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Manos/Mosquito Double-Feature

Manos: The Hands of Fate


Mike (Harold P. Warren) and Maggie (Diane Mahree), on a road trip with their daughter and family dog, take a wrong turn in Texas and become trapped at a weird lodge inhabited by a polygamous pagan cult. They soon find themselves in the middle of a power struggle between caretaker Torgo (John Reynolds), cult leader The Master (Tom Neyman), and two warring factions of the Master’s wives. As the family tries to escape, the worshipers of “Manos” decide their fate… (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

Many movies carry the no-so-proud distinction of the worst film ever made. Many of these are merely once-popular punching bags that flopped upon release and were generally forgotten, like Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth (2000) or Martin Brest’s Gigli (2003), but others, like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), gained loyal cult followings. Ironic enjoyment at the expense of filmmakers’ most virtuous failures has spawned an entire subculture of film fan, fronted by the antics of midnight movie revivals, UHF weekend horror hosts, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 – a comedic television series in which comedian Joel Hodgson and his robot puppet friends (voiced by Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein) watch ‘cheesy’ movies and make snide comments. MST3K was ahead of its time and not nearly as unique in the era of personalized YouTube channels, but had a lasting effect on movie fandom, particularly when they plucked Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) from ultra-obscurity and turned it into one of ‘best’ bad movies of all time.

Manos’ background has become bad movie legend. It was born from a friendly bet between Texas fertilizer salesman Harold Warren and his famous friend, Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant was the screenwriter of respected Hollywood fare, including Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), and Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975). Warren didn’t think that sounded too tough and wagered that he could make a movie just as good as any of Silliphant’s without any prior experience or interest in filmmaking. Is it truly the ‘worst movie ever made’? Probably not. Sure, the story is clearly being made up as it goes along, the dialogue is embarrassing (not to mention unnecessarily chatting about 80% of the time), the stiff acting is made all the stiffer with awkward pauses, and the compositions are ugly, but the editing is mostly linear and I kind of like some of the production/costume design. Even at its worst, Manos is more tolerable than most of the shot-on-video atrocities of the 1980s. The problem I have when comparing it to superior cinematic junk, like Ed Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space or Hershel Gordon Lewis’ splatter opuses (which have a similar aesthetic), is that Warren’s heart clearly isn’t in the project – he’s simply completing the project to win the bet. In contrast, Wood truly believed he was making great art and Lewis’ showman instincts led him to include audience pleasing gore and nudity. Manos’ only appeal is that it isn’t any good and the results are pretty boring.

Manos has been in the public domain basically forever (hence MST3K making fun of it) and was steadily released via budget companies, like Mill Creek and Alpha Video, for years. Every one of these was basically VHS quality. Shout Factory released a more passable version as part of a MST3K collection, but it was generally assumed that the original film elements were lost and a real digital restoration was out of the question. Besides, who would want to put the money and effort into restoring Manos: The Hands of Fate? Well, Synapse Films, it turns out. Don May, Jr.’s company worked with Ben Solovey, who discovered the original 16mm Ektachrome elements and supervised the full 2K makeover of Warren’s beloved piece of crap (meanwhile, the Argento fan in me takes long, deep breaths when I remember that Synapse still hasn’t finished their Suspiria restoration…). Obviously, the state of the material and 16mm base keep the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer from equaling the studio’s more impressive efforts, but the results are a sizable upgrade over previous editions. Details are sharper, compression artefacts are no longer an issue, and grain structure is tighter/more consistent. Of course, the darkness of cinematographer Robert Guidry’s photography (many scenes appear to have been shot with a single overhead light) keeps textures from ever appearing too complex, but there are some relatively impressive patterns and the colours are vivid (especially those searing reds). In edition, Synapse has included a ‘Grindhouse Edition’ of the film, which is a completely unrestored 1080p version. It helps put the work Synapse has done into perspective with blown-out whites, weak colours, and significantly more print damage artefacts.

The original mono soundtrack has been restored and is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The results are, again, probably the best we can expect from the material. Manos was shot without sound and all of the performances were recorded in post by only three ‘actors,’ which puts the sound quality below even the most awkwardly dubbed Japanese kaiju movie. The lip-sync is actually pretty impressive, but the volume levels are way too high and there’s zero dynamic range. The flat, often over-cranked dialogue is met with clumsily edited, catalogue sound effects and Russ Huddleston & Robert Smith Jr.’s respectable, but misplaced music cues.

Extras include:
  • Commentary featuring actors Tom Neyman (the Master, also production designer) and Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones (the little girl) – This new track is quite charming, akin to listening to your favourite aunt and great uncle recall a forgotten and secret part of their lives. Behind-the-scenes anecdotes and self-deprecating humour are only weakened by a handful of prolonged silences..
  • Hands: The Fate of Manos (30:50, HD – A fun look at the making-of Manos hosted by restoration supervisor Benjamin Solovey. It includes interviews with production designer/star Neyman, still photographer Anselm Spring, actresses Neyman-Jones and Diane Mahree, and Bryan Jennings, son of actor William Bryan Jennings.
  • Restoring the Hands of Fate (6:40, HD) – Solovey runs down the process of scanning and restoring the film.
  • Felt: The Puppet Hands of Fate (4:00, HD) – A behind-the-scenes look at Rachel Jackson’s puppet-based adaptation of the movie.


