The New Cult Canon: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2

The New Cult Canon: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2

With Tim Burton's Ed Wood lending an air of semi-respectability to the infamous director of Plan 9 From Outer Space, long considered the worst film ever made, a pair of new cult favorites are currently vying for the title: Manos: The Hands Of Fate and Troll 2. To your corners, gentlemen. Let's get ready to rumble!

Tale Of The Tape

Manos: The Hands Of Fate (1966)

— Popularized by a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose writers lent it further bad-movie legitimacy by calling it the worst film they ever covered. This from a group that witnessed such cinematic atrocities as Monster A Go-Go, Hobgoblins, and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

— Produced for $19,000 by writer-director-star Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas.

— Shot on a spring-wound 16mm camera that only allowed a maximum take of 32 seconds in length. This explains the many jarring cuts and continuity errors, which make Manos uncannily resemble a Michael Bay film.

— All of the dialogue was overdubbed in post-production, with most of the voices done by the same two people.

— Introduces the lovable "Torgo," an Igor-like figure with a quavering voice, peculiar knock-kneed gait, and ragged Confederate uniform. He'd also like a wife one day, too, if only his polygamous master would let him.

— Current IMDB rating: 1.8 stars out of 10 (Bottom 100: #26.)

Troll 2 (1990)

— The nominal sequel to the 1986 Gremlins knock-off Troll, even though it was originally titled Goblins and features no trolls or any other connection to the first film.

— Co-written and directed by Claudio Fragasso, an Italian exploitation filmmaker hiding under the nom de crap Drake Floyd.

— Features a dim-witted nuclear family vacationing in a rural outpost called Nilbog, which they're late to discover is "Goblin" spelled backwards. For their next trip, perhaps they'll consider the charming hamlet of Redrum.

— Has been touring as a Rocky Horror Picture Show-type midnight-movie road show, complete with merchandise, guest appearances by the filmmakers, and audience participation.

— Current IMDb rating: 2 stars out of 10 (Bottom 100: #42)

Whenever somebody refers to a movie as the "worst" of anything, I'm naturally inclined to seek it out, because those estranging qualities that put people off are also what make most of them compelling and singular. For example, The Brown Bunny and Southland Tales were both dubbed the worst films ever to screen in the Competition section at Cannes, but like them or not—I'm a defender of the former, and other critics are passionate about the latter—they don't play by the rules. So when publications declare Plan 9 From Outer Space "the worst film ever made," what they really mean is that it's the paragon of so-bad-it's-good turkeys, and thus a treat for bad-cinema aficionados. The real "worst film ever made" isn't anything you would ever want to watch, which is why Wood's enervating Orgy Of The Dead isn't in any danger of wresting the title away from the far superior Plan 9.

With that caveat out of the way, it's clear that a new generation of cultists are looking to champion their own gloriously inept entertainments, with contenders that include Battlefield Earth, Howard The Duck, Mac And Me, From Justin To Kelly, and the complete filmography of German tax-loophole-exploiter Uwe Boll (Alone In The Dark, Bloodrayne). Manos: The Hands Of Fate and Troll 2 may be fairly construed as arbitrary choices, but both films have emerged as ground-up, grassroots cultural phenomena, rather than studio-financed stinkers that have benefited (if that's the word) from wider exposure. When the two stars of America's most popular television show make a bad movie together, everyone knows about it; when a fertilizer salesman from El Paso drops a bomb at a backwater West Texas drive-in, it's much more likely to disappear without a trace.

Though Manos and Troll 2 have nothing to do with each other, consider these eerie coincidences: Both follow a wholesome American family heading off to the countryside for some R&R;, each to places that don't exist on any map and definitely haven't been rated by Zagat. Both feature fathers who are Clark Griswald-like in their clueless insistence on forging ahead with the vacation, no matter what strange, ominous signs they confront. And even more remarkable, both road trips begin with the families singing along in a forced chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." So I feel safe in declaring that the official nursery rhyme of bad cinema:

Spanish speakers (and most others, I suspect) will recognize the redundancy in the title Manos: The Hands Of Fate, but I'll offer the translation just in case: Hands: The Hands Of Fate. "Manos" is a deity worshipped by The Master, a mustachioed pagan polygamist who sleeps on a stone slab and has half a dozen bickering zombie wives at this disposal. After a long, long, long driving sequence ("Let's pretend we're watching A Trip To Bountiful," says one MST3K-er), stern family man Michael (played by Warren), his wife Margaret, their young daughter Debbie, and her ill-fated poodle finally see the sign for the Valley Lodge, which is located deep in Leatherface country.

