Lost in Translation has looked at the worst film ever before, trying to work out how to remake Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’d be difficult, in part because the draw now, thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that is a fan favourite. Manos, however, is the one film that got Joel, Mr. Mellow himself, angry. It’s not watchable without the efforts of the MST3K crew. Thanks to the MST3K episode, the movie has a cult following, There is now a prequel movie, a sequel movie, even a video game. And, in 2015, a novelization.
Normally, Lost In Translations treats novelizations as tie-ins, part of the franchise and marketing, instead of adaptations. However, there is an almost fifty year gap between the movie and the novel. Plus, the novel won the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel in 2016. Who am I to dispute the International Association of Tie-in Writers?
The original film follows the fate of a family, Michael, Margaret, Debbie, and Pepe, on a vacation as they fall into the hands of the Master, his minion Torgo, both serving the dark lord Manos. Things don’t go well for the family at all. And there’s a teen-aged couple trying to find a place to park to make out and a sheriff and his deputy whose sole job seems to be to get the teenagers to move along. All filmed on a 16mm hand-wound camera that could only record thirty-two seconds at a time for the low, low cost of $19 000 (about $163 000 today).
MST3K riffed the movie during the show’s fourth season in 1993, giving Manos a much wider audience, one that would appreciate it, though not in the way the movie makers expected. Interest was renewed, or possibly newed, and Manos tie-ins appeared, leading to Stephen D. Sullivan writing not one but two tie-in novels – Manos: The Hands of Fate, the comedy version, and Manos: The Talons of Fate, the serious horror version. Today’s review will look at the comedic version.
Sullivan’s goal was to keep to the pacing, the awkward edits, and the dialogue of the original. In fact, all the dialogue is straight from the movie. All of it. John Reynolds’ Torgo can be heard while reading the pages. The narrator is another of Manos’ minions, one who is looking in on the Master and his victims. The prose is tongue-in-cheek, and the narrator has a lot of work to fill in some of the gaps, like the nine minute long car ride that begins the film.
Sullivan also calls out the mores of the era, the requirement to be manly and take charge despite being clueless, the requirement to shrink away from danger if a woman. From the scene where Torgo tries to fondle Margaret and she hits him:
Because this is the 1960s, rather than hit Torgo again — *knock ‘im down and keep ‘im down, I say! — Margaret would prefer to be rescued by a man. And since there aren’t any real men around, her husband will do.Manos: The Hands of Fate, by Stephen D. Sullivan
The narrator is shameless, telling the story and speaking directly to the fourth wall, making references to the film and its limitations. There’s no confusion on who the narrator is rooting for. The prose is light and easy to read, but isn’t fluff. And when things get into a lull, the narrator continues his spiel for Manos.
The novel did have to invent some details. There are only six named characters in the movie and that is including the dog. Sullivan had to provide names for the teen-aged couple, the sheriff and his deputies, the Master’s wives, and the hapless women who arrive at the lodge at the end. His solution was to base the characters’ names off their actors’. It’s a nice nod to see.
While it’s not a difficult bar to clear, the novel is better than the movie. Sullivan provides depth to the characters, even if the character is shallow. He builds sympathy for Torgo, gives a motive for Michael and his bad decisions, even provides some details about Manos. The advantages of the written word is to get into characters’ heads, even Pepe’s, providing an insight that the original movie couldn’t. It is also possible to read the novelization without having seen the movie, though some of the asides wouldn’t make sense.
Stephen D. Sullivan achieves the impossible with his novelization of Manos: The Hands of Fate. He makes the story accessable and readable, a far cry better than the original film.
Over the past few weeks, Lost in Translation has been looking at how to remake some movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Now it’s time to see what the films have in common, besides being not well made. Budget was a huge problem for each movie to the point where going cheap hurt the presentation. However, each film had its own reason for the low budget.
Remaking a bad movie requires that the original film have something worth bringing out. Each movie featured in the past month does have a core idea worth examining. Reptilicus is the first and only Danish kaiju movie; a giant sea monster wreaking havoc somewhere other than Japan or the US could be a draw. Danger!! Death Ray was a Italian spy movie taking advantage of the popularity of the 007 films; a remake could turn Bart Fargo into a franchise that is neither Bond nor Bourne. Robot Holocaust felt like someone’s post-apocalyptic tabletop RPG put to film; remade as a TV series, the setting could be expanded instead of looking like a number of encounters facing the player characters. Manhunt in Space was an early TV space opera; a remake could take a retro-pulp feel, crossing Star Trek with Flash Gordon. Manos: The Hands of Fate was a disaster of a film limited by its budget; remaking it could bring in the horror missing in the original. There is a core that can be dug out.
A large budget isn’t necessarily an instant fix. Battleship is the prime example here at Lost in Translation of a large budget still not leading to either a good movie or a good adaptation. Low budgets, though, mean that the necessities, including competent crew from the grips to the editors, are cut back. The goal is to find the right budget for the movie. A Reptilicus remake would need to invest in the special effects to make the titular monster impressive. A Manos remake, though, wouldn’t need the same budget; indeed, too much money may create new problems* for a film that’s essentially a horror story at the personal level.
Once the budget problem is fixed, the next is fixing the editing. Manhunt didn’t have the issues the other films had; its limitation came from being a TV series from the early days of television. Robot Holocaust needed to be tightened up at points. Reptilicus had a few moments where the limitations of filming were obvious, including a shot where it is easy to tell two different types of film were used, one for the monster and another for the victim being eaten. The other two had worse problems, with editing errors still getting into the released cut.
