Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Not Too Distant Past: The Top Fifteen Best (Slightly) Obscure MST3K Episodes

If you ask someone where you should start a binge watch of Mystery Science Theater 3000, they’ll probably name one of  these episode.  Or, if they have more obscure taste they’ll mention “Hobgoblins” or “The Lost Continent”, or anything that’s gotten some kind of foothold on the fandom or in pop culture because of a meme.  All of those episodes are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but there are some really great

My rules for inclusion on this list are simple: the episode has to be slightly more obscure than the ones usually listed in top twenty or top ten MST episode lists; and they shouldn’t contain a mematic catchphrase.  I have made allowances, however, for episodes that contained a short with memetic features when the episode did not.

15: The Sinister Urge

Premise: Pornographer Gloria Henderson‘s  “smut racket” is exposed by two laid back detectives in an Ed Wood melodrama.

Inclusion Reasons:  This is such a great combination of fun host segments, a memorable short (“Keeping Neat and Clean”, with its overly-instructive notes on hygiene and a ridiculously cheesy movie (featuring the most conservative look at the world of pornography ever).    I’m surprised this one isn’t mentioned more when MiSTies meet.

14: Hellcats

Premise:  A former army man joins forces with his late brother’s fiancée to take down the drug dealer who got him killed.

Inclusion Reasons:   Of all of the drive-in quality movies the show’s ripped apart, this one’s my favorite for the sweet riffing material it provides.  And hey, there’s even some room for a pretty wicked satire of sitcom tropes as the cold-laden gang create diary entries that allow the team to include flashbacks from previous episodes (a pretty brilliant idea considering it was invented to mask the fact that most of the writing staff was out of town when they were doing this episode’s host segments).

13: The Girl in Lover’s Lane

Premise: A teenage drifter and his older companion temporarily settle in the town of Sherman.  While Danny searches for sex, Bix falls for waitress Carrie, who has unfortunately drawn the attention of town stalker Jesse.  Will Bix risk more legal troubles defending Carrie?

Inclusion Reasons:  On the opposite end of the humor spectrum lies movies like this and High School Big Shot, which are too darn depressing to be watched minus the robots’ riffing.  They manage to leaven the pain handily this time out, with lots of truly great riffs.  The final host segment even teaches a valuable lesson about following your own creative urges and being okay with rejecting the endings given to you by writers of canons.

12: The Deadly Bees

Premise: Pop singer Vicki Robbins is sent to a small, isolated island to recoup her mental health, only to discover that someone’s using hormones to bate killer bees into some very unfriendly behavior.

Inclusion Reasons:  This is the most British movie the ‘bots have riffed yet, and they go to town on both the stodginess of the film and the very 60s psychedelic tone of the piece. This contains some truly classic host segments too.  Sadly copyright claims have kept full versions of this one off of youtube and dvd, so check your local torrenting stations!

11: Village of the Giants

Premise: A bunch of out-of-town teenage bullies become giants thanks to a lab accident committed by a kid quasi-genius, forcing the local teens to team up and cut them back down to size.

Inclusion Reasons:  The best thing about Village of the Giants is that it absolutely refuses to take itself seriously.   Some terrible comedies mix poorly with the Satellite of Love’s treatment, but others, like this and Hobgoblins, manage to make the movie even more achingly funny.  The episode also includes a great series of host segments where Dr. F fires Frank, who deals horribly with unemployment while Torgo flourishes as his replacement, and the immortal song “Endless Frank”, a fitting tribute from Bridget and Mike Nelson to the character, which is also fittingly played over an end title credit for the then-recently passed Frank Zappa.

10: The Thing That Couldn’t Die

Premise: A water-divining psychic living on her aunt’s remote ranch finds an ancient box containing a surprisingly well preserved and hypnotic head of Warlock Gideon Drew, who soon starts to use the various ranch hands against the young psychic in a quest to be reunited with his body and thus, his full magical prowess.

