Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Author: J.T. Jeans
Submitted by: J.T. Jeans   Date : 2010-11-07 07:34

Written by: Hal Warren
Directed by: Hall Warren
Starring: Hal Warren, Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree

Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans

"I'm Torgo, I take care of the place while the Master is away!"

You know, I've literally spent the last 20 minutes trying to write a witty introduction for this particular think-piece: I've written and rewritten the opening paragraph more times than is probably legal, and the forward thrust has been different each time. Frankly, between you and me, I think it's just outside my cognitive capacity to come up with something witty about this particular cinematic expulsion. The foreknowledge of the subject matter that I'm about to tread upon precludes my ability for light-hearted witticism, so I reckon the best thing for it is to simply dive headlong into the fray and hope I come out the other side unscathed.

So yeah. Let's talk about Manos: The Hands of Fate. If you're a classic horror film aficionado -- or if you spent a significant amount of time watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the mid-1990s -- then chances are you've heard of this film. For those of you who haven't, a brief history lesson is in order: in 1965 Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman based out of El Paso Texas, made a bet with professional screen writer Stirling Sillipahnt that he could write, direct, produce and star in his own feature film. With a budget of $19,000 and a handful of amateur actors from local theatre troupes and modeling agencies, Warren set off into the west Texas desert to produce what would go on to become one of the world's most notoriously shoddy horror films.

The film's plot is both threadbare and weird: while heading to Valley Lodge during a leisurely family vacation, husband Michael (Hal Warren), wife Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman Jones) find themselves lost in the west Texas desert (this in spite of the fact that you can clearly see civilization on the horizon). After what feels like an endless driving sequence -- largely composed of recycled footage looped over and over -- they arrive at a secluded house inhabited by a fellow called Torgo (John Reynolds). Torgo informs Michael that he is responsible for taking care of the place while the Master (Tom Neyman) is away.

Introductions are followed by an awkward silence. And then more awkward silence. And then a little more awkward silence. Seriously, these characters stand around looking at each other for at least a minute before the scene moves forward, and that pretty much sums the movie's problems up in a nutshell. It has no focus, no drive to succeed, and there's absolutely nothing going for it in the production values department. The script is terrible, the equipment they're working with is sub-par even by 1960s independent standards, and the man in charge of it all has an ego the size of an El Paso fertilizer dealership. Manos is notorious for having a terrible atmosphere on set, and when you dig a little deeper into the film's history it's not hard to understand why.

Hal Warren made an admirable effort raising money for the picture, but he threw it into the wind. The equipment was rented, which put horrible strain on the shooting schedule. The camera chosen by Warren was a 16 mm that had to be hand wound and could only shoot for 30 seconds at a go, which makes for one of the most disjointed viewing experiences you're likely to have outside of the teenage-produced fan film circuit. This unfortunate situation isn't helped by the fact that the entire thing had to be dubbed after the fact due to the camera's inability to capture sound. A number of characters are actually dubbed by Warren himself, which makes for at least one unintentionally funny moment where two actors converse with one another using Warren's voice.

Couple the technical issues with the fact that no one was paid for their work during production, and you've got a surefire recipe for disaster. Many of the cast and crew were concerned, but Warren continually reassured them that everything would be fine, that he would fix it all in post production. Their faith was rewarded with what is possibly the most embarrassing premiere in the history of cinema. There was only money enough to rent one limo with which to taxi the cast to the theater, so they were forced to stand on the street corner several blocks away while the limo made circuits to pick them up in small groups. When the lights went down, the audience began jeering almost immediately. Members of the cast and crew were sneaking out of the theater before the end of the first reel, so embarrassed they were with Warren's final product.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film quickly vanished from the public eye and was lost for many years to obscurity. It resurfaced in 1993 as one of the featured films on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that's when the cat was let out of the bag. The film quickly developed a cult following, and in 2003 received a stand-alone release on DVD. Considering the source, one might not be surprised to discover that the transfer is less than perfect and the sound is muddy. But really, that's part of the film's cult charm. Even if it could be cleaned up, should it be?

Manos: The Hands of Fate is perhaps the worst movie ever made. And I don't mean that from an artistic standpoint -- "worst" is subjective when discussing art -- but purely from a technical standpoint, the film is an absolute disaster area. Is it entertaining? I suppose it is, in a "this is a violent train wreck that I can't look away from" sort of way. I could write an essay on the ways the film fails, but what would be the point? People have been writing those sorts of essays for years. There have been documentaries, and there's even a sequel (!) in the works. Suffice it to say, the film is really bad. If this was a review of the MST3K episode, I would strongly recommend that it is essential, but since this is a review of the standalone film, the only possible suggestion I can make is to Trash It!

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