Rifftrax Live! Manos: The Hands of Fate - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Rifftrax Live! Manos: The Hands of Fate

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With all the travel recently, Kyle and I were unable to align our exchanges for this week's Kurosawa film The Idiot.  We'll be back next week but in the meantime, here's something special! I was able to attend a live Rifftrax event last night with Amanda where they were going to riff through the infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate.  For those of you unfamiliar with Rifftrax, they are an extension of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K).  The series ran for ten seasons (plus a very rough KTMA public broadcast season) on the fledgling Comedy Central and then moved to the Sci-Fi Channel.  The basic premise of both Rifftrax and MST3K is to watch a movie and listen along as the hosts make fun of it the whole time.

If you've ever been a theater and been annoyed by people chiming back at the screen or making stupid jokes along the way, the whole experience may not be for you.  But for a lot of us MST3K, and now Rifftrax, is sort of an initiation into an in-joke club for geeks.  The series has always prided itself on having an audience of people who appreciate a wide knowledge base and will go along with a joke even if it's straining what's happening onscreen.  MST3K could go in any direction with its humor.   There would be jokes relating to obscure financial designations, then there would be jokes pointing out the simple absurdity of what's happening onscreen ("They took out the Hitler museum!"), and sometimes they would just go with a gut reaction to the sight of pure horror ("I can feel his eyes on me.")  Part of the reason I grew to love MST3K so much is that they didn't dumb anything down but weren't afraid to go for simple gags or puns, they always went with what they thought was funniest.

The first time I saw MST3K I had no idea what I was watching.  There were little silhouettes jib-jabbering through the kind of B-grade movie I usually saw on the Sci-Fi Channel around 8 AM or so during the week.  They were riffing on Werewolf, a tone-deaf horror film featuring a leading lady who seemed to be reciting her lines phonetically ("A where walf?") and an insecure middle-aged actor villain changed his hairstyle every time the camera cut to a new scene.  By the time the crew was riffing on everything from the background music ("Ah yes, the concerto in A-minor for cello and werewolf") to how horribly the plot was put together ("You know, it's economical not to have a storyline because you can just film people saying things.") I was hooked.  I have fond memories of Werewolf, and it's also one of the strongest episodes MST3K ever produced.

Rifftrax picks up several years later with the second host, Mike Nelson, along with Bill Corbett (the second person to voice Crow T. Robot) and Kevin Murphy (the second person to voice Tom Servo).  Instead of picking on a bunch of low budgeted horror films and teen capers they now produce audio tracks that can be played along with more conventional movie releases.  You can get riffs for films ranging from Casablanca to the Twilight Saga.  They play a lot better the campier the film is, so listening to the crew try and make fun of something as classic as Casablanca is a noble but painful effort, but the third or fourth time the cast of Twilight stops in the middle of a speech and Mike calls for a line you know they're back in comfortable territory.

They still do riffs of the kind of Z-grade stuff they used to make fun of, which brings us to Rifftrax Live!  In the past they've done films like Reefer Madness and The House on Haunted Hill, but before the main event they always warm up with a couple of shorts and the odd skit or two.  I have to admit, I was a little hesitant about watching the experience live but that was because the film they riffed on was one they had done in the past and that episode is a stone-cold classic.  The film is Manos: The Hands of Fate, or for those who understand a bit of Spanish, Hands: The Hands of Fate.

Now, part of the nervousness came from the fact that I place myself firmly in the camp of Joel Hodgson, the first host and creator of the series.  Joel always seemed to carry a love of these bad films even when they stretched his patience, while Mike's riffing was a bit tougher and mean-spirited.  That said, most of my favorite episodes are the ones Mike hosted (Space Mutiny, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, The Wild World of Batwoman), but Joel always seemed to be the guy I'd want to sit down and make fun of these films with.  Part of the reason Manos is such a classic is the way Joel and the bots are resigned to how bad the film is and come close to breaking their good-natured spirits.

Well, it's time for me to eat my words.  From start to finish Mike, Bill, and Kevin made the film a fresh experience, but not before warming up the crowd with a couple of amazing shorts.  The first one was called Welcome Back Norman (which you can see in its entirety here).  It's just the kind of short for the MST3K crowd, showing a hapless man caught in an endless loop of terminal and parking hell that Sartre would be fond of.  The riffs were wonderfully empathetic, recognizing that the catchphrase of Norman's life is probably an exasperated sigh ("Eehhhhhhh") while still making room to poke fun at the guy for his shabbiness ("You know, a baggage terminal is just the place to ignore helping the elderly.")

The second was a very quick commercial for prune juice.  Surprisingly, there was almost no riffing throughout the roughly 60-second commercial.  But that was because the sight of an elderly man representing the height of California health gulping down prune juice with unnatural satisfaction was bizarre and funny enough.  It made for a great communal experience as the gang kept trying to start a joke and then laughing uncontrollably when they looked at the excited man.

Finally, they had a sequel to one of their most popular Rifftrax shorts, At Your Fingertips: Cylinders.  Sadly, they did not provide the long-awaited answer as to whether corn is grass or not, but provided plenty of children doing wholesome activities that quickly turn creepy.  My favorite was when the kids started making startlingly proportioned animals ("Should we be concerned your daughter is spending her time making well-endowed horses?").  Another favorite were the quick responses to some of the questions, like when one child makes an unusually excellent constellation out of a paper towel cylinder, some black construction paper, and a flashlight:

Narrator:  Why, with just a little ingenuity you can have your own observatory.
Mike:  *high pitched and quick* Is it?

They cut out a large number of shots with The Master extending his hands like this. To no one's surprise, they don't help the film by putting them back in.

Then there was the main event, which separated itself from the classic MST3K episode in a number of ways.  First off, most of the movies in the show had to be edited down in order to fit the allotted run-time of each station.  This time Manos was presented in an uncut state, leaving in an even higher number of dead silence with confused stares than I thought possible.  But my fears about Mike's crew being a bit too harsh were completely unfounded.  They found new ways to make even the endless shots of Torgo funny in a different way ("I am this sexy, drink it up baby.")  The extended pauses, which literally stretched on to almost two minutes at most, were hilarious with a sympathetic audience because sometimes one of the crew would stop to try and tell a joke then the camera would cut to another empty spot of land or vacant expression and all they could do was laugh.

The crew did not even try to repeat the exasperated success of the first run at the episode.  Every joke took the experience in a completely different direction, which was helped by leaving the film uncut.  For example. the endless going to and coming from shots and the beginning in the uncut version are followed by scenes of very different landscapes ("Ah, so now we're in the killing fields of Cambodia.")  There were still subtle callbacks to the original showing, like when a ramble from Tom about beauty school at the end turns into a separate sketch reenacting White Trash Twilight where Bella and Edward argue about who's going to throw away those appliances in the yard.  This is an example of why the return to Manos was so successful, they changed their approach but still had fun callbacks when it would have been funniest.

It also showed that they were able to show rougher scenes than what the old MST3K days allowed.  There were parts of some movies that the crew had to cut out of the broadcast do to problematic material, the most famous being an early season showing of Sidehackers where a rape and murder scene had to be quickly cut around to approve it for showing.  In the case of Manos they were able to leave in a very long sequence of The Master tying down and slapping one of his wives while she started to bleed.  Thanks to the ineptness of the film, the smearing of Starburst-colored paint on the wife's face, and The Master's brand of "I'm not touching you" assault it was hilarious instead.

Poor Torgo, doomed to do nothing but leer and occasionally get a handful of hair from extremely patient women.

There were some things that drug down the show a bit.  I didn't much care for the sketch from the cast of the forthcoming Manos 2: The Search For Valley Lodge even though it did have another fun callback to Torgo's pizza.  Then the same cast performed a rendition of The Eagle's "Take It Easy" with lyrics reinterpreted by Torgo with his struggles.  It was mostly amusing, but was also cut in with a much funnier sequence showing just how long some of those silences in Manos extend on.

For the curious, it takes Torgo a full thirty seconds to even get up the first time he and The Master meet, not even counting how long it takes for Torgo to get his stick or for either one of them to speak.

All in all, it was a great experience.  Watching Manos uncut was also interesting because you can see the genesis of a decent horror film lurking in the background, but the poor fertilizer king just wasn't skilled enough to pull it out.  If you have the chance to watch any Rifftrax event in the theater, be it live or a live broadcast, definitely jump on the opportunity.

Godspeed you noble titans of riffing, I'm grateful your comedy lives on.

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Posted by Andrew

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