“A cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women only to deface them with a burning hand!”–original poster tagline for Manos, the Hands of Fate
FEATURING: Harold P. Warren, John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree
PLOT: After making a wrong turn on a family vacation, Mike and Maggie and their daughter Debbie find themselves lost in the Texas desert. As night falls they discover a lodge and its mysterious caretaker Torgo, who reluctantly agrees to let the family stay the night. As the night wears on the Master and his wives awake, while Torgo develops an obsession with Maggie.
- Director Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, had a yen to become an actor, and met and befriended screenwriter Stirling Silliphant when the latter was in El Paso scouting locations for the television series “Route 66.” Warren made a bet with Silliphant that he could make his own horror movie. He scribbled out the initial outline to Manos on a napkin at a coffee shop.
- Manos was filmed with a hand-wound 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time. There was no live sound and all dialogue was later dubbed in by the principal male actors (Warren, Reynolds and Neyman) and one uncredited actress voicing all the female roles.
- John Reynolds, who played Torgo, was a heavy drug user who was often high on LSD on set. He committed suicide months after shooting concluded, before Manos‘ debut.
- Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, almost never screened on television, only gaining notoriety after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993. (Manos became one of the show’s most popular episodes).
- For most of its history Manos was available only in scratchy second generation prints with visible defects; many fans believe that the murky visuals add to the film’s outsider appeal. In 2001, cameraman Benjamin Solovey found a pristine work print of the movie and crowdfunded a digital restoration of the movie, which he released on Blu-ray (via Synapse films).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a brief moment when all of Manos‘ bizarre characters share the frame at the same time. Arms outstretched, as always, to display the scarlet fingers lining the inside of his coal-black cloak, the Master points to a shivering Torgo, while two of his nightgown-clad wives pirouette towards him and drag him onto the stone altar, his massive knees pointing towards the nighttime sky. In her review of the film’s opening night, the local El Paso film critic refers to this as the scene where Torgo is “massaged to death.”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Torgo’s knees; wives’ nightgown brawl; who the heck is ‘Manos’?
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing, strange dubbing, and negligent continuity. In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny west Texas wasteland that’s similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.
Clip from Manos: the Hands of Fate
COMMENTS: Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important lesson: if applied consistently, incompetence can be a style. This narrative feature film was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time. The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like a home movie from 1966, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition. Since the protagonists are lost vacationers, it’s an oddly appropriate, if accidental, visual scheme, almost as if the movie is found documentary footage of a missing family, a la Blair Witch. The camera’s thirty second shooting limitation leads directly to the film’s most glaring technical deficiency: the editing. Due to sloppy blocking by the director, characters frequently jump about from place to place in the frame and are not posed correctly whenever a scene resumes after passing the thirty second mark. Not that the framing would have been done competently if Manos had been made with professional grade equipment; there are times when the tops of character’s heads are cut off, and in one early scene the camera focuses on the back of the wife’s head. With no synchronized sound, the character’s voices were dubbed in later. The child Debbie is obviously dubbed by an adult affecting a little girl’s voice. The acting, by nonprofessionals and refugees from El Paso community theater working with no direction, is as dreary as you would expect (with one exception to be mentioned later). The foley work is terrible, but we only mention it in passing, because it’s the least of Manos‘ worries.
The most of the movie’s worries is the lack of action. It’s incredible to think that each shot is only about half a minute long, because the impression one gets watching the movie is that certain scenes drag on for fifteen minutes or more (early footage of the family driving, driving, driving through the desert around El Paso is particularly punishing). Typical of movies directed by amateurs, there are long awkward pauses between lines of dialogue. There are pointless scenes and unnecessary characters—a drinking, kissing couple and the cops that harass them—that add nothing to the story except the suggestion that there’s an equally boring (if slightly less nightmarish) world existing somewhere outside the slow-motion universe of the Master’s ranch. Adding to the movie’s audience-abusing pace, Torgo the caretaker moves like a geriatric patient wearing twenty pounds of lead weight strapped to his thighs, and the movie grinds to a halt to let him get wherever he’s going. When Manos finally takes a stab at an exploitative action scene, it’s a prim exhibition of a bevy of women in diaphanous gowns (to better show off the outlines of their granny panties) rolling around on the sand in an unchoreographed, improvised catfight. This limp display may have been enough to stir the blood of the retired World War I doughboys down at the El Paso veteran’s post, but it wouldn’t pass muster as a money scene even in the most conservative 1960s Texas drive-in.
