RiffTrax returns to ‘Manos’ with Rave showingsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
If you visit the Internet Movie Database’s ranking of the 100 worst films of all time as ranked by their visitors, toward the very top —well, bottom — of the list is the 1966 film “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” A tale of a family who gets lost while on vacation and ends up at a lodge overseen by a half-goat-man named Torgo, the movie is bizarre, badly acted, horrifically directed and incomprehensible.
The brainchild of — seriously — a Texas fertilizer salesman named Harold P. Warren, “Manos” would have long been consigned to the trash bin of cinematic history had it not been for the cult classic television series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K). Famous for “riffing” bad movies by adding a humorous commentary track to them, the show featured “Manos” in 1993. Since then, the movie has become widely acknowledged as one of the worst ever made.
Now, some of the minds behind “MST3K” — head writer and host Michael J. Nelson, Kevin “Tom Servo” Murphy and Bill “Crow T. Robot” Corbett — are returning to the scene of the greatest cinematic crime ever.
The trio, who have continued to make hilarious commentaries for many of the biggest modern films through their “RiffTrax” website, will be re-riffing “Manos: The Hands of Fate” as part of a “RiffTrax Live!” event. The show will be broadcast in movie theaters around the country, including locally at both Franklin Park 16 and Fallen Timbers 14, at 8 p.m. Aug. 16.
The trio said it was interesting to revisit one of their most famous subjects.
“It’s like meeting with an old high school friend who turned into a boozer and is living with his old girlfriend, and things aren’t going well,” Nelson said.
“It’s really caused me to shudder a lot,” Murphy added. “I haven’t actually seen the whole film in about 10 years. So revisiting it now is opening up old wounds.”
Despite the fact that the movie has been riffed before, the three are quick to point out that the show will not be just a redo of the previous material.
“We are actually rebooting it completely, we’re rewriting it from scratch, without referring, for good or ill, to the previous stuff,” Corbett explained.
“So, it’ll actually be really fresh — if you can use that term when describing ‘Manos,’” Murphy agreed.
“Fresh fertilizer,” Nelson added.
“I wasn’t involved with the first one; I became a writer after that,” Corbett said. “So this is my first go-around with ‘Manos.’ I have seen the episode. But, I dunno, I think we’re either blessed or cursed with the fact that our minds kind of get wiped of our previous work almost immediately upon completion. I don’t feel a great anxiety of influence about our previous stuff.”
Oddly, though, “Manos” may end up looking better than fans have ever seen it before. A new transfer of the film will be used for the riffing. “You can actually see and hear everything, which is an amazing advance for ‘Manos,’” Murphy said.
Another restoration project by film school grad Ben Solovey aims to have the film released on Blu-ray soon. Not to mention the stage adaptations, video game and — yes — in-production sequel that “Manos’” newfound popularity has inspired. All three said giving such notoriety to a long-forgotten piece of cinematic trash like “Manos” makes them feel a little like Dr. Frankenstein.
“This is a unique phenomenon, where this little piece of junk film kind of gains its own cult status, whether propelled by us or by word of mouth,” Corbett said. “And then people start to forget that it’s really a bad film, and just get an affection for the experience of laughing at it.”
The return to “Manos” is just the latest step for Nelson, Murphy and Corbett, who have decades of experience as a group. Nelson and Murphy have worked together for nearly 25 years, Corbett almost 17.
“We have fun working with each other. We respect each others’ work, and we work well together and we have fun doing it. That’s a weird thing any time in your life,” Murphy said.
“We share a love of good coffee and bacon, and that’s enough to keep people together for a long time,” Nelson added.
“It really is good to just have ongoing work with people you like and are friends with, and you have a great time even when you’re not making comedy. Just, like, driving in the car to the recording, we have some of the biggest laughs going in my life,” Corbett said.
It was that kind of camaraderie that inspired Nelson to ask Murphy and Corbett to join his new “RiffTrax” project after it first launched in 2006. Originally designed to produce commentaries in MP3 form that can be played alongside a movie, Nelson said the idea naturally evolved from their work on “MST3K.”
“People had always asked us, ‘Well, why don’t you do “Titanic?”’ or name-the-blockbuster, and I think they don’t understand that, well, we don’t have the rights to it. And so it was always a thing where we’d like to do what we do with blockbuster movies. And once technology caught up with it and we could do MP3s, it seemed a natural thing to do,” Nelson said.
Now, the “RiffTrax” brand has evolved to include older films with the commentaries already added, as well as some of the classic short films that “MST3K” fans loved from the original series. The “RiffTrax Live” simulcasts, broadcast via Fathom Media, were a natural extension of the group’s experiences doing their work in front of an audience.
“We loved doing the live shows, but we just didn’t have the resources — we just couldn’t pull up roots on our digital stuff and just go out on the road as much as we wanted to,” Nelson explained. “And this seemed to satisfy all of that.”
And satisfying the fans has always been one of the primary goals for the three writers, as they continue to find joy — and joyous rebellion — in poking fun at the movies.
“I think people like talking back at the media and not just having things spoon-fed to them, and that’s my preachy excuse for this. Yeah, it’s fun to talk back to the screen. And we sort of do that for people so they don’t get kicked out of the theater,” Murphy said.
Tags: Bill ‘Crow T. Robot’ Corbett, Jeff McGinnis, Kevin ‘Tom Servo’ Murphy, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Michael J. Nelson, MST3K, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Pop Goes the Culture, Rave Motion Pictures, RiffTrax