In 1966, an insurance salesman in El Paso, Texas, named Harold P. Warren bet that he could make a horror movie on the cheap. He wrote a script, raised $19,000, found an old camera, set himself up as director, producer, and leading man, rustled up a cast and crew of locals (including some ladies from a nearby modeling agency), and made Manos: The Hands of Fate, considered by many to be the worst movie of all time. (Richard Brandt’s “The Hand That Time Forgot” is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the movie.)
Manos: The Hands of Fate‘s cult status was solidified in 1993 when Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gave it a solid riffing. It received another riffing on August 16, 2012, when RiffTrax — an MST3K spin-off — excoriated the movie via live simulcast. As someone who dearly loves MST3K and thinks the Manos episode was one of its finest hours, I was worried as to how RiffTrax‘s take would stack up against my nerd nostalgia. Suffice to say, the RiffTrax crew had me and the rest of the audience in stitches throughout the event.
However, in between fits of laughter, I was struck by something during this most recent viewing. Yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate certainly deserves a lot of the riffing it receives. Even when you know about the technical limitations faced by the filmmakers — e.g., their camera could only record 32 seconds of footage at a time, and without sound, natch — there’s a stunning level of ineptness on display here. The dialog is stilted (it doesn’t help that all of the voices were dubbed by six people, including Warren), the framing and blocking wooden, the performances awkward, and the horror — remember, it was supposed to be a horror movie — entirely nonexistent.
And yet, a certain awkward charm shines through all of those things. Much like Plan 9 From Outer Space, another “worst movie of all time” contender, you end up admiring the filmmakers’ pluck. Or at least, having some pity on them. They were so obviously in over their heads and yet — call it “perseverance,” “dedication,” “stubbornness,” or what have you — they went out and made an honest to God movie, darn it. Considering how easy it is these days to make a movie with an iPhone and a YouTube account, that’s got to count for something, right? Indeed, such is its charm that the movie’s cult following only continues to grow. There are currently efforts underway to digitally restore and re-release the movie (as “a fascinating bit of 1966 ephemera”) and produce a sequel.
So… does Manos: The Hands of Fate really deserve the title of “worst movie of all time”? What does that term even mean? What standards must one reach (or fail to reach) to earn such a title? Scanning through Wikipedia’s page for worst movies ever and IMDb’s “Bottom 100” doesn’t really offer any answers there. Many of the movies at the top (or bottom, as the case may be) of these lists are, like Manos: The Hands of Fate, no doubt horribly made and difficult to watch without an MST3K-esque treatment to help ease the pain. But does that make them “bad” movies? Is there something immoral about them, assaults on good filmmaking techniques notwithstanding? What kind of “bad-ness” are we really talking about here?
The discussion of movie “bad-ness” is a tricky one when you use criteria with a moral/ethical dimension (e.g., levels of sex and violence). Those criteria force us to consider such things as an individual’s conscience and convictions, authorial intent, and the point at which the depiction of something becomes its glorification and glamorization, and they can easily lead to a lot of philosophizing and pontificating. (I know, I’ve been in plenty of those discussions before.) It’s easy, then, to see why technical incompetence is so often used as the criteria for judging a movie’s “bad-ness.” Out-of-focus or badly framed shots that obscure the action, stilted line deliveries, editing that leaves the audience confused as to what’s happening in the scene — these things can be discussed and critiqued from a somewhat objective stance.
But I wonder if that’s a cop out — if the ease with which we castigate and excoriate movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Hobgoblins, and Birdemic: Shock and Terror (which RiffTrax is tackling on October 25, by the way) primarily because of their ineptness prevents us from having better discussions about movie “bad-ness.” Put another way, I find it odd to so easily dismiss a technically inept but otherwise benign movie like Manos: The Hands of Fate compared to movies that are made with considerably more skill and talent, but that are also filled with more depraved and disturbing content. But can or should we even compare such things, or are we talking about cinematic apples and oranges? Does even raising such questions bring us dangerously close to simplistic moralism? Or are we just thinking too much, and should we, in the words of MST3K‘s theme song, repeat to ourselves “it’s just a show, I should really just relax”?
Questions like these have no doubt been raised throughout the entire history of art and media, and heaven knows I certainly won’t come up with a definitive answer here. But the questions can be fun ones to think and philosophize about. And so, dear Filmwell reader, I ask you: What are the worst movies you’ve ever seen? In what ways were they bad? Were they “technically inept” bad, or “depraved/disturbing” bad? Does it make sense to make such distinctions? Can we consider a movie immoral because of its technical competence or lack thereof? Or are questions regarding a movie’s “bad-ness” better reserved for its content?
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on September 5, 2012.