The cult-favorite TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” ran from 1988 through 1999, spanning one local TV station and two cable channels, and producing over 200 episodes plus a theatrical movie. Now, following a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign, creator Joel Hodgson is bringing “MST3K” to Netflix for 13 more episodes and a holiday special.
Each week “MST3K” invited viewers to join either Joel (host from 1988-93) or Mike Nelson (head writer who succeeded Joel) as they and their robot friends Tom Servo and Crow endured a painful-to-watch movie. While these were mostly horror, fantasy and science-fiction oriented, the show’s range also included musicals, teen-oriented films and crime stories. Naturally this combination of low-grade cinema and high-grade esoteric comments took “MST3K” periodically into comic-book and/or superhero territory. Therefore, as we wait for the new season to premiere on April 14, here are 15 classic “MST3K” episodes we think are especially “super.”
15. THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN
Intended to capitalize on the popularity of the 1960s “Batman” TV show, 1966’s “Batwoman” (episode 515) was a no-budget stinker pitting the heroine and her squad of quasi-vampiric Batgirls against villains Rat Fink and Professor Neon. There’s an opening-credits disclaimer separating “WWWOB” from DC Comics, but apart from the title and a few bat-elements, nothing in the movie really rips off the Bat-books. Instead, it’s a murky black-and-white excursion into director Jerry Warren’s interpretation of what was hip and cool in the mid-1960s — which apparently included lots of cleavage and hip-shaking, as well as gratuitous cage-dancing and damsels in distress.
While “Batman ’66” got laughs from playing comic-book excesses straight, “WWWOB” evidently figured that it could get the same result simply from being astonishingly bad. Imagine a vaguely superheroic “Charlie’s Angels” episode written while high, filmed in someone’s basement and then (for some reason) mashed together with footage from “The Mole People” and you’ll have some idea of just how awful “Batwoman” was. As Mike put it, “I have a feeling Satan would have regretted making this movie.”
14. FUGITIVE ALIEN
Edited into a 1986 feature from various episodes of a 1978 Japanese TV series and repackaged for American audiences by producer Sandy Frank, “Fugitive Alien” (episode 310) is the story of a wig-wearing alien invader named Ken who defects to Earth and joins the crew of spaceship Bacchus 3. Probably owing to its heavily-edited source material, the movie is almost impenetrable — Ken’s flashbacks are rather trippy, there’s at least one too many Kens involved, and the girlfriend-turned-nemesis storyline competes with a more mundane mission — but the episode itself is a real hoot.
We like it for the start-to-finish geek-culture references, including references to “The Five Doctors” and the line “If they cancel ‘Battlestar Galactica’ I’m going to kill myself;” as well as the immortal song “He Tried To Kill Me With A Forklift.” However, it makes this list because the crew’s uniforms remind Joel and the ‘Bots of Spider-Man’s classic costume. As Ken jumps backwards into a very Spidey-esque pose, Crow delivers a rapid-fire riff preferring the old red-and-blues to the black symbiote suit. Captain Joe tells Ken “you’re stuck here,” but we don’t mind.
13. OPERATION DOUBLE 007
Released in 1967, when Bond-movie producers were shopping around for Sean Connery’s successor, “Operation Double 007” (episode 508; released as “O.K. Connery”) was an Italian knockoff starring Neil Connery — yes, Sean’s brother. It also managed to rope in Lois “Moneypenny” Maxwell, Bernard “M” Lee, “Dr. No’s” Anthony Dawson, “Thunderball’s” Adolfo Celi and “From Russia With Love’s” Daniela Bianchi; plus music by the great Ennio Morricone. Despite their talents, none of them really elevate the movie past the obvious cash-in it represents, and collectively they remind the viewer that they could be watching an actual Bond film. Moreover, Neil’s character (a world-famous plastic surgeon, championship archer and hypnotist coincidentally named Neil Connery) is pretty much the opposite of a secret agent, generally, and James Bond in particular.
The plot is all over the place, involving an evil spy organization, radioactive fabric, killer nuns, and a yacht full of beautiful hench-people. Like “Batwoman,” it seems to figure that coherence isn’t cool. Fortunately, Joel and the ‘Bots get a lot of good material out of the movie, especially in one host segment where Joel swaggers around chomping a cigar and demanding massages from his scantily-dressed robots (none of whom have working arms).
