Our review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Manos The Hands of Fate, Special Edition, published September 5th, 2011, is also available.
"I take care of the place while the Master is away."
People are constantly discussing (and disagreeing over) what the worst movie ever made was/is. Sometimes, the poor cross-dressing corpse of Ed Wood is given a good grave spinning when the demerits of Plan 9 From Outer Space are argued over. Still others look to the recent dreck of heck spawn like Ishtar or L. Ron Travolta's Battlefield Earth as worthy worthless contenders. However, these individuals most likely have never laid eyes on what is easily the worst movie in the entire history of cinema; not only the most horrible, but a little bit of filmic offal that makes you question the continued existence of the medium itself. The creation of a Texas fertilizer salesman who didn't understand that sniffing manure all day does not make one a good director, Manos, the Hands of Fate is that joyless, thankless piece of nitrate nausea that approximates the uneasy feeling of flesh rotting off bone, smell and all. It wants to be a ghastly, devilish suspense-filled cult thriller. In reality, it's a greasy hippie wearing oversized kneepads and haggard old matrons in chiffon togas. Thankfully, this 24 frame per second putrescence is encased in the candy coating of the classic cult comedy show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and given the proper send up and burial it deserves. While it can still be a trying experience, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, a spoonful of satire makes the mediocrity go down.
Facts of the Case
From 1988 until 1999, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was one of the best shows on television, a simple idea that grew majestic in implementation. The premise involved standup comic (and genius) Joel Hodgson playing Joel Robinson, a worker at Deep 13 Laboratories who gets shot into space by Dr. Clayton Forrester and his assistant, TV's Frank. While trapped on board the Satellite of Love, Joel is forced to watch incredibly bad movies so that Dr. Forrester can observe his behavior patterns. In order to combat the constant onslaught of awfulness, Joel creates robots Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Crow. They add a sarcastic running commentary to the inferior filmmaking happening before them. Normally, people find talking during and over the movie an abomination, but when met with the apocalyptic incompetence of filmmakers like Roger Corman and Coleman Francis, MST3K offered one final prayer for special dispensation before the seventh seal cracked open.
Typical to an episode of MST3K, before Manos begins, we are treated to the second part of a cinematic short from the '40s known as Hired! This motivational mess from Chevrolet focuses on a portly auto überlord who can't understand why his under-trained and sluggish sales staff fails to sell cars. Turns out that his aging senile father has all the answers (while swatting at imaginary pixies and drinking hard cider on the front porch). The portly one takes insane dad's advice, and before you know it, the Japanese are that much nearer to winning the automobile wars.
Manos focuses on a post-nuclear waste family who are hitting the scenic back roads of this great nation in pursuit of convenient and incredibly inexpensive overnight housing. (One gets the feeling that if Motel 6 had been heavily advertised in the '60s, this movie would never have happened.) After endless scenes of driving, our floundering folk bumble into the Casa de Master, a ramshackle fishing cottage in the middle of the desert. It is looked after by Torgo, a gritty Spawn Ranch refugee who speaks in a stutter stall stammer that has you wondering if he is moments away from reverse peristalsis, or another tab of the blue acid. He claims to be a servant of the Master, a shadowy figure with even more foggy notions. A paint-by-numbers portrait of the dark overlord festoons a mantle and although everything about this stained palace screams "crime scene," our overtired travelers attempt to procure hospice for the evening. Torgo is more than happy to oblige.
Torgo, you see, is a little repressed. The Master (who looks like a cross between John Astin and the manager of a Denny's) has a harem-like bevy of abused babes tied up in his underground/backyard sandpit, and it is strictly manos off for the T-meister. Torgo longs for the touch of a woman, even though he looks like the kind of person who specializes in making his own gravy and has a massive pair of oversized thighs that give him a strange, Eric Heiden-ish gait. However, if he can't have one freely, T-Go is more than happy to force himself on people. Thus begins a nightmarish, and utterly ridiculous, freefall into the obtuse, as Torgo spies on the female family members, the middle aged Grecian urns in the backyard (or basement—its hard to tell) fight and dust wrestle, and Dad wanders the corridors looking for an ice machine. It's not long before the Master awakens from the sleep of the dead, or his cot in the den, and lords over this lousy landscape with invocations so lame they'd embarrass Anton LeVey. After long shots of moths flying in front of the lens, and horrid special effects that are neither, we return to the beginning of the movie for the shocking, twist, O Henry style climax. Sort of.
Manos is a bad movie, bad in every aspect of its creation—its acting, its script, its story line, and its execution. As a matter of fact, execution would not be good enough for the incompetent chaos that is foisted on the screen, unless of course, we get Percy Wetmore in on the act. Manos wants to tell a simple and straightforward story of a family's vacation into the occult. What we get, instead, is a leering dramaless dung heap as seedy and dirty in its tone as it is in presentation. Torgo is not as menacing as he is messy, looking like he sleeps, eats, drinks, soils, and broasts in the same stained canvas work clothes. You half expect him to drop the whole "ominous" and "disturbed" persona and break into a rousing rendition of Whipping Post, or Casey Jones. The Master is no better, portraying an evil force of dominion as an irritated shop teacher with lousy fashion sense. Add to this your grandmother's bridge club as unholy slave girls, and a family as dunderheaded as they are unpleasant to look at (and listen to), and you can feel the brain cells dying as the final minutes of Manos drag on for 37 hours.
