Ranking Every MST3K Episode, From Worst to Best

Comedy Lists Best Mst3k Episodes
Ranking Every MST3K Episode, From Worst to Best

30. Ep. 509, The Girl in Lover’s Lane, 1960

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: Bix: “Bet you have a lot of boyfriends, pretty girl like you.” Joel: “No, I’m saving myself for the right oily drifter.”

You know you’re off to a good start in this film as soon as our nebbish, naive protagonist Danny meets up with a drifter named “Bix Dugan,” who Joel and the Bots willfully mis-hear as “Big Stupid.” Soon, the unlikely pair of hobo and hobo-worshiper end up involved in some small-town drama, trying to better the position in life of a very sweet waitress named Carrie. Spoilers: It doesn’t go well, at all, for anyone involved. The frightful-looking Jack Elam plays a local antagonist, with fairly memorable results, but even funnier than Elam is Crow’s impersonation of Jack Elam in one of the host segments. Simply changing one of his eyes to face a different direction should not be as funny as it is, but in the hands of MST3k it somehow becomes hysterical. Other highlights include the riffers pointing out various “wormholes” and wrinkles in time caused by the film’s poor editing, in ways reminiscent of The Girl in Gold Boots and its teleporting greaseball. And then there’s the bit with Big Stupid walking in on prostitute in the bathtub, which leads to one of the weirder exchanges of suggestive dialog outside of Samurai Cop. It’s all in a day’s work for Big Stupid.

29. Ep. 1104, Avalanche, 1978

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: In the middle of the avalanche mayhem: “The kitchen has a cheerleader?!?”

Avalanche can lay claim to representing a film subgenre that has more or less never been featured on MST3K in the past: The ‘70s-style disaster movie. The only classic episode that evokes a similar feel is something like San Francisco International, but Avalanche is more genuinely a part of that same movement that gave us The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and others, starring big Hollywood names in tales of man’s hubris vs. nature or technological disaster. The amusing thing about Avalanche is the way it goes from 0—an intensely boring Rock Hudson/Mia Farrow divorce drama of sorts—to 100, as soon as the titular Avalanche finally hits at about the 50 minute mark. We go from not caring about a bunch of bland ‘70s people to howling with laughter as the resort denizens and the town utterly fail to deal with their avalanche-related issues. The fire and rescue response is amazing, as fire trucks and ambulances come streaming out of the station, only to immediately crash into buildings in town that are in no way connected to the avalanche. As Tom and Crow observe: “Okay, now we’re just seeing collateral damage from the idea of an avalanche? What’s next, someone’s going to cut their finger on a newspaper reading about it?” Also lots of fun is the host segment examining the many untrademarked ideas for hybrid monster-disaster movies, including the likes of “Triceraquake,” “Wooly Clammoth” and “Night of the Were-Dads.” All in all, Avalanche is a surprisingly successful adaptation of a film style that is a fresh novelty for MST3K.

28. Ep. 1204, The Day Time Ended, 1980

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “This whole movie is like the cold open of a Columbo episode.”

Season 12 doesn’t have an entry that possesses quite the same level of outright “WTF is going on?” consternation as last season’s Carnival Magic, but The Day Time Ended comes pretty close. Suffice to say, this is the most purely weird entry in season 12, and it’s all the more memorable for how little idea the audience has of what the hell is happening at any given moment. Every time you think you’re finally coming to understand the dynamic of The Day Time Ended, it morphs into yet another genre and leaves everything else behind, which is brilliantly highlighted in what is easily the best song of this season, “Concepts!” It’s all the more funny for the fact that MST3K bemoaned the difficulty of replicating “Every Country Has a Monster” two episodes earlier during Atlantic Rim, because the insanely deft, impressive wordplay of “Concepts!” is definitely a contender. Seriously, just the plot summary in this song alone is practically enough to make The Day Time Ended into this season’s winner—it is that damn good. Bravo to Baron Vaughn in particular for shouldering the Harold Hill/Music Man load. It’s a humdinger of a hamdinger.

The Day Time Ended also benefits from some of the more compellingly bizarre characters of season 12, especially the family paterfamilias, who’s like a more rough-and-tumble, “steak milk”-loving version of the elderly security guard in Hobgoblins. In fact, this whole movie comes off like Eegah meets Laserblast meets Track of the Moon Beast, except with less connective tissue—it veers wildly between boredom and ridiculous sci-fi gibberish at the drop of a hat, while featuring esoteric riffs that reference the likes of The Moody Blues: “Breathe deep the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room.” One riff in particular that referenced Rick and Morty made me stop and think about just how novel it is to see MST3K referencing one of the modern series that most closely inherited its sense of humor. That the two now exist side by side means we’re just lucky as TV viewers.

27. 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.

26. Ep. 908, The Touch of Satan, 1971

Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “Emby Mellay? That’s not a name, that’s a bad Scrabble hand.”

The Touch of Satan is another one of those films where it’s tough to imagine anyone outside of an MST3k audience watching it; the kind of movie that would presumably have just fallen off the face of the earth if not for being revived in the cultural consciousness by the show. A grainy ‘70s tale of witchcraft and murderous grandmothers, its weak characters and hilariously incompetent dialog in particular are prime targets for riffing. There are few lines in the entire MST3k canon that announce a shitty film script with such exuberance as our female protagonist pointing to a pond and saying “This is where the fish lives!” Between the vacuous budding romance, an “incredibly sweaty dad,” grandma’s occasional jaunts to murder people with a pitchfork and the gas station extras who warn the hero about the presence of a “fromikidal maniac” in the area, the whole ordeal is crying out for riffing. The thrilling “walnut ranch” setting is just a bonus. I never would have thought it would be possible to write so many jokes about walnuts.

