Last week, the AVClub came up with their list of the ten essential episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And while I liked the episodes they listed, my list differs enough that I felt compelled to share. My picks had to meet three criteria: they’re funny on their own, accessible to newcomers, and bring us to an encounter with something truly weird and memorable.
1. Manos the Hands of Fate: This wasn’t where I started, but, like Neo following the path to the Architect, I was fated to come face to face and knees to knees with Torgo. That the AVClub’s critic remembers the episode primarily as mere venting by Joel and the Bots makes me wonder if the movie so damaged his brain that he forgot riffs like “Beep-Beep. Way to go, Steve!”, “When are you going to kill me, boss?”, or the classic “PULL MY FINGER!” Until you’ve seen Manos, you haven’t really experienced MST3K.
2. Eegah: A coworker of mine introduced me to MST3K via Eegah, which marked the first time I saw actor Richard Kiel sans the metal teeth. Because Kiel plays a caveman who expresses himself only with grunts, howls, and the occasional made-up word, Joel and the Bots are free to riff his responses with impunity. (Pauses and inarticulate sounds are the oxygen that feeds a good riff.) Toss in a doughy, weird-faced, would-be teen idol, a dune buggy, and two of the worst songs ever committed to film (yes, including Cool As Ice) and you’ve created a magical playland for a boy and his puppets. Watch out for snakes.
3. Gamera: Peter Jackson had Lord of the Rings. Joel Hodgson had the Gamera series. Gamera, who loves children almost as much as he loves making movies that bore them and empty their souls. Gamera, who provided the boy and his puppets with a nemeses worthy of their comedic talents and forced them to stretch as they riffed through increasingly bizarre encounters with the superturtle and his ray shooting foes.
4. Cave Dwellers: Sword and sorcery pictures, particularly those shot for couch change in Italy, served the Best Brains boys well. Cave Dwellers is a sequel, but if you haven’t watched the first Cave Dwellers flick, fret not. One of the characters from this movie will narrate a ten minute flashback that tells you everything you…actually, didn’t really need to know. (Key riff: “Jeez. Tolkien couldn’t follow this plot.”) The movie goes off the rails way before the hero hang glides over the enemy’s castle dropping bombs (yes, bombs). So there’s no way to describe the strangeness of the movie’s climax. But Joel and the Bots make us laugh, which keeps madness at bay. Afterwards you can work out on the Charismatic Soloflex of Zantar 13.
5. Warrior of the Lost World: A charmless guy rides an ostensibly intelligent motorcycle through a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by thugs from seven different kinds of dystopia movies, death engines made from dump trucks, and Donald Pleasance. Clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Warrior of the Lost World failed mainly because of something the director forgot: casting a lead actor whose range extends beyond grumbling and sneering.
6. Outlaw of Gor: Remember what I said two paragraphs ago about sword and sorcery movies shot for nothing in Italy…well here we go again. Outlaw in some ways out craps Cave Dwellers. Both films have the standard features: muscled hero, swords, a supposedly competent heroine who nonetheless has to be rescued, and a silly sidekick; but Outlaw also has 100% more butts, boobs, and buffalo shots, 300% more gratingly awful friends for the hero, and a googleplex more Jack Palance, who’d fallen a long way from cutting down guys in the middle of the street in Shane. As Mike’s song so aptly puts it “It’s breatikaboobical, chestakamammical, pendular globular fun!”
7. The Starfighters: This one came to me on the same tape with Eegah. The special place the movie holds in my heart I attribute to my misspending many hours of my life watching its star, future congressman “B-1” Bob Dornan, make strident speeches on C-Span to a nigh-vacant House of Representatives. Unlike Dornan’s speeches, which were primarily meant for paranoid right-wing fanatics who never tired of hearing who died how during the Vietnam War, The Starfighters is never all that clear about who its intended audience is or how it expects them to react to the incidents in its story. Because its central themes and tensions are classified far above our level, The Starfighters leaves us a lot of stock footage of F-104s flying, landing, refueling (they refuel so much Mike and the Bots run out of jokes for it), a limp love story, and some lame hijinks from the supporting cast. Keep an eye out for the Poopie Suit.
8. The Violent Years: Ed Wood, Jr. once wrote a “girls gone bad” movie. This is it. These busty girls who were already no-damn-good are led further astray by a bustier crime boss (who may be a communist). The crime boss induces them to “rape” a teenaged boy, who actually seems to welcome the attention, trash a classroom (without really damaging anything), and end up in a shootout with the cops. The movie is basically I Accuse My Parents with the genders switched, but the extra added Ed Woody Goodness gives Mike and the Bots more to play with.
9. The Final Sacrifice: Meet Canadian arch-villain Garth Vader, the weedy son of Larry Csonka, and Canadian arch-hero (and three time beer-swilling champion of Moose Hat, Alberta) Zap Rowsdower. It’s The Final Sacrifice, a movie that Canadian content laws may still be forcing our northern neighbors to endure unriffed. This movie, which concerns a cult that’s trying to raise a lost civilization somewhere on the outskirts of Quesnel and the young boy whose courage inspires doughy, bewhiskered men to try to stop them, provides a target rich environment for Mike and the Bots. (Favorite Riff, while Zap Rowsdower looks at a sunset. “Is there beer on the sun?”)
10. The Girl In Gold Boots: You bet your sweet bippy this is a bad movie, which delves into the seamy side of the sex and drug industry and fearlessly exposes the bad dancing people could get away with in 1969. (“Do the Wounded Turkey!”) Think of it this way: Mike and the Bots never got to rip on Showgirls. This is about as close as they’ll ever get, and it’s magic. Beware the icky elf.