 Manos: The Hands of Fate

 Manos: The Hands of Fate

 Manos: The Hands of Fate

 Manos: The Hands of Fate

 Manos: The Hands of Fate


Manos/Mosquito Double-Feature

Mosquito


Science-fiction becomes horrifyingly real for a park full of innocent campers, as a hideous horde of mutated mosquitoes viciously attack without warning! A band of survivors flees the bloodthirsty swarm in a death-defying attempt to warn the world of the mosquito menace. Led by a brave young couple and a resourceful government agent, the group realizes their only hope is to take on the bloodthirsty bugs in an explosive final showdown! (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

From an awful B-movie MST3K made famous to a comedic homage to the MST3K brand of campy creature feature – Gary Jones’ Mosquito (1995). Mosquito had a very long history on cable television; first on the USA Network, then on the Sci-Fi (SyFy) Channel. My memories of it are cobbled together from years of catching bits and pieces while flipping through channels. This is appropriate, it turns out, because it is an awfully spotty, episodic little movie. Mosquito was Jones’ first feature as a director, following years of work with special effects. His key gigs pertained to Sam Raimi movies ( Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness) or at least movies Raimi produced, including Josh Becker’s Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except… and Lunatics: A Love Story, as well as  John Woo’s Hard Target. Jones appears to have learned some lessons from Raimi in terms of interesting camera placement, camera movement, over/under-cranking, and action editing. Raimi’s standard is not met, but the effort counts, especially during the scenes where mosquitos are chasing people (he mimics the famous Deadite POV shots from Evil Dead). Unfortunately, the patently derivative screenplay (credited to Jones, Tom Chaney, and Steve Hodge) fails to inspire much nostalgia and the broad comedy is exhausting. Really, the appeal of Mosquito isn’t found in the heavy-handed references to B-movie and exploitation glory (I know that I’m supposed to cheer when Leatherface himself, Gunner Hansen, picks up a chainsaw, but can’t muster the enthusiasm) or even the gore, which falls just short of the over-the-top intensity I assume the filmmakers were going for – it’s found in the charming mix-and-match special effects. Jones and his team manage some memorable movie critters with their itty-bitty $200K budget. Even the bad composite shots are fun.

Because it was on TV so often, there didn’t seem to be too much demand for a DVD version. The only official North American DVD I know of was Image Entertainment’s 1.33:1 disc, released way back in 1999. This means that Synapse’s new Blu-ray isn’t only the film’s HD debut, but also its widescreen debut. This 1080p. 1.78:1 was scanned in 3K, then down-sampled to 2K for output to a DPX file sequence using the director’s personal archival 35mm internegative. But wait, it gets more complicated. You see, the majority of the film was shot on 16mm, then blown-up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition. Many of the optical effects were shot on native 35mm and edited into the distribution copies (basically the opposite of the problem that arises when bringing film-shot television to Blu-ray). The insert included with the Blu-ray warns viewers that a number of shots are not completely in focus and assures us that this is inherent in the source material. All of this information and a lack of standard definition version to compare it to makes it difficult to be too critical of this transfer. Yes, the details aren’t particularly consistent (the 35mm special effects shots are almost always significantly sharper) and the grain has a tendency to clump up (again, more typically during the 16mm blow-up images), but there also aren’t any signs of major compression and the print damage artefacts have been nicely scrubbed from the image (there are minor flecks and dirt spots only). The one thing that doesn’t come across very well in the screen caps I’ve taken is the vivid colour quality. Of course, the various hues aren’t any more consistent than anything else, but there’s still plenty of pop and lushness. I’m not sure why, but Synapse transfers always seem to have a slight advantage in terms of vibrancy over their counterparts.

The 35mm source audio could not be located, so Synapse worked from archive tapes. This Blu-ray includes a 2.0 stereo track and, amusingly enough, an extravagant 7.1 remix. Both are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The 7.1 track is a fine effort. The basic ambience isn’t much different, but the centered dialogue makes a difference in terms of vocal clarity and the giant mosquitos convincingly buzz around the room during attack scenes. That said, the original stereo track has an authenticity about it that fits the zero-budget material better than a modern, full-channel attack (note that 5.1 digital sound did exist when Mosquito was made in 1995, so the remix isn’t a completely outrageous concept). Allen and Randall Lynch’s score is sort of hit and miss, to the point that I’d be surprised if the two communicated at all while writing the various synth cues. The music gets a decent LFE and surround boost from the remix, though, again, it’s more aesthetically pleasing on the old-fashioned stereo track.

Extras include:
    Commentary with director Gary Jones, director of photography & co-writer Tom Chaney, and producer David Thiry – This retrospective group track is a nice blend of enthusiasm and honesty from a group of guys that know they didn’t quite succeed, despite putting oodles of love into the production. It’s not so much a lesson plan on how to make a movie with no money – it’s more like an assurance that you don’t need a big budget to get it done. There are some ebbs and flows in terms of energy (Jones doesn’t run out of steam as quickly as his friends), but it never totally peters out.
  • Bugging Out! The Making of Mosquito (1:16:00, HD) – This new retrospective documentary begins with an adorable local news segment on the film, then turns into a pretty typical mix of talking heads, behind-the-scenes footage, and scenes from the finished film. The cast and crew runs down their early careers (mostly within the ‘Raimi machine’), the lead-up to production, and the many difficulties of shooting an ambitious monster movie without an adequate budget.
  • Deleted/extended scenes with optional director commentary (7:20, HD)
  • Behind-the-scenes footage with optional director commentary (40:20, SD) – A collection of raw, shot-on-video material, including footage of the special effects workshop, the table read, and the various locations and sets.
  • Still slideshow (4:30, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer


 Mosquito

 Mosquito

 Mosquito

 Mosquito

 Mosquito

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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