Awfully Great Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate
Yeah, it’s great to watch a great movie, one with incredible storytelling, great acting, and wonderful technical skill. There’s also something to be said for watching an absolutely awful film, one so bad that you shake your head in disbelief as your laughing at the unintentional humor. In an ongoing (read: infrequent) series, I’ll explore my favorite awfully great movies and what makes them horribly awesome.
I went to a fairly prestigious film school in the early 90s, during the golden age of independent cinema. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Gus Van Sant were influencing my classmates, who were trying to make films that emulated those we saw in the small art houses that dotted lower Manhattan at the time. These student films were filled with extreme violence, sex, and a lot of dialogue, much of which meandered. This is probably why I didn’t do so well in school. While all of the young filmmakers I was surrounded with were being influenced by a new generation of great directors, I was looking into the past at some of the worst films of all time, through the prism of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Hosted by Joel Hodgson and a couple of wisecracking robots, the show put the trio in a theater on a space ship to make fun of these horrible B and C-grade films. The show gave me an appreciation for the worst in film making, and probably taught me more about how to make a good movie than film school did. The film that taught me the most, the one whose ineptitude must be seen to be believed, was Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The film was made in 1966 by Hal Warren, a insurance and fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, after he made a bet with an established screenwriter that making an entire movie on his own would be easy. Of course, anyone who has ever made even a short film knows this isn’t the case, but the fertilizer salesman from El Paso was going to prove this Hollywood know it all wrong. He scraped together $19,000, rented equipment, hired actors and models from local agencies, and go to work making his horror film. The film revolved around a couple and their daughter, on a weekend trip, who end up at a house in the middle of nowhere inhabited by a strange man who looks after someone he calls the Master, and the Master’s many wives. We soon find that this cult like group has plans to enslave our unsuspecting family.
When it was released, Manos wasn’t anything new. In fact, B-level horror films just like it were incredibly popular at movie houses and drive-ins all over the country at the time. But Manos had something most of those other films didn’t have: a complete lack of anything that might be considered good film making. There have been first time filmmakers who have created masterpieces, but Hal Warren was not one of them. The dearth of talent starts at the title. As Joel and the ‘bots pointed on the Manos MST3K episode, manos means hands in Spanish, so the translated title means Hands: The Hands of Fate. Warren’s script is just as unimaginative as the title. Dialogue played out like real conversations between the most annoying people you’ve ever met. Lines are repeated multiple times, as if to emphasize them more. Witness this realistic exchange:
Mike: Now, look, the sign pointed this way!
Margaret: Mike, let’s go back and ask those kids at the crossroads we saw!
Mike: Okay, okay, but I know that I can’t be wrong! Look, the sign pointed this way!
The film making technique is about as advanced as the script was. Using fairly cheap rented equipment, Warren could only shoot for 32 seconds at a time, and couldn’t record production sound. This leads to an incredibly choppy editing style and overdubbed dialogue that makes the worst kung-fu film look pristine. In fact, Warren and two or three other actors dubbed dialogue for every character in the film. Warren also insisted on shooting at night, which makes the film darker than it should be, almost unwatchable at points. But it’s the lapses in Film 101 that are the most glaring, like when one character says, “It’s getting dark,” as she stands in the bright midday sun. Or when Margaret, while being molested by the creepy keeper of the house, starts screaming for her husband Michael, then finds him in the next scene, and acts as if the molestation never took place. Or when the Master’s many wives end up “killing” a central character by what looks like tickling. Or the couple making out on the side of the road who appear twice and add absolutely nothing to the film. Rumor has it Warren had hired the girl in the car for a role as one of the , but when she broke her leg, he had to find another role for her or risk paying her modeling agency an extra fee.
One character in the film encapsulates everything that makes it such a fun disaster, and that character is Torgo, the house’s caretaker. In a normal horror film, the caretaker should be scary, and you should fear him each time he’s onscreen. Here, he’s…well, take a look for yourself:
As you can see, he looks more like Indiana Jones after a horrible fall. There’s nothing really scary about that. It also doesn’t help that he talks like a man sucking helium while riding a rollercoaster, or that his theme song sounds like late 60s Miles Davis played by a junior high school quintet. His dialogue, which is supposed to be ominous, comes across as redundant and, with actor John Reynolds delivery, unintentionally hilarious. Witness this gem: “There is no way out of here. It’ll be dark soon. There is no way out of here.” Torgo is a microcosm of the film: he’s supposed to be scary, but comes across as an amateurish attempt to create something original. However, , just like when Manos appears on television or when I pop in the DVD, his appearance on screen always makes me smile, and I can’t even remember how many times I’ve quoted his lines or whistled his theme song.
And that’s what makes Manos so great. Like the work of Ed Wood, Manos was created by a man with no pretensions, who believed he was making a film people would want to see, even if he was dead wrong. I’ve seen a lot of bad films in my life, especially when I was in film school. Many of those were made under the guise of art, by filmmakers whose attitude exceeded their artistry. There is no attitude in Manos. It’s a horror film, made by a man with a singular vision. He raised the money, go the cast and crew together, rented the equipment, wrote the script, and actually got the film made. As much as I’ve pointed out Manos’ faults (it’s really hard to point out its strengths, because there aren’t really any), I really admire what Hal Warren did, because he made a bet and won it by doing exactly what he said he was going to do: make his own movie. And hey, he never said it was going to be good.