All the better for the gang at MST3K. It seems to be a direct correlation—the worse the movie is, the more hilarious Mystery Science is. This is classic, laugh out loud and repeated viewing funny. You have to give the cast and crew credit; they managed to sit through Manos, and not suffer a series of mini-strokes. They then come up with hilarious comments such as "Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph…" or "You know, this scene is strong enough for a manos, but made for a womanos." Over the course of 90 minutes, the gang makes hundreds of jokes, and almost all of them work either as humor or very pointed commentary on the non-goings on playing out on the screen. Gags run the gamut from Shakespearean allusions to fart noises. Thomas Pynchon, Marshall McLuhan, and Monty Python are often melded together in the same riff. For every sarcastic barb that flies over your head, another hits you right in the funny bone, lodges into your lower cortex, and remains there for constant verbal repetition (much to your spouse's or loved one's chagrin). It is said that not everyone will get all the references made by Joel and the robots. However, the folks at MST3K are confident that the right people will, and after sitting through their deconstruction of Manos, you can rest assured at being part of the in crowd.
But it's not just the retorts that smooth over the rough patches. Every 20 minutes or so, the MST3K gang exits the interstellar in-flight theater for a little skit, usually revolving around some aspect, direct or indirect, of the movie they are watching. We are treated to Joel's ruminations on the nature of over exaggerated body parts, and a stunning recreation of the never-ending car driving scenes that the Manos director found crucial to the dramatic tone of his film. These comic gems are icing on the already overly sweet cake, creating a delectable dessert that no movie fan can resist. For over a decade, MST3K has offered fans of bad cinema and smart comedy a home that this DVD can only hint at.
The DVD offers a truly schizophrenic package. Manos' picture is faded, brown, and oily. Its sound is sharp and jagged. The TV show itself is a full frame fiesta. The image is crisp, and the colors vibrant without bleeding or video flares. The Dolby Digital sound is, unfortunately, flat and fails to take the full dynamic range of, say, a home theater setup into account. Aside from the animated menus and chapter breaks, there is really not much else here, except for one other special feature. As part of their fan club, MST3K offered a blooper reel known as Poopie, and this 30-minute gaffe gallery is presented here. We get to see Joel Hodgson, his future replacement Mike Nelson, and the other cast members of MST3K screwing up their cues, their line readings, and basically acting unprofessional and silly. Fans of MST3K will LOVE these outtakes, as they understand the context in which many of them occurred. Those without a long history with the show will be mildly amused, but may find themselves asking why the group can't seem to get that stupid "Pants" song right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some, Manos is such a bad movie that no amount of in-theater chatter could heal the chafing. For others, the constant smart-alecking and banter is the main drawback to the overall presentation. People actually find the verbal jousts hurled at the screen by Joel and the gang irritating, disgraceful, and disrespectful to the films shown (while I can't imagine Manos has supporters, other films MST3K tackled do). Still others will be lost on both accounts, not getting the jokes, and wondering why people are wasting their time showing Manos, let alone making fun of it. Also, this is a cult show, which by its very definition has had a hardcore group of people following it religiously for years. For them, this is manic manna from Heaven. Others outside the sect may feel perplexed, like they have landed in the middle of a puppet show without a program, or a clue. For them this DVD becomes the very designation of an acquired taste.
Just because one is not a long time fan of the SOL or Deep 13 does not mean they cannot enjoy this DVD. Classic comedy is funny, no matter what the context, character history, or overriding storyline. When the Master raises his whisper thin arms to cast another demonic spell, and incoherent Satan babble comes out of his mouth, one cannot help but snicker. Add to that the half hearted cat fighting of the Depends-wearing Manos moms, or the only child actor that incorporates her eventual fall from grace within her performance, and there is nothing left to do but guffaw. And let's not forget Torgo, the man of a thousand imagined odors, faltering and wobbling like a Weeble that WILL eventually fall down, and Ted V. Mikels and Michael Bay need to make room at the head of the hack's table for Harold P. Warren and his nitrogen rich nonsense. When a movie is as out-and-out awful as Manos: The Hands of Fate, we should be thankful to Joel Hodgson and his fellow comedians for finding the fun in the fundus. It is really a shame that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is not still on the air. With the plethora of celluloid slop that rummages around in our local cineplexes for your hard earned cash, it would be nice to have them around to keep J-Lo and Britney in check. The mind boggles at the possibilities.
The cast and crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are innocent of all charges. The sub-humans who created Manos: The Hands of Fate are found guilty and are sentenced to one year of house arrest at the Casa de Master. Rhino Home Video is reprimanded for not making more MST3K available on DVD.
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