Inclusion Reasons:  For some reason this episode’s slipped through the cracks in a lot of folks’ memories, but I remember it being achingly funny when I last watched it (and this, like the episode below, is frustratingly unavailable in its full form unless you torrent it).   MST3K did a lot of movies about decapitated heads, but this one is its most unsung. 

9: The  Violent Years

Premise:  A bunch of teenagers born of the neglectful upper strata of society decide to turn to lives of crime out of boredom.  Forming a successful girls’ gang, they live the good life until a vandalism for hire case goes horribly wrong.

Inclusion Reasons:  Think of this one as the negaverse version of I Accuse My Parents; crappy, self-absorbed addict parents produce troubled children, but instead of Jimmy managing to salvage himself via true love and essay contests, you have ugly rape scenes and anti-Communist propaganda, not to mention punishment via.   Another dark-themed short that’s made leagues better by a misting, even with some unfortunate It’s Not Rape If It’s Woman on Man troping in the riffs.    Also includes the hopelessly square and retro-sexist cooking-centric dating short “A Young Man’s Fancy” and some great host segments.

8: The  Undead

Premise:  A prostitute is picked up off the street by a scruples-lacking disgraced psychiatrist, whose trance therapy causes her to experiences past-life regression.  She discovers that in the middle ages she was once an accused witch who  is to be executed in a day’s time.  The psychic realizes that if he allows Diana to change Helene’s life while in the trance she’ll bend history, and thus allows himself to be put under by a fellow psychiatrist, so that he may find Diana and convince her to allow Helene to die and keep the time stream from changing.  Little do they know that they’re dealing with the devil...

Inclusion Reasons:  MST did lots of Roger Corman films, and though I’ve included some other examples on this list, this is one of the rare movies that works without the riffing and yet can be enhanced by the wisecracking.    The plot is both complicated enough to hold your interest and ridiculous enough to enjoy the riffing, so it’s a double treat.  Also watching poor Tom’s ego get pricked by his failure to make it as an Observer is just plain funny.   I know this one includes the "STAY/SLEEP!" meme, but that had been a part of MST way before this episode aired!

7: It Lives By Night

Premise:  While on a quasi-honeymoon with his new wife, a man is bitten by a bat and begins to develop vampiric symptoms.  Can medicine save himself or his bride?

Inclusion Reasons:  This is the weirdest vampire movie I’ve ever seen in my life, a cross between Frankenstein with a little bloodsucking thrown over the top like grandma’s favorite afghan.   The movie’s vibe combines the generic 70s-ness of A Touch of Satan with the goofy erzats horror of stuff like The Incredible Melting Man.  It’s a combination that settles comfortably into the SOL’s typical wheelhouse, and the riffing delivers beautifully.  Keep an eye out for Crow’s bitter tribute to Mary Tyler Moore,  the episode’s best highlight.

6: Squirm

Premise: A backwoods southern town is rattled when a lightning storm causes its worm population to become carnivorous.  Mick, an out-of-towner visiting his flyfishing loving penpal, Geri, is tasked with saving Fly Creek before worms take it over, fighting both the hostile populace and the worms alike for survival.

Inclusion Reasons:  I remember this being an incredibly controversial choice for MST back in the day; Squirm is highly revered even now among horror fans, and to make it palatable to a Sunday afternoon audience they had to delete much of the movie’s famous gore.   The end result leaves a seamy and over-the-top gothic sort of feeling.  I feel like this is an episode that’s sort of been culturally overwhelmed by its accompanying short; A Case of Spring Fever, with the ever-demonic Coily.  Never the less, the movie’s main meat is more than provided by the flick itself, managing to call up some actual scares along with some great lines from Mike and the ‘Bots.

