Manos: the Hands of Fate (1966)

I’m something of a latecomer to the joys of watching Manos: the Hands of Fate, having just viewed it this year. What a pleasant surprise it was! Long hailed as one of the worst films of all time – if not the worst, my only reaction to that assessment can be – are we watching the same film? Sure, it’s about as technically ragged as you can get. It’s got its silly bits, probably a lot of them. Yet I haven’t found a film as hypnotically compelling - having watched it about three time now - as Manos in years. So if you’re hankering for a mocking review, pointing out in smug fashion how “bad” the film is, perhaps it’s best to turn elsewhere. I love this film! Manos decrees that I explain the reasons behind this. Here’s my attempt to elaborate on why Manos is in fact, a great film worthy of watching in its own right, without a humorous commentary overlaid on the soundtrack. Before I do, I’d just like to stress that I have nothing particularly against Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and it’s ilk. I don’t know all their film titles, perhaps some of them are so awful, they are genuinely worthy of mockery. Perhaps this type of take on movies draw people’s gaze to long forgotten films, worthy of attention. It’s just not in my nature to present a film to you for derision though, and I genuinely feel Manos deserves some praise. Let’s take a look at it.

Filmed in El Paso, Texas, apparently as result of a bet between writer/director/producer Harold P. Warren and an associate that he could make a film with no experience, we begin our journey into darkness with a family searching for a hotel in the desert. Here we meet father and husband Michael (our auteur filmmaker Harold), wife and mother Margaret (luminously beautiful Diane Mahree) and their young daughter Debbie (Jackie Neyman) and dog, Peppy. After driving around hopelessly lost for a while, they get accosted by a cop for having a broken tail light, but are allowed to go on their way as he’s feeling kind. We also meet a pair of smooching teenagers in a car who are “moved on” by the same cop. These teenagers appear a few times in the film seemingly without purpose, but I’ll theorise on these two a bit later. After some more driving, Mike and Margaret get even more lost when a road disappears. They finally find an old house with an odd-looking man standing out the front. This individual would be Torgo, as played by John Reynolds. He introduces himself with a quavering voice as the caretaker of the house “while the Master is away”. A strange, twitching fellow with a farmer’s hat, overalls and old jacket, complete with bizarre swollen knees, Torgo has no idea about the lodge the family are trying to find. Mike suggests they stay overnight to get their bearings, but both Margaret and Torgo refuse, with Torgo explaining “the Master would not approve” of the child and pet.

Eventually Mike’s pushy ways win out, and after a long stand-off, Torgo relents. Showing them into the house, Mike and Margaret spot a portrait of the Master (Tom Neyman) and his glowing-eyed Doberman. Margaret’s thoroughly spooked by the sinister-looking Master and his pet, and wants to leave. Torgo explains that she’s in no danger as the Master “likes her” even though he’s given the impression that the Master’s dead. Torgo mysteriously clarifies that he’s “not dead they way you know it” and that “The Master is always with us”. At this point, Margaret’s even more unnerved, when things suddenly become much worse. A bone-chilling howl sounds through the desert and Peppy bolts after it. This howl is actually quite frightening to my delicate sensitivities, I wonder if any other viewers out there feel the same way? Mike takes off after the dog, and is upset to find it dead, killed by whatever creature lurks outside. At this turn of events, Mike and Margaret resolve to leave. Rudely, Mike screams at Torgo to get their bags so they can depart. I’m not sure why they can’t carry their own bags, but there you go. None of it’s any use though – Mike finds the car won’t start. Meanwhile Torgo fronts up to Margaret and tells her not to leave, as the Master wants her for his wife, all the while touching her arm and stroking her hair. Of course, Margaret gets upset and calls for Mike, but no-one responds. Torgo explains to the distraught woman that the Master can’t have her because he wants her! Finally sensing Margaret’s distress,Torgo tells her he meant no harm and will protect her, which seems to calm her somewhat. Mike returns and rudely demands a phone, to which Torgo explains there is none. Reluctantly deciding to stay the night again, they’re horrified to find Debbie is missing! Nowhere in the house, Mike offers no comfort to his crying wife, but looks for his daughter nonetheless. Shocked, he finds her outside with the Doberman from the painting. In her unintelligible way, Debbie explains she found the creature in a “big place” with lots of people in it. Leading her parents to an altar with what appears to be the dead “Master” on it, Mike and Margaret are horrified to find a group of seemingly dead women in diaphanous gowns, tied to columns. Naturally, they’re horrified and flee, Mike locking Margaret and Debbie in the bedroom. Torgo shows up at the altar and berates his dead Master for having all these wives and leaving none for him, but now he has a potential wife of his own – Margaret. Torgo appears to become rebellious against the Master and his wives, manically muttering that he’s through with them all. He returns to the house and spies on Margaret disrobing into a slip. Finding Mike outside, he knocks him out and ties him to a pole.

We then return to the altar and find the Master rising from his death-like trance, along with his wives. The Master calls to Manos, their dark god, and reaffirms their faith in him. Almost immediately they begin debating about who to save, and who to kill. The oldest of the wives demands that the child be allowed to grow up and become a woman. Others want all of them dead, or just the adult woman allowed to live. The Master demands silence but the oldest of the wives rebels against him. The Master hints that she may soon pay for her behaviour, and leaves to punish Torgo, who brought this trouble on them. The bickering wives begin rolling around on the sand in a strange “catfight” scene that goes on for ages. The Master arrives back at the house, and rouses Torgo from his slumber. It appears that Torgo must die for his transgression of visiting the tomb and molesting the wives. The caretaker tries to fight his master’s hypnotic stare to no avail.

