Shout! Factory // 1993 // 74 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // September 5th, 2011
The Master wouldn't approve...
The legend of "Manos" The Hands of Fate was already established, when the Best Brains behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 selected it as one of the featured films (specifically, the season finale) for the show's fourth season. It was a phantom; a legendary "worst film ever" that only a few people had ever actually seen, due to the rarity of existing copies. Once MST3K got through with it, though, the film was a definitive star in the canon of bad cinema.
Manos was originally released on DVD in 2002, as part of the initial wave of Rhino's MST3K discs. It was later packaged with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in 2003's MST3K Essentials set, but has been out of print and somewhat hard to find ever since. With the rights to MST3K moving to the good folks at Shout! Factory, we now get a "Special Edition" re-release, along with a significant slate of extras.
The easy thing to do here is to gloss over Manos itself and just talk about the extras, as the glaring faults of the film have been hashed, re-hashed, and over-hashed ad nauseum. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to make an unpopular argument: Not only is Manos not the worst film ever made, it's not even the worst film in season 4 of MST3K. In an odd way, Manos is almost an admirable achievement. Read on...
A "young" couple are on a vacation in beautiful Greater El Paso. When they take a wrong turn down a dusty road, they wind up at the Hotel of the Damned, tended on behalf of the Frank Zappa-esque The Master by Torgo, a pseudo-satyr. Wacky hijinks ensue. Slowly.
Manos is a bad film. Let's be perfectly clear about that. It's terribly paced, poorly filmed, marginally acted, and excessively padded. It is, as others have said, precisely what you'd expect from a film made by a fertilizer salesman from El Paso. But there's the rub: it's a film made by a fertilizer salesman from El Paso. Hal Warren (the aforementioned salesman), a complete novice with no production experience outside local theatre groups, managed to make -- on his own dime -- something that has more than a passing resemblance to an actual motion picture. That's actually a pretty big achievement for 1966, long before the age of DIY production with easily procurable digital video cameras and professional-level editing tools on anyone's Mac or PC.
While there are many, many, many things wrong with Manos, there are a few things it actually does right. The jazzy score is decent enough, and the incidental music and the musical cues (especially the clarinet riff that plays whenever Torgo is walking) are appropriate. (The actual sound editing, though? Terrible. Absolutely awful.) The film's art design (done by Tom Neyman, who also played The Master) is pretty good for a budget indie, though sometimes you can't tell that because the film's shot so poorly. Neyman's acting is decent, as is John Reynold's quirky (and likely drug-fueled) portrayal of Torgo. And while the story isn't particularly original or compelling, it plays itself out in a logical sequence, and does (for the most part) make a little bit of sense.
The failings of Manos are technical in nature. Filmmaking is hard, and failures in production often have a disproportionate effect on the final product. For example, Manos is poorly lit. To be specific, the entire outdoor lighting rig was a single incandescent spot -- the same sort of light you'd use back in the old days for a Super-8 home movie camera. There's no diffusion, no evening out of light, no temperature balancing to keep from altering the color reproduction -- so it's no wonder it looks like much of the film was lit by a flashlight. Nothing takes you out of that scary monster-in-the-cornfield tension quicker than a bunch of moths flying around the camera and the actors. (Yes, this actually happens.)
The worst sin of Manos, by far, is the film's lugubrious (to be generous) pacing. The best -- and most damning -- riff by Joel and the 'Bots comes during one of the film's many interminable set piece shots, when Joel just yells, "DO SOMETHING!!!" From the near-endless driving shots that take up virtually the entire first act and the pregnant pauses while the camera lingers on characters who aren't doing anything, to the inexplicable spacing in the dialogue that seems to impose at least five full seconds of silence between every line, everything about Manos drags. Only the peculiar editing genius of Hal Warren could have turned a bunch of scantily-clad attractive women wrestling in the dust into pure tedium. This is where the film turns from "bad" to "nearly unwatchable." A crisply-paced Manos would have just been a bad-to-mediocre indie. Dragging what probably should be a 40-minute long film into 74 mind-numbing minutes turns it into the memorable fiasco it has become.
Manos is not, however, the worst film ever made. It's an amateurishly-made film that's been overpadded, presumably to make sure it has a 'cinematic' length. There are far worse films out there -- films made by professional filmmakers who have no excuse. In fact, a film that is much worse than Manos aired on MST3K not long before it: Monster a-Go-Go. That was a film made by actual Hollywood People, with Real Actors, that's nonetheless a godawful mess. It has worse production values than Manos, nonexistent acting, and possibly the worst denouement in film history. (If you're a MSTie, you'll know there was no monster...) In almost every aspect, Monster a-Go-Go is objectively worse than Manos. Similarly, Season Six's The Beast of Yucca Flats -- the nadir of said season's Coleman Francis trilogy -- consists largely of Tor Johnson staggering around the desert set to incomprehensible narration. (Flag on the moon -- how'd it get there?) Admittedly, the cinematography is better in Yucca Flats -- but everything else makes Manos look like...well, not like Citizen Kane, exactly -- more like The Bad News Bears Go To Japan.
Of course, the movie isn't really the entertaining part of this show; it's the riffs and commentary from Joel and his robot friends that carry that weight. Manos isn't the funniest effort put forth by the writers of MST3K -- they freely admit the film gave them virtually nothing to work with or build on -- but it's probably their greatest achievement. Manos is so very, very dull that crafting an entertaining two-hour show out of it is almost the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest in difficulty. And yet the Best Brains do pull it off. Manos may not be the funniest episode in the MST3K canon, but it's definitely in the Top Ten, and clearly one of the most popular episodes among fans. In fact, Torgo (played by writer and future host Mike Nelson) became a recurring character in the show's host segments, further bolstering Manos' legacy.
