Best Horror Episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 For Halloween Viewing
By Jesse Baker
In it’s original run of ten seasons, Mystery Science Theater covered a wide variety of film genres. From beach party comedies to crime drama to horror and sci-fi and Shakespeare, they made fun of everything. But the show’s most memorable episodes tend to feature films of the horror genre, many of which were brought back into the public consciousness by the show and reappraised by critics (sometimes to their detriment). In this article, I’ll be discussing fifteen episodes of the show’s original run that are perfect viewing for Halloween fan.
Manos the Hands of Fate: We’ll start with arguably the most famous episode of the series; the famed “Manos the Hands of Fate”. The film involves a family getting lost in the desert, only to stop at a strange house overseen by a creepy caretaker named Torgo. In spite of his warnings for them to leave, the father bullies Torgo into letting the family stay for the night. A big mistake, the house is the home of a creepy cult leader and his harem of wives and don’t take kindly to trespassers. Made on a shoestring budget by a fertilizer salesman, the film was so bizarre and badly made that it’s exposure on Mystery Science Theater led to it being elevated to the status of “worst film ever made”. Yet the Mystery Science Theater version manages to make the film tolerable; as the wisecracks and Tom Servo’s monologue at the end of the film, where he spins a backstory for two female travelers that end up at the Master’s lair helps the bad film be more tolerable.
Squirm: When the show moved to Sci-Fi Channel, the show suddenly had access to the film library of Universal Studios to pick films from. Sadly, this created issues years later securing the rights to release the Universal film episodes onto DVD. Squirm was one of the films that forever seemed like it would never see the light of day, though thankfully the DVD release was eventually secured. A lightning storm causes worms in a truck transporting them to be sold as bait to gain super intelligence and spawn in ever increasing number. The mutated worms begin killing locals left and right, ultimately swarming a house where a young woman is meeting up with a guy she met during a swap meet end up trapped with her family. Gross and disturbing, it remains one of the scariest films of the original run.
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies: Cult filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler’s attempt at a horror film, is part variety show (featuring about a half-dozen variety acts) and part carnival horror films. An ugly fortune teller and her more attractive dancer sister, are collecting “zombies”; horribly disfiguring random men at the carnival theme park they work at and then brainwashing them into a savage feral state to keep as pets. Steckler, credited as “Cash Flagg”, plays an arrogant slacker who falls victim to the fortune teller and her sister’s scheme. When a rival dancer finds out that the fortune teller is keeping disfigured men as pets, Steckler is brainwashed to kill the dancer and anyone else she might have told about the mindbroken acid scarred victims they are hording. The Mystery Science Theater version provides some levity, shamelessly mocking the music acts that keep interrupting the storyline allowing viewers to get through the film at lot easier.
Monsters A Go-Go: As bad as Manos the Hands of the Fate was, it never broke Joel and the robots the way that Monsters A Go-Go did. Long considered one of the worst films ever made, Monsters A-Go-Go had a troubled production: half-completed, it was purchased by another studio and hastily finished with new actors and an ending that contradicted the already filmed portion of the movie. Monsters A Go-Go is the story of an astronaut who’s capsule crashes on Earth, with the radiation from space turning him into a murderous monstrosity. But the film suddenly switches to random characters and subplots, before climaxing with the mother of all nonsensical endings: the astronaut that everyone has been following turns out to be alive (revealed off-screen via narration) and the monster that was supposed to be the astronaut vanishes after being cornered by military forces hunting it down. The film’s horrible nature broke the main cast, with Crow T Robot’s monologue at the end of the episode summing up his inner despair having endured Monsters A-Go-Go.
The Atomic Brian: Also known as “Monstrosity”, “The Atomic Brain” is a dark and disturbing film. A evil, wealthy elderly woman lures three innocent women to her estate to work as maids, only to keep them prisoner so she can transplant her brain into their bodies for eternal youth. Her captives desperately try and escape but get a taste of their captor’s evil work when they meet a young woman who’s brain was replaced with that of a cat. The film itself is a rare case of the cast treating a film being riffed at with a level of respect, with the jokes they make being less of the “laugh at the bad film” and more “laugh at the characters plight”.
Red Zone Cuba: the third of three Coleman Francis films the series featured, Red Zone Cuba is a dark and disturbing film about the final days of an escaped fugitive and his cohorts as they flee prison, get roped into the Bay of Pigs invasion, escape, and then return to the United States to rape and kill some more until the police kill the villainous escaped convicts. The writers on Mystery Science Theater 3000 didn’t like Coleman Francis and they go into graphic detail mocking and deriding his hack filmmaking while watching his attempt to merge Natural Born Killers with a then-topical “Bay of Pigs” invasion film.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die: One of the most important episodes of the franchise, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” is the first episode to feature Mike Nelson as the host of the show. It’s also a bleak, nightmare fueled film about a woman who’s scientist boyfriend resurrects her as a disembodied head soaking in a pan of rejuvenation juice keeping her alive but in a nightmare like existence with no body. A forgotten b-movie, Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected the film from obscurity and helped make it a cult classic.
