During the phony reign of Hippie-dom in the 1960’s, there was a revolution in independent film-making. The decline of civilization was being documented through the lenses of artists that were not ignoring its darkness, as so many others did during that era, and from what I can tell, many still do. Looking at this era through rose-colored glasses and a tie-dyed haze of smoke has long carried with it a sense of denial. Horror films were telling the truth in ways that drugs, acoustic guitars and body odor never could. Really, Horror has always had a sense of truth, regardless of how far out the story may get, as well as an underlined focus on how humans react to what is presented to them, be it a monster from outer space, a soulless slasher roaming the forest, or, as is the case in the film I’m about to discuss, crossing into another reality that breaks apart the world as it is known. These are themes that have long been explored by many an independent filmmaker, including a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas named Harold Warren. One day, this fellow decided he wanted to make a film and cinema gained one of the many entries that was quickly buried and forgotten for years. It was eventually rediscovered, due in part to a couple of Mad Scientists, and has been discussed by Cult Film-enthusiasts for over two decades now. Welcome to Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Most people that are into obscure cinema are familiar with this title from its appearance as episode #424 of the television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I am included in this group. And like a lot of fans of that show, I carry a certain level of love for those films. Over the years, I have collected a few of those titles, non-riffed, all due to how much I actually enjoyed them and Manos is one that took a while to track down. I still haven’t found the first printing VHS, but I have scored a couple of DVD reissues which were digitized with love, thankfully.
For some reason, this is considered one of the worst films ever made. However, I could list a lot of “successful” titles that I feel are far worse. If you’ve seen Manos, you know what your opinion is. If you intentionally haven’t seen it, you should at least know enough about yourself to grasp the why behind your decision. Now, if it has just missed your radar, you get a pass. I’m not going to spend my time trying to convince anyone that this is some lost piece of cinematic brilliance, on par with Godard, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Leone or any of the other Masters out there, because it isn’t. Not even close. It is, however, a piece of art and one that should be respected for what it is. Let us explore this film, in more of its glanced-over glory.
The first element, and one that usually deserves instant respect, is the fact that this is an entirely independent production.
There is no studio money to be found here, no group of writers throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, no moronic producers ruining the story because they don’t get it, no arrogant actors thinking they are all misunderstood gods, none of the nonsense. This was filmed for roughly $19, 000, by a group of misfits from El Paso that had very little acting experience and even less filming experience, yet they did it. Much like another independent film made in Texas, which appeared eight years later and changed the name of the game for all time, Manos: The Hands of Fate was created start to finish from total nobodies that, by all standard definitions, should have failed miserably at their mission. And in similar fashion to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, Manos gives us an original story that makes us ask questions of ourselves. The big difference is that the crew of TCSM were trained film students and the cast all had better experience and skills. They all understood their craft, even as beginners. The humans that worked on Manos were definitely winging it.
Manos is sort of a cross between a ghost story and 4th Dimension-type stuff. The film starts with a vacationing family Mike (Harold Warren), Margret (Diane Mahree) and Debbie (Jackie Jones) on their way to the Valley Lodge, which is, naturally, in the middle of nowhere. Actually, we never find out where it is, as they become lost in the desert and stumble upon a house that wasn’t there when they first came by. They don’t think too hard about this bizarre fact and aren’t even bothered by the appearance of the twitchy cowboy-satyr, Torgo (John Reynolds). They decide to ask for directions, which, if Mike had not been a typical chauvinist in the first place, they would have done long before getting to the desert. Torgo tells them “There is no way out of here, it’ll be dark soon. There is no way out of here.” And even though Margret knows something is wrong, they go into the mysterious house anyway. You can surely see where this is going. The place is ran by Torgo “While the Master is away” and we learn that he is essentially, not dead but dreaming. They don’t say those words, but Lovecraft fans will get it. As the night moves forward, the Master (Tom Neyman) and his brides awaken, and the madness unfolds! I won’t give away anything else, but it is a fun ride! And really, Neyman’s portrayal of the Master is excellent! Damn cold and evil!
Obviously there are numerous flaws to the film: the editing is choppy at times, the audio track has all sorts of issues, including a song that sounds like a vinyl record with a jump in the grooves, the lighting is all over the place, the camera goes out of focus when it probably shouldn’t, the acting feels like an unrehearsed play, going between good and stiff as a board, unnecessary and unexplained scenes, and so on and so on. However, I could easily argue that some of these elements add to the eerie nature of the film. I’m sure confusion just comes with Manos, in general. There are moments when the face of the Master is filling the frame and a bit out of focus, but since these are to be oppressive scenes that suggest hypnotism, it works. It may have been unintentional, but it works. People for years have been picking at all the flaws as extreme negatives that cancel out any of the quality that exists, whereas, I can find positives in the execution of these scenes each time I watch it and it just gets better to me. Torgo is weird and creepy, The Master is weird and creepy, the set is weird and creepy, the music, et cetera. Aren’t these all crucial elements to good horror? And besides, when was the last time you devoted your nights and weekends to writing a screenplay, filming it with a hand-crank, 16mm silent-camera that only shoots around thirty-six seconds at a time and also forces every bit of dialogue and sound to be dubbed over later, using inexperienced weirdoes from around town, then put it all together and actually get it into a theater? I’m not suggesting that the mere act of making a film makes it good, but it does make it a success to the artists that set out to do it, whether anyone ever even sees it or not is irrelevant. They did it.
Since I am a musician, I would like to wrap this up with a bit of honorable praise for the score by Robert Smith Jr. and Russ Huddleston. A few of the reviews I’ve seen for this film over the years tend to dismiss this music, or even make fun of it. Why? Because they didn’t use a Theremin or a Moog played through an Echo-Plex? I’ve been a huge fan of Jazz music for most of my life, especially the weirder stuff and this score definitely entertains me. There are only a few main themes that you hear throughout the film, but they tend to fit what’s on the screen. Torgo’s theme, Will haunt your brain!
When the fight breaks out between the Master’s wives, it is accompanied by faster tempos with a saxophone playing some crazy notes and is quite reminiscent of some of the Freak Out Jazz that would have been spawning in those days. This would have been fairly radical for any filmmaker back then, especially a salesman from Texas! Great music, indeed!
If you actually read this entire article, you must love the obscure. And sure, I may be a bit off for liking this film so much. I happen to think people that keep giving George Lucas money are certifiably insane, so, to each his own. I will always dig this twisted piece of art and I’m sure its audience will never die.
There is absolute truth when the Master declares, “I am permanent, Manos has made me permanent!”
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