The manufacturing of a cult film is not something someone may intentionally set out to do. Sure, you can wrangle a few college kids together, get the coeds to show their boobs, and shoot a shot-on-video z-grade shitfest under the delusion you are making the next greatest midnight movie ever, but you will be sorely mistaken. Much like a great work or (real) art, making a cult movie requires more than an idea and a chisel. So much more. A deranged, rushed form of feverish perseverance. A complete lack of technical know-how that is superseded by sheer determination. But most importantly, it helps if you completely, utterly fail in doing what you set out to do, and then bury your masterpiece under the unforgiving sands of time to die a quick, merciless death.
If you do it all just right, and the Hands of Fate might just treat you well. And were a humble salesman from El Paso, Texas by the handle of Harold P. Warren alive and kicking today, he might just concur with that. In his stead, however, we have his one and only feature to offer as testament. Reportedly born the best way any motion picture endeavor could be spawned – over a wager formed in a coffee shop – the late Mr. Warren bet screenwriter Stirling Silliphant he could make his own movie all by himself. It was a situation straight from Antonio Margheriti’s 1964 masterpiece Castle of Blood, wherein a skeptical journalist bet Edgar Allan Poe he could survive a night in an isolated estate populated by no one but the dead.
Gathering a few of his community theater cohorts together and enlisting the assistance of several young ladies from a local modeling agency, Warren scraped up less than $20,000 to turn his idea for a fantasy into a reality. The resulting mess, the now legendary 1966 monstrosity known as Manos: The Hands of Fate, has since gone down in bad movie history – often receiving the highly sought-after title of Worst Movie Ever Made by many. While the tale itself – wherein a doomed family of three, along with their poor poodle, take a wrong turn and find themselves in an inescapable hell at the merciless clutches of a remote desert cult – is the kind of thing better B movies are made of (and, sadly, in some instances, real life horrors), its execution is far from perfect.
Instead, Manos: The Hands of Fate comes across as a venerable ode to filmmaking incompetence. Actors who either cannot act or overact. Editing straight out of a novice continuity girl’s worst nightmare (the entire 70min feature was said to have been put together in a record-breaking four-hour session). Night-for-night shots that seem to attract more moths to the limited lighting than action. And who could overlook that dear, sweet, lovable satyr-ish caretaker? Or that incredible (for lack of a crueler word) jazz score? All of these discrepancies and more await those who seek out Valley Lodge, only to find a remote farmhouse that serves as the entrance to regional horror movie hell itself – in a production shot entirely without sound (which was dubbed in later by four actors) on a temperamental wind-up 16mm camera.
Hal Warren himself takes on the role as the misguided patriarch of the doomed family unit, paired with a local lovely named Diane Mahree (Adelson) and six-year-old Jackey Neyman. Neyman’s own patriarch, artist/stage actor John Neyman, took on the part of the film’s top-billed antagonist, known simply as The Master, clad in a shiny black robe with big red hands on it. While his hopelessly undirected performance is a joy to behold for any bad movie lover, his part is infinitely upstaged whenever his inept, deformed freak of a caretaker – Torgo – appears. Played by an oft-hallucinating actor named John Reynolds (who sadly, committed suicide shortly before the movie was released), Torgo is perhaps the film’s biggest saving grace (if that’s a phrase I can even coin here).
In fact, one local movie critic jokingly referred to Torgo’s character as the hero in a less-than-positive review when Manos: The Hands of Fate made its initial, short-lived debut into the world of film. The movie quickly disappeared thereafter, making the occasional cameo appearance on the bottom end of a double or triple feature bill at drive-in theaters across the South until it – much like Torgo himself – exited stage left and was never seen again. More than twenty-five years later, a faded print of the film wound up in the hands of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Frank Conniff – who instantly recognized they had a pile of pure golden fecal matter before them that was positively begging for riffing.
Sure enough, thanks to its appearance on MST3K, Hal Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate soon began to find an audience. The film about a cult found its cult at long last. But the road to victory was still just as hard to navigate as the route to Valley Lodge. Hal Warren had passed away in 1985, and it was long thought that the original elements for Manos were either destroyed or lost. In 2011, however, a Florida State film school graduate named Ben Solovey had unknowingly stumbled upon the original workprint materials of the movie in a collection of reels he had acquired, and promptly initiated a Kickstarter fundraiser to properly restore one of the very worst movies ever made for future generations to endure.