5: Kitten With a Whip

Premise: Desperate juvenile delinquent Jody Dvorak, on the run from a detention center, breaks into the home of senate hopeful David.  Threatening to lie to his vacationing wife about being his new main squeeze, Jody sits in the catbird seat, inviting her equally slang-loving and destructive pals in delinquency to come up and live the good life with her.   They ultimately blackmail David into driving them all to Tijuana to see stripper Patricia Tiara’s act.  Everything crashes in on them all when David’s friends and Jody’s abusive ex decide to rock the boat.

Inclusion Reasons:  The overheated melodrama here is absolutely the movie’s selling point and best reason to be riffed, though Ann Margaret doesn’t quite give the kind of knowing performance, setting the stage for her feral work in Tommy in a way.  The movie’s goofily shocking and yet repressed manner is terrific, and this contains a golden host segment in which Crow fails to infiltrate Forester and Frank’s lair, the best use the Umbillicus ever had, not including pie throwing.

4: Quest of the Delta Knights

Premise:  A young peasant boy named Tee joins with the secret society of the Delta Knights, teams up with a young Leonardo DaVinci (no, really!) and a maiden named Thena to thwart the machinations of an evil wizard and his wife and hopefully find the lost treasures of Archimedes.

Inclusion Reasons:  QOTDK is basically Ren Faire: the Movie; beautifully campy, and taking itself unseriously from start to finish.   This is a golden combination of memorable host segments and theatrical riffing (including Pearl’s only turn in the theater thus far), yet I rarely hear it talked about.

3: Tormented

Premise: Cheating jazz pianist Tom Stewart kills his lower class girlfriend Vi so he can marry his upper crust fianceé  Meg.  Unfortunately Vi’s not about to let Tom go and begins haunting him with ghostly apparitions, slowly driving him mad, though no one but Meg’s little sister Sandy notices until it’s too late.

Inclusion Reasons:  This is another one that often slips through the cracks; funny riffing that catches everything that’s hilarious about Burt I Gordon’s work without belaboring the point  (and Gordon’s work, as always, is frustratingly competently incompetent) abounds, and you’ll never see a funnier host segment than Tom, Crow and Joel throwing singers they each dislike from the top of a miniature lighthouse in effigy.

2: Girl’s Town
Premise:  While defending herself from an attempted rape, Mary Lee Morgan’s would-be attacker falls off a cliff.  Mary’s big sister, Silver, takes the rap for her and is sentenced to Girl’s Town, a sort of juvenile hall run by nuns.  While there, Silver bonds with Serafina, whose hopeless stalking of famous teen sensation Jimmy Parlow is handled with an astronomical amount of good humor from the target.  After an adjustment period filled with misadventure, Silver starts walking the straight and narrow path of goodness, only to learn that her sister’s being blackmailed by Fred, the attacker’s friend.  Silver is tempted to break the rules to rush to her sister’s aid, endangering her life, her newfound reputation with the folks at Girls Town and Mary Lee’s safety.

Inclusion Reasons:  What a cast!  What a (wonderfully ridiculous) story!   The camp factor, much like Quest of the Delta Knights and The Sword and the Dragon, was already inherent in the movie’s very fabric, but unlike Untamed Youth the Riffing seems to rollick right along with the overstuffed, silly plot of the movie. 

1: Angel’s Revenge

Premise: A nebbish schoolteacher tries to put an end to the drug pushers who keep selling around her school and has had one of her students beaten up, recruiting a stuntwoman, a policewoman, a karate teacher, a model, a famous Las Vegas entertainer (who happens to be the sister of the injured boy) and (quite against the team's general will) the pesky kid sister of said entertainer and forming a butt-kicking squad!

Inclusion Reasons:  Angels’ Revenge is, in a lot of ways, the ultimate pinnacle of the many 70s movies MST has ripped apart.  Clearly identifiable as to what it’s parodying, stuffed with embarrassed actors doing cameos and awkwardly staged t & a shots, it rolls up the smiley disco aesthetic of Riding with Death into the action montagery of Master Ninja and the overblown jiggle of Untamed Youth, making the ultimate MST3K rollwich of obscurity.  Bon appétit!

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