25. Ep. 1002, Girl in Gold Boots, 1968

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “ … and this is how you frighten a black bear in your camp. Okay, now let’s try dancing.”

This grimy film has the same washed-out, earth tones look of The Touch of Satan, but unfortunately no killer grandmothers. Rather, it’s a would-be exploitation flick with a touch of biker movie, caught in some kind of depressing gulf between “teen dance movie,” crime story and softcore. The story concerns a young woman who wants to be a dancer, who joins up with a couple of dumb guys traveling cross country to L.A.—one who wants to exploit her talents, and one who simply wants to exploit her body. That guy’s name is “Critter,” by the way. Hilariously riffed from top to bottom, the guys consistently point out the nonexistent production values and consistently ugly, upsetting atmosphere. The film is replete with long, mind-numbing dance sequences but also with hilariously “they just didn’t care” editing gaffes—the best being when two of the characters are having a conversation in a restaurant booth and the third simply teleports onto the screen next to them. It’s a moment of unbelievable cheapness. I also love Mike’s attempt at parodying Critter’s sad folk song, ignoring Crow and Servo’s pleas as they attempt to fight an out-of-control, raging fire on the SOL. Of note: This was the first episode of the Sci-Fi Channel years where the network allowed a film on the show that wasn’t explicitly sci-fi, horror or fantasy.

24. Ep. 804, The Deadly Mantis, 1957

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: Female lead, resisting romantic advances: “We’d better take off.” Crow: “But I’ve got a MANTIS in my pantis.”

This really isn’t that bad a movie, with credible special effects and models for the time—much better than say, the grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End—but it’s balanced out by how much the film drags in certain stretches, especially when the mantis is aimlessly flying around toward the end. Still, there are some howlingly funny sequences here, especially when the scientists start arguing over the identity/provenance of a giant claw they find in the arctic, with Tom theorizing that “Mrs. Beatrice Torgeson of Maple Plain has spurs like that.” I had an entomologist friend who also took great joy in the vaguely Peter Graves-looking scientist’s following line: “In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious a creature than the Praying Mantis.” Naturally, the giant bug goes on a rampage and must be stopped, but we take plenty of time off for a subplot about the female reporter lead being clumsily courted by a military man. The “mantis in my pantis” line is only one of many greats. I also like “This just in; the colonel’s advances were rebuffed once again, sweaty hands slapped away, breasts escaped unharmed.”

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23. Ep. 1006, Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues, 1985

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: Crow, to Crenshaw: “God bless you, half man, half pig.”

The funny thing about Boggy Creek II is that it’s not actually the second in the Boggy Creek series, but the third. Apparently the actual second film, Return to Boggy Creek, was so heinous that vain writer/director/star Charles B. Pierce decided to just pretend it never happened when he made this film. That is saying something, because this film is pretty damn awful itself, saved only by some powerhouse riffing from Mike and the Bots, in one of the best episodes of season 10. This is, bar none, the “most Southern” film that the crew ever watches, with tons of riffs about moonshine, Waffle Houses and the shirtless men who dwell in and around them. Ostensibly a movie about hunting for a Bigfoot-like creature in the swamps, it’s instead a savage takedown of country folk and hillbillies by the SOL crew, especially the terrifying Crenshaw, who is far scarier and more unpleasant to look at than any monster ever featured on MST3k. I also love the way the crew zeroes in on poor, scrawny teenager Tim (the director’s son of course), whose obstinate refusal to dress himself makes Crow quip “Can I borrow a cup of shirt?” when he knocks on someone’s door. Even the end credits are great, as Tom launches into a long, rambling story from the perspective of “the little creature.”

22. Ep. 703, Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, 1988

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “The director’s vision: Confusion, wracked by ambiguity.”

Presenting: The least believable villain in MST3k history. “Troxartes,” or “trucks artist” as he’s quickly dubbed, is a bald, middle-aged sorcerer who seems unwillingly possessed by the spirit of William Shatner, who forces him to croak out each line in the most ridiculously pause-laden, over-the-top manner imaginable. It really is something to see, and it makes this episode an instant classic all on its own. But there’s so much other good stuff too, in this sword-and-sorcery tale of the middle ages, magic stones and an “army of the dead” that consists of a few hairy guys in ponchos. Our hero is a smug, smirking, skinny jackass, with a hairstyle that is, as Mike observes, “off by about twelve hundred years.” Overall, the film is laughably bad, but in a colorfully entertaining way that makes it inherently watchable—I assume this is what Mike means when he calls the film “one of the most ambitiously bad we’ve ever done.” An instant classic is the entire scene with the so-called “potato people,” who angrily react to the hero’s suggestion that maybe they eat anything other than potatoes. Servo’s shock when Potato Mom commands Deathstalker to sleep “in the barn” that “this isn’t the barn?” always makes me guffaw.

21. Ep. 601, Girls Town, 1959

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Another successful sexual intervention, courtesy of the Roman Catholic church.”

