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DVD Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Manos” The Hands Of Fate
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Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents: “Manos” The Hands of Fate
DVD
Directed by Joel Hodgson, Hal Warren
Starring Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff, Mike Nelson
Release Date: September 13, 2011

“Well… just in case you forgot, ladies and gentlemen… ‘Manos’: The Hands of Fate.”

Yes folks, it’s the movie that is often voted as not only the worst movie ever mocked by the valiant crew of the Satellite of Love, but also the worst movie ever made PERIOD. A movie so bad that everyone involved in its making either died of shame or vanished from the face of the earth. A movie so godawful that it provided the basis for the single greatest episode of one of the best television shows in the history of civilization. Now it’s back on DVD in a two-disc set devoted entirely to this movie and the classic of cathode comedy that brought it back from the bring of obscurity. It’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents: “Manos” The Hands of Fate, and yes, the quotation marks around Manos are intentional.

Once more Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson, creator of the show) and his robot companions Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) are forced to endure the endless horrors of some of cinema history’s greatest mistakes as part of an experiment conducted by the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and his good-natured comic relief assistant TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). Trapped on the orbiting platform the Satellite of Love, Joel and the Bots try to make the best of a lousy situation by mercilessly mocking the films they must watch as part of the routine of their reality.

“Manos” The Hands of Fate was shown on MST3K during the show’s fifth season and it was unlike any movie they had ever targeted for televised evisceration before. The…ahem…story revolves around a family (Hal Warren, Diane Mahree, Jackey Neyman) on vacation who take a wrong turn and end up at a ramshackle lodge overseen by Torgo (John Reynolds), the creepy caretaker who takes care of the place for his mysterious employer “the Master” (Tom Neyman). The family is forced to take shelter at the lodge as night falls and as the evening progresses they find themselves terrorized by dark forces intent on keeping them from leaving, and that’s when the Master and his “wives” awake from their slumber to make events stranger (as if such a thing was possible).

The movie is preceded by Hired, Part II, a short film made in the 1950s to be used as an educational tool for Chevrolet salesmen. Needless to say Joel and the Bots have a field day ripping the hell out of it and the result is my favorite short of the series.

“Manos” The Hands of Fate (“Manos” is Spanish for hands, so the title translates to Hands The Hands of Fate) was made in El Paso, Texas, in 1966 as part of a bet local fertilizer salesman Hal Warren made with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night). Warren took on the roles of writer, director, and lead actor and filmed the entire movie with a handheld camera that had to be hand cranked before every use and could only record 32 seconds of film at a time. Warren also did only two takes of every scene and no more. Since the $19,000 budget could not allow for the actors’ line readings to be recorded on set every line of dialogue had to be dubbed in during post-production. Warren could only hire two men and one woman to dub every character, including the little girl. Reynolds, the only actor who seems to be giving an actual performance, was reportedly on LSD during the filming of his scenes. He committed suicide about a month before the film’s premiere. The point being, the story behind the making of “Manos” The Hands of Fate was a weird and sad one indeed. It may not be the strangest behind-the-scenes tale of all the films that appeared on MST3K, but it has one of the top five at the very least.

Unfortunately the oddball nature of the production couldn’t produce a movie that was even a fraction as interesting as what happened behind the camera. Manos is a humongous bore consisting of goofy plotting, long scenes where nothing seems to happen, off-kilter performances damaged by the cheapskate production, excessive padding, and an inappropriate music score that wouldn’t be out of place being the house music in a beatnik coffee house circa 1961. The plot of Manos would be done much better in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes because those movies were made by filmmakers with genuine talent and an eye for creating frightening horror films. That’s one of the film’s greatest failings; it has the makings of a great grindhouse fright flick but it’s severely hamstrung by the lack of proper funding and filmmaking equipment. And yet in the end the movie manages to coalesce into something unique among the flotsam and jetsam of the evolution of cinema. No movie will ever be quite like it.

Of course a movie like “Manos” The Hands of Fate would be pure gold for the cast and crew of MST3K and sure enough it proves to be the inspiration for some of the greatest moments of the series’ entire run. The priceless riffing that tends to get personal at times (Joel gets irate and screams “DO SOMETHING!” as Torgo meanders around the movie) and takes every single aspect of the movie, from Torgo’s irritating walk (explained in the DVD extras) and theme music to the ridiculous scene where the Master’s wives engage in a mass catfight that runs so long that when the movie cuts to another scene and back the fighting is still going on, to task with furious glee. Plus the host segments are fantastic and hilarious too, including a bit where Joel and the Bots riff for several minutes on what kind of creepy affliction they would have to be considered a “monster” like Torgo and the classic “Torgo’s Pizza” finale with MST3K head writer (and future replacement host for Hodgson) Mike Nelson playing the character as a bumbling pizza delivery man (WARNING: Beware the complimentary crazy bread).

Special Features

The two-disc set of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents: “Manos” The Hands of Fate is the latest in a series of single film releases that Shout! Factory has been putting out on the market in recent months and it is by far the best yet of the bunch and one of the company’s best MST3K sets to date. The episode itself is presented in a fine full frame transfer that looks to be a decent remaster of the original broadcast version. Sound quality is pretty good.

The extra features are split across the two discs. One disc one we have a new featurette entitled “Group Therapy” (18 minutes) that features Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, and show writer Mary Jo Pehl sitting around discussing the show’s history with Manos and the ensuing cultural impact the episode had. It’s a nice, unedited group talk with lots of interesting tidbits of information about the film and funny one-liners in keeping with the fine MST3K tradition. Five minutes of “MST Hour Wraps” from the syndicated hour-long version of the show with Nelson in heavy make-up as Jack Perkins close out the first disc.

The real meat of the set can be found on the second disc. This is where things start to get fun. To begin we get the orignal, un-MST-ied version of “Manos” The Hands of Fate, but at 68 minutes it’s not exactly the full theatrical version. I noticed the difference right at the very beginning. Plus the picture and sound look horrible, which makes sense given that Manos is currently in the public domain and there are tons of low quality copies floating around in stores that this transfer could have been sourced from. A disaster of a movie but a nice extra feature.

Next up we have “Hotel Torgo” (27 minutes), an interesting documentary that tries to tell the story of the making of Manos as best as can be since most of the cast and crew have either died or disappeared. Bernie Rosenblum, who wore several hats on the production, is the only Manos survivor who could be found and he turns out to be a wealth of great stories and even takes the filmmakers to some of the locations used in the film.

“Jam Handy to the Rescue!” (23 minutes) is a spoof of the kind of square, dated educational films MST3K usually played before the main feature if they needed to fill some time. The title refers to the company that produced the “Hired” shorts for Chevrolet and is a goof on the Black Oak Arkansas song “Jim Handy”. Larry Blamire, the director of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, wrote the film and plays two roles. It’s a hilarious little short film with its own selection of bonus features including a blooper reel (2 minutes) and an interview with Joel Hodgson about the use of educational films on the show called “My (Educational) Short Life” (9 minutes).

Finally we have both parts of the “Hired” saga edited together as one 20-minute-long blast of pure hilarity. To see the two halves finally united with seamless editing and Joel and the Bots having a ball with the film is a joy to behold and is a perfect way to close out this set.

All in all, the “Manos” The Hands of Fate episode of Mystery Science Theater is classic and this DVD set is highly recommended viewing for anyone new to the series. It’s a great gateway into the gloriously insane and zany world that Joel Hodgson along with many talented actors, writers, and craftspeople created out of model kits and discarded Z-grade cinema more than two decades ago.

“Push the button Frank.”

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