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Manos, The Hands of Fate

Throughout the history of cinema, there have been various mistakes: poor production, low-budget special effects, padded screenplays, poor dubbing (in foreign and domestic films), and many more. And, ultimately, various films have suffered as a result of one or two of these mitigating factors.

And then, my friends, there is Manos, The Hands of Fate, which somehow manages to transcend all of the above examples of failure and become something quite rare: pure, unadulterated garbage.

The film's limited release in 1966 brought a swarm of bad reviews and disgruntled audiences and destroyed whatever chance Hal Warren (the director, writer, producer, and star of Manos) had of hitting it big in Hollywood--or even in El Paso, his home town and where the entire film was shot. But since it's appearance on the now-syndicated television comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (in which snide, sarcastic, and often downright derisive comments are shot at the B-movies the characters are forced to watch as part of a bizarre psychological experiment) in 1992, Manos has become something of a legend of obscure cinema. If a B-movie fan (such as yours truly) is lucky enough to happen upon a copy, it is considered a grand achievement. But, after watching it, all he (like me and, really, any conscious life form) will want to do is burn it and eradicate whatever memory he may have of it. The legend and the absurdity of it all will seem like an aside and all he will focus on is going on with his life and forgetting all about Manos.

But, he will soon find he cannot. Nor can I.

Before I explain myself, it's necessary that you understand a bit about the making of Manos, The Hands of Fate (whose original title was Lodge of Sins). After becoming friends with the screenwriter behind In the Heat of the Night, Stirling Silliphant, Hal Warren, fertilizer salesman, decided to make a film. He had observed Silliphant’s methods and thought he could pull it off as well. So, he went on to write the screenplay for Manos and gathered a cast of "local actors" and a few models from an El Paso modeling agency. Having accumulated $19,000 (a low budget even for the 1960's), Warren and his team began production. As the film progressed, the staff became more and more irritated by Warren's refusal to add any artistic shots to the film, having instructed them to keep art to a minimum since it was, so to speak, "not in the budget." More so, they became aware of how badly things were going; shots were kept to 32 seconds or under, as they were only using a single handheld 16 mm camera with no sound function (Warren planned to have all the dialogue and sound effects dubbed). A few created the film's nickname: Mangos, Cans of Fruit as an insult to Warren's inattentive work and the ridiculousness of the film as a whole. After two and a half grueling months of filming, they brought the film to the editing lab, added dialogue (using Hal, his wife, and two other people to dub all the dialogue), as well as a soundtrack, and found a company that would distribute the film: Emerson Distribution.

Now that you understand the technical details behind Manos, I can move on to heart of the problem: the story. The film begins with Mike (Hal Warren), his wife Margaret (Diane Mahree), their daughter Debbie (Stephanie Nielson, who was most likely scared for life), and Debbie's energetic dog Peppy. The family, for some unknown reason, gets lost on their way to a hotel. I find that ten minutes of driving footage--mostly of passing fields and farms--and a Shirley Bassey-esque lounge song is not a good way to start a horror film. In fact, it's not a good way to start any kind of film.

Eventually, the title comes up (as "Manos" The Hands of Fate, complete with meaningless quotation marks) as the family is pulled over for speeding. The cop tears up the ticket as he takes pity on lost out-of-towners and sends them on their way. They continue driving and, ultimately, get even further from wherever they were heading in the first place.

After circling around in the desert for a time, they come upon a house with a man standing on the porch. They decide to ask him for directions. When they meet him, he announces (twitching and ticking, for some reason) that his name is Torgo (John Reynolds) and he "takes care of the place while the Master is away." Hmm. He explains that they are quite far from the Valley Lodge (At last! Their destination has a name!). He also says, and I quote, "There is no way out of here. It'll be dark soon. There is no way out of here." Apparently, Warren felt it was necessary to emphasize that there's no way out of here. They decide to stay the night, although Torgo is apprehensive at first and tells them the Master would not approve of Debbie's presence in his house. After some repetitive negotiations, he lets them in. Torgo steps off the porch and we see that, for some inexplicable reason, he has massive, deformed knees beneath his wrinkled, filthy pants. Is this our monster? A man with huge knees, not to mention a quivering voice, an oily T-zone and a shaggy beard? Strike two for Hal Warren.

In the living room of the Master’s house, is a massive oil painting of a cloaked man with a sinister looking dog. Mike and Margaret marvel at it. Torgo obediently carries their bags in. The film continues to meander in this fashion for some time. Then Torgo tells them the Master is dead, then proceeds to expound, saying, "…Not dead the way you know it. He is with us always. Not dead the way you know it." More repetitious dialogue.

Later on, after a good deal more meandering scenes and boring dialogue, Torgo tells Margaret the Master wants her, but he will not let him take her. You see, Torgo wants her for himself. And, after erratically tapping (or "erotically" I suppose) her shoulder and pulling at her hair, Margaret becomes disgusted, tells him to stop, then begins screaming, "Mike! Mike!" He doesn’t show up, and so Margaret threatens to tell him about this little encounter later. Torgo says he meant no harm and the issue is dropped.

Meantime, Mike has been outside trying desperately to start the car. It refuses to budge and he finally gives up and heads back inside.

