I have now my finished my binge of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. I previously ranked the first 7 episodes and shared my general thoughts on the new show versus the old one (conclusion: it’s just as good). Here now are my rankings for the last 7 episodes of the season, from worst to best. I will soon follow this up with my thoughts on the season as a whole:
7. Ep. 8, The Loves of Hercules, 1960
Best riff: “We killed all of the guards with our primitive weapons and enthusiasm!”
Best bit (away from the movie): The robots dress up to playfully re-enact a scene from the movie, but when Jonah’s new robot joins the scene Gypsy, Crow and Tom viciously show just what they think of the idea of a robot Cousin Oliver traipsing into their lives.
Trivia: Jayne Mansfield was pregnant during the making of the movie.
There were four Hercules movies featured on the original MST3K, and only one – 1958’s succinctly titled Hercules – cracked the top 75 (#71 to be exact) of Paste’s exhausting ranking of every MST3K episode ever. The Loves of Hercules fails to turn the tide as the new MST3K crew prove to be equally challenged to turn a Hercules movie into anything other than a middle-of-the-road episode. I find this particularly disappointing because Loves starts off as if it was made specifically for me. The cold open includes a running bit about Jonah and the robots binge-watching Wings (a show I love), and their riffing on Loves quickly involves multiple Pearl Jam (a band I love) references due to Mickey Hargitay’s freakish resemblance to circa-1995 Eddie Vedder. However, the Pearl Jam jokes stop at the 12-minute mark, and the rest of the episode proves to be quite unremarkable, save for the final minutes when the human villain is suddenly pushed aside by a Bigfoot-like creature whose affinity for Mansfield’s damsel in distress leads to some entertaining Beauty and the Beast riffs.
6. Ep. 12, Carnival Magic, 1981
The Plot: Imagine if Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade was a talking monkey instead of an intellectually disabled Arkansas man. Imagine if his gruffly delivered monosyllabic observations were then advertised as the main attraction at a crappy carnival. Then throw in a bullshit love story between the tomboy daughter of the carnival owner and some guy. Boom. That’s Carnival Magic.
Best riff: “Carnies assemble!” as carnies really do seem to come streaming in from all corners in response to the carnival owner’s call to action.
Best bit (away from the film): Tom as a “Come one, come all!” carnie, Crow as the depressed talking monkey who only says things like “Hmm, looks like rain today” and Jonah as a confused onlooker. Tom: “The talking monkey, a theoretical triumph but a practical disappointment!”
Trivia: The film went missing for two decades before a 35mm print was discovered in a warehouse in 2009, leading to a re-stored and re-mastered version debuting on TCM in 2010.
There are certain MST3K episodes which you are likely to walk away from with just Tom or Crow’s surprisingly impassioned rant over the closing credits sticking in your mind. I wouldn’t have expected that from Carnival Magic, which features a pretty solid running impression of the often sexually frustrated talking monkey. However, other than that impression and the occasional quality dig at the redneck characters there just isn’t much about the Carnival Magic riffing which stands out.
Then this text flashes on the screen right as the closing credits begin: “So Long For Now – See You Again Next Year for More Carnival Magic.”
This sets Tom and Crow off on a sadly accurate rant about the lifecycle of the modern Hollywood franchise but as applied to Carnival Magic. Sequel? 2 Carnival, 2 Magic. Third installment? Brings it full circle with a surprise return from a girl in the first movie. But then the producer lost his way with the prequels, replacing the real monkey with a CGI one and providing origin stories no one actually asked for.
They keep going at it like that for at least another minute, sending us out of the episode laughing. BTW, More Carnival Magic never did get made, but I’d at least watch a trailer for something called 2 Carnival, 2 Magic.
5. Ep. 14, At the Earth’s Core, 1976
The Plot: A Victorian era scientist (Peter Cushing) and his assistant (Doug McClure) take a test run in their Iron Mole drilling machine and discover an underground world ruled by a giant telepathic bird, prehistoric monsters and mixed-up, wig-loving cave people.
Best riff: “My gods were hawk monsters and you killed them, but I understand you did it for my own good.”
Best bit (during the movie): The gang holds up umbrellas when it seems like their silhouettes are about to be struck by falling fire from the film.
You can see why they picked At the Earth’s Core to be their last movie of the season. Its directly connected by star (Doug McClure), director (Kevin Connor) and production company (Amicus Productions) to The Land That Time Forgot and co-stars Starcrash’s Caroline Munro. So, there’s a slight “everything comes full circle” feel.
