MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE
1967: Director: Harold P. Warren/Writer: Harold P. Warren
Cast: Tom Neyman, John Reynold , Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren, Jackey Neyman
Though my memory about the details is a bit faulty I have actually seen Manos: The Hands of Fate as a stand alone film and not the MST3K version that has made the film a cult classic. It must have been on VHS or perhaps some strange late night cable programming. I recently got a hold of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version and certainly the on running commentary by Joel, Tom Servo and Crow T. make the movie a more enjoyable experience. In fact the Manos episode has become one of the most popular of MST3K's 198 episodes. This may well be due to the notion that the worse the movie the better the MST3K episode will be. I think I will clear up something before going into a commentary about this film. Certainly Manos: The Hands of Fate is a lousy movie. Amateurish and inept from the opening shots to the last. But that mean it is a film that I hate? No. And I will not doubt watch the MST3K version again late one night (though I do not know if I could watch it this again with the gags supplied by space prisoner Joel and his robot companions). I have ejected several films from my DVD player and tried again to watch them but just can't. In the horror genre for example American Zombie has been ejected three times and that is the last. I just cannot stand it. However I have seen Manos twice now and, while it is a load of total crap, I will no doubt see it an again. In any case I just want to brag about having seen this one as a stand alone film in the same way a veteran may want to brag about having survived the storming of Normandy Beach.
There is some speculation as to whether or not the film was actually began as a bet between El Paso Texas fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren and screen writer Sterling Silliphant who was in El Paso to help with the filming of the TV series he was working on the time, Route 66. Legend has it that Warren met Silliphant and told he that film making was so easy that he, lacking any training whatsoever, could raise the money and write and direct his own film. It is said he began the script on a napkin while still seated the table with Silliphant. Another version of the story simply claims that while Silliphant and Warren did meet and discuss films no bet was ever made. Warren was so impressed and inspired by the hard working Silliphant that he simply took it on himself to create a movie. Whichever version is true the actual course of human history was little altered.
Warren was apparently a smooth talker and businessman and managed to raise about $19,000 and recruited actors from a local theater and modeling agency. Unable to pay wages Warren promised the cast and crew and portions of the films profits. Well I think we know what they all got paid then, right? The film absolutely bombed and Warren never even broke even. If not for the MST3K episode the film would have remained perhaps in dire obscurity forever. Ed Wood Jr.'s films are often panned for their incompetence but I have honestly never thought they were all that awful. What that says about me is a matter for the Freudians perhaps but when compared to abominations like this wood's film show some technical skill and passion that his detractors just do not want to allow him. Manos was shot with an antiquated Bell and Howe 16mm camera that had to be manually rewound after 32 seconds of filming. This is cited as a contributing factor (along with the cast and crews lack of film making experience) for the editing and continuity errors that plague the movie from start to finish. There are also issues with lighting and sound that make the film look very cheesy in the worst ways imaginable. The camera did allow sound recording and all sound was dubbed later. This does not mean a good audio track could not have been laid down in post production and I have read that Fellini added all the audio to a couple films after they were completely shot with no live sound. Here though the sound production is so shoddy as to defy belief. At times the MST3K gags focus on the fact that some of the dialog sounds like it is being done by the same person and very likely could have been. The camera work is of the poorest quality and the acting is simply laughable. And all of this is Warren's baby as he (in Orson Welles style grandeur) has his name all over the credits as producer, writer, director and star.
