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“Manos” The Hands of Fate


DVD SAVANT

Auteur Harold ‘P.’ Warren puts the Pee back in showmanship! After seeing this frightless Texan fright show you’ll want to nominate Ed Wood for a posthumous Oscar. It’s popular beyond all comprehension. The intrepid disc producers provide great extras, but can’t quite make us understand WHY it is the Landmark Lemon of all time.


“Manos” the Hands of Fate
Blu-ray
Synapse Special Edition
1966 / Color / 1:33 flat / 74 min. / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 24.95
Starring Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Adelson, Harold P. Warren, Jackey Neyman, William Bryan Jennings.
Cinematography attempted by
Robert Guidry
Film randomly assembled by Ernie Smith, James Sullivan
This original Music is, ah, really original! Russ Huddleston, Robert Smith Jr.
Evidence confirms that “Manos” was Produced Written and Directed by Harold P. Warren

 

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ah joy!  Finally — a movie that invites all the cheap-shot insults that Savant must normally stifle. What follows is all in good fun.

I instantly recognized a hallmark of fine moviemaking while watching “Manos” the Hands of Fate. In many scenes, after saying a poorly-dubbed line, the actor playing the lead role silently mouths something, just before a ragged splice to the next shot. Three instances of the same thing later we realize that he’s saying the word ‘cut,’ and the film’s editor failed to cut it out. The actor playing Michael is also the film’s producer, writer and director, and this is genuine auteur behavior. More or less when “Manos” was being filmed, the writer of the review you are reading right now was making his own 8mm (sorry, no Super-8 yet) monster film epic, also starring in the lead role. Since somebody else had to hold the camera, there I am on screen saying ‘cut,’ just before every cut to a new shot. The mark of genius.

Once upon a time “Manos” the Hands of Fate was one of those movies we heard about but never saw. Years before its epochal 1993 dee-butt on Mystery Science Theater 3000 it was an infrequent listing on TV logs, for a 2 a.m. time slot. Ask a friend about it, and the answer was, “You don’t want to know.” After the MS3K show, it became well known just for being unbelievably bad. By the 1990s high production values were so accepted as the only criteria for judging films, that I guess kids couldn’t believe that movies like Manos ever got made.

Most of the story of the making of Manos is a click away on the IMDB or other sites. The ambitious Harold P. Warren of El Paso, Texas, dreamed up the idea with some friends and pulled in favors and tapped city connections. A fellow named Tom Neyman provided just about everything material — himself as the leading bad guy, his daughter as the terrorized child, a dog, costumes. A group of models were rounded up at a local agency. Although shot off & on over a period of time, It’s fairly certain that the ‘big production value’ scenes with the ‘Brides of The Master’ were done in one or two evenings. Even in El Paso, it’s not likely that casual talent will return for more punishment, for a movie like this. Producer Warren promised everyone shares in the profits from Manos, but as the whole movie is the cinematic equivalent of spitting in the wind, we gotta admire his assertiveness. It would be fun to hear the chitchat on the set, as El Paso’s newcomers to the glamorous world of filmmaking started asking questions. “Are you sure they know what they’re doing?” “Are you getting paid for this?” “I’m hungry. Are they going to feed us?”

I’ve been to El Paso, for one day back in 1996. Very nice people, wonderful kids, just like Topeka Kansas. The storyline, about people being stuck in a place they don’t want to be, is indeed an inspiration. The idea of a cult that worships a God called Manos seems to have originated with the availability of some props made by a local artisan who liked to work with images of hands. The Spanish word for hands has no relation to the Mexican border just outside of town, which had already become famous in a pop song. And we have it on the best authority that the demonic cult concocted for Manos is not an alternate origin story for Scientology. These are indeed the kinds of things one thinks about while watching this show.

So listen up: a synopsis like this one is too good to repeat. A family looking for a vacation site stops off at a lonely desert house. The weird Torgo (John Reynolds) says weird things about ‘The Master’, but they decide to stay the night anyway. Margaret (Diane Mahree) realizes that Torgo has designs on her. The daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) is upset when their dog is found dead. As it turns out, ‘The Master’ (Tom Neyman) is the shaggy C.E.O. of a cult that worships a vague demon called …. you know. Just as depicted in the portrait hanging back in the house, The Master wears a weird robe decorated with big red fingers, and is accompanied by a menacing Doberman. His ‘brides’ gather at a desert altar, where The Master decides that the business of the night will be human sacrifice — first one of the Brides, and then one of the unwelcome visitors.

As Manos was filmed with a wind-up 16mm camera bereft of sync sound, one would have to believe that the claimed $19,000.00 budget is a fib (along with a lot of the urban legends that have become attached to the film). Assuming that things like cops and costumes were all donated gratis, there is nothing on screen that could have cost any money. The film is fun because it is far, far more than merely incompetent. It is wantonly, militantly incompetent. Stage four metastizing incompetent. Every guideline for shooting a film is violated. The angles have no sense of composition. Half the time the actors’ backs are turned to the camera. Almost every new shot is a gross mismatch or jump cut. The lighting is Kodak Sun-Gun primitive. The actors are not only not directed, in every shot they seem to be straining to figure out what to do next. The women, especially poor Diane Mahree, look exceedingly uncomfortable. Everybody cooperates but nobody knows what to do except the two male leads, and one of them is the director.