The road to Valley Lodge leads nowhere, literally. Lost travelers don't have the option of, say, turning around and heading straight back to the main road. In fact, during one of several scenes where the local police stop to break up "the necking couple" (more on that later), they all seem perplexed that anyone would head in that direction: "We know this road goes nowhere," one of them says. It was at this moment that I paused briefly to consider the possibility that Manos: The Hands Of Fate is some sort of accidental surrealist/existentialist horror film. Here's a movie that begins with mismatched footage of a family driving east, then west, then east again across the screen, only to wind up stuck on the road of no return. It's like Sartre's No Exit, as staged by a shockingly inept regional theater troupe.

However, any proper conversation about Manos: The Hands Of Fate begins and ends with Torgo, the hitch-stepped bellhop of the damned. Actor John Reynolds, whom the MST3K guys cite for his uncanny resemblance to a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, reportedly designed a homemade metal apparatus to get Torgo's movements exactly right. This explains why his legs are disproportionately chunky compared to the rest of his body, and why he often drifts out of the frame like a drunken hobo. (He's also given his own special music cue, so you'll know to be extra-spooked.) Torgo explains, "I take care of the place when the master's away," but it's not much of a place, just a single room with a couch that opens up into two other rooms—one that leads to a bedroom and another that leads… well… I'm still not sure exactly. Outside, I think, or maybe to another dimension.

In any case, it ain't the Valley Lodge. But amusingly enough, Michael treats it like it is, and starts angrily barking orders and insults in Torgo's direction: "Put the luggage back in the car!" "Hey Torgo, where's the damn phone? You know, telephone, like Alexander Graham Bell?" "I'm going to find Torgo. He's got some explaining to do!" All of which made me feel kinda sorry for Torgo, in spite of his creepy overtures in Margaret's direction, like this notorious scene where he tries to seduce her with the ol' shaky-manos love hex:

Setting aside Torgo's social awkwardness—and yes, his somewhat predatory coveting of Michael's wife—we find out soon enough that he's getting abuse from both sides. When the guests aren't complaining about the amenities, they're calling him "a beast," and once we see The Master's harem of beautiful zombie wives, it's clear he isn't sharing with his servant. The beautiful women in modest lingerie are all there to serve The Master and Manos, and the best Torgo can hope for is a little Peeping Tom action before a new victim is enslaved.

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Sadly and hilariously enough, scenes like the one where Michael's wife undresses are the film's real raison d'être; no doubt Warren believed that with a little cheap titillation, he could sneak the movie into enough drive-ins to recoup his $19,000. Why else would he feature a couple of serial neckers whose only discernible purpose is to make out for a couple minutes until the police arrive to break them up? The problem is, Warren couldn't even get the sex he wanted; the modeling agency that provided him with The Master's wives would only let their clients appear in nightgowns that wouldn't seem immodest on an 80-year-old. Warren manufactures a catfight over a bizarre conflict between the wives, who are fiercely divided over whether to kill the little girl or allow her to grow into a woman. It's the longest non-driving sequence in the film, and the MST3K crew supplies plenty of great quips for the duration:

By any standard, Manos: The Hands Of Fate is a work of stunning incompetence, far surpassing Plan 9 to my mind, because at least Wood's film had narrative ambition and stars like Bela Lugosi, Vampira, and Criswell, all speaking in their own voices. (Though Torgo is memorable in his own way.) There are probably dozens of amateur productions out there that are equally bad, but the few that find exposure like Manos or Death Bed: The Bed That Eats are a reminder that for every out-of-the-blue outsider classic like Carnival Of Souls, there are a lot of fertilizer salesmen out there that should be getting back to their day jobs.

The sequels that generally worry me are the ones to movies that I don't like: If the filmmakers are trying to recapture the magic of, say, Daddy Day Care, and they fail even at that sub-modest ambition, then what is Daddy Day Camp going to look like? (Happily for me, Nathan Rabin was the one to find out.) Since Troll 2 wasn't originally intended as a sequel to 1986's Troll—and, as mentioned before, doesn't feature trolls of any kind—it would seem to offer a reprieve. Because let me tell you bad-movie lovers, Troll is one spectacularly dismal movie, a worthy A-side to the generous two-sided DVD that includes both films. A few of the highlights: One in a long line of spacey performances by Michael Moriarty, here playing the original Harry Potter; a hammy Sonny Bono as the sort of swinging bachelor who would scare any sane woman away; and a pre-Seinfeld Julia-Louis Dreyfus, who giggles and frolics around as a half-naked plant thing.