Mamie Van Doren, va-va-VOOM. In a ranking of the lovely ladies of MST3k, she would certainly be a top contender, there’s no doubt about that. This film shares some DNA with a few of the show’s other “juvenile delinquent” movies, but its superior riffing and not-half-bad production values shoot it up the rankings. Just the fact that they had the gall to cast the pathetic, wimpy Mel Torme, of all people, as the movie’s villain shows the level of miscalculation on display here. But wait! It’s not just Mel, but also Paul Anka in the same film! Van Doren plays a 27-year-old “at-risk teen” who gets shipped off to an all-girls reform school run by nuns. Anka, meanwhile, is a local teen heartthrob who hilariously (and through no fault of his own) ends up with one of the other reform girls dangerously obsessed with him. The scenes between Anka and this girl, Serafina, are beautiful to behold, as the SOL crew points out her obviously unhinged, frightening behavior toward the unreceptive Anka: “This was the golden age of stalking.” It’s one of the more inherently watchable dramas ever featured on the show, buoyed by a constant stream of impeccable pop culture references.

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20. Ep. 506, Eegah!, 1962

Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: While Roxy shaves Eegah: “Why don’t you just cut the string that holds that beard on?”

Eegah! is the best, slimiest movie you’ll ever see about a caveman with a raging libido. For some reason, its hip, swingin’ kids remind of of the Girl in Gold Boots crew, but this movie is far, far zanier and simultaneously more painful. It’s notable for the presence of two actors: Richard Kiel of Human Duplicators and James Bond (he’s Jaws) fame, playing the caveman Eegah, and the director’s son, Arch Hall Jr., taking advantage of supreme nepotism to play the crooning, guitar-strumming male lead. Just the face on Arch Hall Jr. is enough to make you want to turn off the TV—it’s genuinely irritating in its smugness and smushedness, which leads to him being dubbed “Cabbage Patch Elvis” by Joel and the Bots. The film contains one of the great contextless moments in MST3k history, when our three protagonists are venturing into the desert when a completely disembodied voice warns them to “watch out for snakes!” The rest of the episode has a little bit of everything—terrible singing from Arch Hall, wonderful riffing on the makeover Roxy attempts to give Eegah, and more of Richard Kiel’s tongue than you can possibly imagine. There’s even a great host segment where the bots attempt to use a newfangled contraption to smush Joel’s face into the “sunburned baby” countenance of Arch Hall Jr.

19. Ep. 704, The Incredible Melting Man, 1977

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: On the lemon-thieving grandparents: “There are yards of cable and 15 operators required to run these people.”

Quite possibly the “ickiest” episode in MST3k history is The Incredible Melting Man, the tale of a wayward astronaut who, well … melts, very slowly, causing him to go insane and become an unstoppable killing machine. Opposing him? Dr. Ted Nelson, professional bland protagonist. Oh man, is Dr. Ted a bore, but in a way that is somehow side-splitting. He has this air of milquetoast defeatism about him that radiates “I am going to give up immediately,” and it’s delightful. There are so many downright WEIRD things that happen in this film, and the riffing does a good job of pointing out the myriad absurdities. Such as when a nurse fleeing the melting man chooses to run straight through a glass door rather than open it. Or when we cut away to a seemingly unrelated five minutes of the elderly parents of Dr. Ted’s wife trying to steal lemons from a local citrus grove, before being murdered by Melting Man. Or Dr. Ted angrily berating his wife for not having any crackers in the pantry, and using “ATCHKA!” as an expletive. The episode is also notable for its host segments, which parody the frustrations that the Best Brains experienced in producing MST3k: The Movie. Focus groups, interfering producers and studio bigwigs all take a proper thrashing.

18. Ep. 1203, Lords of the Deep, 1989

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my stache.”

Before The Day Time Ended came along, it seemed like Lords of the Deep would have a surefire lock on the title of season 12’s strangest film, but it has to settle for simply being “most psychedelic” of the movies. Oh, and it’s also the best pure episode as well.

How to describe this wonderfully loopy movie? It seems so rote and blasé at first—an extremely cheap, by-the-numbers The Abyss rip-off, full of extremely ‘80s crew members wearing uniforms that look like quilted blankets with the Solo “Jazz Pattern” on them. But the longer you stick with Lords of the Deep, the more mind-bending it becomes. The lead female protagonist waltzes through every scene with a toothy grin on her face, showing reactions that seem like the opposite of whatever is appropriate at any given moment. Mind-numbingly boring conversations in hallways recall the likes of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, before mutating into an alien game of cat-and-mouse that seems to be ripping off the likes of Alien. Meanwhile, everyone trips balls, thanks to sentient ocean slime. It’s like the props of Space Mutiny had a baby with the “aliens want to show us a better lifestyle” preaching of Night of the Blood Beast.

Throughout it all, Jonah and the Bots deliver the season’s most steady, perfectly balanced set of riffs. The rhythmic improvements made to season 12 are on full display here, and the jokes land at a pace and timbre that feels like the best MST3K episodes of yore. Punchlines range from obvious jokes about The Magic School Bus or Yellow Submarine to some good dialog work—I cracked up at “Take your samples—but they won’t bring you true happiness!” Modern films in the vein of The Shape of Water get some great references, and the pair of bumbling comic relief crew members—referred to as “two Uncle Joeys in one movie”—are a gift for the riffers. In fact, the only surprising omission is the fact that the film’s two Roger Corman cameos don’t elicit some kind of recognition. Regardless, Lords of the Deep is a great episode from start to finish.

