Manos: The Hands of Fate
Manos: The Hands of Fate is a 1966 American independent horror film written, directed, and produced by Harold P. Warren, who also starred in the film. The film's plot revolves primarily around a vacationing family who lose their way on a road trip. After a long drive in the Texas desert, the family finds themselves trapped at a lodge maintained by a polygynous pagan cult led by a man known only as The Master, and they attempt to escape as the cult's members decide what to do with them.
Warren was an insurance and fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, who produced the film as the result of a bet with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. He also starred in it, alongside El Paso theater actors Tom Neyman and John Reynolds. Manos was made by a crew with little or no background or experience in filmmaking and a very limited budget at its disposal. Upon its theatrical debut, the film was poorly received, playing only at the Capri Theater in El Paso and some drive-ins around West Texas and New Mexico.
Manos remained obscure until 1993, when the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), a show based on the premise of comedically mocking B movies, featured the film in an episode, helping it develop a cult reputation as one of the worst films ever made. The film is notable for its technical deficiencies, especially its editing and continuity flaws; poorly-synchronized soundtrack and visuals; tedious pacing; abysmal acting; and several scenes that are seemingly inexplicable or disconnected from the overall plot, such as a couple making out in a car and The Master's wives breaking into catfights. Its MST3K appearance resulted in several DVD releases of the original film and three separate DVDs featuring the MST3K episode of the film. The original 16 mm workprint was discovered in California in 2011, from which a new copy of the film, of vastly superior visual quality, was released on Blu-ray by Synapse Films on October 13, 2015.
The film was followed by a prequel, Manos: The Rise of Torgo, and a sequel, Manos Returns, both of which were released in 2018.
While on vacation near El Paso, Texas, Michael, Margaret, their young daughter Debbie and their dog, Peppy, drive through the desert in search of a hotel called "Valley Lodge". Margaret insists they are lost, and Michael claims they are not. They are then pulled over by a local deputy for a broken taillight, but they are let go after Michael asks him for mercy since they are on their "first vacation". After long shots of driving through farmland and the desert, intercut with scenes of two teenagers making out in a car and being caught by the deputies, the family finally reach a house, tended by the bizarre, satyr-like Torgo, who says he takes care of the place "while The Master is away". The house seemed to appear out of nowhere, and Torgo acts very strange. Apprehensive, Michael and Margaret ask Torgo for directions to the Valley Lodge; Torgo denies having knowledge of such a place. Frustrated, Michael asks Torgo to let him and his family stay the night, despite objections from both Torgo and Margaret.
Inside the house, Michael and Margaret find a disturbing painting of a dark, malevolent-looking man and a black dog with glowing eyes; Torgo says the man it depicts is The Master. Margaret becomes frightened upon hearing an ominous howl; Peppy breaks away from Debbie and runs outside after the howl. Michael investigates, retrieving a flashlight and revolver from his car, and he finds Peppy lying dead on the ground. Michael buries the dog in the desert and goes back to the house. Meanwhile, Torgo reveals his sudden attraction to Margaret and tells her that although The Master wants her to become his bride, he intends to keep her for himself. Torgo then spends the next few minutes trying to grope her shoulder. Margaret threatens to tell Michael of Torgo's advances, but Torgo convinces her not to say anything by promising to protect her. Michael returns and is unable to start the car. Torgo tells them there is no phone in the house, so the family reluctantly decides to stay the night.
After another scene of Torgo peeping in on Margaret changing clothes, Michael and Margaret find Debbie is gone and go to look for her. Debbie returns, holding the leash of a big black dog, the same dog from the painting. Following Debbie, Michael and Margaret stumble upon The Master and his wives, sleeping around a blazing fire. The wives are dressed in diaphanous nightgowns, The Master in a robe with two red hands on it. Margaret and Debbie run back to the house to get their things and escape. As Michael runs behind them, Torgo appears and uses a stick to knock him out and then ties him to a pole. The Master awakens and summons his wives, telling them that Michael must be sacrificed to the deity Manos, and Margaret and Debbie will become his new wives. He then leaves.
