March 14-20, 2007

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Cult Leader

'Manos' vs. IMDb: MST3K's Kevin Murphy relives his ordeal at 'The Hands of Fate'

By Steve Palopoli

I HAVE A SICK fascination with the IMDb's "Bottom 100" list. If you've never investigated this feature on everybody's favorite movie site, it's a list that uses some magical formula to determine the worst films of all time based on user ratings. It looks like science, but it's definitely alchemy, since 12 of the 15 worst-ranked films have user ratings of 1.8 or 1.9 (out of 10).

Sounds like a hoot, right? Well, sure, it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. That has finally happened now that Manos, the Hands of Fate has been pushed out of the Bottom's Top 10. Since the list now tends to favor flavor-of-the-week bad movies (last year's Crossover is now in the No. 1 spot with just 2,960 votes), 1966's Manos sort of became the true bad-movie fan's last great hope.

With well over 13,000 votes cast—more than any film in the top half of the Bottom list—Manos has a classic worst-movie feel that forgettable tripe like 2003's From Justin to Kelly or 2004's Baby Geniuses 2 (both in the Top 10 of the Bottom 100) can't touch. The difference is that Manos is a worthy contender for "worst movie of all time" status, with all the epic wrongness that title implies, while something like 1994's Car 54, Where Are You? (ranked No. 8 with 1,505 votes) is just boring, below-average Hollywood product.

Somebody who knows more about Manos than any human should is Kevin Murphy, who wrote and directed for Mystery Science Theater 3000 over its entire run, 1988-1999. He also co-starred as the voice of Tom Servo. After a few years of working on other projects, Murphy is back to making fun of bad movies again with his MST3K pal Mike Nelson. Their podcast can be found at

The Manos episode of MST3K is considered by fans to be one of the best, if not the best, and if you want to know what it was like sitting through that movie over and over again to prepare for the show, you just have to watch for the part where they let art imitate life.

"That one sketch we did where the robots are weeping and breaking down? That's what it was like," says Murphy.

He agrees that Manos embodies a special kind of bad-movie hell.

"It's bad in the most essential meaning of the term," says Murphy. "Its worse offense for me is it's so boring."

So boring, in fact, that it takes on an almost mysterious quality while you're watching it. Why does it cut back to the same four or five scenes throughout the whole movie? When you're talking Manos, you're talking excruciating driving footage, scenes of freaky-kneed manservant Torgo creeping people out, Torgo's master promising to kill him but taking forever to deliver and the master's "vampire wives" wrestling. And that's pretty much it. The scenes don't get any better the second, third or 10th time around, either.

Nor does the story ... well, exist. A family ends up lost (I guess) on a road that doesn't go anywhere (or something), and they want to stay with Torgo (for some reason). Torgo's master is the head of the cult of Manos (whoever that is), and his wives are vampires (allegedly). The family tries to escape, leading to a truly frightening moment where recycled footage makes you think the movie is threatening to start over again (as Murphy puts it in the MST3K episode, "Wait a minute, did this movie just lap itself?") All of this gives way to one of the most nonsensical twists ever.

The story of how Manos was made is nearly as famous as the movie itself. Fertilizer salesman Hal Warren shot it in El Paso, Texas, and also plays the father whose family stumbles upon the house. (Legend has it that Warren made the film on a bet that he could produce a successful horror film on a nonexistent budget, but there's no reason to believe this actually happened.)

Most of the film's enduring cult status has to do with the character of Torgo, played in downright inexplicable fashion by John Reynolds. Fans of Manos lust after the 2004 documentary Hotel Torgo, about the making of the movie, which is nearly impossible to find. MST3K riffed on Torgo several times later in the series and in their 1996 movie.

"It really gave us one of our most popular peripheral characters," says Murphy.

Amazingly, Murphy's seen worse—he ranks Red Zone Cuba as the worst film taken on by MST3K. But he does acknowledge that the series is largely responsible for the cult of Manos.

"I think we lofted it up into the shit-movie heavens," he says.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite MST3K episode here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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