Because it's a sequel in name only, Troll 2 gets a fresh start, and thus doesn't have to answer all the questions left unanswered by the first Troll. Yet it's somehow a significant drop-off in quality, and significant uptick in camp entertainment value. I have some petty reservations about the way Troll 2 has been promoted as the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, but man, does the movie deliver the goods, from the "Nilbog" non-twist to teen dream Holly's bizarre interpretative dance to the vegetarian-goblin-repellent that is the double-decker bologna sandwich. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Claudio Fragasso has a story to tell. Let's look at it…

As the film opens, freckled-faced imp Joshua (Michael Stephenson) listens to a bedtime story about evil goblins from his Grandpa Seth, à la The Princess Bride, except much darker, because the goblins are real and Grandpa has been dead for six months. With his son turning his late father-in-law into an imaginary friend and his loud-talking, aerobicizing daughter Holly (Connie MacFarland) attracting teenage boys like moths to a flame, daddy Michael (George Hardy) feels like his family needs a little country air. So he drags his wife and kids to a farmhouse in the town of Nilbog, population 26, where they can live like their ancestors did. But wait, there's more! Dad has arranged a house swap with another family of four from Nilbog, who will be able to enjoy all the modern conveniences of Michael's suburban two-story, like a microwave and a VCR!

Here's how the goblins roll: They're able to disguise their hideous form by looking like ordinary, wheat-gumming country folk; only a telltale mole on their faces or necks offers a clue to their true identity. They're also militant vegetarians, so instead of eating humans outright, they must first reduce them to a bright-green mass of concentrated vegetable goop. And in order to do that, they first have to convince their victims to partake of the bright-green baked goods, beverages, and other foodstuffs that make up a goblin country buffet. So when the Waits family arrives to a feast left by the host family, young Joshua and his imaginary Grandpa must improvise to keep his dim-witted relations from chowing down. Count down from 30 seconds:

Meanwhile, Holly's boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright) and his three buddies are tagging along in an RV, ostensibly because Elliot cannot go anywhere without his friends, but really because Fragasso needs a few horny teenagers to kill off before the family's big showdown with the diminutive beasties in burlap sacks and rubber masks. Elliot has promised the boys that Nilbog is teeming with sexy young women, and they ask him about it with are-we-there-yet frequency. ("Where are all the single, unattached horny girls, Elliot?" "What about the beautiful, liberated girls?") As it happens, Elliot's friends find the smokin' hot local they're looking for, but she's an evil druid who seduces one of them with an ear of corn in hand (don't ask) and turns another into a potted plant. Here's some gripping footage of the latter transformation, which leads to the slowest… getaway… ever.

One of the odd things about Troll 2 is its reactionary anti-vegetarian slant. When the goblins gather together for a town sermon, there's a James Brolin look-alike proselytizing about how the stinking, disgusting, meat-eating humans must be destroyed. At the general store, there are no eggs or bacon available (and no coffee, either, because it's "the devil's drink"), only special unrefrigerated Nilbog milk that's high in vitamin content and higher in curdled lumps. Rather than let the vegetarians nibble their greens in peace, Fragasso unloads on them at every opportunity; when Joshua beats back the goblins with an overloaded baloney sandwich, it's a victory for animal-carcass enthusiasts the world over.

There are times when Troll 2 seems like a deliberate joke, the sort of self-conscious camp comedy (hello, Wet Hot American Summer) that pops up frequently in this age of irony. And the willingness of cast and crew to travel with the film and support the aggressive promotional efforts of the Best Worst Movie website makes me suspect that Troll 2 was meant to be a "bad" movie all along. Then again, reports that the American cast and the largely Italian crew couldn't really understand each other accounts for a lot of the awkwardness that typifies an international production gone wrong. I also question whether filmmaking this stilted and clumsy can be faked, particularly by the man responsible for such Italian exploitation non-classics as Zombie 4: After Death and Monster Dog.

The current push to crown Troll 2 as the new "worst movie ever" may smack more of savvy marketing than the grassroots rise of a legitimate contender to the crown. But then, don't all midnight movies require some form of popular consensus? Why should it matter how it's attained? If the packaging of Troll 2 puts more "You can't piss on hospitality!" T-shirts on the streets, perhaps that's all the better. What counts is that a growing number of people are—and should be—enthusiastic about this bizarre horror romp, which works just fine without the Rocky Horror enhancements of hurling baloney and popcorn, counting out loud for 30 seconds, or shouting lines back at the screen. Nilbog is truly a magical place.

Winner: A draw. In terms of sheer ineptitude, Manos: The Hands Of Fate has as much a claim on "worst movie ever" status as anything I've seen. But it's also a movie that needs the MST3K treatment (or a group of witty friends) to come alive; when an MST3K member says, "every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph," he's not kidding. Troll 2 has more intrinsic entertainment value, but it poses those nagging camp questions again: Are the filmmakers in on the joke? Are the laughs intentional or unintentional? And in the end, what does it matter?

Coming Up:

Camp Month continues…

Next week: The Devil's Advocate

July 31: Showgirls

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August 7: Sexy Beast

August 14: Sonatine