Thursday 21 January 2010

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Director: Harold P Warren
Stars: Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree and Hal Warren
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Ask any random moviegoer what the worst film of all time is and they'll generally throw back Plan 9 from Outer Space because they just don't know any better. It has to be the mostly widely seen really bad movie of its era, it features more outré celebrities than any John Waters movie ever made and it got special attention in the high profile Tim Burton/Johnny Depp biopic of its director, Ed Wood, so it's simply the easiest choice. Ask people who actually know about the really bad films, though, people like the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and films that make Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Citizen Kane (well not quite but you get the picture), and they'll come up with a whole bunch of other suggestions. The one that tends to sink through all the dross to the very very bottom is this one, Manos: The Hands of Fate. It's supposed to be a horror movie but Quentin Tarantino, who owns what may be the only 35mm print of the film, calls it his favourite comedy of all time. Now I've finally seen it, I can understand why.

Manos is a man's man movie in every way, right down to owing its very existence to a bet, one conjured up between a fertiliser salesman (or insurance agent, depending on the source) and a Hollywood screenwriter, in El Paso scouting for locations. The fertiliser salesman, Harold P Warren, won the bet because he successfully completed a film, this one, but the screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, surely had the last laugh given that his name is on films like Village of the Damned, In the Heat of the Night and The Towering Inferno, while Warren's will only ever be on this. He did pitch a second script, Wild Desert Bikers, but after Manos nobody would touch him with a ten foot pole. This was the kiss of death for everyone involved, in at least one case literally.

Warren raised an estimated $19,000, which isn't a heck of a lot to begin with but as he didn't have a single clue about how to make a movie the most stunning thing about it is that it actually exists, that there is a finished product, however bad. The most obvious way he had to cut costs was to become the writer, producer and director and also cast himself in the lead role of Mike. The second was to not pay anyone, promising them instead a share in the film's profits, which naturally never materialised. To be fair, the little girl got a bicycle out of it and the Doberman got a big bag of dog food, but that hardly counts, right? The third was to dispense with any opening credits, so we're thrown right into the action or lack of it, given that it's Mike and his family lost and either unable or unwilling to ask for directions to the Valley Lodge by toughing it out and not asking anyone, even the cops who pull them over for making a bad movie, I mean for having a broken taillight. We watch Mike drive around for a while, as the non-existent credits don't roll, passing the time by singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat until they find a sign for the place and drive straight into the Twilight Zone and cinematic history.

If the existence of the film isn't enough to tell us that Mike, his wife Margaret and their little girl Debbie are heading for trouble, we have a couple of very old teenagers necking in their car to underline it for us. 'I wonder where they're going?' says Girl Teenager in Car. 'Man, like there's nothing up that road,' adds Boy Teenager in Car. Apparently this girl was going to have more of a substantial role but actress Joyce Molleur, who is also uncredited for stunts, broke her leg during filming so ended up stuck in this car throughout. As Bernie Rosenblum, uncredited as the stunt coordinator, promptly got hired to smooch with her throughout, conspiracy theories wouldn't be difficult to conjure up. He was also the key grip on the film so those conspiracy theories could easily be combined with risqué jokes. Stranger things have happened and, well, they mostly happened on this film.

Anyway, Mike, who even tells his family that he's never got them lost before, promptly gets them lost. There's absolutely nothing on this road in the slightest, so after getting to a dead end and turning round they immediately stop at the house that's apparently just appeared out of the ether. Yes, you read that right and Warren knows how dumb that is too because he even wrote a line of dialogue to apparently explain the gaping plot hole. 'Where did this place come from?' Mike asks. 'It wasn't here a few minutes ago.' His wife simply answers, 'I don't care,' and that's all we need to know, apparently. You can turn off your sense of logic now. That would help. Perhaps this isn't a regular holiday, it's really an acid trip to the countryside, thus explaining why they arrive at the headquarters of the local polygamous demon worshipping cult instead of the local Holiday Inn.

