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Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate (2016)

The Artistry in Disaster

As a kid, I watched Son of Svengoolie with my dad, and learned what I thought was a profound lesson about the only two kinds of movies in this world:

1. The ones that played in movie theatres

2. The schlock-of-the-week that popped up on TV shows like this, in which wacky hosts made bad films better by telling jokes over them.

In my teens, Tim Burton's Ed Wood shifted my perspective. I'd assumed that the guy behind big-screen studio weirdness like Beetlejuice and Batman would turn the storied production of Wood's sci-fi flop, Plan 9 From Outer Space, into a farce. True, Burton played a lot of the material for laughs, but by peeling back the onion of Wood's struggles so thoroughly, he created a seminal and sincere piece of art about what it means to be an artist.

Around this time, an employee at HBO Downtown discovered a VHS tape of a long-lost film that had only screened once, in an El Paso, Texas theatre in 1966. Manos: The Hands of Fate was, at the time, an obscure, nothing picture, forgotten by time and neglected by those who'd worked on it. The tape made it to the offices of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of MST3K's most enduring episodes, the Manos critique showed the film to be almost unwatchable, even with witty commentary from stranded space travelers Joel Hodgson, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. A cult following was born, and the film seeped into the pop psyche, thanks to bizarre characters like Tom Neyman's The Master and his awkward, dirty servant, Torgo (John Reynolds).

Jackey Neyman Jones and Laura Mazzuca Toops' Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate gave me another Ed Wood moment: Until I was invited to review the new making-of book, I'd never seen the movie on which it was based. I made up for this glaring oversight by watching Manos twice in a month--once before reading the book, and once after; the first time without the MST3K accompaniment, the second time with it. At the end of this experiment, I had a whole new appreciation for the film.

Growing Up with Manos is Neyman Jones' episodic account of acting in the film as a six-year-old girl; of reconnecting with the film decades later; and of mending her strained relationship with her father, “Master” Tom Neyman.

Neyman Jones and Mazzuca Toops open their story with Jackey's account of a frantic 1993 phone call from her dad, who'd happened to catch Manos on Mystery Science Theater late one night. Like everyone else, the Neymans had assumed the film was lost to time, but there it was, resuscitated by the airwaves and breathing strange, new life. The authors bookend the story in 2015, nearly twenty years into a bona fide pop subculture that has spawned tribute songs, plays, a video game, and a lawsuit over who has the rights to make a sequel.

The journey from Point A to Point B began with the relationship between businessman Harold P. “Hal” Warren and artist Tom Neyman. Warren fancied himself a mover and a shaker, with tenuous connections to Hollywood. He saw El Paso as an untapped creative community, bursting with the potential to become a new entertainment hub between coasts. Warren recruited Neyman and his colleagues from El Paso's Festival Theatre to help him make a movie, promising mathematically untenable back-end percentages and a calling card for their beloved community.

The Neymans forged the lion’s share of Warren's dream. Tom and his wife (also named Jackey), had created a progressive artistic paradise in their home, raising their daughter to appreciate acting, jazz, and mixed visual media. Warren talked the agreeable family into starring in his film, decorating the sets, designing and creating the costumes and props, and even lending their dog to the production. It was clear early on that Warren’s filmmaking skills were questionable at best. But he was so persuasive (and the promise of greater things for El Paso was so seductive) that the fictitious story of a con man building a wall of unquestioning human souls to insulate himself against a (justifiably) skeptical world became a reality.

The authors intercut the main storyline with nice little detours exploring how practically everyone on the film crew wandered into Warren's bizarre sphere of influence. Some are funny, some are probably amusing asides in the subjects' otherwise typical lives, but John Reynolds’ story underscores what is so damned special about Growing Up with Manos.

Reynolds was known in El Paso as a serious young actor and a troubled, gentle soul. Neyman Jones recounts her strong impressions of him as a giving person who treated the six-year-old girl on set with as much respect as his adult co-stars. As a character, and as a performance, Torgo is so utterly strange that it’s unclear how much of Reynold’s infamous stuttering, fidgety creepiness was his own creation, versus the result of poor direction and writing on Warren’s part. Only those that knew Reynolds would be able to say for sure, as Manos was the actor’s first and last film role. He committed suicide one month before it premiered.

This tragedy proved to be one of three ominous indicators that Manos would not be the big break everyone had hoped for. Between Reynold’s death, a disastrous rough-cut screening at Warren’s home, and a premiere event that could only have been made worse (or better) by a four-alarm fire, Growing Up with Manos expertly takes us from one one gut-punch to the next to the next. There's real drama here, real heartbreak, as a once vibrant creative community realizes their folly too late. The real-life Master's spell lifts abruptly, leaving them momentarily blank-eyed.

I appreciated Manos more after reading Growing Up with Manos. The added context doesn’t improve Hal Warren's misguided and shoddy film, but knowing how much sincerity went into the production makes it impossible to dismiss. Neyman Jones and Mazzuca Toops’ book is sincere, too, as well as purposeful, moving, and revelatory. Someone should make a movie out of it.

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