Not all bad movies are bad in the same way. Over its 30-plus-year history, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has proved that time and time again by watching movies that suck in a cornucopia of unique ways, some better than others—in fact, some so much better they could be considered fine, if not actually good. In honor of the umpteenth return of the show, and in no particular order, here are the best films MST3K ever made merciless fun of.
Whenever anyone talks about good MST movies, The Magic Sword often tops the list. This 1962 movie stars 2001’s Gary Lockwood as the orphaned Prince George, raised by a sorceress named Sybil (played by Estelle Winwood in a close approximation of the kooky witch Enchantra on Bewitched), who falls in love with a princess who gets captured by the evil wizard Lodac (Basil Rathbone). Against his foster mother’s wishes, George goes into knight mode, grabs the titular magic sword and six magically unfrozen knights, and heads off to rescue his lady before she’s fed to a dragon. Despite its obviously limited budget, the movie manages to look lavish with great sets, costumes, and mostly good special effects (the dragon is a bit rough) grounded by a classic medieval adventure. Even the MST crew have praised it on occasion.
After Tom Stewart gets engaged to Meg, his ex-girlfriend Vi repeatedly harasses him to get back together. When Vi threatens to blackmail Tom into ending his relationship, Tom purposefully fails to save Vi after she slips off the balcony of a lighthouse (as one does). Then the ghost of Vi starts harassing Tom and interfering with the marriage arrangements as Tom’s guilt eats away at him. The repeated apparition of Vi’s floating head is highly goofy, but the story is well-told, well-paced, and well-acted. Plus, when Tom tries to lead Meg’s much younger sister Sandy to the lighthouse to kill her after she witnesses him murdering another person who began to suspect foul play, it’s genuinely suspenseful.
If you’ve ever seen anything titled “I Was a Certain-Aged Something,” you can point directly to the 1957 B-movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf, starring a young Michael Landon, who almost immediately leaped to TV fame with Bonanza shortly after. Landon has real pathos portraying a teen with anger issues who goes to a psychiatrist for help, only to retroactively learn the doctor is experimenting on him during hypnosis, which causes him to transform into something bestial and kill people. Even snobby movie critics admitted Teenage Werewolf was all right when it was released, which was akin to showering a B-movie with praise. Since then, it’s become a classic.
Alexander Ptushko is one of the giants of Russian cinema, who became famous for directing lavish, epic adaptations of classic Russo-Finnish epics and folklore. So it really shouldn’t surprise you that the main character of the 1953 movie originally called Sadko is, in fact, Sadko, a cocky bard who sets out for an adventure that includes catching golden fish, marrying the daughter of the Sea-King, traveling the world in search for a “bird of happiness” and more. This would all have made perfect sense to its original audience, but was completely bizarre to U.S. audiences, and exacerbated by a bad translation and lackluster voice-acting, courtesy of schlock-king Roger Corman. However, star Sergei Stolyarov is charming as either Sadko or Sinbad, and the fantastic visuals and high production values make The Magic Voyage of Sinbad very easy to watch, even if it seems incomprehensible.
It seems unthinkable that a movie starring Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck, which won an actual Academy Award for Best Special Effects, would ever find its way to the screening room of the Satellite of Love. Yet that’s what happened when a cheap-o VHS company rereleased the film as Space Travelers. Three astronauts leave their experimental space station when one of them (Hackman) becomes erratic, but their shuttle’s main engine fails, leaving them marooned in space. Most of the movie consists of a NASA Administrator (Peck) leading the agency to figure out some way to get these guys home before their oxygen runs out. The movie is slow, but in a way that feels real, and the movie tried to make all the film’s locations and space tech as authentic as possible. The space station is even based on the early plans for Skylab. Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón has said it was one of his favorite movies as a kid.
Based on the incredibly popular, long-running Italian comic character, and played by Barbarella’s John Philip Law, Danger: Diabolik doesn’t feel like a movie as much as a bunch of individual “issues” made in live-action. In them, amoral master-thief Diabolik steals money, emeralds, rescues his girlfriend Eva Kant, fights mobsters, and eludes the police with style and James Bond-y gadgets. When compiled together as a full movie, the narrative is fractured to say the least, and there are some incredibly dodgy special effects, a couple of which involve action figures. But Diabolik looks gorgeous, as director Mario Bava—who would soon become known as the master of Italian horror movies—used some seriously impressive color, lighting, and cinematography to make the movie look like a living book decades before Warren Beatty did the same with the equally campy Dick Tracy. Danger: Diabolik is honestly worth a watch, just don’t worry too much about the plot.
By most accounts, the 1955 science-fiction movie This Island Earth is a pretty good film. The plot keeps ramping up in wildness, the characters are solid if unremarkable, and the special effects are, frankly, outstanding for the time—and critics mostly praised the film upon its release. What makes it solid MST fodder is because some of the aliens have inexplicable giant foreheads that none of the human characters ever notice, and because the other aliens are goofy-looking and so glacially-paced they couldn’t be a threat to anyone. Really, the biggest problem with This Island Earth is what Mystery Science Theater did to it. It was chosen as the subject of the 1996 MST3K: The Movie, which Universal unrelentingly meddled with, demanding that the movie be 73 minutes long—shorter than the original movie, and far shorter than a normal TV episode of MST. Twenty full minutes had to be cut from the original film, making it far more confusing and disjointed than the real This Island Earth had ever been.
I’m letting this one in on a technicality, that technicality being that it is a straight adaptation of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play. There’s only so much you can do to diminish that masterpiece. The reason it’s on MST3K, however, is because it was a production made for German TV, which seemingly did as much as possible to diminish that masterpiece. It’s a dark, dreary, dour presentation of the play, where every scene seems to take place against a black void and where every character is as clinically depressed as Hamlet, which sort of lessens the impact of his emotional journey. Still, the undeniable fact is that even bad Shakespeare is still Shakespeare.
I’m probably going to get some flack for this one. Oh, I’ll certainly agree these old Italian Hercules movies were never fine cinema, but I’d argue Hercules Unchained is the best and most entertaining of the bunch. The 1959 movie stars bodybuilder Steve Reeves as Herc, who gets caught up in the Theban Civil War and also manages to get trapped by the lustful Queen Omphale, who gives him amnesia to prevent him from wanting to leave. The movie makes a total mash of Greek myth—Herc’s pal is a very young Ulysses, somehow—but the movie looks great, the performances are good even through the bad English dub, and there’s plenty of Hercules tossing giant papier-mache boulders and destroying palaces made of weak, Ikea-style wood. Compared to the 201 other MST3K episodes not mentioned in this list, it’s the one I’d be most likely to watch on its own.
Remember Michael Bay’s terrible 2005 movie The Island, in which two people (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johannson) in a mysterious facility discover they’re clones made to be organ harvested should their real counterparts need them? Imagine it without the stars, without the budget, and without the terrible Bayness of it all, and you get 1979’s Parts: The Clonus Horror. I mean this literally: Michael Bay completely ripped Parts off to the point that DreamWorks ended up having to pay an undisclosed, seven-figure sum to the makers of the original after settling out of court. While some of the younger actors are dodgy, Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves and Bewitched’s Dick Sargent are good as an amoral politician and a beleaguered Clonus administrator tasked with finding a runaway clone who escaped to the real world and tries to expose what the company is doing. MST3K star Michael Nelson once called The Island a “pale copy” of Parts, which as far as most MST movies go is high praise indeed.
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