Having seen every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 repeatedly, making a "favorite" list is both easy and hard. It's easy in that I know which ones I like the most, and especially an order for the top 10 or so, but hard because there's so many that I like. Even making this a Top 30 List was tough. The show had a perfect formula, making for pretty much every episode to be good.
However, not every episode is as easily watched by me. I do know that some are chores, such as the badly subbed and very bleak Swedish movie for Hamlet. Not a movie that makes for good watching, or subject matter for good riffing. And that's how I kind of determined my favorites: is the film watchable and entertaining and does it lend itself well to good riffing. There are exceptions in both cases, sometimes the film is just fun and the riffing not good, or the movie really bad but the great riffing makes up for it, that might balance it all out, but most tend to be a little of both for me. If I could make this list a hundred, I easily could, but here we go anyway.
30) Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders
A mish-mash of an anthology film that results in this odd hybrid of a horror movie meets a kids film, and it never succeeds in either role. The best thing about this one is the first story about a douchebag critic wandering in to Merlin's store and given a book of spells. It's amazing how dark it gets. Not "fantasy" dark but just kind of "evil/mean" dark, and the kicker is that these little stories are meant to be bedtime stories told by one Ernest Borgnine - so it's like The Princess Bride only a lot less fun and a cat gets roasted to death. So enjoy! I know I do.
29) Final Justice
There's nothing quite like a Joe Don Baker movie. This man was a movie star, folks. Joe Don is at his most...sweaty...in Final Justice. He's a little more rotund in this, and wearing cowboy gear while hunting down a criminal in Malta. It's a cheesy cops versus robbers movie with a fat man and bad Italian accents, what could go wrong? I still haven't decided if I like the Joe Don riffs more, or the riffing on the island of Malta itself, both are golden.
28) The Beatniks
So Beatniks are apparently criminals, according to this movie anyway. You can see the quasi-PSAness of the whole thing: these teens are just outta control! What with their singing and coats and whatnot. It reminds me a lot of other MST3k episodes, like Girls Town or Kitten With a Whip or (certainly) The Girl in Gold Boots. Somehow, I think the writers got "beatniks" mixed up with "drunk teenager criminals." The gem here is the character of Eddie, a hammy, mugging actor that actually doesn't seem like he's acting all that much and really why I put this above a lot of those others. He's really in to the role, then pretty much loses his mind.
Beatniks is apparently not an overly popular episode, I had trouble finding memes for it which is sad, because there needs to be some Eddie memes out there.
27) The Space Children
The Space Children on its own is a solid episode, but The Space Children plus my favorite MST3k short, Century 21 Calling, makes for one of my favorite episodes. It's a great one-two punch. A really cheesy telephone PSA about the wonders of push-button dialing and a pretty entertaining, though often slow, and riffable 1950s Alien flick.
I almost feel this is a requirement for any Mistie out there (Mistie a term for MST3k fan if you were wondering). Eegah is about a pug-faced boy, a girl named Roxy, her dad and a giant caveman. Isn't that wonderful? This is bad 60s low-budget as you can get, but the best part is Eegah himself, played by Richard Kiel. Kiel made quite a few appearances in some MST3k episodes, another fun one being The Human Duplicators, but the overall laziness and blandness of Eegah, full of padding up to a pretty funny climax, makes it one of the most enjoyable.
Another great later episode, Laserblast is a strange movie that has a cameo by Roddy McDowall. Oh, and lasers. And dweeby teenagers. And cool stop-motion aliens that are the only good thing in it. And...well that's acout it, actually. It kind of has some ideas, then instead of putting them together, just builds to a laser destroying a Star Wars billboard. And not even a real-looking one, more like one they made for the movie then just blew up. It's crazy.
I was a little surprised that this one is so popular. Until the internet and me putting this list together gave me access to other discussions of favorites, Cave Dwellers popped up a lot. There were a few Conan-knockoffs the MST3k crew took on. Outlaw of Gor and Deathstalker were a couple of other ones that the crew did a great job on, but for some reason Cave Dwellers just hits a sweetspot of being entertaining yet completely nonsensical. I mean, our hero, the bosomy Ator somehow constructs a hangglider in about a half hour despite this being...whatever time period it's supposed to be. It's a little unclear, you have knights one minute, cavemen the next, then samurai...so try and figure that one out.
