the MST3K take on Outlaw of Gor
won the show a Peabody Award. It’s not hard to see why: the movie itself is
riotous crap, the riffs mock it astutely, and the host skits are spot on,
particularly in the memorable “Tubular Boobular Joy,” an alliterative
recounting of the film’s miles of exposed male and female flesh.
Highlights: The unendurable
comic relief of Watney.
Why it’s not on DVD:
It’s an MGM movie, and major studios want money when you ask them if you can
make fun of their movies on DVD.
5) The Pumaman
A film like The
Pumaman would’ve been completely forgotten by now if it weren’t for MST3K. A mediocre little slab of
superhero action-comedy clearly leeching from the success of Richard Donner’s Superman, The Pumaman gives its hero amazing catlike powers granted by a
giant alien Christmas bulb. That hero, however, is merely a whining, exceedingly dimwitted young
professor named Tony until a large Aztec man forces him to try on a magic belt
that turns him into a caped champion of justice (who also wears sensible slacks). There is, of course, a
villain: the bald, leather-wearing Donald “No role too terrible” Pleasance, who
uses Pumaman-connected alien technology to brainwash world leaders as well as
Tony’s ditzy blonde love interest.
In the interest of fairness, we will note that Pumaman makes some stabs at comedy,
though they’re dwarfed by the unintended humor. Donald Pleasance controls minds
by making paper-mache replicas of his victims’ heads, Vadinho the Aztec does
all of the real work, and Pumaman himself, to paraphrase Crow T. Robot, “flies
like a moron,” waving his arms while bent at the waist in front of
unconvincingly projected footage of a city. Even his powers suck: he can tear
through car roofs, pretend he’s dead, and drop thugs from the sky diagonally.
As Crow and Tom Servo point out, pumas aren’t especially known for flying.
and Crow improvising lyrics to the Pumaman theme (“Fat free yo-gurt that’s not
short on fla-vor!”), Pleasance pronouncing “Pumaman” as “Pyew-Ma-Man,” Vadinho
being the real hero of the movie.
Why it’s not on DVD:
That’s a mystery. The Pumaman was
first in a most-wanted-episode poll held by Rhino years ago, so it may be that
the rights are tied up or just too hard to secure.
4) Fugitive Alien I
Sandy Frank was MST3K ‘s
best friend in its early years. Without him, there’d be no laughable dubs of
cheap Japanese sci-fi films (well, they’re mostly slapped-together TV shows)
like Time of the Apes, Mighty Jack, and the unforgettable Fugitive Alien two-parter. In this
pastiche of a 1970s Japanese show called Star
Wolf, Earth is under attack by pale, blond-wigged aliens (which couldn’t be
xenophobic symbolism, of course) when one of them, Ken, refuses to shoot a
child, also named Ken, and instead accidentally kills one of his comrades. Now
a traitor, alien Ken grudgingly hooks up with a squad of vinyl-wearing Earth
heroes and finds himself fighting his own planet.
From its opening scenes of glowing alien invasion to a final
duel between Ken and the clown-samurai leader of those aliens, the Fugitive Alien movies are hysterical
abridgments of a show that likely made little sense in the first place. There’s
a race of semi-Arabian aliens, a bootleg version of the Star Wars Cantina scene, a laughably resolved dilemma between Ken
and his vengeful alien ex-girlfriend, and a fight between the super-strong Ken
and a forklift. The dub makes all of it even more incoherent, to the point
where poor Tom Servo’s gumball-machine head explodes halfway through Fugitive Alien II: Star Force.
forklift-based attempted murder and Joel’s subsequent song about it, plus a
visit from Michael J. Nelson’s avuncular, film-introducing guest speaker Jack
Why it’s not on DVD:
For years, the rumor was that Sandy Frank was a little bit upset over being mentioned
by name in the MST3K savaging of his
films, but the truth seems to be that he, like many of the rights-owners to MST3K-mocked material, simply wants too
much money. Still, we can’t imagine he was happy about the little number above from
Time of the Apes.
3) Invasion of the
Invasion of the
Neptune Men manages something that should be impossible: it makes every
other cheap, poorly dubbed Japanese sci-fi movie in MST3K history look amazing by comparison, from Godzilla vs. Megalon to Prince
of Space. A sluggish 1960s hackjob from Toei, Neptune Men has Earth besieged by largely silent aliens in pointy
armored suits, with Space Chief, a superhero of unexplained origins, as the
only force that can stop them. Well, there is one other force to be reckoned
with: a group of screechy children who run from one plot point to the next. The
film relies heavily on stock footage and a void of actual characters: the kids
are all the same except for the nerdiest one, and Space Chief, played by a
young Sonny Chiba, doesn’t do much of anything. The aliens’ battleship (easily compared
to Thomas the Tank Engine) is destroyed by good ol’ Earth-made missiles,
leading the robots to wonder why “Space Feeb” was necessary at all. The grinding
pace of the film inspires some great commentary: a delusional Tom Servo tries
to pretend he’s watching The Magnificent
Ambersons (which he doesn’t even like), Mike and Crow walk out of the
theater, Tom contracts the film’s Roji-Panty Complex, and Crow vents his
frustration by suggesting that Japan “stop making movies.”
