Sorry for this post being a few days later than normal. I had a busy weekend.
Even in the realm of bad movies, there are very few that can easily be compared to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Very few people involved with this movie are known for anything else. Writer/director/producer Harold P. Warren made a bet with Academy Award Winning writer, Stirling Dale Sillphant (he won it for “In the Heat of the Night”) at a coffee shop. Warren claimed that it wasn’t difficult to make a horror film, and bet that he could make one on his own. After placing the bet, he wrote the basic script outline on a napkin, in that same restaurant. That’s right, this movie only exists because of a bet.
Warren financed the film entirely on his own, with a $19,000 budget. Even for the mid-60s, that’s a tiny budget by any standards. He hired a group of actors from a local theater, many of which he’d worked with before, and a few others from a modeling industry. Instead of paying them direct wages, he instead promised the cast and crew a profit share. The movie was mostly shot at a ranch owned by a lawyer, who worked in the same building as Warren. All of the equipment was rented instead of bought. The camera in particular was an old model 16mm Bell & Howell that had to be wound by hand, and could only shoot up to 32 seconds of footage per take. This led to editing difficulties. Also, because all of the equipment was rented, production was rushed.
Because most of the cast had day jobs, he filmed most of the movie on weekends, or night for night shots, making it very difficult to see what was happening. To further complicate things, the lights attracted moths. Post-production ended up getting rushed too. There’s a moment in the movie where the clapperboard is briefly visible. The nine-minute opening sequence of a family driving to a hotel was originally supposed to include the opening credits, but either Warren forgot to add them, or he ran out of money for post-production. There are still closing credits, but it makes for a very awkward opening sequence when nothing is happening and the tone is completely different from the rest of the movie.
Warren also plays the father of the family, who act as this movie’s main characters. Diane Mahree plays his wife, Margaret, and Jackey Neyman plays their daughter Debbie. Debbie is actually dubbed over by an unidentified adult, which actually made Jackey weep at the premier. John Reynolds played Torgo, a servant of “the master”. Tom Neyman, Jackey’s father, plays said master. Last, but not least, Joyce Molleur plays a girl in a convertible. She was originally supposed to have a bigger role in the movie, but broke her foot before filming began. Warren instead gave her a smaller role of a girl kissing a guy in a car, so she could always sit down, for a couple of scenes that have virtually nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Also, Mahree was a Texas Beauty Queen, and Warren hoped casting her would give the movie good publicity. He also ensured she’d make the regional pageant that could qualify her for the Miss Texas competition. She ended up making the finals, but didn’t quite qualify for the Miss Texas pageant.
The movie premiered at the Capri Theater in El Paso, Texas, Warren’s hometown, doubling its opening as a benefit for the local cerebral palsy fund. Following the premier, Warren felt that he made the worst movie of all-time, but still felt proud of it. He suggested that it could be redubbed into a passable comedy, something that Mystery Science Theater would sort-of do decades later. The movie enjoyed a brief theater run throughout Texas, but there are no records for what kind of money the movie earned, and apparently the only compensation that ever went out to the cast was a bicycle and 50 pounds of dog food for Jackey.
It’s kind of trippy watching this movie. Even knowing it’s the result of a bet doesn’t change how strange and intimate this movie feels, as if you’re diving directly into someone’s warped brain. The actor who played Torgo was high on drugs during the entire shoot, and it shows. It’s a terrible performance, but something about it just works for the servant of a cult leader though. His off-timed responses, odd movements and high expressions are the most entertaining part of the movie. On the one hand, Jackey said in later interviews that Reynolds was a lot of fun on set. On the other hand, he shot himself before the movie released. Manos is his only film credit, and there’s very little known about his life beforehand.
As for the rest of the movie, the plot is bare bones at best. It’s about a vacationing family who can’t find their hotel, and they end up stranded at a property owned by a Manos worshipping cult. Their leader, “The Master”, has multiple wives, and wants the mother as another of his wives. For most of the movie, Torgo keeps insisting that “The Master” likes the mother, but the others must die. Yet despite all this insistence, the family survives – they just all end up absorbed into the cult. The father ends up taking Torgo’s place, after The Master, uh … vaporizes Torgo in flame?
