Wednesday, March 2, 2016

From best picture to worst

Monday was a queer day in the old-fashioned sense of that word, before it had anything to do with a person's sexuality. It was a day we only get on the calendar every four years, a day I have traditionally celebrated (the last two times, anyway) by watching something absolutely god-awful. However, since it was also the same day the Oscars were playing (in Australia, anyway), it was a day where I needed to cram in a three-plus hour awards show as well -- one that we couldn't start until after we put our kids to bed.

Somehow I managed it all. Thank goodness for the earlier recording of the telecast and the ability to fast forward commercials.

It was truly odd to go from the producers of Spotlight accepting the best picture win to watching the opening shitty frames of Manos: The Hands of Fate on YouTube less than five minutes later.

Manos is the third in a grand tradition of February 29th films, joining the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man in 2008 and Howard the Duck in 2012. But Manos created a whole new level of terrible that few if any films have ever matched.

For those not familiar with it, Manos is a 1966 low-budget "horror" directed, written by and starring a man named Harold P. Warren. It gained notoriety when it went under the Mystery Science Theater 3000 lens, its sheer indescribable awfulness having helped it transcend the more pedestrian sort of badness displayed by the other movies that show skewered.

How awful? Let me try to tell you.

But first some "plot."

It involves a "young" couple in a convertible and their daughter (Warren is not particularly "young"), who are trying to find an inn where they're supposed to be staying. They get lost and instead come across a home tended to by an eccentric proprietor who is acting strangely and advises them that he watches over the place "while the master is away." Unable to find their way back, they reluctantly go inside and see a mysterious painting of a man and his ghoulish-looking dog. Ultimately the family's dog escapes outside and is killed, and eventually they discover "the master" and his small clutch of wives, i.e., captives.

The very broad strokes of this story preview something chilling, but all it takes is one second of viewing this movie to realize that it may be the worst movie ever made. Every creative element that goes into the making of a movie is delivered at a Z-minus grade of quality. You could probably argue until the cows came home about whether the photography, the editing, the lighting, the sound or the acting was the worst element of the movie, but the directing is the one element that seems to encompass all of those, so let's just say that this is almost definitely the worst directed movie ever made.

Vance, how many god-awful movies have you seen to make a statement as bold as that?

Not nearly all of them, to be sure. But watching any one minute of Manos -- literally, choose randomly from the entire 68 minutes -- will convince you that it's almost not possible for someone to make a film more incompetently than this one is made. Ten random homeless people could make a better movie than this if they replaced this film's ten most important collaborators.

To call the editing haphazard doesn't even come close to describing the depth of its ineptness. The film is cobbled together from camera angles shot either three degrees to the left or right of the previous shot, played consecutively with each other rather than as a return shot after a cutaway. The camera is rarely if ever set up in a location that makes the most sense for capturing the action, with crucial objects sometimes appearing half out of the frame. Lighting has been applied so indifferently to the proceedings that sometimes it bathes the performers in a blinding whiteness, and other times it is totally absent, so you can't even see anyone's face. And let's talk for a minute about the ADR. Clearly films on this budget would not have synchronous dialogue that you could hear clearly, but the post-dubbed dialogue doesn't even come close to matching the mouths in the pictures. Plus even the silence is noisy, as the soundtrack has a background noise that sounds a bit like air being released from a tube, a constant stream of polluted quiet.

The terrible acting and directing deserve their own paragraph. The best you can say about the acting is that people's reactions are in keeping with the general mood of what's expected of them -- in other words, no one sounds happy when they are supposed to sound sad. Literally any and every other acting sin is committed here, from excessive flatness (that's Warren) to giant, over-the-top scenery chewing (Diane Mahree and Tom Neyman, as his wife and "the master" respectively). What is most odd, though, are the delayed reactions, the two- to three-second pauses after lines of dialogue that would seem to require an immediate response. You can almost see Warren off camera saying something like "Wait ... let it sink in. Pause for effect." Though to be honest, the notion that Warren had any guiding principle whatsoever on how to direct this movie is baffling.

And then there are just the hilarious things that transpire in this movie. I can't mention them all, but there is the repeated sub-plot of another couple who keeps getting harassed by the same police officer while making out in the back of their convertible. For a while I thought this had something to do with the rest of the movie, but I honestly can't figure out what it is. Then there's the supposedly horrific scene where a victim gets slapped to death by the master's crazed wives. I'm not talking about a brutal episode of violent slapping that bludgeons someone to death. I'm talking about five or six mid-strength slaps that somehow result in the victim expiring. There's also the absurdity of the fact that the father carries around a drawn gun for the last 15 or so minutes, even when there are no villains nearby and when he is trying to do things that require the dexterity of his hands, like pick up and carry his daughter. He's pretty damn lucky he didn't accidentally discharge a bullet into her temple. (Spoiler alert.)

What's truly terrible about this giant collection of cluelessness, though, is that it generally does not have the delicious moments of grand spectacle that distinguish other such terrible movies. There's no "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" (The Room). There's no "OH MY GOD!" (Troll 2). I suspect that if they tried to show Manos: The Hands of Fate as a midnight movie (and I'm sure somebody's considered if they haven't actually done it), I have no idea what would work as the "bring down the house" moments. It's like a slow, trudging march toward an ending that seems like it will never arrive. I find myself wondering how they tackled this challenge in that MST3K appearance that brought the film to prominence. They must have come up with something good, otherwise we probably wouldn't even know about it at all.

The movie is of course fascinating for the simple reason that someone (Warren, I guess) looked at this dailies every day and said "Yup! Nailed it." But let's just say, not fascinating enough for me to ever watch it again.

When I get around to ranking this on Flickchart, I will seriously be considering it for my lowest spot on the chart.

Never too early to start planning for February 29th, 2020, right? Suggestions welcome.

It's a Saturday, so I definitely won't be watching the Oscars the same day.


Wendell Ottley said...

Watched this last year as part of the Blind Spot Series. It is every bit as terrible as you say. My own review...

Believe it or not, this movie has amassed such a cult following that the woman (then a little girl) who played Debbie has just recently (as in the last month or two) raised enough money through KickStarter (I think, GoFundMe, possibly) to follow through on her plans to film a sequel titled Manos Returns. Her real dad played The Master and is still alive and kicking and apparently willing to reprise his role.

For the next leap day I am suggesting a contender to this film's crown as the worst - Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Derek Armstrong said...

As you can probably see I just commented on your review. Like you, I'm glad to have seen it. Like you will, I will never watch it again. (Well, maybe to watch the MST3K version.)

Plan 9 - seen it! I agree it's much more watchable than this. But I was actually hoping it would make me howl with laughter more.