The format of the remake will be key. Robot Holocaust may be better served as a television series. Its setting needs to be set up and explored, with each of the various factions – the air slaves, the Amazons, the robot overlords, and even the Dark One – getting attention so that they all don’t feel like a check box. Manhunt could work either as a film, albeit one with a sequel hook if Cleolanta escapes at the end like all good pulp villains do, or as a pilot for a TV series about the Space Rangers. Danger!! Death Ray works best as a film, as does Reptilicus and Manos, the first two to take advantage of the large screen, the latter because the story is self-contained.
Special effects, while tied to budget, should be addressed. None had great effects, especially compared to today. The Death Ray remake needs to look like it wasn’t filmed in someone’s tub with Billy’s toys. Manhunt needs to be updated given how far technology has changed since 1954. Reptilicus, the monster, looked very much like the puppet he was. Robot Holocaust had similarly obvious puppets, making it hard to believe the characters were in danger from angry worms. Even Manos, despite having very few effects because of its low budget, could use some upgrades, especially for the Master’s hound. Today, CGI can help fix the problems, but it’s not a panacea. Good effects still won’t help if the rest of the film has problems.
Why remake the films, especially given that the originals weren’t good to begin with? Each of the films were featured on MST3K, whose popularity grew through word of mouth. Manos in particular is better known thanks to its appearance on the series. The audience expectations would be low; any improvements would be a bonus. The expectations could backfire with Manos, though; the draw is because the movie is so bad. As a bonus to studios, there’s already a commentary on what went wrong, MST3K itself.
It’s possible to learn from your own mistakes. It’s also possible to learn from someone else’s. The movies featured on MST3K all have problems. Figuring out what went wrong and how to correct it while remaking the movie is an exercise worth indulging in. Some of the movies may not be easy to remake, and some may be too far gone to be salvageable, but watching them with an eye to where the production made mistakes can help prevent your own.
* To be honest, Manos may be better served being remade as a student project. Today’s off-the-shelf video recorders have far greater capabilities than the 16mm camera used to film Manos, including a far greater record time than 32 seconds. The plot doesn’t need extensive sets or effects.
Lost in Translation has looked at some of the easier movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to remake and to watch. Time to amp up the difficulty and see if Manos: The Hands of Fate can be remade.
Manos is infamous on MST3K. The Mads took pity on Joel during the experiment, the movie was so dire. Netflix included the Manos episode in it’s lineup of classic MST3K. Thanks to that episode, the movie far better known today. The movie began its existence after producer and director Harold P. Warren bet Stirling Silliphant, script writer for Route 66 at the time that not only can anyone make a horror movie, he could make one on his own. Unfortunately, Warren won that bet. With a budget of just US$19,000, Warren wrote the script for, directed, and produced Manos.
The film follows a family of three, Michael (Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman), as their vacation takes a horrific turn when they stumble upon the home of the Master (Tom Neyman) and meet his servant, Torgo (John Reynolds). The Master runs a cult where he rules over his wives. Torgo “take[s] care of the place while the Master is gone.” As the young family is drawn deeper into the Master’s web, Torgo rebels. Ultimately, Debbie and Margaret become wives of the Master and Michael takes over Torgo’s role.
The budget doesn’t begin to describe how low end the production was. Warren rushed filming to make sure he could return the rented equipment on time. His camera could only record thirty-two seconds of film at a time. Lighting was limited, and many scenes were filmed at night because the actors had day jobs. The opening seven minute car drive, which may have been meant to be used for opening credits, was just scenery. So, while Warren may have won the bet he had with Silliphant, he wasn’t successful at creating a horror film.
Yet, the core idea, the Master’s cult and how the family falls victim to it, is viable. It was the execution that turned Manos into what it is. The equipment problems that Warren had aren’t a factor for even student filmmakers. Digital video recorders with far longer record times than thirty-two seconds are available off the shelf as a consumer product. Editing software is available through open source projects. Special effects can be done with CGI if needed.
To remake Manos, start with the script. Clean it up with a few more drafts so that the dialogue doesn’t seem stilted. Keep the idea of Torgo as a satyr and imply that the Master has a link to the Winter Court of the fey, a touch of the supernatural for today’s audiences. Ramp up the tension and eerieness. The Master’s dog should look like it came from the depths of Hell, with blazing red eyes; use the myth of the Barghest to tie the dog in with the fey. Keep the cult, but make sure that the Master seems more than human. The hardest part is deciding what to do with Debbie. The original Manos has the little girl becoming one of the Master’s wives, which may not sit well with modern audiences. Does Debbie escape, leaving room for a sequel hook years later? Or is she indoctrinated into the cult? Or, given the fey background being woven in, is she exchanged for a changeling and sent out elsewhere?
As with the other movies examined this month, budget was an issue with Manos. However, giving the remake a huge budget would do it a disservice. Manos could easily be done by students with commercial equipment today. The remake needs a modest budget, but most of the details come from the world around us now. It’d be fitting to remake Manos with a smaller budget than most releases, but the studio shouldn’t turn cheap. Provide what is needed; don’t force the filmmakers to cut corners.
A remake of Manos isn’t impossible. Last year, Debbie’s actress, now known as Jackie Neyman Jones and her father, Tom, who played the Master, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to film a sequel, MANOS Returns. There is an interest.
Ultimately, a remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate is possible. The effort to remaking the film isn’t so much trying to preserve the original as it is pulling out the good in what was an awful movie. Today’s filmmakers have access to so much more than what was available in 1966 that even a student film could do the work justice.