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17. Ep. 907, Hobgoblins, 1988

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “He’s really my mentor. He taught me how to truly love a woman … from across the street, through a telescope.”

There are MSTies out there who would strongly disagree with my “low” rating in terms of movie pain on this one, but although Hobgoblins is rightly cited as one of the most inept movies ever screened on MST3k, I find its haplessness both charming and inherently watchable—I would have no trouble watching this one without the riffing, which I sure as hell can’t say for the likes of Manos or Monster A-Go-Go. This film is just SO cheap, a moment that crystallizes beautifully in the first full-on reveal of the motionless, unarticulated Hobgoblin puppets driving a stolen golf cart. These guys (“Frankie, Sniffles, Bounce-Bounce and The Claw”), have the power to project really tasteless fantasies onto our stupid ‘80s teen protagonists, whether that be scoring with a phone sex worker or performing a retch-inducing striptease at the local dive, “Club Scum.” The whole film feels like something written by a guy desperately trying to be edgy, but with a 10-year-old’s conception of what “scum” might actually look like. I love how strongly Mike & The Bots sell both their fear and disgust toward watching the film, from trying to flee during the opening credits to building a replica of director Rick Sloane during the closing credits and having him claim that he’d been doing “quite a bit of crack that day” when he came up with Hobgoblins. Also included in the host segments is Crow’s hilariously dark, uninformed documentary about that most mythical of cryptozoological creatures: “Women,” who exist “only in the realm of myth and maybe.”

16. Ep. 1102, Cry Wilderness, 1987

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: To Paul and his equally bowl-cutted father: “Let’s head off to SuperCuts! I’m buyin’!”

After a somewhat uneven start in Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness is exactly what was needed to show faithful MSTies that season 11 was going to rapidly ascend to a higher level. This film is the season’s most impressive “find” in terms of a riffable object—significantly more obscure than the rest, without even a Wikipedia entry to its name before the show returned to Netflix. The story of an impulsive, irritating young boy (Paul) and his mystical bond with sasquatch, it really has to be seen to be believed. All the supporting characters are dynamite, from the constantly inappropriate cackling of Jim the native American sidekick to the first time we meet our antagonist, a big game hunter who has broken into the family’s cabin and is messily devouring an entire rabbit with his bare hands. Comparisons have evoked the likes of Pod People and The Final Sacrifice in describing Cry Wilderness, but there’s an absurdist mysticism here that is even more incredulous and weird—something that reminds me of the “WTF am I watching?” quality of some of MST3K’s Russo-Finnish fantasy movies such as Jack Frost, especially when Paul meets a native American mystic who has apparently risen from the dead specifically to aid him in protecting sasquatch. The riffing, meanwhile, really begins to stretch its legs and get esoteric—I was beyond impressed with a reference to Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s 1798 romantic epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, because honestly, how many people in the audience could possibly be expected to grasp that one? Hampton Yount is great as Crow here, turning even the most simple of running jokes, “…bang!” into a punchline that gets half a dozen big laughs over the course of the episode. It’s my sincere hope that the MST3K crew dredges up more films for season 12 that are this profoundly strange and largely unknown. Unrelated: The Mads’ “Carvel Ice Cream Cake Clock” is probably my favorite invention exchange item of season 11.

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15. Ep. 507, I Accuse My Parents, 1945, /w The Truck Farmer

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “He’s taken to selling his essays cheap on the street!”

I’ve often seen this episode cited as one of Joel’s favorites, and it’s pretty easy to see why, once you get past The Truck Farmer, which is a serviceable (if average) short. The main course, though, is classic Joel-era riffing, largely at the expense of poor dullard Jimmy, who accuses his parents in court as the cause of his delinquency-related downfall. You see, Mom is a lush—too drunk to properly serve on the PTA—and it all just descends into fast-talking, ‘40s-style anarchy from there, with lots of cops who seem like they’re straight out of The Brute Man. Jimmy shares much in common with the equally dumb, easily corrupted teens of other fare such as High School Big Shot, but none of them were so dull as to be reduced to robbing a diner owner for a hamburger. This is a heaping helping of melodrama, which flies in stark contrast to the more genre-heavy material of the Sci Fi Channel years. I enjoy the riffers’ fixation on the film’s many lies—there’s essentially not a single sympathetic character in it, and they spend all their time lying to one another. As Joel puts it, during a transition: “Seventeen hundred lies later …” No wonder Jimmy is driven to serve the mob, while simultaneously having no idea he’s doing it (because he’s an idiot).

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14. Ep. 1110, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, 1985

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Well, we better wrap this fight scene up; the savage warrior needs to get back to his day job at Little Caesar’s.”

Of every film featured in season 11, the first Wizards of the Lost Kingdom feels the most to me like a movie that could have been a series classic during the original run of MST3K. It has elements of all the original series’ sword-and-sorcery classics, from the overly complicated opening narration of Cave Dwellers to the exact same villain (Thom Christopher) as Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell. He doesn’t “Shatner” nearly as much in this installment, but Wizards of the Lost Kingdom makes up for it with an earnest badness that is antithetical to its jokey, painfully self aware sequel. Just look at Golfax, the … yeti? … monster tasked with keeping our young hero safe, who’s just a featureless blob of white fur on two legs, without any discernable mouth, eyes or hint of phonetics. Or “Ape-ula,” the three foot fanged monkey man. Or the villain’s seemingly endless supply of dwarves. Wizards of the Lost Kingdom is some colorful lunacy. But it’s the addition of “tortured Gordon Ramsey”/middle-aged doughy, alcoholic barbarian Kor the Conqueror to the mix that seals the deal on a classic MST3K episode—he is the closest thing to Zap Rowsdower in this new series, and it’s lovely to behold. From the moment that young Simon asks him “Where are you going?” and Crow replies “Fuddruckers!”, it’s clear we’re in good hands. Nowhere in season 11 are the members of the SOL crew more adept at riffing on the cheapness and foibles of the film, as when Crow quips “Is there even a word in the English language for how wrong this guy is for that part?”

