Here at Paste we’re rather obsessed with Mystery Science Theater 3000. We’ve already ranked the entire classic series in a massive, 47,000 word piece that tackles 176 episodes of MST3k, plus MST3k: The Movie, in anticipation of the brand new season 11 that premieres April 14 on Netflix. So if you want to see a ranking of EVERY EPISODE EVER, go check out that list.
However, it’s been brought to my attention that tackling the entire list of 177 episodes isn’t the most efficient way of deciding which episodes to watch on Netflix during your weekend binging session. To build hype for the new series, Shout! Factory has brought 20 classic episodes of MST3k over to Netflix, including series classics such as Puma Man, Manos: The Hands of Fate and Space Mutiny. Here’s your ranking of these 20 episodes, most of which are series classics—10 from my own top 20, and the rest not far behind.
20. Ep. 202, The Sidehackers, 1969
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: The entire host segment where the crew demonstrates some rapid-fire “sidehacking terminology” in the style of sports commentary is full of brilliant tongue-twisters.
Dear lord—for a movie that initially appears like it’s going to be something lighthearted about silly motorcycle sidecar racing, the actual story of The Sidehackers is pretty damn dour. The actual “sidehacking” scenes are all uniformly hilarious—it’s such a bizarre pseudo sport to see in action, full of men dangling out of motorcycle sidecars and looking moments from a grisly death. But then you get into the meat of the actual story, about a driver named Rommel who turns down a woman and sets a chain of events into motion that ends with his own fiancee raped and murdered. Yeesh. It’s pretty sordid stuff for a MST3k movie, which are usually a bit more innocent than all that. According to Mike in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, this was the result of the cast deciding to shoot this particular episode before they’d fully watched all of the footage, a policy that was changed after the distasteful nature of The Sidehackers forced their hand. Regardless, when you’re not saying “ew,” the episode is otherwise solid, with good host segments that fixate on the inherent weirdness of sidehacking. Of note: This may be the only episode of MST3k where Cambot technically has “a riff,” when he superimposes some ESPN-style graphics over the sidehacking action.
19. Ep. 402, The Giant Gila Monster, 1959
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “It’s the magnificent men in their jaunty jalopies!”
The Giant Gila Monster was actually shot back-to-back with The Killer Shrews by the same director/producer team, and the film suffers from many of the same problems: Grainy picture and even grainier audio, which makes it difficult to pick out most of the dialog. Not that it actually matters in this case, as almost all of that dialog is just “teens” jabbering at each other about their cars, or running from the titular giant Gila Monster (actually played by the closely related Mexican Beaded Lizard). The film is as much a celebration of ‘50s teen music and “hot rod” culture as it is a monster movie, and of course, like any other “teen” movie of the period, it has the requisite terrible music numbers. Some of them are just painfully awkward, like the protagonist serenading his little disabled sister as she attempts to walk with new leg braces. However, I think we can all agree that “I Sing Whenever I Sing, Whenever I Sing” is an earworm that gets its hooks in you and just never lets go. It makes for a great running joke, as the SOL crew inserts the tune into the minds of nearly every character on screen (including the Gila Monster) every time a new scene starts.
18. Ep. 204, Catalina Caper, 1967
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Meanwhile, in the dark, impenetrable void, Jean Paul Sartre was a-movin’ and a-groovin’.”
The film that finally put the “beach party” movie subgenre in its grave, Catalina Caper is a real mess. It’s an unusual genre mix-up that combines the typical music/lighthearted juvenile hijinks and comedy of a beach party movie with a crime/heist caper that is happening simultaneously. Our protagonist is named “Don Pringle,” which unsurprisingly is a rich vein of humor throughout. It’s an unusual pick for MST3k in the sense that the film is ostensibly a comedy, which are rarely chosen because they’re more difficult to riff—you can’t simply refute every joke in the movie with riffs saying “that isn’t funny.” This does make some of the riffing a little awkward, and I assume the Best Brains probably thought back to Catalina Caper before choosing to riff comedies in the future. Highlights include the zaniness of the plan, which involves stealing an “ancient Chinese scroll,” and the character of “Creepy Girl,” who inspires some serious devotion from Servo. His ‘50s malt shop-style song for Creepy Girl is one of the early indicators of MST3k’s musical brilliance … as well as the pure singing chops of Kevin Murphy.
