By Roderick Heath
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster sarcasm, referential dot-joining, and genuine movie-geek affection for the weird, wonderful, and often just plain lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the quips at their laziest replicated standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as it was about film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often flailed trying to sustain its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some nightmarish, yet alarming possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically.
Otherwise Warren’s lack of technique provides plentiful fuel for unforgiving ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.