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Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Fate Accompli

Why review Manos: The Hands of Fate? Why even watch it without the hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary playing over its interminable seventy minutes? The answer depends on whether or not you consider movies to be disposable entertainment, or an art form whose failures are just as important as its successes.

I watched Manos twice in a month. I went in straight the first time through: no commentary, no booze, no support group of joking friends. For my second viewing, I turned on the MST3K riff, and was joined by my wife, who busted out her phone after ten minutes, but was polite enough to stick around for the duration. This go-round felt longer than the first, thanks mostly to Joel Hodgson's running gag about the lack of activity in the film's opening scene. Had I really sat still for eight minutes while watching a convertible drove through Texas?

Despite Manos' pop status as the "Worst Movie Ever Made" it has stiff competition in Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, and Troll 2. It may be the worst of the three, which is to say, the most boring. But all four share flimsy stories, clumsy execution, and confused performances made comical by lousy dubbing. They also share a key component that knocks any of them out of the "Terrible" or "Worst" movie discussions: passion.

Yes, passion counts for a lot, and in Manos' case especially, one cannot discount writer/director/star Hal Warren's sincerity in trying to make a good movie. His premise is grounded in classic horror literature, and the film appears to have found some spiritual successors in later genre pictures: while on a road trip through the south, a family stops at a mysterious inn for the night. An awkward, creepy caretaker named Torgo (John Reynolds) welcomes the doofus husband (Warren), attractive wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree), their young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman), and their dog. As the evening progresses, we learn that Torgo serves the nocturnal, spell-casting Master (Tom Neyman), who in turn worships the titular dark god Manos. The Hands of Fate becomes an epic conflict between The Master, who wants to add Margaret to his collection of undead wives; Torgo, who wants her for himself; and the unwitting family, who just wants to get back on the road.

Look to any big-screen iteration of Dracula or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and you'll see a worthwhile execution of the material. In Warren's hands, though, Manos devolves into long takes between actors experimenting with clashing styles; a ten-minute wrestling match between catty servants in nightgowns; and characters hurriedly walking through the same two small sets, due to a lack of locations in which to film the "action".

In between these taxing stretches are some deliciously bizarre nuggets of performance, which helped Manos earn its reputation as a go-to trainwreck. Reynolds' Torgo is a genuinely bizarre creation. With his bulky minotaur pants, staccato line readings, and a wardrobe best described as "prospector transplant", he creates the film's most memorable character. His seduction scenes with Mahree (who looks like a young Katharine Ross) are icky and funny and sad. Had Warren kept up the skin-crawling weirdness of Torgo caressing Margaret's hair, Manos might have become a different kind of cult classic.

As it stands, the movie offers too few such flashes of unintentional brilliance. Instead, we're left with The Master skulking and sulking in a black robe emblazoned with giant red hands, cursing people while wearing what might as well be flip-flops. We're left with bickering models pretending to be actresses pretending to be characters engaged in a power struggle. We're left with a film that refuses to end, no matter how much we masochists scream or cry or hover over the Fast Forward button.

Still, Manos is not the worst film ever made. Not even close. This isn't even the worst film I've seen this decade. That honor belongs to Sexsquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek. Both are, in their own ways, unwatchable, especially for the unadventurous moviegoer, who expects at least some level of mainstream competence each time out. The key difference, again, is passion. Hal Warren understood his limitations as a storyteller and as a filmmaker, but he rallied a cast and crew to make something that they could be proud of (or at least be of high enough quality to lead to other projects). The end result is a flawed work of art, to be sure, but there's nothing in the finished product to suggest it was a goof.

The people behind Sexsquatch set out to commit something to film, which they could then sell to the kind of LCD audience that might blind-buy it in the hopes of seeing boobs, blood, or both--maybe a good poop joke and a "retard" gag (or four). There's not an ounce of sincerity in the production; it's all silly wigs and foul language delivered through wacky Nickelodeon accents, and may very well have been filmed on a dare, over a long weekend at someone's summer house.

Before this era of deliberately bad filmmaking, one might have made a case for Manos: The Hands of Fate claiming a spot at the top of the heap. But we have a new standard now, a seemingly endless supply of Sharknados and Birdemics and WolfCops that seek to cash in on nostalgia for less sophisticated movies without understanding the value in the films they're aping. Hal Warren, Tommy Wiseau, Ed Wood, Claudio Fragasso--they all wanted to make the best of their limited abilities and resources. Modern DIY filmmakers have production studios and distribution channels in their back pockets, yet many get so caught up in homages and irony that it's hard for sincerity to even tread water. That's the worst. 

*Not to mention a bizarre set of double-eyebrows--one bushy, one manicured.

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