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13. Ep. 1003, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, 1996

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “So Billy, the little boy who looks just like you went through terrible, irredeemable grief.”

Technically the third episode of season 10, this was actually the last new episode of MST3k to ever air on the Sci-Fi Channel, and at one point was considered the “lost episode” as a result. It’s also one of the best, a completely jumbled, pieced-together film assembled from two completely unrelated stories with the common thread of Merlin and his shop. The entire movie is technically presented to the audience as a bedtime story being told by Ernest Borgnine to his grandson, which is referenced often and to hilariously mundane effect by all three riffers: “By this time, Billy, a kid had thrown a chicken while an infertile couple looked at a store!” Or: “And then, the guy with the receding hairline drove a blue car, carefully signaling his turn and pulling into a suburban driveway.” This “bedtime story” quality only becomes funnier as the film gradually becomes incredibly dark, shedding any pretense of “family adventure” and killing not one, not, two, but THREE DIFFERENT PETS throughout. The first half is the strongest for its villain, an insufferably snobby “professional critic” whose job it apparently is to write scathing reviews of novelty magic shops and drive them right out of business. There honestly isn’t a slow moment, from the inexplicably pissed-off psychic woman in the second half to the bizarrity of the “rock ‘n roll martian” sequence, when one of the child actors dons googly glasses and starts singing a tune he seems to be plucking out of thin air. Merlin’s Shop is extremely watchable, if only because you spend half the film razzing its soap opera production values, and the other half marveling at its unexpected brutality in murdering cats and dogs.

12. Ep. 813, Jack Frost, 1964

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: During the opening credits: “These names are all Russian for ‘Alan Smithee.’”

Jack Frost is a hallucinogenic voyage that is only surpassed in trippy visuals by the likes of Santa Claus, but the riffing is on an entirely other level from that Mexican holiday drug bender. This is another of our “Russo-Finnish fantasy cycle,” and it’s undoubtedly the greatest of the lot, full of colorful characters and absurd plot points. It’s a jumbled hodgepodge of Russian mythology and folklore, starring stock characters like the witch Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged cabin, but characters pass in and out of the film so quickly that it ends up feeling like several episodes of a Russian fantasy TV show that have been unceremoniously stitched together to form a celluloid golem. Our hero Ivan is a pompous braggart who must be taught the meaning of humility by being changed into a bear-headed monster by the diminutive sprite known as “Father Mushroom,” before wandering the woods as a bear man seeking to do good deeds for strangers. Meanwhile, the doe-eyed girl known as Nastenka slaves away in a Cinderella-like scenario, awaiting rescue, except “Every time I meet a man, he’s either gay, or a bear,” as Mike quips. It’s a film that is incapable of being boring, and you never have any idea where the next absurd moment or carefully honed pop culture reference will come from.

11. Ep. 404, Teenagers From Outer Space, 1959

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: Dog owner, looking at skeleton: “This couldn’t be Sparky.” Crow: “Yeah, Sparky had skin.”

It might go against the spirit of the show in some respect, but I really do think that “not absolutely terrible” films often make for some of the best episodes—or at least legible films do, and Teenagers From Outer Space is considerably more competent than most. I mean sure, it concludes with a giant, rear-projected lobster threatening all of our heroes, but UNTIL then it’s actually sort of decent. A group of 40-something-year-old “teenage” aliens land on Earth to prepare for an invasion, but the young, rebellious “Derek” (that’s his alien name!) instead runs away and starts hanging out with the local kids. Too bad the aliens send the psychopathic Thor after him, leaving a trail of skeletonized remains in his wake with a nifty ray gun that very cleanly and thoroughly destroys everything in its path. The broad, one-dimensional character archetypes are a hoot, from the affable, overweight grandfather who is just poured into his sweater vest, to the alien commander who loves to threaten the treasonous Derek with the likelihood of “TORTCHA!” It’s a good-natured slice of vintage sci-fi that seems to really tickle Joel’s funny bone, and the entire crew is in ebullient spirit throughout.

10. Ep. 702, The Brute Man, 1946, /w The Chicken of Tomorrow

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “This has got to be by far his longest creep! It’s like one of those all-day, super endurance ultra creeps!”

If you take only one lesson away from this entire ranking, let it be that you need to go watch The Brute Man, because it’s the most chronically underrated episode in the history of MST3k, even among hardcore fans of the series. There, I said it: The genius of The Brute Man is terribly underappreciated, but it’s indicative of how great the shortened season 7 is as a whole. The film is technically part of the Universal horror series, starring the lesser-known but impressively lumpy Rondo Hatton (who suffered from acromegaly) as the title character, who is referred to throughout as “The Creeper” and never as “The Brute Man” at any point. The riffing of The Creeper’s inner monologue is absolutely brilliant, filled with pensive musings on the life of the Creeper and his desire to break the backs of the innocent. The sequence with the pissed-off shopkeep berating his teenage employee is side-splittingly funny, and it makes Mike laugh harder in the theater than any other series of jokes I’ve ever seen—he’s literally bent over in his seat, trying to hold in his chuckling. The episode even comes coupled with one of my favorite shorts of the entire series, The Chicken of Tomorrow, which is about breeding a better generation of poultry. It’s riffed with very helpful advice, such as “make sure to put all your eggs in one basket” and “Lick your eggs, or have a friend lick them!”