17. Ep. 410, Hercules Against the Moon Men, 1964
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “Jim Henson’s Exodus Babies.”
Deeeeeep … hurting! Like a spiritual successor to the “ROCK CLIMBING!” in Lost Continent, Hercules Against the Moon Men arrives with quite a bit of hyping from the Mads, which is something I always love to see—when they’re pleased with themselves, you know it’s going to be a painful movie. With this edition of the adventures of Herc, they’re specifically referring to a scene in the last third of the film where the characters wander into a sandstorm, and just wander around foreverrrrrr. The sequence is so bad and so long that it’s practically unriffable; there’s just nothing else you can say after the first few minutes of Deep Hurting in the sandstorm. As for the rest, the episode is a bit up and down—I like Alan Steel as Herc more than the sleepy Reg Park in Hercules and the Captive Women, but there are too many palace scenes full of dialog that goes nowhere and not enough Herc smashing stuff. However: I have to give it points for one of my favorite MST3k stingers ever, with the old man who randomly gets impaled by a spike trap while trying to lead Hercules to freedom. It’s so unexpected and sudden that it cracks me up every single time.
16. Ep. 1011, Horrors of Spider Island, 1960
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “From Los Angeles, they take off from New York, to go to Singapore.”
I don’t know if it’s more accurate to say that this film features a “were-spider” or a literal “spider-man,” but it certainly does, and then some. You’ve got to love the equally lazy and stupid premise: A sleazeball nightclub promoter hires a bunch of dancers to fly with him to “dance in Singapore,” but their plane just so happens to crash within swimming range of Big Spider Island. When the sleazeball gets bitten, he soon transforms into Man-Spider, Defiler of Cabaret Dancers. A whole lot of jokes are thrown in his direction both before and after the transformation, targeting his general undesirability and prominent “Torgo area” in particular. In terms of tone, the film actually reminds me of a more articulate, lucid take on The Killer Shrews—same island, different monsters, but at least you can hear what people are saying, which helps considerably. The extended scenes of the girls arguing in the island cabin can be a little grating, but Mike and the Bots roll ably with the punches … until Servo faints during one of the many girl fights, that is.
15. Ep. 706, Laserblast, 1978
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “Coca Cola is going to need a PR campaign just to undo the damage this scene is doing.”
If not for the Sci-Fi Channel picking up MST3k for its final three seasons, Laserblast would have functioned as the series finale—thank God this was not the case. Still, the fact that the crew figured Laserblast would be their last film imbues it with a sense of “very special episode” that helps make it memorable, including a story in the host segments that eventually sees the SOL flying into a black hole, where the gang become beings of pure energy. The film, meanwhile, is a real piece of zero-budget garbage that is made only worse by its arrogant aspirations—there’s even a scene where the protagonist uses his laser cannon to explode an actual Star Wars billboard in a beautiful display of petty one-upmanship. It combines the worst aspects of shirtless ‘70s slackerism with a protagonist who is slowly driven insane (and possibly turned into a lizard) by the laser cannon grafted onto his arm while being pursued by cops and claymation aliens. Riffing is steady and solid; I enjoyed the repeated digs at Leonard Maltin for daring to give the film 2 ½ stars, and the running joke at the expense of the Hank Williams Jr. lookalike cop is without a doubt a series classic. “Anything you say can be used … to get you ready for some football!”
14. Ep. 903, The Pumaman, 1980
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “The theology contained in this picture may not be wholly accurate. Consult your doctor before embarking on a theology program.”
Pumaman is a definite fan favorite among MSTies, although I suspect that I probably rate it just a bit lower than most thanks to a few slower sections. Still, everything here is iconic MST3k, from our whiny, ineffectual, pants-wetting hero to another appearance by the great Donald Pleasance, once again playing the role of scenery-chewing villain exactly as he did in Warrior of the Lost World. He’s even named “Dr. Kobras!” Not much chance you’re going to end up as a do-gooder with a name like that, is there? Much is name of his inability to pronounce “pew-ma,” and general “balditude.” Our hero Tony is, with no exaggeration, probably the lamest “superhero” in cinema history, the descendant of Aztec alien gods who bestowed his bloodline with magical PUMA POWERS. Such powers include flight, although as Mike notes, “I hate to be picky, but pumas aren’t really known for flying.” The flight sequences are side-splitting, though, achieved by use of horrendous looking rear projection while Tony dangles quite clearly in place on a fishing line, butt sticking straight up in the air. These sequences actually manage to look worse than the giant grasshoppers climbing skyscrapers in The Beginning of the End, which is saying something. And he finds out about his super powers in the most ridiculous way imaginable: When his soon-to-be Aztec mentor sneaks up behind Tony and throws him out a window to test his puma-like reflexes. Stan Lee couldn’t have written it better.
