In the bad movie canon, because there is one, the 1966 film "Manos: The Hands of Fate" is a dubiously cited as the worst film ever made, even over established dreck like "Plan 9 from Outer Space," “Troll 2,” and “Myra Breckinridge.” It is one thing for industry professionals to produce a film that ultimately fails, as the successes will write off their costs. However, the notoriety of “Manos,” a film mostly spoken about to highlight its mistakes, may have helped it to survive and, having watched it, the film’s ongoing story may now have brought closure to the people that made it.
“Manos: The Hands of Fate” is the very simple story of a family getting lost on their way to a holiday home, and stumbling upon the lair of a cult. All human life is here - the innocents, the "Master", his henchman, the followers / wives / concubines, and the guard dog. Add eerie imagery, darkness, a creepy portrait, and many images of hands – the title is literally “Hands: The Hands of Fate” - and that should be enough of a diversion at the cinema on a Friday night. It has everything you expect to find in a horror film, but it is not clear if the production knows why these elements form a genre, and why you would include them.
The film was made in Texas, by people outside of the industry... well, mostly. While Harold P. Warren, the writer / producer / director / star of "Manos," is often described primarily as a fertiliser salesman, he also appeared in bit parts on television shows like "Route 66," and the film's cast and crew came from the amateur dramatics group of which he was a part. Having a drink with Stirling Silliphant, the writer of "Route 66" and later the film “In the Heat of the Night,” Warren made a bet that he could make a horror film himself.
The actors’ names have now been saved for posterity, with Warren and Diane Mahree as Michael and Margaret, parents to daughter Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, whose-real-life father Tom Neyman played “The Master,” and whose art direction for “Manos” utilised many sculptures of hands he had already created independently. However, it is John Reynolds, who sadly did not live to see the film’s release, who has been immortalised as the jittery, leery, Igor-like henchman Torgo, later “massaged” to death by the Master’s concubines - Torgo was meant to be a satyr, but his prosthetics were worn the wrong way around, giving his character gigantic knees.
While he clearly won the bet, Warren’s involvement in bigger productions would have made clear of the limitations in doing it yourself, that problems with the picture cannot be fixed "in the lab," that actors need clear direction, and that more time should have been spent editing the film into a coherent whole, papering over the very obvious cracks. Going beyond the usual complaints of wooden acting and an incoherent script, there are shots that go on too long, particularly long driving shots that perhaps were meant to have the opening credits over them, but help the film to achieve feature length; few, if any, sound effects; actors that look like they are waiting to be directed; bad editing, symptomatic of an entire hour-plus film being assembled in only FOUR HOURS at a local TV station; the colour film stock not being suited to night shooting; shots being out of focus; HAIR BEING CAUGHT IN THE GATE OF THE CAMERA; the dubbing of all the characters by a group of three people, with one woman playing all the female parts, as no sound equipment was used during shooting...
However, the jazzy music, completely out of place for a horror film, is brilliant.
The premiere was a disaster, with the cast leaving before the end, due to the gales of laughter at a horror film that was played straight. "Manos" did have a short run in local cinemas around El Paso, Texas, where it was made, before fading into obscurity, never having made back the $19,000 it cost to make, and it lapsed into the public domain, making it a very easy choice to be discussed in television and online, with no-one to answer for copyright, although the script is copyrighted and registered with the Library of Congress. Its reputation exploded when featured on the US comedy series "Mystery Science Theater 3000," where it was played in full, and mocked mercifully throughout. Finally, in 2011, the work print was discovered in a sale of film rolls bought on eBay by a cinematographer, leading to a restored print now available on Blu-Ray, featuring commentary and interviews with the surviving cast and crew.
Watching my copy of the Blu-Ray, and the special features detailing its production, it is heartening to see that, behind the derision, there are actual human beings, that did the best job they could, and who are now getting proper recognition and recompense for what they did. They knew they were not getting paid back in 1966, as everyone involved was to share the (non-existent) profits but, unlike so many exploitation films lumped together with "Manos," the people that have been exploited are no longer those that are in it, with Jackey and Tom Neyman producing their own sequel, “Manos Returns,” which premiered in May 2018 - it is the happiest ending this saga could possibly have.