Honestly, it’s not worth trying to explain this movie’s story. Just know that the acting ranges from wooden to over-the-top. Tom is actually quite charismatic as Manos, to the point where in a better movie with better writing and direction, he might have actually been a good actor. The music is wildly inappropriate for the kind of movie it is. It’s almost entirely piano based. None of the dubbing works all that well. The pacing is dreadful, and not just because of the very limited camera. The writing is repetitive to the point of absurdity. That said, the movie is hilarious for all of those reasons if you’re in the right mood.
The majority of the cast and crew never involved themselves with another movie, although Mahree did enjoy a successful modeling career under the name Diane Adelson. Warren pitched another script at one point, calling it Wild Desert Bikers, but with Manos failing and slipping into obscurity, nobody was interested.
After its brief theatrical run, Manos was almost entirely forgotten by the public for years. When Jackey went to Berkeley University in California, her friends couldn’t find a copy. Eventually in the 90s, the film resurfaced from a TV station, and several public domain film suppliers released it on VHS. One of them offered the movie to Comedy Central, which led to the 1993 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffing it. Some people even describe that episode as the show’s greatest. That episode catapulted Manos into a cult classic. Some people find it hilariously bad. Some people find it an exercise in bad movie masochism. I’m sure there are a lot of independent filmmakers who appreciate it for what it is.
Since then, Manos has enjoyed four different comedy stage adaptations, one of them being a musical. Also, in 2011, a Florida State film graduate found the original 16mm work print. His Kickstarter campaign earned $48,000 to restore the movie, nearly 5 times his original goal. This resulted in an eventual Blu-ray release. The movie still looks pretty bad, and there’s no way you could ever make this movie look good with the very limited budget and camera technology, but it looks much better than it has any right to. That’s the version I watched for this movie, and I must say, the red in the movie really stands out.
There’s also a prequel and a sequel to Manos, both released in 2018. Both of these movies feature Jackey. The prequel, Manos: The Rise of Torgo, sees Jackey portraying the evil deity Manos. The other, Manos Returns, features Jackey, her father Tom, and Mahree all reprising their original roles. The movie is an intentional tongue-and-cheek sequel.
You could make a strong argument for Manos: The Hands of Fate being the actual worst movie of all-time, at least in terms of quality. Nothing went right with the production. Even its director embraced the movie’s terribleness the night of the premier, yet he’s still proud of what he accomplished. With no training whatsoever, faulty equipment, limited time, and funding the entire project himself, he still technically won his bet. He bet that he could make a horror movie himself, and he succeeded. Regardless of how bad it is, especially for its time, that’s an accomplishment. It’s an early example of an independent, ultra-low budget film. As terrible as it is, it deserves to be remembered for that.
Because it’s public domain, there’s no harm in adding the full movie from YouTube right here, in case you’re interested.
Or if you’d rather, here’s the MST3K episode on the movie.
As of right now, I’ve got three options to close out this bad movie month. Either a terrible 1980’s movie based on a superhero comic, another 80s movie that’s intentionally stupid, yet entertaining, or an early 2010’s horror movie that is basically a step-by-step guide on how not to make a horror movie.
Must admit, I’ve never heard of or seen this film, but sounds woth a look, if only for the fun factor alone. How about some terrible 80’s superhero movies next, there plenty you could go for in that category.
Can’t say I blame you for not hearing about this movie. Even in the realm of bad movies with cult followings, it’s still somewhat obscure.
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Yikes. I’ve never heard of this one before but knowing that this exists thanks to a bet and that the acting is quite bad, I’d need to be in a very special place to really want to try it out now hahah Thanks for sharing!
I would recommend the MS3TK episode on the movie though, which I added to the post. That is genuinely funny.
Great review. I’ve only seen this once and didn’t know all the trivia.