13. Ep. 604, Zombie Nightmare, 1986
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Fight choreography by Dom Deluise!”
There’s something about Zombie Nightmare that reminds one of The Toxic Avenger—both have a guy who is “killed” and comes back as a monster to punish the kids responsible. Hell, both of them have innocents being run over by a car. But what Toxie does have that Zombie Nightmare is lacking is humor, gore and amusing lead characters—compared to Troma’s classic, Jon Mikl Thor doesn’t have a chance of being half as interesting, and the “John Cage soundtrack” doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, this voodoo zombie flick is rife for the MST3k treatment largely due to the very memorable supporting players, which include Tia Carrere in her first screen role. Tia doesn’t get much screen time, but I’ll tell you who does: Adam West! As the police chief, he’s the source of many of the biggest riffs, as Mike and the Bots paint him as bitter and cynical about not being invited back to play Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film. Even better is the truly bizarre police coroner, with his inhuman, wheezing voice that draws more Batman references and comparisons to Burgess Meredith as The Penguin. It’s one of the flat-out weirdest performances in the show’s history.
12. Ep. 321, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 1964
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Big John Call IS Santa Claus, in ‘O Little Town of DEATHlehem!’”
You can’t help but compare this classic episode to the Mexican Santa Claus, and the one you prefer ultimately will come down to personal taste. Where the Mexican film is stronger on the absurdism and nightmare fuel, it’s also slower and more ugly. Conquers the Martians, on the other hand, has the feel of an early ‘60s kids TV show that has been stretched out to feature length—it’s good natured, easygoing and campy, like a Christmas episode of Adam West’s Batman. I love every one of the characters, from the precocious brat children, to “laziest man on Mars” Dropo, to Santa, who makes the Bots question what exactly is in his pipe. The episode is notable for having one of the series’ best songs in the form of “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas” and great host segments in general, but it’s the cheap costuming and generally rushed feeling (they even misspell “costume designer” in the opening credits) that makes me laugh hardest. The scene featuring the worst polar bear costume in the history of cinema (“you can see the headpiece draped over the body!”) is howlingly funny, as is Torg the cardboard box robot. The riffs do slow down just a tad by the end of the episode, but this one remains a holiday staple I have to watch at least once every Christmas season.
11. Ep. 424, Manos: The Hands of Fate, 1966, /w Hired! Part 2
Movie pain meter: Extreme
Best riff: “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.”
Alright, alright, let’s get the outrage out of the way. Manos is probably the most famous episode of MST3k, and it stands as a contribution to bad movie canon right alongside the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It was chosen as the #1 episode of MST3k by fans when open voting was held by Shout! Factory to determine the top 100 user-voted episodes, but I can’t help but think that its ranking tends to get inflated slightly by the fact that the episode is so well known, and has thus been seen by more viewers. In short: It’s a great episode of the series, but it’s not #1, although it is in hall of fame territory. The main thing bringing it down just a bit is the fact that Manos is a bit inconsistent in delivering the big laughs—it starts out with incredibly funny material but then begins to slowly peter out by the last third, especially once The Master’s wives begin their endless bickering and wrestling. It’s like the movie (understandably) sucks the life out of Joel and the Bots over time, although I absolutely love the bit where the usually laid-back Joel can’t help actually yelling at the film to “DO SOMETHING!” Still, the first 30 minutes in particular are some of the riffers’ best work ever. Highlights of the episode include the interminable opening driving sequences, which are hilariously lampooned in a host segment, as well as the thrilling conclusion of the Hired! series of shorts in Part 2. This short is brilliant, and stronger than the first overall. The old man sitting on his porch, handkerchief on his head, swatting at imaginary elves, brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it.