So that's my two cents on Manos. As a Special Edition DVD release, this is the opposite of awful. Shout! Factory has a well-deserved reputation for quality and value in all of its releases, giving love and attention to even the cultiest of cult releases. This is no exception; MST3K fans should have no qualms whatsoever about replacing their prior versions of Manos with this definitive two-disc release.
The transfer of the MST3K episode itself is very good, but a) it isn't exactly life-shatteringly superior to the previous DVD release, and b) there's only so much you can do to make a VTR-recorded TV show from the early 1990s look good. Having said that, this is probably as good as the episode will ever look on DVD. Audio is provided by a clean Dolby 2.0 track (English only). I was unable to determine whether the original audio (which I believe was mono) has been remixed into stereo or not, so I have to assume this is 2.0 mono, not stereo. Really, though, the technical specs aren't a selling point.
The value added by Shout! is the strong batch of extra features. First is a "clean" copy of Manos, unedited and without the riffing. "Clean" versions of the riffed films were often included with the early Rhino DVD releases of MST3K episodes, but Manos was one of the significant exceptions. Well, here it is, people. Enjoy! I'll warn you, though -- watching the film without Joel and the 'Bots is excruciating. And while I still don't think it's the worse film ever, I want to make it clear this is a very difficult film to sit through. For some unexplained reason, the video quality on this clean copy is significantly worse than the video quality of the film within the MST3K episode. My uneducated guess is that this transfer is from a second-generation video copy of a different, more damaged print of the film than the one that was used in 1993 for the original episode. (It's also possible that it came from a later transfer of the same original, which had been further damaged since the transfer that gave rise to the MST3K copy.) I have read that original 16mm prints of the film are exceedingly rare, so it's unlikely we'll ever see a direct digital print of the film in the future. Thought I'm sure no one will shed any tears...
A really nice bonus for fans is the fun little documentary short feature Hotel Torgo. Although it relies heavily on a single interviewee -- Bernie Rosenblum, who was Manos's grip, stunt coordinator, and "Teenager in Car" -- the film nonetheless answers a lot of questions "fans" may be asking. (Primarily, "Why???") The film also takes us on a tour of the shooting locations, which have changed little since the '60s. It's definitely a niche documentary, but well made and entertaining.
Another bit of fan service is the "reunified" version of Hired!, the short that's riffed prior to Manos. The episode featured the second half of Hired, the first half having aired the previous week before Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. However, many MST3K fans (including this one) did not have the Bride of the Monster episode in our collections, as it was one of the first MST3K-riffed films which Comedy Central lost the rights to air. As such, it went out of repeat rotation in 1995, if memory serves. This set gives us both halves of Hired!, seamlessly fused into a single film. Unless you had a friend who circulated the Bride of the Monster tape to you, this might just be your first opportunity to see the first part in a decade and a half. Bonus? You bet.
In the "this will either work great or fail miserably" department, Shout! has produced (apparently in-house) a featurette on the history of the Jam Handy Organization, the instructional film house that made Hired!, naturally entitled Jam Handy to the Rescue!. The featurette is made -- you guessed it! -- in the style of a Jam Handy instructional film. This could have been terrible. In fact, I would have bet it would be. But shockingly, it's both mildly funny and informative. Working in footage of an interview with the real Jam Handy ("Jam" is short for "Jamison"), a polymath who, besides being the architect of an educational film empire, was also a two-time Olympian (who still holds the record for "most years between Olympic appearances" with 20), he's one of a handful of swimmers credited with introducing the Australian crawl (a.k.a. "freestyle") stroke to the USA. While some of the jokes fall flat, the featurette does manage to capture both the unintentional humor and the gentle sincerity of those Jam Handy films.
But wait, there's more! When the Manos episode was split in half for syndication as part of The Mystery Science Theater Hour, bumpers" featuring Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins were used to introduce and close the hours. The bumpers are included here as extras. And last, but not least, there is a contemporary interview with Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (i.e. the members of Cinematic Titanic sans J. Elvis Weinstein, who was not part of MST3K when the Manos episode was made) discussing their experiences making the episode. This is a fairly long interview (running about 20 minutes), and the subjects are their usual entertaining selves. It is, however, targeted more at long-time fans of MST3K rather than newcomers who will likely be unfamiliar with references to other episodes and long-running in-jokes. For fans, it's a great listen.
There's a LOT of value in this package for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, certainly more than was included in the original Manos release. Replace your existing disc with this new Special Edition. You won't regret it.
Allow me to once again make this perfectly clear: "Manos" The Hands of Fate is not an enjoyable movie to watch. It isn't "so bad it's goofy fun" like Ed Wood's films; it isn't "so awful it's like watching a car crash in slow motion" like The Room; nor is it "so creatively stillborn that I feel like I've taken the bad acid" like Batman and Robin. It's just a dull, slow, pointless "horror" story that's incredibly painful to sit through. Joel and the 'Bots make it watchable, but barely. This is one of the MST3K episodes that feel less like a fun romp and more like a chore, even with the humor and the wisecracks. But I just can't rate a film made by incompetent people with good intentions lower than an equally wretched film made by professionals who just didn't care (see: Monster A-Go-Go). And that's why I'll go to my grave insisting that "Manos" The Hands of Fate is not the worst film ever made.
Shout! Factory and the Best Brains are clearly and definitively not guilty. Hal Warren, however, is sentenced to film school, and encouraged to stick to more traditional forms of manure in the future.
Review content copyright © 2011 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Uncut Version
* Short Film
* IMDb: Mystery Science Theater 3000
* IMDb: "Manos" The Hands of Fate
* IMDb: Hired!
* IMDb: Hotel Torgo