9. Ep. 1004, Future War, 1997

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “You know, I COULD point out that it’s not the future, and there is no war. But you know me; I don’t like to complain.”

This movie has the most amazing one-sentence synopsis ever for a MST3k feature: A kickboxing slave from space who looks like Jean Claude Van Damme crash-lands on Earth, pursued by cyborgs who use dinosaur puppets as their trackers, and battles them with the help of a former prostitute turned nun and a Latino street gang. None of that is exaggerated in any way. That’s just Future War for you. “John Claude Gosh Darn” starts off the film as a mute—sort of a kickboxing Marlee Matlin—before blossoming into someone you simply wish was mute. The riffs fly furiously and attack the absurdity of the premise but especially the hilariously slapdash production values, such as the director’s seeming obsession with knocking over walls of flimsy cardboard boxes, or the “TV anchorman” using an obviously cardboard video camera. The aforementioned prostitute-turned-nun lives in what Servo describes as “a halfway house for huge guys,” rooming with two gigantic dudes who love to stuff their craws when they’re not being eaten by dinosaurs. You’ve even got a reappearance of mega-chinned Robert Z’Dar, who was just in Soultaker two episodes earlier. The laughs never slow down for a moment, but if I have to pick just one, I can’t help but cackle at Mike and The Bots’ confusion over the identity of one “Fred Burroughs,” who is never seen in the film.

8. Ep. 512, Mitchell, 1975

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Mitchell: Even his name says, ‘Is that a beer?’”

The most bittersweet episode in the show’s history is obviously Mitchell. Joel left a huge hole in the personality and tone of MST3k when he departed, but he at least picked an all-time classic film to go out on in the form of Mitchell. Rarely has the character of a single actor been assassinated so thoroughly as Joe Don Baker is here—you can see why there are (largely exaggerated) stories about his animosity toward the MST3k crew to this day. Mitchell is a cop—a bloating, wheezing, oily, ill-tempered cop who argues with children! That’s actually a thing he does in this film; initiate a screaming match with a young child on a skateboard for no apparent reason. What kind of awful protagonist are you heaping on us, movie? I love the early sequence where he investigates a shooting at John Saxon’s pad, only to learn that he doesn’t know which of the guns in his collection are potentially deadly. Or as Crow says: “They’re randomly loaded. It’s a little game I play.” And then of course there’s what is probably the most uncomfortable love scene in MST3k history, when Mitchell gets under the sheets with a call girl to the tune of the “Mah mah mah mah Mitchell” theme song, before arresting her afterward. Joel’s departure, meanwhile, is both sweet and sad, featuring choice words from The Circus of Dr. Lao. It’s the most poignant moment you’ll find in the MST3k library.

7. Ep. 821, Time Chasers, 1994

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Woah, two different plaids? I’m a naked robot, and even I know that’s a fashion no-no.”

“A David Giancola film … is not something you’d want to see,” begins Mike on this all-star riffing of an obviously Back to the Future-inspired film. Truth be told, I love Time Chasers the film—it’s one of the most purely entertaining movies ever featured on MST3k, and its comfortable, cheesy badness fits it like a glove. I could happily watch it without riffing, but with the MST3k treatment it becomes transcendent. It gets off to a strong start immediately, as Crow absolutely refuses to accept that the big-chinned Nick could possibly be our hero, holding onto hope that he’s riding his bike on a trip to meet the real hero of the film: “This cannot be the star; can it movie? Can I see your supervisor, movie? This will not stand!” We’ve also got a strong cast of supporting actors: Corporate villain “Bob Evil” who wants to use the time machine as a weapon; plaid-wearing and vacuous reporter love interest Lisa, and of course “Pink Boy,” the villain’s primary gopher. The crew really zeroes in on the movie’s seeming lack of budget for location scouting, which results in elementary schools meant to stand in for corporate headquarters and a CEO whose desk appears to be located in a branch library. Also a lot of fun in this episode are the host segments, which see Crow travel back in time to warn a young Mike about how the Mads will trap him on the SOL. Unfortunately, this has the butterfly effect outcome of Mike’s “older brother” Eddie ending up on the SOL instead, which gives us an entire theater sequence of Mike in character as chain-smoking, heavy-drinking Eddie, who takes breaks throughout to loiter on the rarely used left side of the theater. There isn’t a single slow moment in Time Chasers.

6. Ep. 303, Pod People, 1983

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “He died as he lived, with his mouth wide open.”