The other wives argue among each other about whether Debbie should become a wife or be sacrificed as well. This turns into a catfight, where the wives tumble around in the dirt. The Master returns and breaks up the fight, and he decides to sacrifice Torgo and his first wife instead. Meanwhile, Michael wakes up and unties himself, going back to the house to collect Margaret and Debbie. The family leaves the house and runs off into the desert to escape. The Master summons Torgo and hypnotizes him, ordering the wives to kill him. Two of the wives attempt to kill Torgo by slapping and lightly shaking him, until he falls to the ground, apparently dead. However, he then regains consciousness and stands up; the Master then severs and burns Torgo's left hand. Torgo runs off into the darkness with his stump of a wrist in flames, and The Master then sacrifices his first wife.
As Michael, Margaret and Debbie run through the desert, Margaret falls and says she can't go any farther. A rattlesnake is shown to appear in front of them and Michael shoots it, the noise attracting the attention of the deputies, who think the noises come from Mexico and leave it at that. Margaret convinces Michael to return to the house, as the cult would never think to look for them there. They go back and find The Master and his dog waiting for them. As The Master comes toward them, Michael fires several shots into The Master's face at point-blank range, but they have no effect.
The film then cuts to another pair of travelers, two women starting their vacation. They drive through a rainstorm, searching for a place to stay. After more driving they end up at The Master's house. An entranced Michael greets them, telling them "I take care of the place while The Master is away." The ending scene shows Margaret and Debbie have become wives of The Master, and all are asleep.
- Harold P. Warren as Michael
- Diane Mahree as Margaret
- Jackey Neyman as Debbie
- John Reynolds as Torgo
- Tom Neyman as The Master
- Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, and Lelaine Hansard as the Master's wives
- Bernie Rosenblum as Teenage boy
- Joyce Molleur as Teenage girl
- William Bryan Jennings and George Cavender as Cops
- Pat Coburn as Girl in convertible
Warren was very active in the theater scene in El Paso, Texas, and he once appeared as a walk-on for the television series Route 66, where he met screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. While chatting with Silliphant in a local coffee shop, Warren claimed that it was not difficult to make a horror film, and he bet Silliphant that he could make an entire film on his own. After placing the bet, Warren began the first outline of his script on a napkin, right inside the coffee shop. To finance the film, Warren accumulated a substantial but insufficient amount of cash, $19,000 (equivalent to $150,000 in 2019), and hired a group of actors from a local theater, many of whom he had worked with before, as well as a modeling agency. Because he was unable to pay the cast and crew any wages, Warren promised them a share in the film's profits. Under both working titles The Lodge of Sins and Fingers of Fate, the movie was filmed in mid-1966. Filming mainly took place on the ranch of Colbert Coldwell, a lawyer who shared an office floor with Warren and who later became a judge in El Paso County. Most of the equipment used for production was rented, so Warren had to rush through as many shots as possible to complete filming before the deadline for returning the equipment. Footage was shot with a 16 mm Bell & Howell camera that had to be wound by hand and thus could only take 32 seconds of footage at a time, resulting in the many editing problems present in the final cut. Rather than using double-system recording, all sound effects and dialogue were dubbed later in post-production, done by only a handful of people, including Warren, Tom Neyman, Reynolds, Jennings and Warren's wife, Norma. Later during production, Warren renamed the film Manos: The Hands of Fate. Warren's small crew became so bemused by his amateurishness and irascibility that they derisively called the film Mangos: The Cans of Fruit behind his back.
During filming, Warren knew that presenting Diane Mahree as the Texas Beauty Queen would generate good publicity for his movie. He signed Mahree up for a regional West Texas beauty pageant that would lead to Miss Texas and then to the Miss America pageant, but he neglected to tell her about it until she was accepted as an entrant. She went along with it and soon found herself onstage as one of the finalists. Mahree later asserted that Warren urged her to remove her top for filming the window-peeping scene where Torgo observes her before declaring his love but, when she refused, he quickly backpedaled by claiming the suggestion was a test.
Warren contracted with a modeling agency to provide the actresses who would play the Master's wives, including Joyce Molleur. Molleur broke her foot early in production, so, to keep her in the film, Warren rewrote the script to include a young couple making out in a car on the side of the road who are seemingly completely incidental to the film's plot.
