During this year's SxSW festival, a small documentary titled Best Worst Movie premiered to an enthusiastic reception. The film, directed by former child actor Michael Stephenson
, follows the production of a small independently financed Italian-cum-American horror film titled Troll 2
. Starring no one, and directed by an Italian exploitation film director with a scatter-shot grasp on English and titles like a Terminator knock off titled Terminator 2 under his belt (the title rights were available in Italy), the 1990 film was released direct-to-video and promptly faded from existence. The actors went back to their day jobs while the director went back to making the types of movies your dad rents by mistake.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way on the road to obscurity. Troll 2 started to make the rounds, and began to appear at late night gonzo screenings where the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
cut their teeth. Between its elementary school production design, and community theater caliber acting, this seemingly forgettable B-movie became a cult phenomenon. Troll 2's many faults became its greatest strengths, and turned this potentially torturous tale of a family's vacation to the goblin town of Nilbog into a camp classic. But if Troll 2 holds the title of the Best Worst Movie, what, then, is the Worst Worst Movie?
For years Ed Wood's
iconic debacle Plan 9 from Outer Space
was the cornerstone of bad filmmaking. Plenty of bad movies have come out over the last 50 years, but few could measure up to Plan 9's burning flying saucers supported by fishing wire and ridiculous dialogue.
However, as Plan 9 aged, it started to take on a sense of legitimacy. Looking back now, the film's faults have come to symbolize that entire era of filmmaking where the gap between big and low budget special effects didn't matter because it all ended up looking like shit anyway. Because Plan 9 aged about as well as everything else, many filmgoers grown numb of Ed Wood's well meaning misadventures in filmmaking, and began to look elsewhere to satiate their desire to see cinema at its lowest.
Capitalizing on this feeling comes "Mystery Science Theater 3000
" (MST3k), a long running television show that showcased dreadful films accompanied by rueful, frequently hilarious, commentary by a man (Joel or Mike, depending on the season) and his two robots friends Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. The combination of MST3k's resounding popularity and ten season run caused many troubled productions to rise from the depths of film Hell. Several of the more popular MST3k episodes caused a surge of interest to forgotten sludge like Time Chasers
(IMDb Bottom 100 #69), which is getting an anniversary edition DVD where it's called a "cult hit" by its proud, pretentious special features, and Hobgoblins
(IMDB Bottom 100 #26), whose 2008 sequel tries to cover up the original's missteps with a heavy dose of self-conscious irony. Still, without the MST3k commentary keeping things afloat most of these movies drown in their own stupidity. Watching the South African sci-fi shit-fest Space Mutiny
borders on self-mutilation without Mike and the bots holding our hands through the ordeal by calling the muscle bound main character names like Punch Sideiron or Blast Hardcheese every couple minutes.
Perhaps the most infamous film to come out of the "Mystery Science Theater" catalog is "Manos" The Hands of Fate
, an incomprehensible 1966 horror film created by El Paso fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren. Warren, who dabbled in local theater when not schlepping manure, made the film to settle a bet he made with future Academy Award winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Village of the Damned). Warren bet Silliphant that he too could write, direct and star in a successful film with a limited budget--after all, how hard could it be?
The resultant film stretches the limits of the term bad, and takes shoddy filmmaking beyond the threshold for human tolerance. Shot in thirty second bursts on a grainy 16mm camera, "Manos" (much like Troll 2) starts with a family getting more than they bargained for on their quiet vacation. Instead of goblins, the family in "Manos" gets accosted by Torgo, a supposed satyr with bewilderingly large thighs, enigmatic and didactic Master and his covenant of under wives whose sole purpose seems to be to argue and clumsily sand-wrestle over who knows what.
The movie lacks any sense of place or logic, and is filled with countless awkward scenes of characters quietly fidgeting and staring at one another. Between the jumpy editing and a cacophonous score that's part Ornette Coleman
and part cat running across a piano, "Manos" almost starts to take on the vibe of a bad dream where nothing makes sense and everyone has unexplainably big knees--the kind of dreams typically had by PCP addicts, or the schizophrenic.
Like Troll 2, the faults of "Manos" became a plentiful resource for unintentional humor, something that the MST3k crew exploits with expert precision.
On its own, however, "Manos" falls apart and becomes a long, torturous test of will and patience. The reason its inclusion in MST3k holds such importance for fans is that it's the only movie in the show's history to push the cast's iron will to the brink of insanity. It makes Crow cry. We laugh more at the crew's suffering rather than jokes about The Master's ridiculous robe with two gigantic red hands embroidered on its front. Without that sense of shared misery, "Manos" becomes just that, an exercise in misery.