It has been said, on occasion, that this film and the things within it “stink.” This is the correct assessment. But as an episode? Top notch. Pod People truly is a weird, weird movie, and one that proudly wears the evidence of a troubled production on its sleeve. It’s pretty clear when you’re watching it that the original film was intended as more of a horror/monster movie about an alien hunting band members in the woods, but following the success of E.T. the year earlier, they added a side-story about a disturbingly dubbed young boy and his alien companion, Trumpy. The result is like two unrelated movies running side-by-side. On one hand, we’ve got an untalented band full of unlikable people mucking around the woods in fairly unmemorable fashion. And on the other hand, you’ve got the colorful lunacy of Trumpy, whose magic powers allow him to do “STUPID THINGS!” This is one of Trace Beaulieu’s very best episodes, as his hilarious Trumpy voice makes every scene exponentially more hilarious, such as when Trumpy is browsing through Tommy’s room, calling all of his different pets “potatoes” and debating which he should eat first. Meanwhile, Joel shines in the host segments, where the gang parodies the untalented band’s big musical number with the song “Idiot Control Now.” What can you say about “It Stinks!”? It’s one of the show’s most enduring and oft-repeated catchphrases, along with the likes of “Watch out for snakes!” and “hi-keeba!” Along with Cave Dwellers, this episode was a sign to fans that MST3k had ascended to a new level of quality in season 3.

5. Ep. 701, Night of the Blood Beast, 1958, /w Once Upon a Honeymoon

Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: Mike, as the morose Dr. Wyman: “What I’m about to say may sound strange, but I think we should eat this corpse.”

Impeccable comedic timing; that’s the engine driving Night of the Blood Beast. The film is just a dull speck of nothing—unlike some of the others in the top 10, it wouldn’t stand out in the slightest if not for the riffing, except for the utterly ridiculous “burn ward Barney” monster costume. And yet, the Best Brains make it something magical, with one of the tightest and most perfectly scripted opening sequences that the series has ever seen. Described by Tom as “from a sentence by Gene Corman,” this film was produced by both Gene and big brother Roger—or in other words, “it’s been thoroughly Cormanized.” It’s the story of a really dead astronaut who falls to Earth, before becoming slightly less dead, and the monster with whom he shares a very personal, possibly sexual relationship. There’s no end to the amazing running gags that are established throughout, especially the fact that seemingly everyone responds to the name “Steve,” and the awkward position of the revived astronaut who appears to be carrying a load of alien shrimp in his manly gut. Meanwhile, we’re also given one of the best and weirdest shorts in MST3k’s library in the form of Once Upon a Honeymoon, which was ostensibly meant to sell telephones. How does the story of an angel helping a newlywed couple write musical theater numbers sell telephones? Your guess is as good as mine, but seeing the DNA of It’s a Wonderful Life reduced to such a cheap, campy bauble is quite a treat.

4. Ep. 904, Werewolf, 1996

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “You know, it’s economical to not have a storyline, because then you can just film people saying things.”

Sometimes, when you’re watching a MST3k movie, you start wondering if it was covertly produced explicitly so it could be featured on this show. Werewolf is one of those episodes. Everything about it invites mockery so openly: The cast of “European-sounding” Americans in the American southwest; the presence of Joe Estevez; the sleazeball villain who can’t decide if his accent is Mexican or Russian; the werewolf costume that looks like a giant fruit bat. There’s no MST3k episode that gets more mileage out of bad accents, between villain Yuri and unforgettable protagonist Natalie. Poor Natalie … she may bear the weight of “the worst single performance in MST3k history,” thanks to a complete inability to emote properly or get a line like “this is absolutely fascinating” out of her mouth in a way that seems human. Some of her lines are even more ridiculous when written out: “You and Noel is in it for fame and fortune? But over my dead body!” She speaks in tenses referred to by Mike as “the future conditional pluperfect subjunctive.” Or more succinctly, it’s a movie about “foreign people talking in attics,” until writer Paul is turned into a werewolf by getting clubbed with a werewolf skull by an angry archaeologist. The smug Yuri is also a highlight, particularly in the way his hair seems to change both style and color—going from black to brown to grey—in nearly every scene. There’s no end to the hilarious sequences, including a werewolf behind the wheels of a car, and Mike & The Bots performance of their ‘50s-inspired girl group song “Where, Oh Werewolf?” It’s all brilliant, top to bottom.

3. Ep. 301, Cave Dwellers, 1984

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “The hills have eyes, but they have glaucoma right now.”

If Wild Rebels in season 2 represents the first “great” episode of MST3k, then Cave Dwellers represents the first hall of fame episode, kicking off season 3. This show, like The Simpsons, simply took time to blossom into its full evolved form. Season 2 is a massive improvement over season 1, but season 3 takes it to the next level, and Cave Dwellers was the episode to announce to the world that MST3k was the greatest comedy on television. Another sword-and-sorcery film in the vein of Deathstalker, it features Miles “I’m huge!” O’Keefe as a Conan-style barbarian Ator, who is delightfully dull-witted, with his Farrah Fawcett hair and “pecs like melons and knees of fringe.” It gives us one of the show’s lamest villains in the form Zor, a scrawny, mustachioed drama geek with a ridiculous helmet shaped like a huge black swan, and “valley girl” princess Mila, whose armor appears to be made from old hubcaps. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can compare to the single most WTF moment in MST3k history, when Ator and co. need to infiltrate a castle and we suddenly cut to Ator leaping off a cliff while flying a modern hang-glider. It’s a moment of sheer lunacy so stupid that you could never possibly see it coming. As Servo says: “Okay, this is a little ridiculous. So he kills a deer; he tans the hide; he stretches the skins; he makes an anodized aluminum frame; he learns how to extrude and weld, all in about five minutes, huh? Learned aerodynamics.” It’s like the movie just flipping a massive middle finger right at the audience, and it’s my favorite Joel-era episode ever.