Other elements of the movie sometimes draw unfair criticism: guilt by association. Although the story is uninspired and predictable, it’s far from the worst. Meaningless subplot about the makeout king of El Paso county aside, it’s largely coherent—though set in a dingy shack, it’s basically an “old dark house” plot—and even comes with a “twist” ending. The score, which is often mischaracterized as “elevator music,” is actually decent, if poorly recorded, jazz, featuring a flute/sax player with true chops, interesting piano harmonies, and wide stylistic variations. The melodies are strong, turning discordant at appropriate moments, and “Torgo’s theme” even qualifies as a true earworm. The mediocre light-jazz lyrics in the opening and closing tunes probably prejudice hearers against the instrumental compositions, which are actually imaginative and competent.
Another area that’s better than it first appears—thanks to some unintentional weirdness—is the dialogue. Like Ed Wood‘s manic, unedited ramblings and Coleman Francis‘ pedantic, obtuse poetry, Hal Warren has his own inimitable, untrained prose voice, and sometimes he accidentally stumbles into a kind of minimalist lyricism. Consider the argument made by one of the Master’s wives, as she debates to herself whether the entire visiting family should be killed:
The woman is all we want. The others must die. They all must die. We do not even want the woman!
The rhythmic symmetry of this snippet is brokenly poetic; a long line followed by two short lines, ending with another long line that is a mirror image of the opening!
Buried inside his own anxieties, caretaker Torgo compulsively repeats every thought twice (perhaps as an unconscious echo of the Master’s ritualistic prayers to the god Manos). Torgo’s speech has a hypnotic effect. In his most unforgettable lines, he even slips into an inverted haiku:
There is no way out of here.
It will be dark soon.
There is no way out of here.
Which brings us to Manos‘ saving grace, the one truly remarkable thing about the film: John Reynolds as Torgo. While Tom Neyman’s Master, meant to be a colorful villain, is just a mediocre actor in a Frank Zappa mustache and a ridiculous bat-wing cape with scarlet fingers painted on it, Reynolds had a concept for his character. Tramplike, Torgo dresses in a tattered hat and a worn gray sports jacket that looks like it must have a layer of dust a half-inch thick, but his most outstanding feature is his huge bulbous thighs that prevent him from walking without the aid of a cane. The explanation for this bizarre deformity is never given in the movie, and other than the look of disgust that flits across the wife’s face as she first sees him and the fact that all of the actors pause in each scene and wait patiently, doing nothing, while Torgo hobbles to his mark, it’s never even indirectly referenced. It’s just a fact of Torgo, like his odd, made-up moniker. Another fact of Torgo is that he suffers from some sort of spastic syndrome: he constantly trembles and twitches all over, and Reynolds is so committed to the epileptic portrayal that it becomes bizarrely credible. Torgo’s movements (even when he’s standing still) are so herky-jerky that he looks like he’s being filmed at a different frame rate than the rest of the cast. The shy caretaker makes eye contact only reluctantly, and his voice warbles as he slowly and painfully pushes the words out of his mouth. As a result, as ridiculous as Torgo is, he’s the one living and breathing element in this otherwise drab film. The Manos experience can not even be said to properly begin until the moment that Torgo first limps through the dust, leaning on his hand-headed cane. Until then, we have just been a captive audience watching a strange family’s yawner vacation footage from their trip to a featureless desert. The small following that Manos has developed is more a cult of personality around Torgo than it is a cult for the film itself.