The story is a simple one really and involves the barest of plot and interaction between the characters who all remain undeveloped and one dimensional. The cast is led by Warren himself as Michael the husband and father of a family who decide to take a soothing vacation in the hostile, barren deserts around El Paso Texas. I have driven through El Paso and it is not a place to stop and hang out. Since Warren was from El Paso it seems sensible to make the film there I guess. Along for the relaxing ride in the blazing sun is his wife Margaret and his daughter Debbie and the family dog, a black poodle whose name is Peppy if that ever comes up a quiz. They get lost while looking for the picturesque (I am sure) Valley Lodge. While they drive around endlessly we are treated to camera shots from the front seat of the car of bleak dirt roads and are introduced to a reoccurring couple in the film, the obligatory 60's make out pair. In almost all of these old films like this are necking teenagers (who all look thirty at least) who are totally oblivious to the world around them. A couple hick cops keep interrupting them and when the stub complains that they aren't doing anything the cops advises them, "well, whatever it is you ain't doing go and don't do it somewhere else." That is a paraphrase but I am not about to review the film just to get the correct prepositions. Eventually Michael and family wind up at a weather worn old house and are met at the door by the only really interesting character in the film, Torgo. Torgo is played by actor John Reynolds who committed suicide not long after the films release. The suicide was related to issues Reynolds had been suffering before the making of Manos, such as a drug problem, and his involvement with the film did not influence the act. Though had it been the only factor involved it would be a reasonable explanation for suicide. Torgo stammers and stutters his lines in such a odd way that you can't help but watch and wait and wonder if he is going to actually say anything. He has the hugest thighs in the world and walks like he was just chugged a bottle of Tequila. There was actually a reason for the huge thighs not many people may be aware of and that was that Torgo was actually supposed to have been a Satyr with goat legs. Shots all through the film show him wearing shoes but that was the original intent auteur Warren had in mind.
Torgo keeps warning the family that "The Master" will not be happy with their presence but they feel it is okay to intrude into the house of someone named the Master who has a simpering, wobbly manservant named Torgo in the middle of the El Paso wastelands. Some of what happens next is not clear to me because, to be honest, often nothing happened. The shots are static and dull and the characters often ramble or repeat dialog. If I cannot recall the sequence of events perfectly it does not matter in the big scheme of things I assure you. There is some sort of howling outside and Peppy the sissy poodle does what any lapdog does when it hears a possibly rabid wolf in a howling frenzy, it runs out the door and after it. Michaels later finds Peppy dead and he and Margaret decide to not tell Debbie the truth and so they just keep avoiding her inquiries into where her doggie is. At one point while Michael and Margaret are arguing about what they should do and not do Debbie gets up off the sofa and leaves the room, prompting them to exclaim moments later "where is Debbie!!!" They soon find her outside with a Dober Pincher, the same one that appears in a portrait of the Master on the wall of the sparsely furnished living room. And that is another issue here, the house itself is simply the sort of run down desert shack you find all over Texas usually occupied by beer drinking rednecks. It just does not have any atmosphere. There is also some scene where Torgo starts to play with Margaret's hair and after just a little longer time than is necessary she freaks out and tells him to never do it again. It is obvious Torgo really likes Maragret.
It is discovered as well that outside the house where Debbie went looking for the now deceased Peppy there are a bunch of hibernating women tied to Grecian pillars all dressed up in gowns that look like something from an old sword and sandal film. Soon Torgo is outside and whispering sweet nothings in the ears of and fondling the bodies of the sleeping women, who are in fact the Master's wives. Soon the Master himself is awake and is not very happy with how Torgo handles things while he and his wives are sleeping and tells Torgo that he must die and then takes his sweet time about carrying out the punishment and dumb ass Torgo just continues to hang around. Outside the women have all began wrestling in the sand over their disagreements about what to do with the family. Some say let them go. Others say kill them. Michael has since been knocked unconscious by Torgo and in a strange scene one of the Master's wives seduces and slaps his unconscious body. The two hillbilly cops show up later and chase off the still necking teenagers and wonder if they should investigate the sound of gunfire they hear in the desert night. Torgo gets his hand burned off by the Master and runs off in the desert while the Master bust his gut laughing over the situation. When Michael shows up later with a gun he had in his car (and just finished using on a stock footage rattlesnake to protect his family) he confront the Master and empties the pistol into him to no effect and the film fades to black. In the closing scenes Michael has taken Torgo's place but is not as interesting really and Margaret and Debbie (the little girl !!!) are dressed in togas and tied to pillars with the other wives. Does this mean the Master is a pedophile or what? Freaky. The movie ends with Michael talking to young girls lost in the desert and the closing title "THE END?" Get it? A question mark. Is this really the end or not? God let us hope so. It was certainly the end if Warren's film career. Other than for the ending of The Blob this gimmick is the last gasp of a hack filmmaker.
Well this film is only for the special few I assure you. For those who enjoy cinematic ineptitude only. As I stated earlier I recommend the MST3K version. The character of Torgo would reappear in later episodes of MST3K for comedic relief.