Like almost everyone else, I first saw Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) on Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, probably on one of its reruns. My strongest memory of that first viewing was of women in diaphanous gowns and giant white underwear wrestling to get the attention of their pasty-faced cult leader, The Master (Tom Neyman). Even with the witty riffs of Joel Hodgson and the ‘Bots, you get a queasy feeling watching Manos. It might be the light-jazz soundtrack, or the out-of-focus visuals, or the shaking camera, but there’s a too-many-Quaaludes sensation to the film that’s hard to shake. At first, the film is unintentionally hysterical. After a while, you want to crawl up the wall – anything to escape its deadly pull. I’ve never much liked awarded titles such as “the worst movie ever made.” I’ve made the worst movie ever made, when I was in high school, with a camera rented out from the A/V department; or maybe you did. Narrow the standards to anything that’s seen a theatrical release, and you could still fill warehouses with unwatchable films, far worse than Gigli or Catwoman. But then you’re in the middle of Manos: The Hands of Fate – lost, adrift – and damn if this doesn’t feel like the worst. It’s just so punishing, so thoroughly incompetent, so greatly misguided…so intent on your absolute destruction.
The writer, director, producer, and star was Hal Warren of El Paso, Texas, and it’s often cited that he was a fertilizer salesman, because the irony should be obvious. Warren made Manos to win a bet with Stirling Silliphant (writer of In the Heat of the Night); although I doubt that the bet was “Make the worst film ever made.” If it were, I hope Silliphant paid up. It was shot on 16mm, and, as Joel observes in MST3K, “Every frame looks like someone’s last known photograph.” Warren plays Michael, a patriarch who, with wife Margaret (Diane Mahree) and daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman), sets out on a vacation trip but somehow ends up in a cul-de-sac and a single-story, dire-looking hotel laden with strange artifacts, run by limping, Panama-hat wearing, nervous-tic-aggrieved, giant-kneed manservant Torgo (John Reynolds). He speaks incessantly of the “Master,” who’s dead, or away, or always watching – or all of these things. He also begins groping Margaret’s hair the instant Michael is out of the room. She looks horrified, and strikes a pose, but is, for some reason, unable to escape the frame. She, too, is eternally trapped in the hellish quagmire that is Manos: The Hands of Fate.
During the course of their long night at the hotel, young Debbie’s pet dog is killed, and while wandering into the darkness, she acquires a substitute in the form of a hell-hound belonging to the Master. The Master may be omniscient, but he’s not watching after his dog at the moment because he’s slumbering on a stone slab behind the hotel with his many wives standing statue-like around him. Torgo pays him a visit and tells the unconscious Master that he won’t give Margaret to him; he wants her for himself. Then he unnecessarily berates the wives. “You, you’re his first wife. He doesn’t want you anymore, and now I don’t want you!” He finishes this speech by groping her hair and burying his face in her stomach. Yes, Torgo has a psychological complex all his own.
Shortly, however, the Master awakens, and after a prayer to the idol he worships (“Manos will be done!”) he shouts, “Arise, my wives, and hear the words of Manos!” Hal Warren immediately cuts to a shot of the wives all gathered in a circle, as though conducting a Tupperware party, gossiping loudly, while the Master sits on his altar, looking bored and miserable. And to think: Torgo wants a cut of this. Some infighting over who really deserves the Master leads to the famed female wrestling scene, all set to that improvisational jazz score, and some tuneless piano playing which sounds like a hammer slamming into your skull. When Torgo confronts the Master over possession of Margaret, he’s punished by having the Manos-staff (a staff with a hand at the end) waved in front of his face multiple times. Subdued by this spell, Torgo is taken to the altar and tied to it, where he’s tortured, I guess: the Master’s wives lean over him and make massaging gestures with their hands. Finally, Torgo is forced to partake in a ritual which leaves him with a flaming stump for a hand. He and his giant knees run off into the night. Michael and his family, meanwhile, are brainwashed by the cult; even poor Debbie becomes one of the Master’s wives, while Michael takes Torgo’s place, speaking in the same stiff monotone to anyone willing to check into the hotel. This was the twist ending; I have spoiled it for you. Though Manos: The Hands of Fate didn’t play very many theaters, the poster nonetheless proclaimed, “NO ONE SEATED THE LAST 10 MINUTES. We defy you to guess the ending…AND ASK YOU NOT TO DIVULGE IT!”
The film was roundly mocked by Texas audiences, despite its boasts of being an El Paso original. Torgo actor John Reynolds, who wore a painful contraption to resemble goat legs (he was supposed to be a satyr), committed suicide before he could witness such a disastrous reception; reportedly he was heavily medicated during the filming of Manos due to the enormous pain caused by said contraption. The revival in interest caused by MST3K‘s screening made his character a cult figure of sorts. After all, the man has his own theme music – albeit a theme that plays only when he walks, giant knees to the fore. In the episode, head writer Mike Nelson parodies Reynolds’ performance, and would play Torgo a few more times before MST3K ended its ten-season run; Torgo has gone on to become a kind of pop culture icon, synonymous with bad movies and their unintended pleasures. Stage musicals have been performed based on the film; a puppet show adaptation was staged earlier this year in Seattle. In the age of the Internet Movie Database, Manos: The Hands of Fate has eclipsed Ed Wood’s films as the “worst ever made” (it currently sits at #3 on the “Bottom 100”; the #1 spot belongs – for all I know, deservedly – to Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2). Manos has earned all the notoriety it’s received: the turgid pace (the first half hour seems to consist of a single driving scene), the redundant dialogue, the circular narrative (a couple making out in a convertible apparently does so for days), the contextually inappropriate, relentlessly dreary jazz songs (“don’t forget/the silly way we met”), the night-for-night shooting which renders much of the action incoherent…it all just wears on you. It reminds of the power that cinema wields; in this case, it’s an evil power.
The new special edition DVD from Shout! Factory offers the MST3K episode on the first disc and the uncut version of the film (full-frame and not looking too great) on the second. Extras are lavish for such a non-charmer: a retrospective from MST3K‘s Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl; the MST Hour wraps hosted by Mike Nelson; the amusing half-hour documentary “Hotel Torgo,” and more. Although Manos has made several appearances on DVD in the last decade or so, this is probably the version you’ll want to own. (A warning: you may need alcohol.) A sequel is currently being filmed, but whatever appeal Manos has is purely accidental, and certainly unique. Accept no substitutes.