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Mystery Science Theater 3000's best, most insightful jokes about horror movies
Let’s face it — for all their fearsome creatures and gooey ghouls, horror movies are fundamentally silly. It’s hard not to chuckle at Freddy’s wobbly arms in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, smirk at Friday the 13th’s nonsensical timeline, or scoff at Chucky's 6-foot strike radius. Some best comedy movies, like Ghostbusters and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, embrace this goofiness that comes along with the scares.
But nobody skewered horror movie conventions like the crew on the Satellite of Love. Over 217 episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, alongside their human friends Joel, Mike, and Jonah, watched a lot of cheesy horror movies. The jokes they made about the flicks the Mads sent to them force even the most ardent horror fan to acknowledge some of the genre’s corniest conceits. Here are five of MST3K’s funniest (and most insightful) observations about horror.
01. Maybe the victims have it coming
Screenwriters have to walk a tightrope when crafting horror movie victims. If viewers care too much about the soon-to-be-dead, their worry for regular people will outweigh the fun of the scares. Some writers avoid this problem by filling their films with utterly unlikable, disgusting human beings, so we can enjoy their demise without that pesky empathy getting in the way.
Of course, filmmakers can make their characters too unlikable, as Joel and the ‘bots discover while watching 1975’s The Giant Spider Invasion. Even before the titular spiders launch the titular invasion on a small Wisconsin town, viewers meet a gaggle of hateful yokels who spew the type of ugly dialogue Rob Zombie dreams about. So disgusting are these characters that Crow lasts only a few minutes before chanting, “Go spiders! Go spiders! Go, go spiders!”
While the movie’s non-existent special effects budgets prevent the audience from seeing bad people come to worse ends, The Giant Spider Invasion’s bottom-of-the-barrel stereotypes do inspire plenty of top-shelf riffs. “They’re poor only in money, and spirit, and dignity, and moral fiber, and hygiene,” Joel observes as the camera pans past a shack filled with nasty locals. These barbs might seem harsh, but the movie despises its characters more than Joel and the ‘bots ever could. And when the film goes for another stomach-churning incest joke, it’s hard to disagree with Crow’s assessment: “This movie hates us, doesn’t it?”
02. It’s a fine line between dullness and dread
The Wicker Man (the 1973 original, without Nicolas Cage or bees) and The House of the Devil can make inaction feel terrifying. That’s why they’re praised as classics. In most movies, when nothing happens, the audience feels... nothing.
Case in point, the infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Manos: The Hands of Fate purports to follow a vacationing family who runs afoul of the creepy Torgo, who has been kidnapping women to serve as brides for his mystical master. But really, it’s a plodding, grimy mood piece best summed up when Joel says, “every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.” The slightest bit of action occurs when the wives awaken and begin chattering in a circle, to which Crow emphatically adds, “Women at lunch! And the men who love them!”
But the slow pace does give us time to marvel at Torgo, one of the strangest characters to stumble across the screen. With his quivering voice and his incongruous calliope theme music (Crow: “Ah, the haunting Torgo theme...”), Torgo doesn’t exactly make Manos compelling, but he does confuse us enough to keep our attention. Plus, he serves as the inspiration for one of the show’s best post-movie skits, “Torgo’s Pizza!”
03. A movie is more than a locale
When MST3K returned for two revival seasons on Netflix, they brought with them not only higher production values and a gaggle of guest stars, but also some fantastic songs. For many longtime MSTies, any reservations about the new cast faded immediately when we heard “Every Country Has a Monster” in Season 11’s first episode.
The series’ final season brought plenty of great numbers too, including one that hit on one of horror’s silliest conceits. In Episode 216, Jonah and the ‘bots watched The Killer Fish, a Jaws rip-off set in Rio de Janeiro. A movie about jewel thieves beset by piranhas in the jungles of Brazil sounds like cinematic gold, but The Killer Fish is a belly flop of a horror film.
Not even an exotic locale can save the movie, as proven by the Little Mermaid-esque number, “Paradise Below the Dam.” Set to scenes of a diver searching for an escape from the titular fish, lesser-known ‘bot Gypsy sings about the action onscreen: “I see seaweed and more seaweed. Hey! I think I see a ray — no its just sea-weed.” For all the mayhem promised by The Killer Fish, Gypsy speaks for all of us when she sings, “I sure would be excited if seaweed were my jam, it’s a crappy kind of paradise below the dam.”
04. If you’re doing a rip-off, at least do it well
Any horror fan can tell you that Friday the 13th is a rip-off of Halloween, and that Halloween is a rip-off of Black Christmas, which is itself a rip-off of countless Italian giallo films. There’s nothing new under the sun, especially in movies. And there’s nothing wrong with that. All of those movies found ways to stand out from their predecessors and develop their own identities.
No such luck when the Mads chose Hobgoblins for their experiment in Season 9's seventh episode. Like Ghoulies and Munchies, Hobgoblins followed the tiny monster craze unleashed by the success of Gremlins. But where Ghoulies at least gave us an iconic poster, the hobgoblins hardly make an impact in the movie that bears their name.
The titular monsters take so long to show up (“Hobgoblins! Four hours in!”) and look so silly (“Help! Puppets are rubbing on me!”), that the crew directs most of their riffs at the movie’s hapless set of teens, like when they follow the party girl’s lusty song “Everybody have sex tonight” with the refrain, “Everybody throw up tonight!” When the shy military man gets sick of the group’s obnoxious bully, the two grab yard instruments and go to battle, the ‘bots add lines such as, “Now I’m gonna remove your thatch.”
The hobgoblins do show up and prompt a few jokes, but none as memorable as the lyrics adds to the anonymous synth-pop song the teens play: “It’s the '80s! Do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reagan!”
05. It’s OK to laugh at monsters
Although I loved monsters as a kid, I was a fearful child, and it didn’t take much to give me nightmares. So when my local Fox affiliate decided to air Squirm, a 1976 stinker about man-eating worms, I was traumatized, not amused.
Imagine my excitement, then, when I saw MST3K take on the film for the twelfth episode of Season 10. Mike, Tom, and Servo savage the movie worse than the worms that haunted my dreams. They rip apart everything in the film, from its bumpkin characters (“This whole movie demonstrates one unshakable principle: Never go to the south for any reason”) to its carnivorous nightcrawlers. As a child, I was horrified when the camera takes a literal worm’s-eye view, assuming the perspective of the hungry organisms as they prepare to devour an unsuspecting couple. But now, I can’t help but laugh at Tom’s quip, “The worms are driving around in matchbox cars!”
Sometimes, I still shudder when I recall images of worms oozing out of a showerhead or clinging to a victim’s face. But then I remember the lesson MST3K taught me — if it’s worth screaming about, it’s worth laughing about, too.