Let’s just say that the 1990s weren’t a good decade to be a bad movie. The proliferation of cable and home video was making high quality motion pictures and television easier to access across the world, and the cottage industry of repurposing ancient, terrible horror films for late night TV programming was beginning to dwindle. Elvira had long been out of a job, so films like THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS and ROBOT MONSTER seemed destined for cultural obscurity.
But then something happened, something wonderful. A cable TV series called MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 took all those terrible movies and turned them into something new, a bad movie party with all of your funniest friends. Some guy trapped in space, along with two wisecracking robots, was being forced to watch all these b-movies and z-movies and kept himself sane by making constant jokes, and since the show was actually very funny, the idea caught on.
MST3K (as it would come to be called) developed a legion of fans who not only liked the jokes but who also developed an appreciation for the movies. Many of these audience members were people who had never heard of the terrible flicks that Joel and the Bots (and later, Mike Nelson and the Bots) were riffing on, but now a lot of them are common household names. Or at least, they are in households that love horror movies, MST3K and/or irony.
With MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 starting its own Kickstarter campaign this week to help produce new episodes, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at all the good that the series has done for horror movie fans of the years. These are just some of the films that might now be languishing in obscurity if they hadn’t been featured on MST3K… for better or worse.
GAMERA – Episode 3.02
This series of films about a giant ass-kicking turtle who befriends little boys in short shorts was actually a pretty big hit in Japan. There were eight films in the GAMERA series before MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 was even created (and there have been four new films since). But Gamera never quite found an audience in America until Joel and the Bots pointed out just how freakishly weird this whole idea was, and just how creepy and stupid these movies could get.
MST3K lampooned five different GAMERA movies over the course of the series, and even rewrote the monster’s theme music to include lyrics like, “Gamera is really neat / Gamera is filled with meat / We’ve been eating Gamera!”
THE POD PEOPLE – Episode 3.03
Juan Piquer-Simon’s 1983 sci-fi dud was supposed to be a straight up monster movie about aliens in the woods, but then ET. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL came out and the director was forced to add cutesy filler material about flying toys. Not that there is any evidence to suggest that THE POD PEOPLE would have been even halfway decent as a straight-up horror film: the characters are off-key and annoying, the foggy cinematography makes everything hard to look at and the monsters look dumb as hell.
Which of course made THE POD PEOPLE perfect fodder for MST3K, which turned some of the film’s sillier moments – a rock star throwing up the “okay” sign and yelling “It stinks!” and the small child’s declaration “Trumpy, you can do magic things!” – into some of the show’s most quotable moments. THE POD PEOPLE turned out to be one of the MST3K’s funniest episodes.
THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN – Episode 3.09
Bert I. Gordon was a prolific b-movie director whose whimsical predilection for making horror movies about giant “stuff” led to a whole series of hit or miss monster movies, many of which wound up on MST3K eventually. But although KING DINOSAUR, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, BEGINNING OF THE END and scads of other Gordon films were highlighted on the show, it’s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN that seems to have earned an iconic status after being introduced to a new generation.
The film is about a man who ventures into the test area for an experimental bomb in order to save a helpless bystander, but then he gets irradiated and turns into a giant misunderstood monster who hates himself and is prone to violent outbursts, and is then forced to run from the military. (For the record, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN came out five whole years before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Think about it.)
It’s a hilarious episode – thanks in no small part to the many bonkers scenes of a grown man in a diaper, weeping next to doll furniture – that became an MST3K classic, and once again did a good deed for genre film fans everywhere by keeping low-budget horror cinema alive and relevant to moviegoers who might otherwise have moved on completely.
THE KILLER SHREWS – Episode 4.07
A laughable low budget monster movie that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by history, except perhaps as a footnote in the acting career of DUKES OF HAZZARD co-star James Best, THE KILLER SHREWS went on to become an MST3K favorite. It probably has something to do with the absurd monster effects for the title creatures, most of whom are just cute doggies with bath mats strapped to them. (Speaking of footnotes, somehow the film’s director, Ray Kellogg, overcame this debacle to become head of visual effects at 20th Century Fox.)
In any case, THE KILLER SHREWS may not be the best or most beloved MST3K episode ever, but without it this 1959 low-budget dud would never have stuck around in the public consciousness long enough to warrant a sequel, RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS, which was actually produced in 2012.
BRIDE OF THE MONSTER – Episode 4.23
“He tampered in God’s domain!” Just one year before Tim Burton immortalized the career of the late, not-so-great z-movie auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr. (in 1994’s ED WOOD), MST3K finally got around to lampooning one of his greatest junkers. BRIDE OF THE MONSTER stars Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who turns the people who just happen to wander into his cabin – which apparently happens a lot – into monsters like Tor Johnson (shuffling about like nobody’s business) or a giant octopus, whom Bela keeps in the closet.