And it is thanks to Mr. Solovey’s discovery and subsequent effort that Manos: The Hands of Fate has made its triumphant return to the world, nearly fifty years since it was first released upon an unsuspecting public in El Paso, Texas. The 16mm feature has been scanned in 2k resolution (any higher and the film would look even rougher than it already does – and it does!) and substantially cleaned up of many fingerprints and other unsightly bits of debris (Mr. Solovey comments that the print looked like it had been hit by a truck in an included special feature about the restoration), while such in-camera artifacts like hairs in the shutter, grain and natural scratches have been left as-is. Manos is not the kind of film you can sanitize – in any sense – so the decision to not digitally restore it is a move even The Master would approve of.
All previous releases of the film had been struck from worn-out, cropped, murky television copies (leading to Joel Hodgson’s famous Mystery Science Theater 3000 quip, “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photo!”). Solovey’s workprint (which is almost synonymous with “Zapruder’s film”) presents Manos: The Hands of Fate in an entirely new light. Oh, sure, it’s still hard to watch – because it’s still a bad movie, no matter what – but the restored image is as close to perfect as this movie will ever be. For starters, the film finally has some color to it. Fleshtones – ranging from “she is wearing too much stage makeup” to “Hal spent too much time out in the sun” – are visible, as are numerous other things we would have never noticed in old prints (note the blue jeans The Master is wearing beneath his cloak).
The soundtrack – also notorious for its indiscernible moments of muddled madness, to say nothing of the fact that all of the film’s dialogue was dubbed in by several actors confined to a studio) – has also been restored from various elements. Of major note here is the restored (apparently improvised) soundtrack, highlighted by the haunting end theme, “Forgetting You” by vocalist Nicki Mathis, which actually sounds goodnow for some reason. Synapse Films have gone the extra mile by including much-needed subtitles in English and Spanish (fitting, considering “manos” is the Spanish word for “hands” – although, in the case of this story, it is the name of the demonic deity The Master and his undead clan serve). These captions come in particularly handy, as many of the dubbed-in voices often prove as unclear as the film’s plot.
Those of you who are uncertain as to what the buzz is about will soon see things differently when you take a look at Synapse Films’ included “Grindhouse Version” of the feature film, which shows the film in an unrestored state. It’s like night and day, believe me. Several featurettes are also included on this dynamic Blu-ray release, including a fascinating mini-documentary (Hands: The Fate of “Manos”) from Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, the same outfit that produces special features for Shout! Factory’s MST3K DVDs. This featurette includes interviews with many surviving cast and crew – including Tom Neyman and his daughter, Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones – and is sort-of hosted by Ben Solovey.
Mr. Solovey returns in a short interview about the restoration process. There’s a lot of technical talk involved here, and anyone looking for a simple before and after look should just watch the Grindhouse Version (duh). An even shorter chat with the creator of a musical puppet version (“Manos: The Hands of Felt,” straight from good ol’ hipster Seattle, Washington) is also included, but doesn’t capture much of the show itself (which I would have preferred to see). Lastly, The Master himself, Tom Neyman, joins his real-life daughter Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones for an audio commentary of the restored feature film. While said commentary could have used a moderator, it still makes for an interesting listen, and the more diehard fans of the flick will surely revel in the father/daughter duo’s memories.
In the end, Hal Warren did indeed succeed in making his own movie (just for the “hell” of it, as it were), thus winning his wager with Stirling Silliphant. While I’m sure he could not have forseen being bestowed the title of The Director of the Worst Movie Ever Made while he made the picture, though reports indicate he was OK with said honor. Mr. Warren even tried to get another screenplay made shortly thereafter – a piece entitled Wild Desert Bikers – but, for some ungodly reason, no one seemed interested in buying the project after Manos: The Hands of Fate had left its mark around Warren’s throat.
It seems like just yesterday when I flipped over to Comedy Central and simultaneously widened my eyes and jaw as I first lay witness to the moviemaking horrors of Manos: The Hands of Fate on Mystery Science Theater 3000, having only ever read about it in Michael J. Weldon’s must-read The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Ballantine Books, 1983) before that. I simply could not believe what I was seeing, and it took several viewings – even with the mocking commentary of Joel and the ‘bots – to make it through the film.
Now, some twenty-some-odd years later, I once again cannot believe what I am seeing. Sure, Manos: The Hands of Fate is still one hell of a stinky motion picture. But thanks to the efforts of Synapse Films, a Fateful discovery by a young feller named Ben Solovey, and hundreds of masochistic fundraisers who made the restoration of this – a true cult classic – happen, we can all believe that it is, in fact, possible to polish a turd.