CinemaDope: Cringe And Bear It

So bad it’s good filmmaking

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Barbara is the story of an East German doctor.

In film circles, it’s become something of an accepted truth that Ed Wood made some of the world’s best “so bad they’re good” movies. His low-budget fare was made with an imaginative if sometimes unpolished flair that extended to his work away from the camera—when horror legend Bela Lugosi passed away before all of his scenes for Wood’s B-movie classic Plan 9 For Outer Space could be shot, the director found a cheap replacement in Tom Mason. Since Mason—he was Wood’s chiropodist, not a professional actor—looked nothing like Lugosi, Wood simply had him cover most of his face with a cape during his scenes. The result is laughably transparent, but warm-hearted too—it’s like watching a five-year-old perform a magic trick for his mother.

But if Wood has developed a patina of art over the years, not all bad movies are created equal. This week, filmgoers have a chance to catch one of the oddest of the odd, a 1966 film that still flies under the cultural radar of most of the country—Manos: The Hands of Fate, a one-man disaster wrought by writer, director, producer, and star Harold P. Warren. It screens at Hadley’s Cinemark Theater Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Unlike with Wood, it’s doubtful that Johnny Depp (or anyone else, for that matter) will be playing Warren in the story of his life any time soon.

Manos, as its devotees know it, is that rare film that was made on a bet. Warren was a fertilizer salesman from El Paso who dabbled in acting; it was during a coffee-shop chat with a scriptwriter that the germ of Manos was born. The idea was that anyone could make a passable horror flick to make a quick buck. In the end, Warren made neither.

But if it’s no classic, it might be the world’s most incredible home movie. The plot is a ramshackle affair, something about a lost family trapped by a band of polygamous pagan cultists. It’s the sort of half-baked story that a thousand other horror movies have used, and Manos could have been just another of that forgotten horde. What makes it so memorable is the sheer ineptitude of its technique: night shots find the camera swarmed by moths, the director’s clap board is included at the start of some scenes, and the action returns repeatedly, but without explanation, to a couple necking in a coupe.

It’s the kind of film best watched with smart-alecky friends, which makes this one-night show even better; it’s part of the RiffTrax series, which pairs up B-movies with three stars of Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. (It was MST that, back in the early 1990s, first rescued Manos from obscurity, and the show remains responsible for helping the movie outpace its 0 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating.) As the nuttiness of Manos builds, the trio provide a running commentary that turns a bad movie into a cultural artifact—something that will stick with you longer than it has any right to.


Also this week: Screening at Amherst Cinema, Barbara is the story of a talented young doctor trying to escape from East Germany in the early 1980s. After applying for an exit visa (denied), Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is removed from her high-profile Berlin position and transferred to a country hospital. Shadowed by the Stasi as she goes about her new duties, she plans an escape to Poland with her lover.

But she has not fully considered her own commitment as a doctor, and as she gets to know the patients at her new posting—the only people to whom, in a culture of secrecy and recrimination, she can give herself freely—she is forced to reconsider what it will mean for her to leave East Germany.•

Jack Brown can be reached at

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