12. MIGHTY JACK
Another Sandy Frank assembly, editing episodes of yet another 1968 Japanese TV series into a 1987 movie, “Mighty Jack” (episode 314) presents a super-spy organization not unlike S.H.I.E.L.D. The movie follows a snide secret agent named Atari who’s captured by the bad guys (working for the evil “Q” group) and rescued by Mighty Jack, whereupon we learn he’s Mighty Jack’s new leader. Whether that makes him the movie’s Nick Fury may depend upon how much you dislike Nick Fury. In any event, Mighty Jack’s headquarters is in a Helicarrier-esque flying submarine (or aquatic aircraft) which gets a lot of attention in the film’s explosion-filled climax.
Until then, “Mighty Jack” is yet another hodgepodge of semi-related sequences. As part of their world-conquering plot, Q has created ice which stays cold at room temperature, and somehow the ensuing narrative includes a helicopter hauling away a car, the destruction of three separate islands, at least two traitors, and a torture device which doesn’t work on people who can close their eyes. Eventually the movie inspires Joel and the ‘Bots to sing an old pirate ditty, “Slow The Plot Down”; but the problem was density, not pacing.
11. JUNGLE GODDESS
We’re most interested in episode 203’s 1948 clunker because it starred TV’s future Superman, George Reeves, as a pilot hoping to get a reward from finding a missing heiress. Unfortunately, George has to contend with his unsavory partner, played by Ralph Byrd (who had already played Dick Tracy); while Joel and the ‘Bots have to contend with the movie’s special brand of colonialism. By shooting one of the locals, Byrd’s character gets the duo in trouble with the tribe who worships the heiress, but our heroine has been ready to leave for a while. Although she dropped out of society, she’s worked through her alienation; and according to a line which became an “MST3K” in-joke, she wants nothing more than “a hamburger sandwich and some French-fried potatoes.”
A late fight sequence between Reeves and Byrd yields the most “Superman” references (“Phone this into Perry White!”), but the movie’s general inappropriateness keeps the riffers pretty busy. When Byrd sneers “White goddess having trouble?” during an escape, Crow responds, “White fascist getting smart?” The movie ends predictably, with Reeves and the heiress returning home (presumably to a bounty of burgers and fries), and remains an unfortunate reminder of Hollywood insensitivity.
10. CAVE DWELLERS
Episode 301 was released originally as 1984’s “The Blade Master,” the second in an Italian sword-and-sorcery series starring Miles O’ Keefe (“how much Keefe?”) as musclebound Ator. The main plot concerns hubcap-armored Mila’s quest to save her wizard father from porn-stached Zor, but Ator has to narrate an extended flashback to the previous movie before he can help her. Along with Ator’s silent sidekick Thong, they fight cannibals, shady villagers and a giant snake which doesn’t look at all like a puppet.
We like this movie for superhero fans because of its extended riffs on the semantic differences between “comic books” and “graphic novels,” sparked by a couple of references to Wayne Manor and “The Dark Knight Returns.” Still, viewers should come for the comics riffs but stay for the incompetence. Although the movie takes place during barbarian times, the bad guy’s castle has handrails and Ator rides his horse past some Jeep tracks. Ultimately, Ator storms the castle by discovering principles of flight and building a hang-glider, presumably out of things he found in the forest, so that he can drop homemade grenades (again, forest-derived) on “Stately Wayne Manor’s” enemy soldiers.
9. SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN
A 1961 Mexican luchador movie which producer K. Gordon Murray brought to the U.S., episode 624 pitted the masked wrestler El Santo against a horde of the living dead. They want to turn a helpless pianist into their new vampire queen, but according to an ancient Egyptian prophecy (huh?) only Santo, a.k.a. Samson, can stop them. Although the vampires have some familiar powers, including hypnotism and shape-shifting, Santo does pretty well just by beating them up. (They also hate fire and holy symbols, not that Santo noticed.) To be fair, it’s not really clear where these vampires come from, since this is a Mexican movie featuring a European castle and an Egyptian prophecy.
It’s not surprising that the movie feels a bit superhero-ish, even without the occasional Batman reference. El Santo had his own comic book from 1952 through 1987, and from the late ’50s through the early ’80s, appeared in over 50 films (although only a few were dubbed into English). Indeed, when the digital-first “Batman ’66” comic reimagined Bane as an evil luchador, naturally El Santo and other masked wrestlers helped Batman defeat him. Thus, in context “Vampire Women” is a good glimpse at El Santo’s legend.