8 The Screaming Skull: “The Screaming Skull” is a minimalist horror film about a young bride being gaslit by her husband, who seeks to drive her insane so he can institutionalize her and have full access to her wealth. To do so, he convinces her that his former wife (who he may or may not have murdered) is haunting her via a series of skulls that his new wife finds all over the couples home. The film came with a gimmick where the studio would “pay for the burial of anyone who died of fright watching the film”, which led to a hilarious host segment as the robots try and scam a free coffin from the makers of the film.
The Ring of Terror: Another example of a bad film made watchable due to the hosts snarky running commentary, this 1950s horror film mixes middle age men playing medical school students and college hijinks with a regressive lesson on why you shouldn’t be gung ho and fearless and just conform. A medical student who is obsessed with showing off how fearless he is, much to the dismay of his hyper-conformist girlfriend, gets assigned a daring stunt as part of his fraternity initiation. Charged with stealing a ring off of a dead man’s body in a cemetery, the would be daredevil drops dead of fright failing to carry off the stunt. In spite of being a horror film, the movie itself is more college hijinks as it follows the social life of a bunch of would-be doctors as they fret about the impending first dissection lecture and their fraternity initiation. Joel and the Bots are merciless in mocking the film, making it watchable as they take the piss on it from start to finish.
The Amazing Colossal Man: An existential sci-fi/horror film, “The Amazing Colossal Man” revolves a soldier who is caught in a nuclear blast and mutates into a bald, giant. The soldier slowly goes insane from his transformation and impending death, after finding out that his enlarged heart does not function properly and can give out at any moment. The film provides one of the many attempts by Joel to try (and fail) to instill the basics of humanity into his robot colleagues, along with a memorable appearance by future show host Mike Nelson; appearing as the lead character in the film during a host segment where he informs the hosts of what happened to him after the events of the film.
Horror of Spider Island: This West German horror film revolves around a group of dancers, the talent agency who has hired them, and his secretary crash landing onto an island being mined for it’s uranium deposits. The crew in charge of the digging have all mysteriously died and a monstrous radioactive spider bites the benign talent agency owner and turns him into a monstrous half-man, half-spider abomination. One of the better made black and white horror films of the show’s run, it’s episode features a delightfully hilarious parody of one of the film’s sequences as Mike and the bots make Pearl Forrester and her cronies dance for them while spoofing a scene from the movie when the talent agency owner holds try-outs for his dancing troupe.
Teenage Strangler: Teenage Strangler mixes light hearted teen drama with a story about a murderer who is strangling teenage girls to death. A young man who took the fall for his spineless and nerdy younger brother stealing another kid’s bicycle struggles to deal with his father’s contempt for him over the theft, while trying to date a fellow teenager who’s best friend was savagely murdered by the above mentioned strangler. Sadly, trying to keep his father from finding out about his love life results in him being accused of being the strangler. Luckily his girlfriend is dead set on proving her boyfriend’s innocence, which leads her to being put in the crosshairs of the strangler. Host Mike Nelson is in perfect form for the episode, mocking the nerdy younger brother and closes the episode with one of the show’s most famous musical sequences: a tribute to janitors like the one in the film who (spoiler) turns out to be the killer.
Horror At Party Beach: Toxic waste turns dead bodies and other aquatic life into murderous fish monsters that feed on human blood, in between musical numbers and subplots about the love life of a young, handsome scientist torn between his drunk party girl current girlfriend and his boss’s more super serious sorority girl daughter. Like “The Atomic Brain”, the film gets respect from the writers, with jokes more aimed at the gratuitous musical numbers and the love triangle between main hero and his super serious sorority girl love interest as they navigate how best to hook up publicly after the drunken rival is murdered by the monsters.
Parts, the Clonus Horror: An isolated community of perfect looking young men and women, holds a dark and disturbing secret: the residents are clones of wealthy elites who are “graduated” and “sent to America” at random. And by “graduate”, I mean killed and by “sent to America”, I mean their organs harvested for their counterparts whenever they are injured. One clone sadly finds out the truth and becomes hunted, as he seeks to avoid being murdered by the wealthy elites that want to keep their clone farm a secret.
The Robot Monster: The Robot Monster is a sci-fi/horror film with a distinct looking monster (a gorilla suit with a deep sea diver helmet on) and a slow build to carnage. The creature wants to kill the last human family on earth and while it takes some time to properly build up, once the creature starts killing, things react a desperate level of tension as the heroes must avoid the murderous yet silly looking half-ape, half-machine creature stalking them.