It was 25 years ago this November that an eccentric prop comic first started gluing junk drawer items together to make robot puppets in his basement. That man was Joel Hodgson, and his brainchild was called Mystery Science Theater 3000. Initially airing on local Minneapolis independent station KTMA before runs on early-cable Comedy Central (then called “The Comedy Channel”) and SyFy (then the much more sensible “Sci-Fi Channel”), MST3k perfected the entire pop culture sub-genre of movie riffing.
In the process, MST3k shone a light on some 176 largely forgotten feature films, many of which would have been lost to history. Titans of B-movie filmmaking like Roger Corman were represented, of course, but other disasterpieces such as the iconic Manos: The Hands of Fate found entirely new audiences they never would have seen otherwise.
There’s no getting around it, though—the movies were bad, and purposefully chosen for that reason. On a scale beginning at “almost entertaining” and ending at “the worst thing ever filmed,” this list gathers the very worst of the worst, those movies difficult to appreciate even as a joke. View the non-MST3k versions at your own risk.
10. The Starfighters, 1964
The film: Most films earned their way onto this list through sheer powers of boredom, and The Starfighters is a prime example. Remember those early scenes in Pearl Harbor that took place during the characters’ Air Force training? If Michael Bay had stretched those out to create an entire movie and then done away with all the special effects, it would still be better than The Starfighters, which is also about Air Force pilots and not spaceship pilots as the title might suggest. More specifically, it’s about Air Force pilots flying, landing, refueling, drinking and wearing “poopie suits.”
Single worst moment: Refueling. The movie is absolutely obsessed with mid-air refueling—it’s a legitimately major plot point. For the audience, this means multiple long, tedious scenes composed entirely of stock footage, as hoses are inserted into planes. There are only so many dirty jokes one can make before they’re all exhausted and there are still 10 more minutes of refueling to go.
9. The Skydivers, 1963
Coleman Francis quite simply, was the worst director of all time, far worse than the likes of Ed Wood. He completed three feature films in his career, and all three of them are on this list. The Skydivers is probably the “best” of his movies, in the sense that one can almost get a faint impression of an overall plot centered around a husband and wife running a ramshackle skydiving facility. And boy, you definitely get to see some skydiving. Coleman Francis evidently thought plotless skydiving segments were much more important than story, so skydiving is to this film what refueling was to The Starfighters. Factor in the listless performances, lack of conflict and chaotic editing, and there isn’t a single feature to make The Skydivers watchable.
Single worst moment: Hard to pin down, but you could insert any of the Coleman Francis standbys, such as entire scenes dedicated to drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. You really can’t stress Francis’ amateurishness enough. Give a high-schooler an iPhone in 2013 and they’ll produce a much better feature than this.
8. Invasion of the Neptune Men, 1961
The film: Superhero movies tinged with science fiction were all the rage in 1960s Japan, but Invasion of the Neptune Men is horrendous even by this genre’s standards. This one has all the hallmarks of the genre: A scientist with a secret identity, hostile aliens and model rocketships going “pew pew” at each other. What it doesn’t have is a budget, judging from the excessive use of WWII stock footage and lack of plot. Thanks to its cheapness, the more “exciting” it’s supposed to be, the more boring it becomes.
Single worst moment: The 20-minute air battle that concludes the picture feels like multiple lifetimes. It’s just little rockets shooting at each other by scratching the film, intercut with shots of men in helmets fiddling with knobs. The highlight is when, out of absolutely nowhere, one of the ships vaporizes a building that for some reason has a huge picture of Adolf Hitler on it.
7. The Creeping Terror, 1964
The film: If you visited IMDB or Wikipedia and read about The Creeping Terror, you would likely come away with the belief that there’s a storyline occurring within the film, but it would be difficult to tell by simply viewing it. This super cheap monster flick about a crashed alien features some of the darkest and ugliest black-and-white cinematography ever committed to celluloid. Many of the scenes look like they were lit by nightlights or actors outfitted in miner’s helmets.
Single worst moment: The film has narration throughout that is both pervasive and mystifying. Long, silent passages go by with no sound at all, and then as soon as the characters start speaking, the narrator talks over them. Legend has it that portions of the soundtrack were physically lost at some point and never made it into the final film.
6. The Slime People, 1962
The film: It’s your garden variety drive-in monster trash: A race of subterranean reptilian slime dudes venture up to the surface and create a wall of “solidified fog” that engulfs L.A., somehow stopping people from entering and exiting the city. It sounds like it might actually be a clever commentary on smog and environmental pollution, but really, it’s just pure idiocy. The movie is as slapdash as they come, full of one-note characters, terrible acting and a totally unsatisfactory deus ex machina conclusion.