Warren decided to shoot night-for-night scenes, because many of the cast and crew also held day jobs. In many of the night scenes, the camera and lights attracted swarms of moths, which can be seen in the film's final production. In the scene in which the cops "investigate" Mike's gunfire, they could walk only a few feet forward, because there was not enough light to illuminate the scenery for a panning shot.
Post-production efforts were minimal, despite promises made to Warren by crew members that any problems in the film would be fixed in later editing. One of the more visible examples of this is a brief moment at the beginning of the film in which the clapperboard is visible after a cut to the "make-out couple." The entire nine-minute opening sequence, which consisted of the main characters driving around looking for their hotel with minimal dialogue or effect on the plot, was the result of such neglect: Warren had likely intended to include opening credits over these shots, but he either forgot to add them or did not have the post-production budget to do so.
John Reynolds, the actor who played Torgo, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun on October 16, 1966, a month before the film was to premiere. Reynolds was just 25 and Manos was his only film appearance.
Reception and legacy
The film premiered at the Capri Theater in Warren's hometown of El Paso, Texas on November 15, 1966, as a benefit for the local cerebral palsy fund. Warren arranged for a searchlight to be used at the cinema, and for the cast to be brought to the premiere by a limousine, to enhance the Hollywood feel of the event. Warren could afford only a single limousine, however, so the driver had to drop off one group, then drive around the block and pick up another. Jackey Neyman-Jones, who played Debbie and was seven years old at the time, remembered weeping in disappointment at the premiere, particularly when another woman's (dubbed) voice came out of her mouth onscreen. Mahree later reported that she laughed throughout the screening at the film's ridiculousness. The following day, a review of the film was featured in the El Paso Herald-Post, which described the film as a "brave experiment." It criticized some elements, such as the attempted murder of Torgo by being "massaged to death" by The Master's wives and Margaret's claim of "It's getting dark" while she stands in front of a bright midday sun. The review nonetheless noted Reynolds' screen presence by crediting him as the film's "hero".
Following the premiere, Warren claimed that he felt Manos was the worst film ever made, even though he was proud of it, and he suggested that it might make a passable comedy if it were to be re-dubbed. The film was briefly distributed by Emerson Film Enterprises. Following its debut, the film had a brief theatrical run at the Capri Theater, as well as a few screenings at various drive-in theaters in West Texas and New Mexico towns, including Las Cruces. Reports that the only crew members who were compensated for their work in the film were Jackey Neyman and her family's dog, who received a bicycle and a large quantity of dog food, respectively, would seem to indicate that even with its extremely low budget, the film failed to break even financially. Official box office figures for the film are unknown, if indeed they ever existed. Although the film received poor reception, Warren did win his bet against Stirling Silliphant, proving that he was capable of creating an entire film on his own.
The majority of the cast and crew never appeared in another film following Manos, though Mahree had a successful modelling career as Diane Adelson. Warren attempted to pitch another script he had written called Wild Desert Bikers but, with the failure of Manos, no one he approached showed any interest in producing it. Attempts to turn the screenplay into a novel were equally unsuccessful.
