Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Kindred Spirit

By now, some of you have no doubt heard that a fellow by the name of Ben Solovey has found the workprint of the 1966 movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and is making a project of digitally restoring it for release on Blu-Ray. For those of you who don't know, Manos is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made, right up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film achieved its present notoriety thanks to its appearance on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in 1993. But, in a post on his blog, Solovey makes the case, rather convincingly in my opinion, that Manos is not a actually a bad movie so much as an amateurish one, made by people with little or no experience of film making. Likewise, the poor quality of all the existing prints only adds to the perception that it's a movie without any redeeming features:
A common refrain I’ve heard is that without Joel and the Bots, the movie is “unwatchable”, but I suspect a big part of that is the bad visual presentation that the movie has always had. When you divest Manos of its grimy, unpleasant patina, you are still left with a weirdly dubbed, strangely edited, small town, outsider horror film. But with a clearer view of the production design (paintings, metalwork, and stone sculptures by Tom Neyman, a local artist who played The Master), the off kilter handmade world the film presents, and the shaggy but poppy Ektachrome photography by Robert Guidry, 45 years later Manos assumes a different identity as a fascinating bit of 1966 ephemera.
This is a big part of why Solovey wants to restore the film, but it's not the only one.
Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60′s, a contemporary of 1962′s Carnival of Souls and 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him. Although he had not yet infamously sold fertilizer- that would come later- he was a good salesman and was able to rustle up a reported budget of $19,000 (over $132,000 in today’s money) to get his script made.

If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. Actors dropping in and out of the production, a broken leg that stranded two in a car for their entire screen time…

A lack of reliable electricity, which creates a murky, crudely lit effect at night…

Animals that were unwisely written into the movie and refuse to cooperate…

It’s all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it’s memorable. If you’ve seen it you’ll remember Torgo and the Master. You’ll remember the interminable driving that opens the movie, the weird squabbling of the Wives, the loungey soundtrack, the unconvincing dubbing, the Scorpio Rising-esque invocation of Manos, God Of Primal Darkness. All this in a film that’s only 70 minutes and change.

So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I’ve resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.
I don't know about you, but I can't help but applaud Solovey's efforts, perhaps because I detect in him a kindred spirit to a lot of us in the old school community, someone who's willing to ignore conventional wisdom about the quality of a work and try to appreciate it for the virtues it might possess beneath the patina it's accumulated over the years. That's an attitude worthy of respect and so I'll be paying close attention to this project in the weeks and months to come.

16 comments:

  1. I had not heard any of this, what a fantastic project. I think you're right on with the comparison. As much a fan of MST3K as I am, I also love a lot of those movies un-MSTied, and never thought I'd be able to see this without. Thanks for posting this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indy horror history - it can be downloaded at Archive.org

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm pretty sure it's just a bad movie. You could present it in glorious HD-3D CinemaScope and it would still be pretty lousy. Just because something is homebrewed and apparently sincere, doesn't make it good.

    Saying that outside of the grimy patina, awful dubbing, poor editing and general ineptness of the plot there's a good movie there is like saying outside of the nonsensical setting, schizophrenic art, unreadable layout, impossible rules and general incompetence, 'World of Synnibar' is a good RPG.

    Without those things, what else is there?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree with Coldstream, Manos really does suck. I've seen it at least five times, and can find no redeeming attributes beyond pissing off your friends after tricking them into watching it. Seriously, it's that bad. It's not like D&D, which was lousy but had a lot of insanely great ideas; Manos is a mess, pure tripe, a pastiche of various horror cliches wrapped up in terrible acting and an even worse plot. There's nothing original, which is probably it's worst offense. Ed Wood is frequently cited as the worst film maker ever, but you can tell he had an actual vision, clouded by incompetency. Manos was created by incompetent hacks whose vision was essentially replicating crappy 50s horror films.

    ReplyDelete
  5. In the late 90's I had a GF who was a huge MST3K fan, and she had actually gone back east for the oficially con a few times (I got the impression she was a bit of a groupie, cause she loved the creators of the show with a passion). She had video of the "Parade of Torgos" which was 30 dudes (and some girls) done up as Torgo and staggering across the con to the Torgo theme blasting. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to sroke out!