Ed Wood had already developed a reputation for being an awful director, largely due to the indispensable book THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS, but in the age of basic cable his work was no longer on TV very often. MST3K kept the awfulness alive when no other series or network had any use for nuclear cephalopods.
MANOS: HANDS OF FATE – Episode 4.24
It is now considered one of the worst movies ever made, but before MST3K got to it, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE wasn’t considered at all, by anyone. This particularly incompetent horror film – about a family of vacationers who wind up at the gates of hell and insist that the gatekeeper, a satyr named Torgo, treat them like VIPs – was so bad that even Joel Robinson, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot found themselves collapsing into gibbering heaps at repeated intervals.
What makes it so terrible? Cinematography that looks like the Zapruder film, dialogue that’s repeated and mumbled ad nauseum, a story that makes no sense and the overall impression that you’re watching a snuff film. Mercifully, Joel and the Bots riffed away and turned a negative into a positive: MANOS is one of the all-time great episodes of MST3K, even it introduced the world to a new form of Hell.
EEGAH – Episode 5.06
James Bond villain Richard Kiel didn’t always turn up in very good movies, and appeared in several MST3K episodes, but none of them were as legendary as EEGAH. This slice of whiteness stars Kiel as Eegah, a caveman living in the California desert who runs into a (reasonably) sexy young damsel, then kidnaps her father. After an eternity of dune-buggying with her boyfriend Arch Hall, Jr. (who sings whether you want him to or not), she Eegah and lets him molest her at her father’s behest.
You WILL need a shower, but you won’t ever forget watching this movie. The film, directed by Arch Hall, Sr. (there’s a relation), was dwindling in obscurity until MST3K got to it, but now it’s practically a rite of passage for terrible movie buffs everywhere.
THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE – Episode 5.13
The central image of THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE is a classic, and probably familiar to people who haven’t even seen it. But a heck of a lot more people have actually seen a movie about a severed head in a pan begging its husband to kill it because of MST3K, which used this 1962 sci-fi junker as the first episode featuring the show’s new host, Mike Nelson.
Like many of the more memorable MST3K films, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE has a genuine pathos to it… and also a monster whose mask is attached with a visible piece of string. But it deserves its place in the cult movie canon, if only as an American z-movie version of Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
LASERBLAST – Episode 7.06
From the first Mike Nelson episode to the last, for a little while (the show was cancelled on Comedy Central but then revived on SyFy), LASERBLAST is a meandering sci-fi horror drama about a shiftless dude who finds a Super Scope in the desert and then turns into a ghoulish monster thing. Meanwhile, Roddie McDowall (who didn’t have anything better to do, apparently) tries to solve the medical mystery and two baby Gameras try to get their laser back.
LASERBLAST is bad, and might have never found an audience at all if MST3K had not only aired it, but aired it as what we all thought was going to be the show’s final episode. But the stop-motion animation on those aliens is kinda cool, and for some reason “Leonard Maltin gave it 2 1/2 stars!”
WEREWOLF- Episode 9.04
WEREWOLF was, at the time, the most recent motion picture ever lampooned by MST3K. The movie came out in 1996 and was being ridiculed just two years later by a man in space and two adorable robots. It was obvious at the outset that WEREWOLF stunk up the joint, but it took a trio of hecklers to point out that this ridiculous turkey is one of the all-time great bad horror films.
A group of rock ‘em sock ‘em archaeologists find a werewolf skeleton in the desert. A doctor notices that getting stabbed with the skeleton turns people into werewolves. An actress repeatedly fails to say the word “werewolf” correctly. A werewolf blows up its own car. Joe Estevez’s hair. Nothing about this movie works but it’s hilarious to watch MST3K put it all together, and elevate an awful wolfman movie into something for the ages.
HOBGOBLINS – Episode 9.07
A lot of films were rescued from obscurity or re-introduced to audiences via MST3K, but few have achieved the same cult heights at HOBGOBLINS. This terrible GREMLINS knockoff is about a movie studio security guards who lets the studio aliens loose and watches in horror as they make his best friends’ wildest dreams come true. This leads to zookeeper fantasies and a trip to “Club Scum,” a midwest sex club that would normally only exist at the corner of John Waters Avenue and David Lynch Lane.
Writer/director Rick Sloane gamed the system here. Not only did he make HOBGOBLINS, and not only did he capitalize on the MST3K presentation by reaping enough cult popularity green light a sequel (produced in 2009), but he submitted the film to MST3K personally. Even the makers of bad movies knew that MST3K could be the saving grace of an otherwise awful production.