They work in some quality Doctor Who/Star Wars jokes at Peter Cushing’s expense, general displeasure with the notion of Doug McClure as a leading man and a running gag about the awfulness of the cave people’s Carol Burnett-esque wigs. However, the riffing is likely overshadowed by the Satelitte of Love bits which [spoiler alert] bring Kinga’s plan to marry Jonah as an illogical ratings stunt to a surprisingly violent conclusion.
4. Ep. 10, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, 1985
The Plot: “When evil screams throughout the world. When all the galaxies converge. When all that’s fair and fine seems lost. A Hero will emerge,” is the suitably vague IMDB plot synopsis for Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, a bizarre Argentinian film about a boy prince seeking to save his future princess with the help of a walking carpet (er, technically Yeti) and rogue badass. Terrible special effects and a surprising early, overly cheery James Horner musical score await you.
Best riff: “And if not I promise to come to your funeral wearing a brand new white fur coat” in reaction to an elf bidding the heroes a fond “have fun storming the castle” farewell while possibly plotting to kill their Yeti.
Best bit (during the movie): Jonah and the bots do a parody of Grease’s “Beauty School Drop-Out” with updated, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom-specific lyrics
It takes a while for Wizards of the Lost Kingdom to properly begin since the prologue attempting to establish the universe and build up to our main characters is actually stock footage from other Argentinian swords and sorcerers crapfests of the era. Thus, you will be just as confused as Jonah and the bots, and the confusion doesn’t exactly go away once we meet the prince and follow him on his magical adventure. Jonah and crew make do with plenty of jokes about how cheap everything looks or how bizarre the Yeti costume is, but it isn’t until the introduction of this film’s Han Solo that they get a more reliable source of humor, treating him like the out of shape alcoholic he appears to be (“Fight them while I call your sponsor!”).
They still manage plenty of one-off jokes, though, such as “meanwhile, the movie’s sole investor” when the film quickly cuts to a new character already in full facepalm mode or “surprisingly upbeat music for a scene featuring a girl being shot in the back with an arrow” in reaction to James Horner’s overly majestic score. The finest moment comes over the closing credits as Tom and Crow use John Locke writings to educate Jonah about the inevitable democratic revolutions which await the Prince’s sure-to-be short-lived reign as the land’s latest unpopular monarch.
3. Ep. 11, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II, 1989
The Plot: A completely unrelated sequel about a chosen one teenage boy (cracked voice and everything) who is destined to save his kingdom and become a powerful magician but mostly wanders from one pubescent fantasy to another, striking out every step of the way, even one time when an evil queen throws herself at him. David Carradine cameos as a barkeep who suddenly re-emerges at the three-quarter mark to assist in the quest because, um, I guess his bar closed? Sid Haig plays a magical villain named Crow, which gives our robot Crow some understandably mixed feelings.
Best riff: “Can somebody magically transform their hand into a fist and just punch him already?” in response to the latest annoying line reading from the child protagonist Tyor.
Second best riff: “How about my overhand! Or my overhand! And my overhand!” as an enemy in the woods begins a fight scene by using the same exact swing of his sword over and over again, somehow expecting different results.
Best bit (away from the movie): Jonah and the bots take turns doing their best Jeff Foxworthy except instead of “you might be a redneck” jokes it’s “you might be a crummy wizard” in reaction to the white trash wizard who looms large over the film’s first quarter before fading into the background.
(Sad) Trivia: One of the film’s various sex symbols, Amathea, is played by B-movie queen Lana Clarkson, who was famously murdered by Phil Spector in 2003. Jonah and the bots rightly refrain from making any reference to this fact.
I’ll admit to a certain elation when I first learned this new MST3K crew would actually riff on a movie and its sequel back-to-back. It’s not the first time MST3K has riffed on sequels, e.g., Master Ninja/Master Ninja 2 and The Amazing Colossal Man/War of the Colossal Beast., but they’ve never done it back-to-back (and obviously, the new crew had nothing to do with those older episode). The elation I felt swiftly turned to disappointment, though, when Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II turned out to be a sequel in name only. So, forget any hopes you had to see the crew revisit the characters from the first movie and find new jokes to tell about them. Sigh.
Double sigh that Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II simply isn’t as funny as the first one. Not initially, at least.
This is a MST3K episode that takes a while to get going, partially because the same is true of the movie they’re watching but also because there just aren’t a whole lot of quality jokes to be made. My notes from the first quarter of the film only include one joke which made me laugh (“wise wizard, please teach me how to run” as an imagined line for Tyor during one of his various scenes in which he runs about as elegantly as Phoebe on Friends). However, as the film grows increasingly inappropriate, with far too revealing costumes for the various buxom women the heroes encounter, and the “Who exactly is the intended audience for this movie?” question becomes all the more glaring the jokes start to pile up and the episode finishes strong. To be fair, the robots accurately point out that at times Lost Kingdom II is clearly meant to be a comedy, but similar to classic MST3K episode Timechasers the film’s inherent campiness/awfulness is far funnier than the filmmakers actually intended. In the end, I actually laughed more at Lost Kingdom II than the first one.