2. Ep. 820, Space Mutiny, 1988

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “You know, if we pretend we know what’s going on, it’s actually kind of exciting.”

The rare episode where you actually have to wait for a little while before the good stuff arrives, Space Mutiny seems pretty conventional for the first 15 minutes or so, before the arrival of the hero changes everything. If there’s a pantheon out there for “big, dumb, bricks of meat,” Dave Ryder would sit at on the throne. Re-using the “tough guy names” they first tested out in 12 to the Moon, Mike & The Bots this time turn them into an absolute art form, rechristening our hero everything from “Gristle McThornbody” to “Bolt VanderHuge!” He’s the perfect dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers action star: White, beefy, slow and in way over his head in terms of delivering his lines, when he’s not screeching in a bizarrely feminine way. But that’s just the start: We also have Captain Santa Claus (played by the ever-surly Cameron Mitchell), with a never-ending parade of jokes about his elves and reindeer. We also have his “grandma daughter” as the female lead, who appears to be roughly the same age. And to top it all off, there’s the scenery-masticating Kalgan, who murders both spaceship crewmen and common decency with his over-the-top delivery and bug-eyed countenance. The characters make the episode, but the observational humor is just as strong, as Mike & The Bots riff on the film’s obsession with “railing kills” and the howlingly funny continuity error of an actress who was just killed showing up on the bridge in the next scene. Says Crow: “I think it’s very nice of you to give that dead woman another chance!” The laughs fly fast and furious right up to the painfully obvious “the end?” conclusion.

1. Ep. 910, The Final Sacrifice, 1990

Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: Troy, to grizzled old prospector: “You knew my father?” Servo: “KNOW him? He was delicious!”

We’re finally here: The #1 episode of MST3k of all time. If you’ve actually been reading this piece from start to finish, the quality of the light outside has almost certainly changed since you begun. Perhaps you started before lunch, and the sky is now purpling with a beautiful sunset: The kind of sunset that Zap Rowsdower would stare into pensively, while thinking “I wonder if there’s beer on the sun.” Yes, that’s the name of our Canadian hero: Zap Rowsdower. The dumbest, and thereby most unforgettable name in cinema history. He teams up with a young, snarling-faced kid named Troy to take on an evil cult that wants to revive an ancient, powerful Canadian lost civilization that “ruled this one acre for a week; nobody knew.” The dynamic between the Larry Csonka-worshiping, irritating Troy, who is searching for the cause of his father’s death, and the beer-swilling drifter Rowsdower is the stuff of MST3k legend. Every minute of screen time is packed to the gills with more memorable moments than you can possibly summarize, from eye-rolling “Canadian villain Garth Vader” to grizzled old prospector Mike Pipper, whose tortured voice is a source of constant riffing. It showcases the incredibly obscure, geeky sense of humor that is at the heart of this show, such as Servo’s comparison of Pipper to Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. I mean honestly—what show has both the knowledge and the faith in its audience to make jokes about Ethiopian history? What show on TV, before or since, has had such depth and breadth to its sense of humor, and drawn on so many different influences? What other show can make you laugh so hard, but simultaneously teach you so much, and give you a greater appreciation for cinema itself?

That’s why MST3k is the greatest TV comedy of all time. And by extension, I suppose that makes The Final Sacrifice the greatest TV comedy episode of all time. Long may it reign.

A final thanks

This piece, unsurprisingly, took ages to work on and write. It was begun back in the fall of 2016 in anticipation of the new season of MST3k, and represents untold hours of writing and rewatching of classic MST3k episodes. I just wanted to say “THANK YOU” to everyone who actually made the show possible: Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson and literally everyone at Best Brains who contributed toward making my favorite TV show of all time. Thank you to Shout! Factory for releasing the series and circulating the tapes, and for leading in the revival of the new series as it heads to Netflix. Thank you to Joel again, for having the faith in MST3k’s fans to know that they would support its return on Kickstarter. And good luck to every one of the new cast members: Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt and everyone behind the scenes. I can’t wait to watch the new season, and perhaps when it’s done, I’ll add the new episodes to this ranking. But in the meantime: THANK YOU! And keep circulating the tapes!

More MST3k content on Paste

While you’re here, I should at least mention some of the other things that both myself and other Paste writers have written about MST3k in the past. Suffice to say, there’s quite a wealth of content, from the very worst movies featured on the show to interviews with some of the former cast members.

— A ranking of just the 20 episodes now available on Netflix.

— An interview I did with Jonah, Baron Vaughn, Hampton Yount and Felicia Day about the reboot.

— An interview I conducted with Joel, right after the #BringBackMST3k Kickstarter was launched.

— An interview with Mike Nelson about the continued success of RiffTrax.

— A feature on Coleman Francis, the REAL worst director in film history, whose three films (The Skydivers, The Beast of Yucca Flats and Red Zone Cuba) were all featured on MST3k.

10 great actors who appeared in MST3k movies, by Paste contributor Chris Morgan, who has also written a book about 12 classic MST3k episodes.

— The 10 most unwatchable films featured on MST3k.

— A 25-episode history of MST3k, noting all the most important developments behind the scenes of the show.

— The top 10 MST3k shorts.

— The 10 worst movie monsters on MST3k.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident MST3k geek and staff writer. You can, and really should, follow him on Twitter for more absurdly ambitious rankings like this one.

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