23) Hercules Unchained
One of the first episodes I remember seeing, and it all comes down to Steve Reeves. I think I like this one more for nostalgia, but also the very tired and sleepy Herc and the "Herc voice" that Joel and bots put out there and the whole misogyny of it all. Plus, this apparently Jim Mallon and Joel Hodgson's favorite episode (or at least one of them) so I feel in good company in including it. Also, let's not forget Mike Nelson in an early appearance as a washed-up Steve Reeves. Man, he knew how to do a guest spot. His bits with the Mads were some of the funniest he put out there.
22) Any Gamera Flick
It's hard to just choose one of the many Gamera movies the MST3k crew made fun of. They did five total Gamera episodes in Season 3 and all tend to run together after a while, so it's hard to choose just one as they are the epitome of bad, yet kind of fun, Japanese monster movies. To me, the next to a little movie called Manos, the Gamera movies kind of defined the Joel-era. They're just solid episodes all the way with the classic Gamera theme being the highlight.
21) Teenage Strangler
Is it a teenager that strangles or a strangler of teenager? A question that demands answers. But for this episode, it comes down to one thing: Mikey. Oh god, the character of Mikey is an amazing piece of work. He doesn't show up right away, but once he does, there's no getting rid of him. But Mike and the bots really make this episode by their overdubbing of Mikey's voice as we watch. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but it's the best overdub and having characters say dumb things since Joel and the bots took on The Girl in Lover's Lane. Also, this episode has one of my favorite shorts: Is This Love?
You know, Tormented isn't that bad of a movie. It's bland and uninspired, but not bad. Not "Future War" bad or anything. But I think that's what makes it kind of fun. There's a similar film, The Screaming Skull, with the same premise, but the characters in Tormented are just so easy to mock. A blind housekeeper? Oh man, the jokes could never end on that alone, and they don't.
19) Warrior of the Lost World
It's not Mad Max, it's Sad Max, and there's really not film quite like it. It wants to be this post-apocalyptic movie starring "the Paper Chase guy" but really, it's a strange flick about a talking motorcycle, coming back from the dead for some reason, Megaweapons and Jimmy Carter taking on Donald Pleasence (who gives his performance in Puma Man a run for its money). It's actually a decently done bad movie, even has some nice camera shots of speeding bikes and gunfights, but it's so. damn. cheesy. And that's why I like it.
18) Time Chasers
It's Butt-Chin guy versus Bob Evil and a time-traveling plane. Why a plane? I don't know, but it travels through time and they're chasing something. As Crow says, "please tell me this isn't our hero." Well, it is, thick glasses, mullet, chin-butt and all. The kicker is how it all ends, during the revolutionary war...included with real revolutionary war reenactment actors with real fakeness to all of them. A thoroughly entertaining episode, especially with the host segments of Crow traveling through time to convince a younger, stoner Mike Nelson to alter his path in life (and giving us Eddie, Mike's asshole brother in his place).
17) Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
Ah, Raul. Raul Julia. You were a great actor and his is probably your lowest point. It's not Raul's fault, he was just a squirrel looking for a nut, as they say. But goodness, this Cable Access TV Movie (yes, that's apparently a real thing) shot on video is one of the most laughable science fiction movies ever made. I mean, Raul Julia's consciousness is transferred in to a baboon. Just read that sentence for a moment.
The best aspect, though, is the many Casablanca references we get. In the film, there's this virtual world based on the film Casablanca, with Raul playing the role or Rick, a Peter Lorre looking character actor and a very, very, very sweaty fat man. There's just too many good puns to be found.
16) Lost Continent
One of the earliest episodes on this list, and for some reason I have watched it more than most. If you've seen it, the utter staleness and blandness of it all, you probably think that's pretty odd. As I said, a lot of what makes a good MST3k episode is how watchable the movie is, and Lost Continent probably isn't all that watchable. But...rock climbing. The fact this movie padded two thirds of its runntime with men climbing a mountain astounds me, and I love feeling the pain of Joel and bots as they do their best to riff their way through it.
