Director: Joss Whedon; Starring Johnny Depp, Edward Norton, Robin Williams, and Heather Graham.
So this is where I found myself last Friday night: standing outside New York’s famed Landmark Sunshine Cinemas in the freezing rain next to a guy dressed as Tom Servo, the red bubblegum-headed robot from the nineties TV comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show famous for lambasting the worst movies ever made. Two hundred reviewers, nerds, b-movie fans, and Whedonites had assembled for a screening of what is arguably the most anticipated movie of 2014.
Joss Whedon’s remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate (shortened to Manös! for this iteration, the umlaut apparently added to signify the movie’s Icelandic setting) has been blog fodder for every armchair critic and rumor site since the film was announced nearly two years ago. Whedon has been silent, the script kept under armed guard during filming, and we were about to be the first to see it.
The movie’s underwhelming trailer (which went viral this past summer) caused many to doubt. Was it a joke? Had Joss Whedon lost it? He’d simply recreated the nauseatingly grainy opening car ride sequence from the original 1966 film. The trailer ran a full fifteen minutes with nothing but nondescript countryside rolling by in an unending loop. Through all of the backlash, Whedon, the consummate master, remained silent.
But in preparation for the movie’s release next week, he has begun to break his silence in regards to the film. In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Whedon said of the script, “More directors should remake bad movies. Every decision you make is almost always better than the original.”
As we found our seats, Whedon himself took the stage for a pre-screening introduction. He talked about his process of adapting the original script, and the challenges involved in creating a linear plot line from the source material. “As most of you know,” he said, “the original was nearly impossible to watch. I wanted to retain the creepiness but have it make sense.”
Sitting next to me was Scott, an insurance salesman from New Jersey who had shown up to the screening dressed as Torgo, the limping Valley Lodge innkeeper from the original film. He’d stuffed hockey pads under a loose-fitting pair of kakis to represent Torgo’s malformed knees, and purchased a fake beard (complete with rumpled hat) from Ricky’s Halloween on Third Avenue. “You’ve got Torgo’s facial ticks down,” I said. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve been working on them for months.” The theatre went dark, everyone started to clap, and in an apparent tribute to the November 15, 1966 El Paso screening of the original film, someone threw a shoe at the screen.
The film opens with a close-up of Torgo (played here brilliantly by Johnny Depp). He’s holding a bent walking stick, his legs crooked and malformed, a result, according to Depp, of the prosthetics Whedon had him wear for a year before filming began. He’s standing (if you can call it that) on a rocky outcrop atop Iceland’s majestic Cliffs of Hornbjarg, contemplating, as we come to learn, suicide. The shot is quite impressive, especially backed by John Williams’s haunting free jazz score, homage to Ross Huddleston and Robert Smith Jr., the beatnik composers of the original 1966 music.
Depp’s pain in the opening scene is nothing short of miraculous. And this is where Whedon drops us, straight into the world of Torgo, the misunderstood innkeeper and his controlling master, played in an Oscar-worthy performance by a nearly unrecognizable Edward Norton. Whedon continues to surprise with the casting of Robin Williams as Michael, the husband of Margaret (played by Heather Graham), the couple who unwittingly stumble on the Valley Lodge after a day of picnicking on a basket full of svið (Icelandic for sheep’s head.) Williams turns in a performance that rivals his role in Good Will Hunting. Graham, on the other hand, may be the movie’s only weak link: she seems to coast on the imaginary roller skates still left over from her better work in Boogie Nights.
The original film is known for its not-so-subtle nods toward Sadomasochism, and here Whedon shows himself to be a skilled arbiter of artistic license. Instead of brainwashed, scantily clad models running freely (or not so freely) around a much-revamped Valley Lodge, he chooses to infest the inn with thousands of CGI fairies, and the effect, well, let’s just say it’s all Whedon. At one point during the film I turned to my neighbor Scott and found him clutching his knees, his Torgo pads removed and lumped around his chest. A few rows in front of me the guy dressed as Tom Servo was holding his gumball helmet in one hand and wiping away tears with the other.
Like he did in his much-loved horror reinvention, Cabin In the Woods, Whedon has taken the worst a genre has to offer, and polished its turds to a fine artistic shine. “I shot five other movies while making this one,” he said. “That’s how bad the original was.”
After the screening ended, a kind of silence made its way through the crowd before a stutter of clapping erupted into a standing ovation. From the exuberance came a surprise: onstage, as the lights came up, was none other than Harold P. Warren, the director and creator of 1966’s Manos: The Hands of Fate. He stood there holding the microphone, frail but obviously pleased, Joss Whedon at his side. “Thank you,” he said to the crowd, and then turned to Whedon. “And thank you, Joss, for making my original vision come true.”
The Buffy-like musical number near the end of Manös! is the icing on the Joss Whedon cake, the culmination of a dream that some have suggested (when referring to the original film) never should have been dreamt in the first place. Scott and I stood and danced as Depp and the cast broke into what is sure to be an Oscar-contending version of “Torgo’s Theme.” And as I looked around the theatre, I thought, Whedon has done it again. He has saved the world from ourselves.