Following these few local screenings, Manos was almost entirely forgotten. When Jackey Neyman attended the University of California, Berkeley, her friends unsuccessfully made an effort to track down a copy of the film. A 1981 newspaper article by cinematographer Bob Guidry's ex-wife Pat Ellis Taylor reports the film may have appeared on a local television station and that it was "listed at the bottom of a page in a film catalogue for rent for $20." The film re-surfaced through a 16 mm print, presumably from this television package, which was introduced into the home video collecting market by a number of public domain film suppliers. One of these suppliers was ultimately the one that offered the film to Comedy Central, after which it found its way into a box of films sent to Frank Conniff in 1992, when he chose Manos as one of the films to be shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax
On January 30, 1993, the film was featured on the fourth season finale of the Comedy Central series Mystery Science Theater 3000, the premise of which involves a human protagonist (at that point in the series, Joel Hodgson) and his two robot companions being held captive in outer space and forced by two mad scientists to watch bad movies. The poor quality of Manos relative even to the usual fare of the series was immediately apparent within the episode; the "bots" (Tom Servo and Crow) used the long uneventful drive at the beginning of the film to sarcastically repeat its title numerous times, as there was yet to be any action to heckle. During the host segment breaks, Joel and the bots mocked the film's opening sequence, debated whether Torgo should be considered a monster, and impersonated "The Master" and his dog. At one point during the host segments, both bots broke down sobbing due to the poor quality of the movie, which was beyond even their attempts at making it interesting. Both of the mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV's Frank, even apologized for showing the film, which they admitted was abysmal and went beyond even their acceptable limits for torturing Joel and the bots. After the film had finished, the slow-moving Torgo, played by Mike Nelson, appeared at the lair of Dr. Forrester and Frank to deliver a pizza two hours after it was ordered. Torgo was also featured in the later episodes Operation Double 007 (where he finally brings the Mr. Pibb that Dr. Forrester and Frank had ordered in this episode), Village of the Giants, Danger!! Death Ray, and Samson vs. The Vampire Women, when he appeared as "Torgo the White" to bring Frank to "Second Banana Heaven".
Selection of Manos for the show is credited to Frank Conniff, who also played TV's Frank; Conniff was generally in charge of pre-screening and pre-selecting films sent to them by Comedy Central, the show's network at the time, and Manos was a random tape that he had pulled from a recent batch they had been sent. He felt the movie "seemed like it was maybe a crime against humanity, but you couldn’t be sure" and "has an atmosphere, a vibe" that made it appropriate for the show. The Manos episode has been described as one of the best of the MST3K series by Entertainment Weekly and CraveOnline, and the MST3K episode is credited with bringing to light the otherwise obscure film, even though it led to the film being considered one of the worst films made at user polls at the Internet Movie Database. During a Q&A session at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con International, a question was put to the cast and writers of MST3K about any film they passed on that was worse than Manos, and many cited the film Child Bride.
Manos has also been riffed on by RiffTrax, a later project of MST3K alumni Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, during a live show on August 16, 2012. This was a live event simulcast in film theaters across the United States on August 16. While Nelson and Murphy were part of the cast when MST3K riffed on Manos, neither their fellow RiffTrax star Bill Corbett nor their writers were involved in the original episode; the riffing was all new jokes, using a cleaner print of the original Manos, allowing them to joke about things not obvious in the original television episode.
Popularity as a cult film
A DVD of the original version of Manos has also been made available through Alpha Video, which also released original versions of other "MST-ed" films such as Teenagers from Outer Space and Eegah. In attempting to explain the film's appeal, the Los Angeles Times hypothesized, "After screening Manos for probably the 10th time, I've concluded it has to do with intimacy. Because it is such a pure slice of Warren's brain – he wrote, directed, produced and starred, and brooked no collaboration – Manos amounts to the man's cinematically transfigured subconscious." Manos buff Bobby Thompson put it more succinctly: "It's like a train wreck; you just can't take your eyes off it." Shout! Factory released a special edition of the film which includes both the MST3K and uncut versions called Manos y Manos [sic].
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 0% based on 16 reviews, with an average rating of 2.56/10. The book Hollywood's Most Wanted lists Manos as the #2 in the list of "The Worst Movies Ever Made", following Plan 9 from Outer Space. Entertainment Weekly proclaimed Manos "The Worst Movie Ever Made." The scene in which the seven-year-old Debbie is dressed as one of the Master's wives (the Master was played by the actress's real-life father) was included in a list of "The Most Disgusting Things We've Ever Seen" by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.
Four comedy stage adaptations of the film have been made. The first, by Last Rites Productions, was given in Portland, Oregon in early 2006. The second, a musical titled Manos: Rock Opera of Fate by the New Millennium Theatre Company, was launched in Chicago in October 2007. The third, a puppet musical titled Manos – The Hands of Felt, was performed by Puppet This in Seattle in April 2011. After raising funds with a Kickstarter campaign in May 2013, Manos – The Hands of Felt was performed again in Seattle by Vox Fabuli Puppets in August 2013 and filmed for DVD release. The fourth, by Capital I Productions, took place in Portland, Oregon in April 2013.