It's the 80s...do a lotta coke and vote for Ronald Reagan. The 1980s loved their "small creature" movies, but how do you make one with no budget? Well, you get a bunch of your friends, a bunch of hand puppets and...well I guess just let it write itself because that's all this film has going for it. No story, just a loose idea centered on our bad 20-something actors, cheap sets and lots of puppets that can, apparently, control your thoughts and make you live out your wildest fantasies while they kill you.
Oh, and next to Zombie Nightmare, this is as "80s" of a movie the show did, and therefore so much comedy from it.
14) Jack Frost
MST3k didn't do a ton of fantasy movies. Usually it was "horror" or science fiction when it came to genre pics. But man, when they got one, boy did they get one. Jack Frost is one of the most enjoyable films the crew had to watch if you ask me, and as a result them making absolute fun of it at every turn is why Jack Frost is one of the episodes I've probably seen the most. It has a little bit of everything, but it mainly consists of two stories, a young girl destined to be a princess of some sort and meeting Old Jack Frost and an a man, I guess destined to be king or leader or something, who is turned in to a bear and runs around trying to break the spell while meeting strange woodland creatures including a witch, walking trees, dwarves (I think they're dwarves) and an evil cat.
Yeah...it's a little like that.
13) The Giant Spider Invasion
This is a bittersweet episode, only because it's sad to see Alan Hale in a role like this. TV actors were lucky to get a gig, I suppose (and this isn't the only film we see former Gilligan's Island cast members slumming it)...yet, he's so joyous. I mean, he really seems invested to do his best. Where Adam West is obviously miserable in Zombie Nightmare, making for laughs in another great episode, Alan Hale is incredibly happy in The Giant Spider Invasion...making for even more laughs. Plus, the pure "redneckness" of everything. My god...I mean...my god...
12) Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
I'll be honest, I would watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians even without the MST3k riffing. It's as "Christmasy" of a movie as you could ask for and is such a unique look to a time and place of America's history. Everything is about martians and flying saucers and Mars and how our greatest holiday (to some, I'm a Halloween man myself) might be something those green, antennae men might be jealous of. Full of cheesy sets and goofy characters, the show-stealer is really the host segments. I loved MST3k holiday episode host segments, and I wish they did a Christmas one every year.
11) Parts: The Clonus Horror
It's interesting just how many movies with Peter Graves that have graced MST3k. Though this one doesn't "star" him, like Beginning of the End or It Conquered the World did, he's easily the most recognizable figure in it. I think I just love the absolute 1970ishness of everything about this. It comes from an era where movies like Logan's Run or Soylent Green made names for themselves. It desperately tries to fit in that mold. But it can't, boy it can't. It's an awesome idea, but it just doesn't have the ability to achieve it, and the MST3k crew knows it. Also, this has some of my favorite Mike-era host segments.
10) The Sword and the Dragon
This is sheer spectacle. MST3k really never took a film again that was quite like this, the only other close one being The Day the Earth Froze (another fantasy import). Huge budget, huge scope, just a giant fantasy epic based on Russian folklore and myth. It's impressive, and probably the best episode of Season 6 (Zombie Nightmare and Samson vs. the Vampire Women are good contenders, though). This is just one of a kind for an MST3k episode. You can see the money on screen, and maybe it's not even that bad of a fantasy epic given its era, but the guys make fun of it nonetheless because you literally have no idea what direction the movie is going to take. Literally anything could happen, and does.
9) Prince of Space
If this movie teaches us one thing, is that you should never forget your athletic cup if you're wearing tight costumes. Joel and the bots do their best to avoid the "incomings" but they're hard to not stare at as many Japanese men dressed as aliens fight another Japanese man wearing a cap and flying a shuttle. The Joel era made fun of a TON of Japanese films, but this one really takes the cake for me. Mighty Jack might be up there too in terms of ridiculousness, though.
