The often overlooked part of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s appeal is that the show can teach you the skills you need to watch the unwatchable. Though the group could enhance the joys of films like the Gamera series, those films didn’t need much help to be entertaining in a weird way. The crew at the Satellite Of Love really earned their pay when they turned their attention to films that were truly devastating in their awfulness. A prime example of this kind of film is Manos: The Hands Of Fate. It was a big test of the MST3K crew’s abilities -and the result was one of their finest moments.
For those who haven’t heard it, Manos: The Hands Of Fate can honestly lay claim to being one of the worst movies ever made. The brainchild of fertilizer salesman and community theater actor Hal Warren, it tells the tale of family on vacation who wander down the wrong El Paso back road and end up metaphysically imprisoned by Torgo, the wobble-legged assistant of “the master.” It is eventually revealed that this “master” runs some sort of cult that involves taking women as his wives. There’s a lot of aimless driving footage, a couple that seems to spend hours making out in a car, an epic cat fight between several women in diaphanous gowns, a twist ending and tons of cocktail-jazz noodling on the soundtrack.
Manos: The Hands Of Fate is the kind of film that separates the bad movie buffs from the general viewers. Any fan of mainstream movies will be baffled by its indifference to the language of film: the pacing makes 70 minutes feel like 700, it’s shot with all the finesse of security camera footage, there’s plenty of post-dubbed sound and the level of storytelling skill is so raw it qualifies as “prehistoric.” That said, a certain kind of viewer will get sucked in by the film’s outsider-art quality: it genuinely seems to have no idea how weird it actually is and it has a vaguely perverse sexual undercurrent further ups the ante.
The folks behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 clearly picked up on the push-pull appeal this film has for the bad movie buff and their Manos: The Hands Of Fate episode really plays on it. In fact, the show’s cast embody that feeling as they try to cope with watching the movie: a sketch between film segments falls apart when the bots are reduced to hysterical tears by thinking about the film and Frank and Dr. Forrester actually sneak onto the camera at separate times to apologize to the Satellite crew for how incredibly awful the film is.
The riffing on the film itself is just as funny. The crew’s exasperation with the interminably lengthy driving scenes that open Manos is pretty hilarious as well as the way that they punctuate the film’s many stretches of nothingness by saying “yeah, this is Manos: The Hands Of Fate.” There are tons of great one-off riffs, too, Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite being Joel’s observation that each frame of the film looks like “someone’s last-known photograph.” That said, the best gag of the episode might be its closer, which involves Mike Nelson impersonating Torgo as a pizza delivery boy (complete with his bizarre “repeated horn riff” theme music).
It’s also worth noting that Manos is preceded by “Hired, part II,” one of the many educational short films that MST3K sent up during their run. The crew has a lot of fun with this short, which is designed to teach car company managers how to train their staff. The riffs are pretty wild here, including some montages that overflow with great one-liners about the unpleasant nature of buying a car.
To sum up, if you’re determined to soldier your way through Manos: The Hands Of Fate then this is the way to do it. Not only does the MST3K treatment substantially up the level of entertainment value here, the way they deal with the film offers the viewer a good crash course in how to cope with the worst of bad cinema.