LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Harold P. Warren

FEATURING: John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren

PLOT:  Lost in the desert, a vacationing family seeks lodging from Torgo, who takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With The Horror of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats already certified weird, it’s hard to argue that any movie could be ruled off the List solely because it was “too bad.”  But as painful as those movies can be to watch, the dreadfully dull and incompetent Manos is another kettle of stinky fish entirely.  Spider Island and Yucca Flats developed slight cult followings on their own bizarre merits, but for decades 1966’s Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, only gaining notice after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993.  Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a few weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing 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 desert that’s somewhat similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.  The question is, is that weird undercurrent enough to overcome Manos‘ dead air?

COMMENTS:  Abraham pleaded with God to save the city of Sodom from eradication via brimstone, if he could find only a few good men inside the city limits; similarly, I won’t condemn Manos as a completely worthless endeavor if I can ferret out just a few good things about it.  A brief recital of Manos‘ cinematic sins, however, makes the judgment look dire for this microbudget brainchild of a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. The issues begin with the film stock itself: Manos 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 home movies from the 1960s, 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 is obviously dubbed by an adult (I’m guessing director Warren) 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 El Paso desert 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 the movie does finally take a stab at a primly exploitative action scene, it’s 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 slightly stir the blood of the ancient 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 socially conservative 1960s Texas county drive-in.

These cinematic crimes are enough to indict Manos, but other elements of the movie sometimes draw unfair criticism: guilt by association.  Meaningless subplot about the makeout king of El Paso county aside, though the story is uninspired and predictable, it’s far from the worst.  It’s even 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 vocalists who chime in for 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 lyrical locutions.  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 actually a mirror image of the opening! Buried inside his own anxiety-ridden worries, 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 actually 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 which saves it from being an unsalvagable abomination: John Reynolds as Torgo.  While Tom Neyman as the Master, meant to be a colorful villain, is just a bad 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 bulbous thighs which 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 referenced.  It’s just a fact of Torgo, like his appropos of nothing, 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 bizarely 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 characters.  The shy and neurotic caretaker makes eye contact only reluctantly, and his voice warbles as he slowly and painfully pushes 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 the 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.  As for weirdness, it rates low to moderate; though slow, the movie 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 either move on or 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 unadulterated 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 be incinerated in a hail of brimstone, or made into fertilizer.

In stark contrast to the film itself, the MST3K treatment of the movie is considered by many to be a comedy classic and the show’s absolute peak.  It is included, along with the crew’s deconstruction of Santa Claus vs. the Martians, in a two-disc set called “The Essentials” (buy) and also as a single disc (buy). Most seasoned Manos viewers will strongly advise you to watch this version with its comedic commentary first before tackling the film in its undiluted state. The uncut movie is in the public domain and thus freely available, but it can be bought on DVD for those who simply must have a pressed disc (buy). If you must have Manos in your collection for masochistic reasons but want the most bang for your buck, buy Mill Creek’s Tales of Terror 50 Movies Pack (buy) which comes packaged with bargain versions of some notable titles such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Sadist, along with a scad of sometimes fun low budget losers.

Those of you who just can’t see paying anything for Manos, feel free to watch the low-resolution version embedded below, or download Manos, the Hands of Fate from the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…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)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Kevin,” who said “that movie was outright weird!”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)”

  1. While Torgo’s ‘most unforgettable lines’ are certainly poetic, they are the exact reverse of a haiku, which is 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables.

  2. The present owner of the original cut has been trying to fund a Blu-ray release of Manos. As ridiculous as this sounds, he has posted some frame scans of the original 16mm reversal stock that went through Warren’s camera and the quality (at least in those samples) is far beyond what we’ve seen in video releases. It has good color, decent definition and remarkably little grain. Of course the release would be copyrighted allowing someone to profit from this masterpiece.

    I haven’t heard if the owner has had any luck in this venture.

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