Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its name making fun of bad movies — from ’50s sci-fi flicks to the ’80s experiments in mullet-haired fantasy. But few of the B-rated movies the cast of MST3K lambasted comes close to the dreadful incompetence of “Manos”: The Hands of Fate.
For those not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) was originally a Minnesotan public-access show on KTMA-TV when it premiered in 1988. It was immediately picked up by the then-fledgling Comedy Channel for its first two seasons before the channel became the still-fledgling Comedy Central in 1991. After five additional seasons as a cult hit for the network, it was eventually canceled, only to be picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel for three more seasons between 1997 through 1999. Despite a somewhat successful underground film (1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie), the show was finally dropped, much to the dismay of a decades’ worth diehard fans. Since then, those fans have clamored for its return, but after a decade of being off the air, the chances seem slim.
Thankfully, Shout! Factory, the self-proclaimed home for the “best music, movies, and video for the discerning Pop Culture Geek”, has taken on re-distribution of the DVD versions of MST3K’s copious catalogue from previous distributor Rhino. Its latest release is among the favorites of MST3K’s fans: Officially MST3K Episode 424, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate.
This Special Edition contains the original episode of the show — the premise of which is that in an undisclosed future (presumably 3000 C.E.), a mad scientist (Dr. Forrester [Trace Beaulieu]) and his lackey (TV’s Frank [Frank Conniff]) inflict “experiments” on a hapless human (Joel Robinson [Joel Hodgson]) and his robot sidekicks (Tom Servo [voiced by Kevin Murphy] and Crow T. Robot [voiced by Trace Beaulieu]) by forcing them to watch terrible movies and observe their reactions. The show comprises its usual format of an opening exchange between those imprisoned on the “Satellite of Love” (SoL) and the “Mads,” stationed in “Deep Thirteen,” a screening of a “short,” usually culled from thousands of semi-instructional public-domain educational and corporate films from the past (in this case the second part of Hired! — a car-salesman instructional video), and ultimately a viewing of the entirety of the day’s “experiment”: 1966’s “Manos”: The Hands of Fate.
In usual fashion, the unequivocally terrible movie is viewed from its extendedly drawn-out and unsubtle start (basically five minutes of a man’s hands operating a steering wheel) to its inexplicable conclusion, with three short breaks in-between in which Joel and his robot pals make fun of the film’s ineptitudes, including its poor cinematography and acting, repetitive dialogue (almost every line in Manos is repeated, probably to extend it running time), and silly characters and interactions. Manos, in a nutshell, tells the story of a family (Father [and director/producer/writer] Hal Warren, Mother [Diane Mahree], young daughter [Jacki Jones], and their poodle) who unwittingly drive to the headquarters of some sort of cult, which worships a being called “Manos,” keeps a harem of “brides” chained in the basement, is ordered about by a semi-divine, mustached “Master” (Tom Neyman), and watched over by a Pan-like creep called Torgo (John Reynolds).
It’s clear within the first few minutes of the film, that Manos was an exercise in a wannabe producer’s attempt to attract a bunch of wannabe actresses using a script seemingly pieced together by the dream-stuff of ’60s headlines and an unimaginative wannabe Hollywood mover-and-shaker — yet, it, also has its cult audience (much like Ed Woods’s collection). Thus, there’s plenty of fodder for Joel and pals to mock … which they do with hilarious abundance — especially at the expense of poor, engorged-kneed Torgo.
The cast, crew, and even premise of MST3K changed over its decade-long run, but this episode epitomizes the show in its heyday, with Joel still the resident human guinea pig (he was replaced the following season by the show’s head writer Mike Nelson) and Dr. Forrester as the main antagonist (as the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the role was replaced by the character’s mother, Peal Forrester (writer Mary Jo Pehl), and the Satellite of Love still in orbit around Earth (it later became a planet-hopping spacecraft with various, new backup characters). In addition, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate has become such a noteworthy and fan-loved addition to the list of films MST3K trashed, this is definitely one of the DVDs any MST3K fan should grab.
Rhino, which has previously been responsible for releasing the main episodes only, first on VHS, then on DVD, has been surpassed by Shout! Factory’s Special Editions, which comprise not only the original episodes, but a slew of bonus features in its double-disc releases.
Disc One contains the MST3K episode as well as a feature titled “Group Therapy,” in which show-creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl “relive the horror” of filming the original episode, the “MST Hour Wraps” (filmed when hour-long condensed version of the episodes where aired in the mid-’90s), and an exclusive mini-poster insert by artist Steve Vance. Disc Two contains the original release of “Manos”: The Hands of Fate (minus the heckling from the MST3K crew), “Hotel Torgo” (a making-of film, which makes no condolences for making the “Worst Film Ever” nor for aspiring producer/writer/actor Hal Warren for whom no one involved in its production seems to have any love), some bloopers, and both parts of Hired! (the first part was seen in MST3K episode 423).
In all, Shout! Factory’s Special Edition contains everything anyone would want (and plenty many would probably care not) to know about “Manos”: The Hands of Fate and its treatment by ever-classic Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Shout Factory! is bound to release all the MST3K episodes, and the classic bootlegging tape-trading is still underway at various websites devoted to the franchise. There’s still a chance MST3K may return to television, perhaps with a altered cast and crew — such franchises have a way of returning from the dead. In the meantime, MST3K fans can still enjoy laughing at bad movies with the robots they’ve come to love for quite a while longer.