“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” or “MST3K,” to its ardent followers, introduced me to the unknown; an undiscovered universe of cinema so wretched that its sole purpose was to be used as fodder for a few chuckles. It was through “MST3K” that I received my first sampling of what the reigning king of cornball movies, writer cum actor cum director, Ed Wood, was capable of, and I quickly fell passionately in love with his peculiar vision of how to create a cinematic masterpiece. Wood’s penchant for stock footage and rapid scene takes resulted in some of the most panned productions on film, including “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” widely acknowledged as the worst movie ever.
Sure, “Plan 9” may be riddled with professional wrestler Tor Johnson’s indecipherable dialogue and the linear concept of time may have ceased to apply—causing action obviously filmed during daylight hours to magically occur at night—but its inconsistencies lent to the charm and legend of anything touched by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Plan 9, for all of its faults—and there are many—doesn’t deserve the “worst movie” moniker it’s been saddled with.
But another recipient of the “MST3K” treatment, “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” just might.
The film’s redundant title—“manos” is the Spanish translation of “hands”—affords viewers a harbinger of what this film has to offer…and what it offers is a head scratching juxtaposition of entertaining backstory with laughably poor results. Harold P. Warren (Hal, to some) wasn’t a filmmaker. He was a fertilizer salesman whose performing arts experience was limited to the El Paso, Texas theater scene and a walk-on role as a bus driver in an episode of “Route 66.” It was on the set of the popular TV show that Warren first met prolific writer Stirling Silliphant, whose screenplay for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” would earn him an Academy Award. While sitting in a Texas coffee shop, Silliphant issued a challenge to Warren, betting that his friend couldn’t make a movie, from its conception to the completion of its closing credits. It was all the impetus that Warren needed. Within minutes, the movie’s plot of vacationing-family-becomes-lost-and-meets-unsavory-characters had been scrawled on a napkin—uh oh—and “Manos: The Hands of Fate” was born.
The movie’s shoestring budget of $19,000 was stretched impossibly thin, and the film was beset with difficulties. The need to accommodate work schedules forced the majority of scenes to be filmed at night, which created a cascade of problems. Moths fluttered about the camera, and the set’s poor visibility, due to inadequate lighting, resulted in one of “Manos’” most memorable scenes—albeit for all of the wrong reasons. A pair of police officers, allegedly attempting to investigate the source of gunshots, seemingly take two or three steps toward their source, before quickly returning to their patrol car and calling it a day.
Lighting wasn’t the only expense restricted by budgetary concerns—paying the film’s participants was, too. Actors agreed to work for a percentage of the flick’s profits, with the exception of two. Young Jackey Neyman, who portrayed Warren’s daughter, received a bicycle for her efforts. Her dog, a Doberman named Shanka, was rewarded with a bag of food for its role as the pet of The Master, played by Jackey’s father, local theater actor Tom Neyman.
Warren’s directorial style created friction on the set. Participants began to compare notes, discovering that the number of shares sold by Warren to raise funds for the film far exceeded 100 percent. Disgruntled, the film’s staff began to refer to the seemingly never ending project as “Mangos: The Cans of Fruit.” It was the first of many jabs that the film would endure.
In November of 1966, before a crowd that included area politicians and local dignitaries, “Manos: The Hands of Fate” debuted at El Paso’s Capri Theater. Limousines—well, one limousine, as Warren wanted to project an upscale image, yet lacked the monetary means to do so—deposited cast members in front of the movie house before circling around the block to repeat the process.
The film begins with an interminably long car scene peppered with an occasional snatch of dialogue. Michael—our enterprising Hal Warren—and his family have become lost trying to locate a resort called Valley Lodge. What they instead find is a half-man, half-goat individual named Torgo, portrayed by another theater thespian, John Reynolds, who allows the family to stay on The Master’s grounds for the evening. Torgo meanders throughout the movie, making it seem much longer than it truly is, and quickly develops a fondness for Michael’s wife, whose head covering inexplicably vanishes and reappears throughout the film.
The meager plot—enhanced by brief glimpses of a couple continuously smooching, scenes written into the movie when the actress involved broke her leg—becomes mildly entertaining when The Master finally appears. The appropriately creepy Tom Neyman is resplendent in a black cloak covered by a giant pair of red hands, and he speaks of worshipping a mysterious being known only to the viewer as Manos. Any interest that may have evolved from Neyman’s ability to give one a serious case of the willies is quickly tempered by the annoying film score—a cross between a coach’s whistle and a sloppy version of the theme from “The Twilight Zone”—and the poor synchronization quality of actor’s mouths to words spoken. Since the camera used to film “Manos” could shoot only 32 seconds of footage at a time—and no sound—all of the characters’ lines were subsequently redubbed, but not by the actors themselves. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Torgo’s warbling voice was not provided by Reynolds. For reasons unknown, The Master’s many wives, culled from El Paso’s Mannequin Manor Modeling School, fight one another for their husband’s attentions and, eventually, the movie ends right where it began, with an even more agonizingly long driving sequence.
To say that “Manos: The Hands of Fate” bombed would be an understatement. Moviegoers attending its premiere found it amusing; the film itself played in a few towns before disappearing into the celluloid netherworld. The profits promised to its crew—you guessed it—never materialized. Following the film’s lackluster run, Warren attempted to sell a screenplay, “Wild Desert Bikers,” which morphed into the novel, “Satan Rides a Bike.” Both were declined. Although initially despondent over his apparent failure, Warren eventually embraced “Manos’” inadequacies, and even wore The Master’s hand-enhanced cloak each Halloween, a tradition that, with Warren’s passing in 1985, has been handed down to his son, Joe.
While Hal Warren took pride in his contributions to “Manos,” John Reynolds never even made it to the flick’s opening. Months after its completion, for reasons said to be unrelated to the film, Reynolds was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was only 25.
For nearly 30 years, “Manos” languished in obscurity, forgotten by nearly everyone except its principals, until the cast of “MST3K” riffed it to shreds. Suddenly, “Manos”—this film stocked with obtuse dialogue, blurry camerawork and few plot points—had developed a new generation of fans…well, its first generation, anyway. The film was rambling, confusing and downright uncomfortable to watch; everything that I loved about Ed Wood’s movies, minus Bela Lugosi. It’s those same qualities that have contributed to its burgeoning audience. The film has inspired a musical, a puppet show, and has been the subject of documentaries. A 16 millimeter print of the film is in the restoration process, and Tom Neyman is slated to reprise the role he made infamous in a sequel, “Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge,” slated for release in 2013.
The news is simultaneously mystifying and exciting. Who would want to view a continuation of one of the worst movies to ever appear in a theater?
One glance into my bathroom mirror gave me the answer.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” may have aired its final episode over a decade ago, but its spirit of sharp-tongued—and sharp-witted—banter lives on. Former cast members have split into two movie riffing camps, “Cinematic Titanic” and “RiffTrax;” “MST3K” revisited, without the robot puppets. While I’m eager to attend the Cleveland performance of modern day rockabilly music purveyors Reverend Horton Heat on Labor Day weekend, I’m counting the days until I sink into a plush seat for the RiffTrax rendition of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” simulcast in theaters throughout the country August 16. Who would have thought that such visual pain could bring so much pleasure?
I’m sure that The Master—with apologies to Torgo—would approve.
Published: August 10, 2012