8) The Final Sacrifice
Next to Manos, this is probably the most popular episode of the series, and for good reason. Our hero is Zapp Rowsdower. Now that's a name you can sink your teeth in to: it just exudes moustachioed awesomeness, acid wash jeans and cold Miller Genuine Draft. The riffing is as sharp as the show could be, seemingly every line just makes me laugh, and the movie so notoriously bad that it makes for some entertaining watching on its own.
7) The Girl in Lover's Lane
Some of the best episodes were really some of the most unassuming. The show might be known for the science fiction or fantasy episodes the most, but it occasionally dipped into melodrama and bad 1950s movies about teenagers. I already mentioned the Beatnicks, but there's also the great I Accuse My Parents and High School Big Shot. The best, though, is The Girl in Lover's Lane. It's about a drifter named Big Stupid (we think) who takes on a sidekick named Danny as they stay a spell in a small town, meet the townspeople, the local townsfolk and a lot of weird bullies, hookers and creepy stalkers. Homosexual innuendo ensues and a hell of a lot of good riffing.
6) Santa Claus
As cozy and comfy as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians makes me feel, it's the Mike-era Santa Claus, the badly-dubbed Mexican movie, that just does it for me. This one, too, is a tradition during the holiday season, because where else will you be creeped out by mechanical reindeer and see Santa fighting the Devil?
Like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, this one is full of great, holiday-warming host segments, including an awkward gift exchange between Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank.
5) Boggy Creek II
It's redneck bigfoot-hunting. That's about all you need to know. Well, there's also a skinny kid with no shirt, a grown man with really tight jeans and a handsome 300 pound man that wears overalls with no shirt and just one strap. There's really no way to describe this strange movie. It's kind of like an anthology film with a lot of mini stories about the "bigfoot" encountering humans, all framed by this professor and his students looking for them and...well pretty much just sitting around looking at radar and getting stuck in the mud, that is until they meet up with Crenshaw, the local hillbilly. What a lovely, attractive man...
4) Manos: The Hands of Fate
The one and the only. The movie that most people think of as soon as they think of Mystery Science Theater. It arguably is the one that put them on the map - it certainly put Manos on the map and, to this day, is often regarded as the worst movie ever made. This show made this movie famous, and I'd be inclined to say vice-versa in a way as the two are synonymous with each other. In particular, the host segments are phenomenal, because they know how bad this is, and they can't hold on to their sanity. Even the Mads, Forrester and Frank, apologize for it.
3) Space Mutiny
Space Mutiny is one of those movies that, when you're watching, you're thinking "wow...someone actually made this movie and they probably thought it was good while making it." There's a hint of self-awareness in some of the other bad movies on this show, or at least where you can see where they tried really hard but did the best with what they could, but Space Mutiny is 100% earnest in everything. Every action scene, every Reb Brown yell, every maniacal laugh...it takes itself so seriously then slapped on a "Approved by Slab Bulkhead" sticker on the cover and called it a day. They really thought it was great what they were making, making for some of the most legendary riffing the show has ever done (and surprisingly the only Reb Brown movie they touched).
2) Pod People
What do you get when you have filmmakers and producers wanting to do a family-friendly ET knock off mixed with a monster movie that is really not family-friendly? You end up with a very strange movie. Everything about this movie feels like it's kind of a dream, like real yet not real. Kind of like the way a silent movie can sometimes hypnotize you with its dream-like quality. Here, it's just a very quiet film with a weird musical number and a little alien named Trumpy that may or may not be the destroyer of worlds.
As my favorite episode, I have to say with a lot of bias that Mitchell is an episode with no flaws. I don't know anyone who doesn't like this, and going by various internet discussions and videos and the like, it's usually in the top 5 on most "Best of" lists. For me it just strikes all the right notes. Superb host segments (some of the most memorable, as we say goodbye to Joel), top-notch riffing and a film that is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Mitchell is one of those episodes where you find yourself riffing right alongside the guys; its cheesy 70s wannabe-gritty-cop movie with Joe Don Baker is hard to not get sucked in to.