8. LOST CONTINENT
A few years and five “MST3K” episodes after “Jungle Goddess,” producer Robert L. Lippert put together this 1951 expedition into uncharted territory. Instead of George Reeves looking for an heiress, it was Cesar Romero (and “Leave It To Beaver’s” Hugh Beaumont) climbing an endless array of rocks to find an experimental missile atop a mountain lousy with dinosaurs. Did we mention the rock climbing? Because it takes over 16 minutes of screen time and accomplishes absolutely nothing.
Between rock climbing, “Beaver” riffs for Hugh Beaumont and the incredibly annoying Sid Melton as a plane-loving mechanic, Joel and the ‘Bots only get in a few Batman references. Still, anyone interested in Cesar Romero’s pre-Joker career will find “Lost Continent” (episode 208) a good example of his stardom, as it combined his leading-man attractiveness with, well, we can’t really call him an “action hero,” because this is far from an action movie; but you get the idea.
7. MASTER NINJA
“MST3K” episode 322 featured another movie made of TV-series episodes, this time from the 1984 NBC show “The Master.” Starring Lee Van Cleef as an American ninja and Timothy Van Patten as his apparently-boyishly-handsome apprentice, it was one of many late-1970s and early-1980s shows featuring odd-couple crimefighters who dispensed gimmicky justice in and around the California countryside. Besides the veteran Van Cleef, the “Master” episodes in episode 322 featured martial-arts star Sho Kosugi, prolific character actor Claude Akins, “Night of the Living Dead’s” Clu Gulager, and a pre-Brat Pack Demi Moore.
In terms of other action shows from the same period, “The Master” was a notch below CBS’ live-action “Spider-Man” and it lacked the charm of “The A-Team.” Van Patten’s characterization involved being self-deprecating and having a pet gerbil; and Van Cleef was typically mysterious and gruff. Still, we like “Master Ninja” and episode 324’s “Master Ninja II” for the masked vigilantism and quasi-superheroic fight scenes. “Master Ninja II” (which guest-starred ex-Bond George Lazenby) also has Joel and the ‘Bots reference Stan Lee, the Human Torch, and “Batman ’66.” Collectively, they remind us that even the worst superhero movie is still better than this low-budget made-for-TV saga.
6. RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON
At the start of most of its first-season episodes, “MST3K” ran installments of the 1952 Republic serial “Radar Men From The Moon.” Starring George Wallace (not the segregationist governor) as bucket-headed, jetpack-wearing Commando Cody, it used flying sequences from Republic’s 1949 serial “King of the Rocket Men.” Thus, each episode identified Cody as “a new character,” clearly distinct from “Rocket Men’s” Rocket Man. In any event, the helmeted flying heroes inspired artist Dave Stevens’ “Rocketeer” comics, which first appeared in 1982 and have been published most recently by IDW. “Commander Cody” was also the name of a jetpack-using clone trooper in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.”
In “Radar Men,” a big-boned Moon boss plots an invasion of the Earth, using gangsters to steal money and weapons and generally cause trouble. Commando Cody and his assistants fight the gangsters and Moon men both on Earth and the Moon (which looks a lot like Utah). “MST3K” showed the first eight chapters of the 12-part serial, and got into the ninth before “technical difficulties” cut things short. Even so, Joel and the ‘Bots got in some good riffs, including “Oh, I hate to shoot a butt like that!”
5. GODZILLA VS. MEGALON
After a brief appearance at the movie’s beginning, 1973’s “Godzilla vs. Megalon” takes a while to get to Godzilla. Along the way, though, we meet a professor, his nephew and their handsome friend, who like taking odd dolphin-shaped paddleboats and rocket-powered harpoons on their excursions to rocky beaches. Villains from the undersea land of Seatopia steal the professor’s perma-smiling robot called Jet Jaguar and use him to guide their monster ally Megalon in attacking the surface world. The professor then gets Jet Jaguar back and uses him to summon Godzilla, and the pair of them defeats Megalon and special-guest monster Gigan.
Comics-related riffs include references to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman’s utility belt, the Batmobile and General Zod; but this movie includes so much more. From the professor’s spartan-yet-psychedelic home to the car chase’s smooth jazz, the Jet Jaguar theme song and of course the giddy carnage of the final fight scenes, “Godzilla Vs. Megalon” reminds us that no matter how grim and gritty or back-to-basics a movie series is taken, it still includes bizarre trips like this one.
