If there’s one landmark impact Mystery Science Theater 3000 has made on the movie world as a whole, it’s this: The show just may have supplanted Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space with an even bigger turkey for the no-prize title of “the worst movie ever made.” That’s because it uncovered and unleashed Manos: The Hands of Fate — which, translating the espanol, means Hands: The Hands of Fate.
The work of El Paso businessman Harold P. Warren, who directed, produced, wrote and starred, Manos has a similar sense of woefully amateurish auteurism. But doing it all doesn’t mean knowing it all, and Manos’ tale of a road-trip family finding a pagan cult at the world’s worst motel (it makes the Bates look like the Ritz) was one big hot mess.
Of course, that made it perfect for MST3K’s merry movie mocking, which often focused on the film’s “Igor” of sorts, the deformed and degenerate Torgo (John Reynolds, a bizarrely trousered satyr). And its elevated status today makes it perfect to get MST’s first single-episode but double-disc extravaganza, out Sept. 13 from Shout! Factory.
Here’s all the Manos you could hope (or shudder) to have, including lots of extras. And among them are some pertinent sidetracks into the similarly misguided world of Jam Handy, the man who made tons of lousy “educational” films for schools and industry, including Hired!, whose second part appears just before Manos in MST’s fourth season finale.
Chances are you know the filmmaking horrors of the alleged horror show of Manos, so let’s beg the master’s forgiveness and cut to the special features chase:
Disc 1 sports a lively 18-minute gabfest among Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Joel Hodgson and Mary Jo Pehl, who seem to be sitting in someone’s backyard. Aptly titled Group Therapy, it lets them vent about what became “one of our big discoveries of the show,” Frank says.
Joel agrees that it’s “the worst movie ever made” and in the “pantheon” of Plan 9. But he says riffing on the film was “a challenge,” with all of its slow driving scenes and lots o’ nothing. In fact, before hitting its stride, there’s no way MST would have done Manos in its first two seasons, Hodgson says.
Indeed, the film was so bad that even TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester in Deep 13 were “abashed,” as Mary Jo says and as is evident in the episode (from which clips pop up here). Sorry about that Joel!
But Frank says he appreciates such films’ “independent spirit” in the context of today’s manufactured movies, saying that Manos and its like at least “have a kind of soul to them.” Indeed, in a weird way they feel more real than today’s costly CG orgies.
Not that such qualities alone made it MST’s choice.
“We just needed really cheap product. That’s what was available,” Joel says. Afford it, license it, show it. It was that simple.
Or, as Trace calls it, Manos was “at the top of that dung heap.”
Disc 1 also has Mike Nelson’s demented hosting for the two MST Hour “wraps” for the episode, and, of course, the complete episode’s original version from MST.
Disc 2 has the film by itself, sans sarcasm, as well as both parts of Hired!, MST riffs intact.
It’s also got Hotel Torgo, a fine 27-minute documentary on Manos‘ creation. The chief talking sources are Bernie Rosenblum, who played a makeout king and also did crew jobs, and a scholarly fanboy, Richard Brandt. Footage is scored with the film’s lousy pseudo-jazz music.
Rosenblum revisits some of Manos’ precious few locations and says the cast was “troubled.” (Indeed, he’s one of the few survivors.) He calls the end product “embarassing, but we had a good time.”
I must admit I was equally intrigued by the related materials on Jam Handy (Henry Jamison Handy), an interesting man if a misguided one. Much of this is courtesy of MST friend and ally Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra).
In the 23-minute Jam Handy to the Rescue!, an amusingly straight-faced and witlessly earnest Blamire plays a phone lineman who, for some reason, drops in on a kid at school to teach him what all kids should know about Jam Handy.
The producer, who died in 1983, made many educational (read: propaganda) films about manners, grooming, salesmanship and how to be a good white American. He’s seen within this featurette in a vintage TV interview from 1966, for which Blamire substitutes himself as the interviewer, a disorganized train-of-thought nitwit. The kid and Blamire’s lineman character fittingly watch this on an old 16mm school projector.
The fact is, Jam Handy has had more impact on MST than Manos, having delivered so many of its most annoyingly outdated short films. Remember “Coily,” the devilishly menacing spring obsessed with his self-importance? I rest my case.
There’s also an eight-minute interview with Hodgson about these shorts, and it’s quite revealing. Hodgson points out that in MST’s early days on The Comedy Channel, the network envisioned lots of short films, and MST delivered by including shorts before its features. And these, of course, could be just as bad if not worse, making them inviting targets for Joel and the ‘bots’ barbs.
So curl up with anyone who’s “handy” and enjoy a double dose of Manos mania, along with some Handy jamming. We’re talking cinematic landmarks here. We’re talking history!
Oh, all right: We’re talking “the top of that dung heap.”