2. Ep. 9, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, 1967
The Plot: A South Korean Godzilla rip-off. What, you need more? Fine. A sudden series of earthquakes in central Korea turn out to presage the arrival of Yongary, basically Godzilla with a horn and affinity for gasoline. As the poor actor in the Yongary suit consistently struggles to convincingly rampage through the scale model of Seoul, a group of poorly dubbed Korean actors race to stop him, and of course there’s a precocious little boy who actually seems fairly evil, at least from the MST3K crew’s point of view.
Best riff: “I tried to photograph Alec Baldwin, and look what happened.!” in reference to a badly injured and clearly bloodied photographer suddenly entering a scene.
Best bit (away from the movie): Yongary ends about as you’d expect a monster movie to end, but man does it ever take a surprisingly dark (e.g., we see his leg twitch as he dies) turn while showing us Yongary’s newly dead body. It’s enough to leave the robots emotionally disturbed. Thus, after the movie Jonah sings them a lovely, but funny song about working through the emotional torment you feel when a bad movie suddenly turns super intense.
There are 5 monster movies in the new batch of MST3K episodes, and Yongary is easily the best. You can sense as much from the moment a little kid plays a prank on a honeymooning couple. He covertly points his scientist uncle’s experimental ray gun at them and laughs hysterically when it causes them to itch uncontrollably, dangerously inconvenient since they were driving their car through the mountains at the time. The movie treats this as a sci-fi Dennis the Menace moment, with no one admonishing the child but instead flashing “Oh, you little scamp” facial expressions. Thus, the table is instantly set for Jonah and the bots to riff on how secretly evil the little kid is, such as when they joke “What is this machine, and how can I use it to hurt people?” as the kid reacts with wonder to one of his uncle’s creations.
However, an annoying little kid does not a great episode make, not on its own anyway. Thankfully, Yongary offers a steady stream of mockable material, leading to a solid batch of running bits, such as a scientist continually aspiring to actually work himself to death like his father did, the oddly oft-repeated use of the word “capsule!”, Chris Christie jokes whenever Yongary causes a bridge to collapse and the ongoing befuddled reactions to the strange, almost drunken movements from the man in the Yongary suit (“He’s doing Death of a Salesmonster”/ “One last Macarena before I die” / “I’m so excited, so excited – so scared!”).
1. Ep. 13, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, 1966
The Plot: Remember how Miracle on 34th Street posited a world in which the real Santa Claus takes a job as a department store Santa for the simple reason of delighting little children? What if Santa only had to take that job because he desperately needed the money after an Italian version of Scrooge named Phineas Prune bought the deed to the North Pole and demanded a fortune in back rent? What if the only one willing to help Santa is a childlike attorney named Sam who takes a job at the store with him and spends all of his time playing with the toys? What if, to lighten the mood, the characters occasionally break out into hummable song? That’d be pretty crazy, right, but also kind of awesome.
Best riff: “Or we could, I dunno, bill some of your clients!” as a suggestion Santa probably should make to his new lawyer friend Sam whose solution to jolly old Saint Nick’s cash shortage never once includes contributing any of his own money or remembering that he has plenty of billable clients in town.
Best bit (away from the movie): Santa and Sam’s delivery of Christmas gifts is bizarrely shown to us as a slideshow instead of actual scenes with dialogue. So, once the movie’s over we see a hilarious slideshow of Jonah and the bots celebrating Christmas on the Satelitte of Love (gotta love those robot-sized Xmas sweaters) and Kinga and Max doing the same on their moon base (Kinga just does not get Max’s taste in gifts at all).
Trivia: This is at least the third Santa Claus movie in MST3K history, the first two being Mexico’s 1959 source of endless nightmare-fuel Santa Claus and 1964’s culturally insensitive and incessantly upbeat Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
I, gulp, genuinely liked The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. Even without anyone riffing over it I kind of loved this remarkably peculiar little slice of 1960s Italian cinema and its inventively downbeat plot featuring a humbled and humiliated Santa inadvertently creating the concept of department store Santas while desperately searching for work to escape certain eviction. The riffing is just a bonus, particularly the recurring jokes about Sam the lawyer behaving far too much like an infant when in Santa’s presence or Italian Scrooge ordering bodily harm upon any child he encounters.