In his white-face makeup, ‘The Master’ is a big ham opportunity for star Tom Neyman. He at least looks committed to the role, if not capable of coming off as scary. I would imagine that Neyman’s enthusiasm probably kept the show going when the director’s energy flagged. The embarrassing Brides of The Master wear ‘big’ hairdos and demure bras and panties under their flowing white robes. John Reynolds’ Torgo is a big zero despite having the only interesting role. Whether intoning faux-spooky dialogue lines or peeking through a window at Margaret, he makes no impact. An attempt to dress Torgo ragged doesn’t work, and neither does a half-hearted attempt to give him strange-shaped legs. We’re told that this was a script idea, that he was to be an actual Satyr with strange legs. Reynolds hobbles strangely to sell the no-effect effect.

The movie is not really edited, just assembled, with titles slapped on and a few amateur songs added. The dubbing is flat and the mix is terrible. Whenever the words match the actors’ lips it looks like a happy accident. The gross mismatches and jump cuts are really annoying. Even as a small-town amateur affair, the show is uncommonly artless. The one competent moment is a line of baleful dialogue: “I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the Master is away.” That, and “The master would not approve.” Repetition transforms these timeless sentiments into quotable quotes.

I’ve seen amateur films, even features as long as this that consist mostly of bad photography of people walking while voiceovers drone on the audio track. No-budget regional efforts were always out there; I remember several bad zombie and Satanic cult movies that were picked up by Cannon Films, although I never heard of them finding even TV distribution. Manos’ popularity can’t be explained by just its airing on MST3K, as its online popularity is completely out of proportion to any conceivable point of interest in the show itself. Famous for being terrible, it has become the place where talk about bad movies gravitates, the Elephant’s Graveyard of doomed filmmaking Karma. Manos is the Black Hole of bad moviemaking. As John Houseman would say, “We film professionals don’t WATCH Manos, we ENDURE it.”

But hey, bad movies are part of life, and it’s important to remember that even terrible pictures are made by somebody trying to create something original, as opposed to a smartass reviewer thinking up snarky comments. Around 2011, cameraman and editor Benjamin Solovey located the work print and original A-B negative rolls for Manos, and arranged for a careful cleaning and new digital transfer. He also spent some time rounding up original cast members for a making-of docu. As befits a genuine one-hit wonder cult film, none of the principals have significant credits post- Manos, although a son of the man playing one of the cops has had quite a good career as a character actor. Even the cameraman is a one-feature guy. We’re told that he worked at a local TV station. Jeez, in El Paso a cameraman could be as good as Vilmos Zsigmond, and never get a big break. But that’s a moot point, as Manos hired the other guy.

“Manos” the Hands of Fate is not exactly entertainment in the strict sense of the word, but it definitely has a curiosity value. A quick look online yields all kinds of arcane connections and fan adulation, no kidding. Gary Teetzel informs me that Manos turned up earlier this year in an episode of the CBS Sherlock Holmes series Elementary, when a killer, wanting to give a false description of a suspect, described Torgo.  Watson (Lucy Liu) recognized the description at the end of the episode. The cult aura around this movie is real.

We heard about Ed Wood in the 1960s, thanks to young Joe Dante’s “Dante’s Inferno” article in Famous Monsters. When we saw Wood’s films at college we foolishly assumed that they were the ne plus ultra of incompetence. There have been many contenders, like Coleman Francis, but even after years of 16- and 8mm backyard movies and direct to video losers, Harold P. Warren still takes the crown prize. I’d say that any film collection with Citizen Kane also needs Warren’s labor of love, but that would be silly.


 

Synapse’s Blu-ray of “Manos” the Hands of Fate is surely the ultimate release of this spectacular eyesore. Given an accurate 2K scan, it looks exactly like what it is, an indifferent collection of shots on 16mm that could indeed have been taken by an assistant cameraman from a local TV outlet. The picture is in fine shape, allowing us to judge the technical quality of the original cinematography. Yes, plenty of shots are just plain out of focus. The grain jumps radically from time to time, and there’s no attempt to disguise mismatched cut-ins, such as a close-up of a snake. The 16mm film stock is not kind to faces, so we do have to give somebody credit for making the actresses look halfway good in many shots. It’s just the non-existent direction that makes every shot look like an outtake, or stage wait.

A second “Grindhouse Unrestored Version” of the film is included. It appears to be a battered 35mm print, with various editorial and sound differences. When I go back for my doctorate in film studies, perhaps I’ll do a semiotic comparison of the two versions.

I assume that the intrepid Mr. Solovey is the exec producer of the extras. His commentary lines up Tom Neyman and Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones, father-daughter actors in the picture. They also appear with some other survivors of Manos in Hands: The Fate of “Manos”, a lengthy making-of docu produced by the prolific Daniel Griffith. Griffith’s signature video eye candy gives the show added pep, and our curiosity to hear what the participants have to say keeps our interest up. There really aren’t too many ‘amazing stories’ about “Manos” the Hands of Fate. But the simple fact that it exists demands further explanation, like the BP oil spill.

Solovey’s elaborate explanation of his restoration boils down to just a couple of key facts — he found the original film materials intact and he didn’t go cheap on the transfer. His comments about the importance of preserving film history make technical sense, as nothing should be thrown away. But the only way to really resurrect “Manos” the Hands of Fate would be to assemble a Los Angeles TV station KTTV all-night movie line-up, interrupting the show every eight minutes with early-morning-hour Cal Worthington ads, public service announcements, and Federally mandated station editorials.

A third, nicely-shot featurette centers on a pleasant woman involved with a puppet show company putting on an elaborate Muppet-like version of Manos. Or her show might be a satire, it’s hard to tell. It’s a pleasant diversion even if it doesn’t convince us that Manos Fever is taking the country by storm.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
“Manos” the Hands of Fate Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: (sound of a soft breeze, blowing across the river Styx. A mournful wail is heard in the distance….Glenn avoids committing himself.)
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Commentary, three featurettes including making-of by Daniel Griffiths
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2016

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