It’s Torgo, the spastic satyr, that saves Manos from being a total waste of 16mm film. The movie’s weirdness is like background raidation: it is somewhat dreamlike, in that it has a strange, almost unconscious rhythm (a fact that makes more sense upon discovering that every scene has to reset every thirty seconds). Disjointed as it is, it is a little bit like a nightmare, if your nightmares are acted and produced by El Paso film crews working with 1960s home movie equipment. Technically, the movie is horribly made in almost every respect. But, thanks to poor Torgo, I find myself looking back on Manos with fondness rather than hatred. After all, who can help but giggle when, accompanied by his theme music, the long-suffering servant slowly plods to the family car to pick up their luggage—the flute’s piping stops when he grabs the bags out of the car—and then resumes with the first step he takes as he awkwardly ports the suitcases back to his shack? Who doesn’t titter a little when Torgo takes what seems like five minutes (but can’t be more than thirty seconds) to reach out and surreptitiously touch the wife’s hair, his face trembling with badly disguised lust the entire time? Maybe that sounds like small praise, but it’s better than suggesting the movie should have been recycled into fertilizer.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…perhaps, by scrapping the soundtrack and running it with subtitles or dubbing it in Esperanto, it could be promoted as a foreign art film of some sort or other… Someone is spoofing us.”–Betty Pierce, The El Paso Herald-Post (contemporaneous)
“…what is of almost compulsive fascination to everyone who watches the film is the presence of John Reynolds as the hunchbacked manservant Torgo. Reynolds goes through the entire film with a bizarrely unconvincing limp and a series of facial expressions that make you wonder if he, or even if you, are not consuming drugs.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Review (DVD)
“…so inept, weird, and surreal, it’s like the movie was made by desert freaks on some kind of weekend bender. If the Manson family filmed a movie at Spahn Ranch, it might look something like Manos.”–Bill Gordon, Worst Movies Ever Made (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: ‘Manos’ in HD – A wealth of information on the restoration blog managed by Ben Solovey, including before and after examples and a link to download the soundtrack
IMDB LINK: Manos: the Hands of Fate (1966)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Worst Movie Ever Made – Dalton Ross’ 2005 “Entertainment Weekly” article about the film
The Battle Over the Worst Movie Ever Made – Jakes Rossen’s 2015 article for “Playboy” about the rights battle over the film (but with plenty of general background information about the movie and the restoration project). Safe-for-work.
“Manos: The Hands of Fate”: Carefully Restoring the Opposite of a Masterpiece – NPR article on the restoration by Chris Heller, with quotes from Ben Solovey
Restoring the Worst Movie Ever Made – Short Solovey interview conducted by Henry Hanks, from CNN’s “Geek Out!’ blog
Why We Love Bad Movies – Dan Neil of the “Los Angeles Times” uses Manos as a starting point to investigate the title question
Debbie’s Manos – Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones (who played little Debbie) has a personal blog with a number of interesting tidbits (she even managed to track down the heretofore unknown vocalist on Manos‘ soundtrack—Nicki Mathis)
MST3K: Manos – The Hands Of Fate (FULL MOVIE) with annotations – Official upload of the Mystery Science 3000 version of Manos, with annotated jokes
Talk to the Hand – An 11-episode podcast devoted exclusively to Manos
“Manos” The Hands Of Fate (1966) Movie Recap – “Dr. Winston O’Boogie’s” long, sarcastic synopsis of the film for “The Agony Booth
MANOS: The Hands of Fate the video game! – Self-explanatory
LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE – This site’s original review of Manos, for comparison and completeness’ sake
Manos: The Hands of Fate – Comic novelization of the movie by Stephen D. Sullivan, with illustrations by Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones (Debbie)
DVD INFO: Since Manos is in the public domain, it’s been released a million different ways. Forgetting all of the one-off DVDs, the best and most economical way to own it if you do not care about special features or restorations (see below) is in Mill Creek’s “Pure Terror” 50-pack (which also features such snoozers as They Saved Hitler’s Brain) (buy), or their “Tales of Terror” 50-pack (with many of the same titles but some differences, including a bad print of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).
The easiest and most pleasant way to experience this challenging bit of cinema, for those so inclined, is through the “riffed” version from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Shout! Factory released a “Special Edition” of the Manos episode (buy) in 2011. The TV episode is on disc 1, while disc 2 contains the “pristine” “unriffed” Manos along with several featurettes, including the 30-minute documentary “Hotel Torgo.”
Not to be outdone, MST3K spinoff “Rifftrax” revisited Manos in 2013 with all-new jokes in a live event simulcast to theaters and later printed on DVD (buy). (We are not sure whether this release contains an option to watch the film “unriffed” but we suspect there is not—caveat emptor).
Finally, for the dedicated Manos fan who is (for some reason) interested in the movie itself rather than comic treatments, there is Ben Solovey’s restored Manos on Blu-ray (!) (buy). Although the restored images are perfect by a long shot, the colors are more vibrant than they appear on the distressed prints that have been seen up to this point. Fortunately, for those of us who think the grunge look suits Manos, an unrestored “grindhouse” print is offered for that “last known photograph” look. Featurettes include “Hands: the Fate of ‘Manos'”, a general mini-doc, a piece on the restoration process, and a preview of the puppet-show Manos spoof “Felt: The Puppet Hands of Fate.”
Those of you who just can’t see paying anything for Manos, it is in the public domain, so you can download it from the Internet Archive.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Kevin,” who said “that movie was outright weird!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)