Invasion of the
Neptune Men works best as a companion to the uproarious MST3K take on Prince of Space, a considerably better piece of camp that stars a
few tough-talking kids, an invulnerable masked hero, and inept, beak-nosed
aliens from the planet Krankor. The cackling dictator of Krankor even shows up
to brighten Mike, Crow, and Servo’s spirits during Neptune Men‘s host skits. Sadly, Neptune Men wasn’t released alongside Prince of Space in Rhino’s seventh MST3K box set, and that magical connection was lost.
the movie’s interminable procession of stock explosions reduces Tom Servo to a
sobbing, screaming wreck of a robot puppet. That stock footage also leads to the
biggest what-the-hell moment in MST3K history.
Why it’s not on DVD:
This is a puzzling one. The movie was actually released by Dark Sky in a DVD
pack with Prince of Space, so we’d
assume that the rights for both movies weren’t hard to get. However, Neptune Men hasn’t shown up in any
subsequent MST3K set.
2) Santa Claus
It’s hard to think of a Christmas film that deserves MST3K more than Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a cloyingly strange holiday
cavalcade in which Santa is kidnapped by green men in huge helmets. Yet that
really can’t compare to the batshit insanity of Santa Claus, a 1959 Mexican film that takes profound and bizarre
liberties with the yuletide legend. For starters, Santa lives in an orbital
fortress, using a cosmic telescope and a freakish computer with lips to spy on
the world’s many children (represented by a demeaning parade of stereotypes).
However, the forces of Hell conspire to destroy Santa, and a demon named Pitch
is sent to the mortal world to turn children against Father Christmas. Santa
fights back with a bunch of creepy inventions and some late-stage help from Mr.
Merlin, who also lives in Santa’s floating base of operations.
A perfect case of allegedly delightful children’s fare
turning horrific, this Santa Claus
film surrounds the jolly old elf with one unnerving device after another. The
worst is a set of jittery mechanical reindeer, which shake like meth-craving
lunatics while Santa laughs and laughs and laughs, scaring Mike, Tom, Crow, and
anyone else watching.
out-of-nowhere introductions of Santa’s hellish antagonists, Mike’s Christmas
carol devolving into violent chaos, a scene of Santa fuming “darn that devil!”
Why it’s not on DVD:
It’s supposedly a staple of Christmastime TV in Mexico, and it’s available on
DVD from Brentwood. Maybe we’ll get the MST3K
version by this December.
1) Final Sacrifice
starts out much like any other D-grade MST3K
subject: there’s a mysterious, cheaply shot ritual in a forest, during
which some unidentified schlub is murdered. Then the movie introduces the first
of many memorable characters: Troy, a gangly teenager who spends his days
poring over a crude map apparently left by his father (whose resemblance to NFL
running back Larry Csonka does not go unnoted) and apparently drawn by
second-graders. This attracts the attention of a trench-coat-wearing evildoer
who has a comically deep voice and a phalanx of doughy minions in ski masks. Pursued
by these un-intimidating thugs, Troy is rescued by the film’s hero: Zap
Rowsdower, a boozy, middle-aged, hockey-haired bum in a denim jacket and white
Rowsdower makes Final
Sacrifice what it is. While Troy’s snaggle-toothed nerdery and an old-timey
mountain man certainly elevate the movie, Rowsdower is the star attraction as
he wheezes, bumbles, and drinks his way through a quest for a lost ancient city
(in Canada, no less). The MST3K
audience rips into him at every turn, and even the movie doesn’t seem to expect
much of Rowsdower, as he ultimately needs the reed-thin Troy to help him defeat
Darth DeepVoice. When not mocking Rowsdower, Mike and the ‘bots throw out jabs
at both Canada and America’s attitude toward its great northern neighbor. It
reaches a masterful crescendo with Tom’s Canadian song.
single scene featuring Rowsdower and the movie’s unspoken expectation that
viewers will care about Rowsdower.
Why it’s not on DVD:
The rights apparently still lie with Flying Dutchman Productions, meaning that
they either want lots of money or don’t want their film’s public roasting
committed to DVD. Or maybe someone just needs to ask them.