Editor’s Note: Manos: The Hands of Fate was released on special edition DVD and Blu-ray on October 13th, 2015.
Good-bad movies are a kind of accidental art form. It’s almost impossible to intentionally create a good-bad film; to really work, it’s got to be the result of bad luck, undeserved ego and a complete lack of ability, usually combined with a low budget and pathetically good intentions. Most bad movies are just plain bad, in that they have little redeeming value. They’re dull, impossible to follow and nonsensical, a real trudge to get through, while good-bad films are compelling and entertaining despite their innumerable flaws.
Manos: The Hands of Fate, the 1966 film written, directed, and starring the hilariously incompetent Harold P. Warren, is one of the most infamous of American good-bad films, thanks to being featured on the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993. The idea of MST3K was to show bad films as a host and two robots (puppets, really, but say that to their faces) talked back at the screen in an irreverent style that both skewered and celebrated the art of the bad film. Manos seemed to almost baffle the cast, however, especially when it came to a character named Torgo (John Reynolds), arguably the most adorable psychopath ever featured on film.
The plot of Manos is pure low-budget horror: innocent family gets stranded amongst cultists and terror ensues. When Michael (played by writer-director Warren) tries to take his family to a vacation lodge near El Paso, he becomes lost in a tangle of sagebrush and unpaved roads and ends up at Torgo’s run-down home. The bombastic and clueless Michael insists that Torgo, a woozy, deformed stranger who talks about nothing but an unseen Master, has to put the family up for the night. He reluctantly agrees, but only because he has the hots for Michael’s beautiful wife Margaret, played by a 20-year-old Diane Adelson who looks, maybe, 16 years old, and cannot act worth a damn.
Shots of Michael and Margaret squinting at all of the hand-themed tchotchkes scattered about the house are intercut with shots elsewhere on the property of The Master (Tom Neyman), resplendent in his black, one-size-fits-all kaftan with two enormous blood-red hand prints, and lounging around an altar of indeterminate origin. He’s got a harem of pretty ladies in sheer white togas with red modesty stripes affixed underneath, making them look like they’re in costume as maxi pads with absorbent cores, and because they’re ladies, all they do is catfight and bitch.
It’s easy to get angry at a film like Manos, or more precisely at people like Warren who exploit the time, resources and hopes of others for their own ego-fueled disasters, but there is some sweet satisfaction in the fact that Warren, a man who clearly had a pathological problem with women, accidentally wrote for himself one of the dumbest characters ever to grace the silver screen. Michael is meant to be the sole source of sanity in the film, but thanks to Warren’s ineptitude, instead exhibits more bizarre behavior than the alleged villains of the story do. The Master is in a cult and is doing generic cult-like things, while Torgo is his creepy henchman who does generic creepy henchman things. They’re silly but understandable; they’re played by decent actors and the characters themselves make a kind of sense. But Michael makes no sense at all, not when he is so sure he shouldn’t drive at night despite possessing a car equipped with a working set of headlights, and certainly not when he acts as though it’s completely normal to just invite his whole family (and their little dog, too) into a stranger’s home for the night.
The MST3K audience loved Manos, which back then was only available in a pretty awful print. A few years ago Benjamin Solovey, a cinematographer and videographer who has worked on such films as Cake (2014) and Coherence (2013), stumbled across the workprint for Manos: The Hands of Fate, and set up a Kickstarter to raise funds for the film’s restoration. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer contributed to Solovey’s Kickstarter.)
The restoration has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Synapse Films, and the results are pleasantly surprising. This is a film that was poor quality even when it was new, so there are limits to what painstaking restoration can accomplish. Visually, Manos looks as good as it ever will, despite its frequent lack of focus and some odd color saturation issues that are likely original to the film. There are a few snaps and crackles in the audio, but some of the more famously unintelligible lines are easy to decipher now, and just as you would expect, understanding the dialogue doesn’t improve it one bit. Still, with audio and visual clarity comes a new way to appreciate Manos, or at least gives you more to make fun of, if that’s your thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Included on the restoration is commentary track by Tom Neyman (the Master) and his daughter Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones (Debbie), though Tom has forgotten much about this doomed production. Jackey seems to enjoy the film as much as any other good-bad film aficionado does and provides some of the best commentary. They both also appear in the 30-minute featurette called “Hands: The Fate of Manos,” which features the elusive Diane Adelson (Margaret), a model with an interesting life story and cheerful disposition. Cinematographer Robert Guidry is also on hand to explain many of the mistakes in the film, as is Ben Solovey. Two shorter featurettes on the restoration and a puppet show version of the film are included, though are light on content and presented largely without context.
Manos: The Hands of Fate is the kind of film that causes an audience to ask questions, questions like, “Did I just see a clapboard?” and “What’s with all the moths?” Many of these questions are answered in the extras package, though some of the really juicy stuff — wacky copyright struggles, the man with multiple aliases who scammed his way into a 2012 RiffTrax showing of the film — is skimmed over or omitted altogether. But truly, any film in contention for the honor of worst film ever made is a film that can never be fully explained.