After lying around on the filthy, stained couch for a time, Debbie finally gets up, wanders around, and disappears through a door beside the couch. Margaret and Mike look for her all around the house (Margaret peeks in the room Debbie escaped into for only a split second then moves on. Convenient, isn’t it?) They find her outside, leading a sinister looking dog on a chain. The same dog from the painting! A glorious plot point lands in our lap! The dog scuttles off and Debbie begins to cry.

Debbie’s parents ask her where she found the dog and she explains, in a typically childish manner (the only realistic dialogue yet), that she found it "in a big place…with a bunch of weird people." She proceeds to show them the "big place" is through the door she escaped through to the outside. Within, is the Master (Tom Neyman), lying on a rock slab, surrounded by women in nightgowns leaning against Roman pillars. "My God, Mike, it’s horrible!" Margaret screams. And, oddly enough, the dog is beside the Master, chained to a rock behind the Master’s head. Did it manage to chain itself? Who knows? And by now, one wonders "Who cares?" I, too, succumbed to apathy but not from noticing the many flaws of Manos.

They hurry out of the "big place" and Margaret, still terrified, is bent on leaving. Mike agrees (finally demonstrating some competence!) and tells her to take Debbie and hide in the bedroom while he goes to try to fix the car. On his way out, Torgo knocks him out with his wrought-iron staff and ties him to a post with Mike’s own belt.

By now, the Master has awakened and, after a brief communion with Manos (!), "God of Primal Darkness", awakens his wives so they may discuss the problem at hand: what to do with Mike and his family. The eldest of the wives, a blonde (none of them have names) thinks its best to save the child and the woman and kill only the man. The rest object and say they all should die. The Master agrees with them, but the eldest wife still objects and does her best to stand her ground. The Master decides to execute her, after the origin of the problem, Torgo, is dealt with.

The Master leaves to hassle Torgo and the women get into a fight, rolling about in the sand...wearing only nightgowns...uh...oh, excuse me.

After a good deal more of nothing, Torgo is killed (death by massage, or so it looks; then his hand is burned off and the Master carries around the flaming hand like a sparkler) and the eldest wife is tied to a pillar, beaten, and then burned. Then, the Master sets out with his remaining wives to find Mike and his family. One of the wives comes across a still-unconscious Mike, slaps him around, then promptly leaves, assuming he is already dead. The Master peeks in on Margaret and Debbie; Margaret, being her reliable self, panics and screams, "Mike! Mike!" yet again. Sigh.

Mike finally comes to and reaches his family. They decide to flee into the desert. Then, Mike decides it would be safer to lock themselves in the kitchen of the house, since they’re looking for them outside. Mike also remembers he’s carrying a revolver! Mike again demonstrates some competence! Keep at it, Mike!

But it is all for naught.

I’ll leave off the so-called "surprise" ending to keep anyone actually interested in Manos in suspense—to a degree. Even as a horror film, Manos fails. One cannot be kept in suspense if one’s attention is dwindling. Perhaps if it had been subtitled in koine Greek or marketed as a symbolic art film, it might have drawn a greater audience and a more intellectual following. No such luck. Warren decided to market it as a horror film, attempting to appeal to teenage couples everywhere—but with a lot of poor filming, bad dialogue, and a total of six short pieces of music which are played in their entirety throughout the film? Strike three, Warren, and game over.

It was actually game over in a mortal sense for John Reynolds, as he died of a drug overdose (which was most likely a suicide, as he had a sour relationship with his father and demonstrated anti-social behavior while on set; the crew claims he was a smart, talented young man who simply had a troubled life) within months of the release of Manos. I have also heard rumors that Diane Mahree also took her own life the year of its release, as well as one other death in the cast. Truly a sad conclusion to the tale of Manos and subsequently, I felt guilty making fun of their performances and the movie as a whole while watching it, as if I were speaking ill of the dead.

But, all in all, their performances weren’t terrible, which is something quite unique in the whole of the film. There are too many other flaws to recount here. Also, besides Mahree’s beauty, there is very little, if anything, to like about Manos. I, for one, enjoyed the end theme (most likely titled "(I'm) Forgetting You" but, hell, since this is Manos, it could be called "Naked Alien Soup") as it slowly leads us out of the Gates of Hell and, thus, to the end of the credits.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the worst movie ever made. You’ll hear that a thousand times in a thousand different ways about a thousand different movies in your travels through the B-movie sites that populate the Web, but I still feel the need to say it.

If you decide to pursue this film, good luck. Most likely, you will only be able to find the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, distributed by Rhino Home Video. I understand that <a href="">Movies Unlimited</a> now carries it for $18.99, but I wouldn’t pay that much if I were you. Or, you might try Sinister Cinema, where it'll cost you $16.95 and you'll have to wait a few weeks to get it (as if you're in any hurry to watch it). I, on the other hand, took the path of least financial resistance and purchased it at a used video store for only $5.37 and as a barely-used copy even! If you’re afraid of movies this horrid, I recommend the MST3k version. Trust me: it’s the only way you’ll be able to ingest this film.

Number of times I use the word "Manos" in this review (excluding that one, obviously): 16

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