Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: October 13th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
In the 50 years since its incredible production and even more improbable release, Manos: The Hands of Fate has become an inexplicable cult item. Long forgotten until it was launched from obscurity into notoriety by its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the film has ascended into the rare plane of Z-movies whose utter badness has kept them on life support. Thousands of films meet the standard of basic competence that Manos cannot hope to grasp; however, many of those same films have been lost to time and utterly forgotten, whereas Manos somehow endures as one of the most curious artifacts of the regional drive-in era. It’s a fine reminder of a time that often made one thing abundantly clear: even though some people obviously had no business making movies, this didn’t stop them from trying and failing, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
With a scant 74 minute runtime (a tally that includes both an interminable opening sequence and closing credits), Manos does not feature the most robust or intricate plot. A family of three has set out on a vacation near El Paso, Texas, where they soon find themselves lost among backwoods and dirt roads. A sign pointing towards a Valley Lodge offers some hope of civilization and possibly even shelter for the evening. Upon arrival, they’re greeted by Torgo (John Reynolds), an Igor-like figure who tends the motel for his “master,” a cryptic and unseen individual whose presence lingers nonetheless (his portrait hanging in the lobby cuts quite the striking image). The family quickly discovers this is all a scam, however, as the supposedly absent master (Tom Neyman) is merely slumbering in a crypt, waiting to reawaken and initiate both the mother (Diane Mahree) and daughter (Jackey Neyman-Jones) into his coven of brides.
At this point, detailing the abundant and well-known flaws of Manos: The Hands of Fate almost feels like reciting an autopsy report. One of the most legitimately inept films ever produced, it flails about in its attempts to achieve basic technical proficiency and misses wildly. In a vacuum, absolutely nothing about Manos works: the dreadful, dirge-like pacing feels as though someone has captured insomnia on celluloid (marvel as the first ten minutes or so feature the family driving around aimlessly), while the acting is an incredible display of performances so amateurish that you’re amazed everyone can actually remember and deliver lines (delivering them convincingly, on the other hand, is another story). The jittery camera reveals no concept of framing, and the sound doesn’t sync up with the visuals (thus betraying that the entire film was post-dubbed). I don’t know if you could try to screw up a movie this badly and succeed.
“Success,” of course being relative, especially in this case, as Manos enters that weird zone where abject failure starts to somehow feel successful. Once all these failings begin to converge, they form a weird, alchemic blend that’s undeniable. At some point, you begin to realize that Manos has fixed its hypnotic gaze upon you and ensnared you. Looking away and resisting its charms—even though it actually has no charms—proves to be impossible. Given that the film is actually about a shaggy, schlub of a guy who has somehow deduced a half-dozen women into being his wives, Manos almost feels meta (even assuming this is giving it too much credit, of course). You behold it and wonder how anyone could ever bother with it outside of the MST3K context.
Yet it survives all of these fatal wounds and endures. I’m reminded of the episode of The Simpsons that reveals the secret to Mr. Burns’ longevity: it turns out that he’s infected with so many diseases that he simply cannot die. That’s Manos in a nutshell: a film that’s essentially hemorrhaging before your eyes but still staggers and lurches on, perhaps because it’s too dumb to notice it’s bleeding all over the place. It soldiers on, oblivious that you’re laughing at the mess its making because, for all its faults, Manos is not in on any joke. This is an earnest mess, one that unravels without a trace of irony or intended badness. A group of people—spurred on by a bet, no less—sincerely set out to produce Manos even though none of them should have been in, behind, or even around a camera.
But the same could be said about so many cult objects, of course. Manos is a pristine reminder of just how lovely and wacky the regional drive-in circuit could be, especially with a production as homespun as this one. Directed and produced by a man in Harold P. Warren who was only trying to prove that he could, in fact make a movie, Manos does not have much experience to match its considerable amount of heart, not to mention its willingness to indulge in material that’s still pretty lurid now, so you can imagine how Manos may have gone over in 1966 (had it played in more than a handful of theaters across two states, that is). While it’s not as overtly graphic or psychotronic as the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis or Andy Milligan, it retains a similarly lo-fi, devil-may-care approach.
Essentially operating without a safety net of technical competence (or having to answer to, well, anyone), Warren opts for outlandish schlock. For all its silliness, Manos is an almost remarkably dark and loony tale about a pagan-worshipping sorcerer’s attempt to turn a mother and her child (!) into his brides. When an entire stretch of a movie centers on a debate about whether or not a young girl should be sacrificed to a pagan deity (a discussion that escalates to an impromptu female mud-wrestling match), you can rest assured that you’ve entered the strange, wonderful territory of low-budget filmmaking, where the goal often amounts to pushing the envelope to provoke a word-of-mouth success.
During its brief first run, Manos never quite became that film, if only because there’s actually not enough weirdness to spread around outside of its few fits of violence (The Master holding Torgo’s flaming stump of a hand is as outrageous as it is grisly). Instead, its reputation grew much more slowly thanks to all of its unintentional tics: the continuity errors, the jagged editing, Neyman’s absurd wardrobe, Reynolds’s bizarrely pathetic turn as Torgo, the various asides that barely contribute to the plot, its predictable “twist” ending, its even more predictable tease that the end here is not, in fact, the end at all (it goes without saying that no sequel was ever produced), all delivered with a disarming Texas twang (bless its heart).
Incompetence defines Manos: from its redundant title to its becoming a public domain title because no one thought to copyright it, this is a grand disaster. However, it’s also a reminder of the power of cinema: in spite of (or perhaps because of, if we’re being honest) its myriad flaws, Manos coheres as a genuine, fascinating curiosity. Eventually, you move on from being aghast and can only be in awe of it. Harold Warren certainly made a movie, and nobody can take that away from him.
In fact, that’s especially difficult to do now that Manos: The Hands of Fate has become the sort of film that earns a special edition treatment. Arriving just ahead of the film’s 50th anniversary next year, Synapse’s Blu-ray restores the film in a way no one could have anticipated. Considering the source material, it’s unlikely that anyone could have ever though that Manos would ever look decent, let alone restored in high definition (especially since the original 16mm elements were thought to be lost). But here it is, however, looking as pristine as the day it first screened in El Paso’s Capri Theater in 1966. If for some reason this seems too jarring, Synapse has also included a lower-res “grindhouse” version with all the familiar hisses, pops, and print damage.
Synapse has also produced an assortment of extras, including an audio commentary with Neyman and Neyman-Jones, plus three featurettes discussing the film’s legacy. The centerpiece is “Hands: The Fate of Manos,” a 30-minute retrospective featuring anecdotes from the cast and crew. “Restoring the Hands of Fate” has archivist Benjamin Solovey explaining the process of restoring the film for this release, while “Felt: The Puppet Hands of Fate” is a 3-minute reenactment of the film using puppets. Even though this is not the most robust release, it is certainly more than anyone could have ever expected for Manos: The Hands of Fate. In many ways, this is a fitting chapter in its odyssey since the only thing more inexplicable than the film itself is a Blu-ray special edition release. I bet even Warren himself would have never bet on that happening. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: