Written by: Ron Bricker
Every pop culture junkie is at least aware of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Peabody award-winning show where a man stuck in space and his two robot pals sit in a shadowy theater and rip into a terrible movie for the sake of salvaging their sanity. After the show's passing from the Sci-Fi Channel, the Best Brains boys moved on to a variety of movie-mocking projects (one breakout attempt by Mike Nelson's satirical Minnesota novel Death Rat! was sadly forgotten by most.). This has culminated in their Rifftracks project-which is essentially MST3K for modern movies.
Perhaps the most infamous of those movies that Joel and the Bots valiantly sat through was the 1966 B-flick Manos: The Hands of Fate. Almost universally considered to be the worst movie the show has ever done, Manos details the trials of a Norman Rockwell (and very, very white) family as they get lost in the desert and take up residence with a demonic cult leader with a bevy of diaphanous-gown wearing wives and his man servant Torgo- a man with… very large knees. Texas fertilizer salesman Harold Warren thought he was making a classic and, ironically, he was. The camera-work is shoddy, the dialogue painful, and the plot reduced even the bots to hysterics. To this day, Manos (which is Spanish for "hands" so it's… Hands: The Hands of Fate) remains the gold standard for awful cinema.
So it's only fitting that a group of pop-culture junkies try their own Rumplestiltskin mojo and attempt to spin gold from crap with Manos: The Rock Opera of Fate.
The New Millenium Theater Company has been putting on pop-culture homages and satires for almost a decade now in Chicago, and often those of a musical bent. Karate Kid, Office Space, Evil Dead, and The Bard himself have all gotten musical treatments before. Although Manos presents its own challenges as… there wasn't much there to begin with.
The show begins with a guitar wielding Narrator, promising kung-fu fights and dragons (there aren't any). As the show goes on, the Tenacious D-like narrator gets progressively drunker and belligerent as he realizes that he, just like Joel and the Bots, are stuck watching a really shitty play. The show straddles the line between deadpan and utter Family Guy-like nonsense. Some lines are directly lifted from the MST3K commentary but most of the comedy stems from the spastic and seemingly flu-infected Torgo whose big knees and clumsy passes are laughable even without playing for laughs. Bad sound and stilted deliveries are intentional, as the sound of face slaps come full seconds after the act.
It's a fine line to tread, and at times not always successful. The problem with Manos the movie is that it's SO bad that trying to salvage it by a deadpan delivery is almost as painful as the movie itself, but the company is at least smart enough to pepper the show with enough pratfalls, smarm, and just plain crude humor to make those moments pass quickly- watching Torgo try to right himself off the floor like a downed turtle in his kitty-calendar plastered room is damned funny. As already stated, the Narrator is a Tenacious D-like figure, singing of "making shitty awesome", but gets drunk and abandons his narrative duties completely as the play progresses. The show itself ends with a movie homage every night, right after Torgo jumps an inflatable shark tossed onto the stage. The ending of Seven is delivered line by line one night and The Big Lebowski is done the next. This is symbolic of the play as a whole: a troupe trying their best with terrible material and simply giving up periodically and just going for laughs.
The play isn't perfect, but the enthusiasm of the actors is infectious. You get the sense of a group of friends who decided… "What the Hell…" and put on a low-budget production parody of an even potentially lower budget film. In fact, that's the main flaw of the production- there's only so much polish a turd can take. Still, the show is worth watching simply to see the Narrator break down into drunken, incoherent tears about midway through- in seeming homage to the tears shed by robots in outer space for ever having to watch this dreck.