4. PRINCE OF SPACE
This 1959 two-part Japanese children’s movie (itself derived from a 1958-59 Japanese TV series) features a wispy bachelor who shines shoes by day and fights off chicken-themed invaders from planet Krankor by … well, also by day. Prince of Space’s spaceship is shaped like a heavily-armed electric razor, his main weapon is a wand that shoots energy bolts and he keeps reminding the invaders that their weapons are useless against him. The aliens’ leader, Phantom of Krankor, attacks and retreats a few times before kidnapping a handful of doughy scientists. Prince of Space tracks the invaders’ breast-and-drumsticks-shaped starship back to their home planet, where he flies past a giant baby, rescues the scientists and blows up everything else. Also, a roving band of annoying children serves as a terrifying Greek chorus throughout the movie.
While “Prince of Space” (episode 816) features a gadget-dependent superhero stopping alien invaders, the movie’s not exactly Iron Man battling the Chitauri. Instead, Prince of Space benefits from his foes’ incompetence. They can’t get any advantage even after they discover his secret identity. In other words, Prince of Space wins simply by being prepared. It’s not “Batman always has a plan,” but here it doesn’t have to be.
3. ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE
The story of a weightlifting teenager whose parents were killed by petty criminals, and who was himself killed by rampaging teens only to be revived by the local voodoo priestess, 1986’s “Zombie Nightmare” (episode 604) boasted a heavy-metal soundtrack and guest-starred Adam West. Naturally, this prompted Tom Servo to dress up as Batman, with Mike as his Robin and Crow as the Riddler; and the movie was peppered with many Bat-related riffs. Spoilers, though: Adam West’s character was one of the goons who killed our hero’s parents! If we thought that was intentional stunt-casting, we’d call it ironic.
Anyway, the zombified hero spends the rest of the movie getting revenge on the no-good kids who ran him down (including a pre-“Waynes World” Tia Carrere), and eventually on West as well. All the bad people get appropriate comeuppances without any mitigating nuances, in accordance with 1980s-style antihero action. Adam West is probably the best thing in the movie, but Motörhead’s title track “Ace of Spades” is a very close second.
Based on the costumed master thief and antihero created in 1962 by Italian cartoonists Angela and Luciana Giussani, 1968’s “Danger: Diabolik” was the last episode (1013) of “MST3K’s” original run. Directed by the prolific Mario Bava and starring John Philip Law (who was fresh from another comics adaptation, “Barbarella”), “Diabolik” also featured Adolfo Celi as a criminal hired by the cops to catch the headliner.
While we can’t comment on the movie’s fidelity to the comic, we do note that Diabolik and his girlfriend Eva seem concerned mostly with sticking it to the squares in the Italian government. At the beginning of the movie, Diabolik’s latest caper has left hundreds dead and he’s stolen billions, making the government desperate enough to deal with Celi’s character. Still, he and Eva are super-hot, so the movie must figure we’ll be sympathetic. This is the kind of movie Austin Powers would have loved back in the day, not least because its star lives in a groovy Batcave, dresses like a horny Spider-Man — a “licorice suit,” as Tom Servo calls it — and has sex with Eva on a bed full of money.
By contrast, 1980’s “Pumaman” arguably shows the vast range of Italian superhero movies in the sense that it is as clunky and stiff as “Diabolik” was mod and cool. The plot depends on ancient astronauts becoming the gods of the Aztecs and giving them a super-powered champion whose descendants would also be super-powered. These powers include “typical” puma abilities like sensing danger, seeing in the dark, flight, phasing through walls, teleportation and faking one’s death. Naturally, it takes being thrown out of a window to activate these powers.
“Pumaman” sought to ride “Star Wars” and “Superman’s” special-effects wave, but its influences are obvious and ineptly executed. The Pumaman’s benefactors ride around in lit-up Death Star-esque spheres, the Pumaman costume consists of a pair of Dockers to go along with the cape and chest symbol, and the music that accompanies the Pumaman’s flying scenes would be more at home in a breath-mint commercial. As the villain, Donald Pleasance gets off a little easier, wearing either shiny black leather or shiny silver leather. Speaking of the flying scenes, they’ll make you appreciate “The Greatest American Hero” a little bit more. The whole movie’s like that: earnest and ineffective.
What other “MST3K” episodes would comics fans enjoy? Let us know in the comments!
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