    Its a creepy film, but not really good in any way like Night of the Living Dead was. Both cheapie productions, but night and day in quality script and acting IMO. The first 5 minutes of Manos was a bad sign of what was to come. For sure very improved by the bots and the stoner goofing on it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. OD&D is the Manos the Hands of Fate of the RPG world? Hmmm... I don't think that analogy is going to win you any converts.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anyway, the big difference is that underneath its rough edges and poor editing and IP violations, OD&D is a functional, playable and enjoyable game. Underneath Manos' terrible film quality, scratched stock,and awful special effects, you'll find a truly bad film and all the restoration in the world won't ever change that fact.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't think Manos is the old-school analogy you're looking for. It was the product of a man who made a cynical bet that he could make a horror movie on the cheap, despite having no experience in film. He managed to get some naive investors to fork over money he was reasonably sure they would never recoup. He didn't pay the actors but promised them "a share of the profits" and that mistakes would be fixed "in post-production." Despicable, exploitative hackery.

    Jean Cocteau made "La Belle et La Bete" in 1945. You could barely get clean bedsheets or a can of paint in postwar France, let alone usable film stock. Cocteau was tortured by a debilitating illness through most of the production. But somehow he made a great fantasy film, and was able to pay the cast and crew a fair wage doing it. Its sense of wonder has never been bested.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yeah, sorry - I'm with the majority here. There are a number of very low-budget horror films from the same era that have something to recommend them, even if they're not truly good films (and there are a handful that actually are truly good films). Doug's comment is astute. And check out "Pather Panchali" sometime, which was also made by a cast and crew of complete amateurs. I'm all for DIY, "Manos", without the robots, isn't even guilty pleasure territory. It compares more to SPAWN OF FASHAN or something than to any version of D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I can see I didn't make my point very clearly in this post, so let me try again. I'm not trying to argue that Manos is necessarily a good film, let alone a great one. My point was simply that I think there's something laudable in the idea of going back to something that "everyone knows" is execrable and trying to see if that reputation is wholly deserved or if it might be exaggerated.

    I mean, I know plenty of gamers, some of whom ought to know better, who nevertheless insist that the LBBs are bad and unplayable. Had I simply taken them at their word, I might well hold the same opinion. But I went back and read -- and played -- the game and found the LBBs not only playable but enjoyably so. Now, not every old game (or movie) is going to turn out to better than its reputation, but isn't it worth trying to find out?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'll be looking forward to Ben's work. Yes Manos is a stinker but James makes a good point: it's worth looking at again to see if the rep is (wholly) deserved.

    Rock on Ben. The Master approves!

    -SJ

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks, again, James for your thoughtful post about a topic a bit outside our rpg tunnle vision.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My point was simply that I think there's something laudable in the idea of going back to something that "everyone knows" is execrable and trying to see if that reputation is wholly deserved or if it might be exaggerated.

    I think you should have chosen a better example then. I agree with this sentiment, but perhaps if you had chosen the picture Ishtar (which has a bad rep and flopped at the box office, but which people like Tarantino and Scorsese have enjoyed and the one time Gary Larson ever made an apology for his cartoon (after actually seeing the picture years later).

    ReplyDelete
  14. No, there's "contrarian," and then there's "willfully perverse." I've seen Manos several times over the last 10 years, and I can assure you that there's nothing there to reclaim from popular opinion. And it's not even a movie that's been overlooked--through MST3K, literally millions of people have seen this turkey, over and over again. Meanwhile, I'm sure that there are dozens of genre gems languishing in cold storage or simply being ignored even though they're available through the Warner Archives, etc. Manos has had its day, and this time and money could be much better spent.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "You’ll remember the interminable driving that opens the movie". It amazes me how many people confuse memorable with good. If what I remember about your movie is how painfully boring it was, then it was not a good movie.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't know... I don't think the "consumer" should have to put more effort into a work of art than did the original artist.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.