Single worst moment: The thing that bumps The Slime People up from “terrible” to a spot on the all-time bad list is the fog itself. The fog … oh my god, the fog. The fog machines rented for the film were deployed to ridiculous excess, which results in a second half that is literally impossible to see in some scenes. Many of the most important scenes take place in huge blankets of white fog that completely obscure everything happening on screen. It’s as if the director totally forgot that film is a visual medium.
5. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 1964
The film: Upon release, this film was promoted as “the first monster musical!” It’s completely incomprehensible, a disaster on every level. The entirely unprofessional cast is barely able to get through a scene without stumbling over their material. The characters are downright bizarre, especially “Ortega,” the deformed henchman coated in what appears to be a thick layer of Vaseline. It’s perhaps the most unlikable cast in MST3k history—every attribute of every character is irritating, and the film itself is incredibly ugly. They don’t get more aesthetically unpleasant.
Single worst moment: It’s all terrible, but the musical numbers in Incredibly Strange Creatures are in a class of their own. Tacked on either to pad the film or in some amazingly deluded belief they would be a group’s “big break,” they come out of nowhere and drag on like an eternity. In the middle of it all, there’s even a painful stand-up comedy portion. Truly, this film had no idea of how to fill its own run-time.
4. Red Zone Cuba, 1966
The film: By the time Coleman Francis got around to making his third and final feature, he was down to casting non-actors as the principal characters. In this spirit, he cast himself as the lead in Red Zone Cuba, one of the dreariest and most hopeless films ever made. Every frame of this mean-spirited movie is full of hopeless dread. Every character is repugnant. Its 89-minute story about escaped cons being terrible people will take a year off your life.
Single worst moment: This movie is its own worst moment, but if you’re going to narrow it down to just one, perhaps the “best” is when Francis and his fellow thug doom a perfectly innocent café owner to a slow death by dropping him into a well.
3. Manos: The Hands of Fate, 1966
The film: When your director is a fertilizer salesman making a no-budget horror film because someone bet him he couldn’t, your finished product just isn’t going to be very good. Manos is probably the most famous MST3k episode, and many would call it their worst film. It’s easy to see why—it’s incredibly slow, from its meandering opening to the long stretches in the middle where people are just wandering around a farm house or an unlit desert at night. The actors are all either awkward, stiff or both. The most compelling character is goat-man “Torgo,” who does nothing but stutter and leer throughout the entire film. This alone makes him the best thing in it.
Single worst moment: The film’s opening is the stuff of cinematic legend—an uninterrupted eight-minute sequence of a family driving around in their big boat of a car, getting lost in the countryside while jazz music plays. It may be the longest eight minutes of your life.
2. Monster a Go-Go, 1965
The film: You could easily make a case for Monster a Go-Go as the worst film ever featured on MST3k. Its original director abandoned it incomplete in 1961 when it was bought by cheapo gore master Herschel Gordon Lewis. Lewis then filmed additional scenes with all-new characters and stapled the entire thing together into one “complete” movie about an astronaut turned into a monster. The resulting feature is so cheap that there’s a scene where one of the actors has to fake making a ringing telephone sound before picking up the receiver.
Single worst moment:
Monster a Go-Go has what is authoritatively the worst ending of all time. After chasing the monster into the sewers and cornering him, a voiceover suddenly starts. It informs us that: “There was no monster to be followed. Astronaut Frank Douglas, rescued, alive, well, and of normal size, some eight thousand miles away in a lifeboat.”
Yes indeed, it’s the biggest movie cop-out ever.
1. The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961
The film: This was Coleman Francis’ first feature, and there’s nothing that can be said to convey just how abysmal an effort it is. One can point out the nonsensical narration, which quips unexplained phrases such as “Flag on the moon: How did it get there?”
One can revel in the casting of Tor Johnson, perhaps the only time a director poached an actor away from Ed Wood. You can even make a little game of spotting characters alive and well who appeared to have been shot to death in earlier scenes. But the only way to experience what The Beast of Yucca Flats is really like is to either see the film or actually wander around the nuclear test sites of Yucca Flats until you mutate.
Single worst moment:
The Beast of Yucca Flats was filmed entirely without a soundtrack. There were literally no microphones present while filming, and the result is something I’ve never seen in another non-silent movie: A complete feature film with no on-screen dialog. Every bit of dialog in the movie was inserted in post-production and is delivered either while characters are off-camera or too far away to be seen (this is often). For its 54-minute runtime, The Beast of Yucca Flats is the worst thing you’ll ever see.
The Castle of Fu-Manchu, Being from Another Planet, Attack of the Eye Creatures.