One of the wives not involved in the catfight finds the still unconscious Mike and tries to kiss him into waking, then resorts to slapping him. Mike remains out of it, so the woman finds the Master and tells him the women are fighting. He rushes to them and enraged, forces them to stop the “foolishness.” He turns on the rebellious wife and has her bound for sacrifice, even though she claims his power is failing. The Master then bids the wives kill the entranced Torgo, who is forced onto the altar and is then what appears to be massaged and slapped by the wives. The Master then plunges Torgo’s hand into a flaming brazier and burns it off him completely – he laughs, holding the flaming hand aloft. Torgo flees, taking his burning stump into the desert. Is he dying? Who knows. Mike, finally roused, finds Margaret in the house, who demands to leave. They resolve to hide in the desert somewhere. The Master attacks the defiant wife, slapping her around, even though she laughs in his face. He then kills her offscreen. He and the remaining wives then take off to look for the intruders.

Mike and his family flee into the desert, but don’t get too far. After falling down a few times – both of them – Margaret begs to go back to the house, and Mike suggests they lock themselves in the kitchen with his gun as protection, especially as the sinister cult is searching the desert. The plan backfires as the Master enters the house, fixing them with his hypnotic stare. Mike fires at him point-blank, but the bullets do nothing. Will they survive their encounter with the Master and his wives, or enter into a new world of darkness?

I’d like to just say that yes, this film has obvious problems. Even the title is problematic – “Manos” is Spanish for hands, so you could say the film’s title reads technically as “Hands: the Hands of Fate”. Certain scenes seem to go on forever, such as the initial drive to the house of Manos, the wives’ catfight and the Master’s torture of his rebellious wife. The filmmakers could only shoot twenty seconds at a time so the editing can be strange and jarring. The dialogue was all dubbed as they were not able to film with sound, therefore the characters can sound strange, especially the teenage girl and Debbie, who was dubbed by an adult but is impossible to understand. Moths flutter in an out of many scenes. I understand that John Reynolds who plays Torgo had personal and drug issues during filming and his twitching, rambling, out-of-it performance reflects that. Apparently the character was meant to be a Satyr of sorts, with goat-like legs but John donned the goat prosthesis incorrectly. Thus they point forwards instead of backwards, giving him strange, nobbly knees and a crippled walk. The jazzy music is insistent and surreal, in its repetitiveness. Supposedly there’s a clapperboard visible in the scene with the teenagers at the start – I haven’t been able to spot it yet.

Assuredly, Manos: the Hands of Fate is rough and ready. I can’t help but think though, that sole creator Harold P. Warren, with no-one to advise him one way or the other, has created what approximates the structure of a dream in this minor work of art. The strange pauses between characters speaking, such as the endless wait for Torgo to answer whether they can stay or not. The length – and strangeness – of scenes like that group catfight in the desert. Margaret appears to be the character within the film trapped in a nightmare. Her husband makes idiotic decisions, Torgo acts like a dribbling idiot around her, her dog is killed, her daughter vanishes and she’s the only one affected. Mike presses on his usual rude way, or tells her to snap out of it. How is this a normal, waking experience? You can hear Margaret’s frustration as she repeatedly calls out to her useless husband. Torgo’s announced as to be executed for Manos but as in some bad dream, nothing happens except a massage /slap-fest from some crazed women and then his hand gets burned off. Mike and Margaret try to leave the situation several times but get nowhere, either through indecision, weakness or circumstance. The impotence that befalls Mike as a protector seems to reflect the frustration of a typical dream. The random appearances of the canoodling teens, who have nothing to do with the story, orient the film into dreamlike structures. It’s also interesting that none of the characters seem to be in full control of their circumstances – certainly not Mike and Margaret - but even the Master is losing control over Torgo and his wives. I wouldn’t have been surprised if even the Doberman had bitten him at some point.

The quite literate dialogue also appears repetitious and dreamlike. Warren’s written it this way across all characters and the actors, odd as they all are, put their all into it. Tom Neyman as the Master particularly relishes his dialogue – his initial prayer to Manos and the argument between he and the rebel wife is a gem. I’m not sure who the actress is, but she’s making the most of her screen time, that’s for sure. Acting-wise, Neyman and gorgeous Diane Mahree stand out as the most emphatic , and of course there’s our stuttering, half-crazed Torgo as played by John Reynolds – I promise you’ll never forget him. It’s sad thinking how troubled he was on set, but he left a cinematic presence for all time.

I hear that some folks are working on a pristine 16mm print of Manos for a blu ray transfer. I’d love to see this. As it is, the film’s easy to find, the internet archive has it, and there’s always youtube. I’d love to hear from other supporters of this film, to understand what they get out of it. Are the pearls similar to what I described, or do you derive other pleasures I haven’t mentioned? Either way, Manos: the Hands of Fate is worth tracking down not with beer and popcorn ready to throw at the screen, but an open mind and compassion ready to enjoy a unique little film. I’m glad Warren threw down the gauntlet and made this film, and hope he won his bet!

© Boris Lugosi, 2014.

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Review written: 09/12/2014 17:18:22