In March 2015, the murderers on the Elementary episode "T-Bone And The Iceman" used the physical features of Torgo (portrayed by John Reynolds) to compose a fake facial composite to get the NYPD off their trail. It worked for a while before they were caught, due to the character of Dr. Joan Watson having recognized Torgo's features from the film. The film's editor, James Sullivan, was the namesake of one of the characters in the episode.
In 2011, the original 16mm workprint of Manos: The Hands of Fate was discovered by Ben Solovey, a Florida State film school graduate, in a collection of 16 mm films. Solovey announced his intention to preserve and restore Manos for a Blu-ray release. Solovey financed the restoration via crowd funding website Kickstarter, raising $48,000 (nearly five times the initial goal). A 90% finished print was premiered at the El Paso Plaza Theatre, not far from where the original premiere was held in 1966. The new restoration premiered on Blu-ray on October 13, 2015 with an unrestored version ("Grindhouse") as one of the bonus features.
In general, any work first published in the United States before March 1989 required a copyright notice, or the work was not copyrighted. Manos: The Hands of Fate is in the public domain because director Harold Warren failed to include a copyright notice in the film. When news broke of Solovey's restoration, the son of Harold Warren, Joe Warren, started exploring the possibility that the film was in fact not in the public domain, seeking to avoid others from profiting from his father's work. Warren discovered in 2013 that the script had been copyrighted and registered in the Library of Congress, and he believes that this copyright also applies to the film. No precedent exists for this case so the legal status of the film is uncertain. Solovey applied copyright on his restored version, an action that Warren believes is unenforceable, though at this point has not sought any legal action against Solovey. Warren was able to obtain pending publication of a trademark on the phrase Manos: The Hands of Fate, which could impact the various fanworks if the United States Patent and Trademark Office finalize approval on it.
Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge
In 2010, writer/director Rupert Talbot Munch, Sr. began work on Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge. Tom Neyman (in a cameo reprising his role as The Master), his daughter Jackey Neyman-Jones (reprising her role as Debbie), Diane Mahree (reprising the role of Margaret), and Bernie Rosenblum (who played a teenage boy in the original film) were involved in initial filming. Others engaged to appear included World Wrestling Entertainment star Gene Snitsky, former WWE diva and Playboy centerfold Maria Kanellis, and UFC fighter Ryan "Big Deal" Jimmo. Munch himself was to play the role of Torgo.
Manos: The Rise of Torgo
In 2013, a project to produce a prequel entitled Manos: The Rise of Torgo was undertaken. David Roy (producer of the 2014 film Cheeseballs) was announced as the writer and director, and cast members were to include Neyman-Jones (playing Manos, the evil deity). It was released on Amazon Prime streaming in 2018.
Jackey Neyman-Jones, who played Debbie in the original film, launched a Kickstarter campaign in February 2016 to make a sequel to Manos, titled Manos Returns. According to Neyman-Jones, the sequel was not to be a recreation of Manos but instead a "tongue-in-cheek" film that is set within the Manos storyline; Neyman-Jones described the planned product as being both funny and scary, along the lines of Cabin in the Woods or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The Kickstarter goal of $24,000 was reached on February 24, 2016, and filming began thereafter. The film stars Neyman-Jones, reprising her role as Debbie, her father Tom Neyman, reprising his role of The Master and Diane Mahree reprising her role as Margaret. Neyman-Jones and director Tonjia Atomic shot the film in western Oregon in the summer of 2016. The film had its world premiere screening at Crypticon Seattle on May 4, 2018. Manos Returns became available on Amazon Prime in May 2020.
Video game adaptation
- Ship to Shore Media
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Manos: The Hands of Fate.|
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- Manos: The Hands of Fate at IMDb
- Manos: The Hands of Fate at AllMovie
- Manos: The Hands of Fate at Rotten Tomatoes
- Jackey Neyman-Jones' blog, in which she shares some of her stories about the making of the film
- Manos: The Hands of Fate is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- The complete official soundtrack on Bandcamp