Up till now the film has been bad, really bad, but it's about to take a legendary turn for the worse. 'I'm Torgo,' says the freaky guy on the porch, 'I take care of the place while the Master is away.' Torgo is probably the single most amazing character in the history of bad cinema. It isn't the beard or the shredded hat or the iron staff with a hand on it. It's the fact that we can utterly believe the rumours suggesting that actor John Reynolds was strung out on LSD throughout the shoot. He continually repeats himself. He answers questions that haven't been asked. He continually repeats himself. The camera lingers on him while he shivers around like he's fighting the worst case of ADHD in history or using an army of fire ants to irrigate his colon. He can't even walk, instead hobbling around like he's auditioning for a paraplegic performance of Riverdance and the story behind this may just be the saddest one ever written.

Reynolds was a local theatre actor in El Paso who went the whole hog on his debut film role, as far as Lon Chaney ever did. Torgo is apparently a satyr, half man and half goat, and to be believable as such Reynolds built a metal harness for his legs and perhaps even a pair of hooves. The resulting prosthesis was highly painful and led to him being addicted to painkillers until he committed suicide six months later. If that wasn't sad enough, there isn't a single shot in this film that shows anything more than freaky fat legs, the hooves are never visible and nobody ever mentions that Torgo is a satyr, so effectively an actor tortured himself into agony and suicide for precisely nothing.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, quite literally as the film was shot on the ranch of Colbert Coldwell, an apparently slouchy El Paso judge, Harold P Warren is having fun with his Bell & Howell 16mm camera, which had to be manually wound and only allowed 32 second shots. Warren didn't want to waste a second, so many scenes contain perhaps five seconds of story within 32 seconds of footage. A great example is when Mike literally invites himself into the Master's house. He's a pushy character, but he's played by the director so naturally he gets whatever he wants, but before agreeing Torgo has to think about it for 32 seconds, squirming uncomfortably all the while in the blazing sun that constitutes night in Manos. Inside Torgo tries it on with Margaret and we watch his wavering hand get closer and closer to her while she stands there waiting and waiting. For 32 seconds.

Another great example comes inside the ranch where we meet the Master and his dog in pictorial form. We must get 32 seconds to look at this painting, in which the Master looks like Frank Zappa and his dog looks sinister. 'Sinister isn't descriptive enough,' says Margaret, but what's really sinister is that we get another 32 seconds of Mike and Margaret looking at the picture. I'm sure you can imagine how fascinating it is to watch two characters look at a painting, but that's what we get. It's so fascinating that it even sends poor little Debbie to sleep, even though some bizarre animal starts moaning loudly in the desert. Ah no, that's just a continuity error, because she's awake in the next shot. She can't make up her mind. I swear blind that one scene has her surreptitiously run back over to the couch to lie down because she suddenly remembers she's supposed to be asleep. Then she's back awake again. She's like the magic box in The Room.
I really don't want to spoil this film for you, because it goes beyond surreal to unreal, but it's the most magnetic piece of utter garbage I think I've ever seen, possibly because it's the ultimate auteur experience, almost literally the outpouring of Harold Warren's brain onto film. There's so much depth here but never in anything remotely like the right way, so we're stunned into submission by what made this man tick. Remember those scenes in Ed Wood where Wood refused a second take because nobody would notice whatever calamity had just taken place? Warren refused second takes too but rather than pretend that it's all OK, he told his cast and crew that all would be made right in post production through the magic of Hollywood. I honestly think he believed it too. And yet that only explains a fraction of what we see.

I think Mike and Margaret are the reason that the counterculture happened. Mike is the tough all American alpha male, in charge even at someone else's house, always sure of what to do and where to go, coming up with concepts like, 'We'll hide in the desert. Someone will help!' Even when Torgo knocks him silly with his staff and ties him up, he shows how tough he is because he can escape from his bonds by merely standing up! It's his sheer awesomeness that prompts Torgo to leave his gun and flashlight right next to him, switched on no less. When little Debbie vanishes he only has to stand still and call her name for her to reappear, and then he pulls a gun on her! What a man!

Meanwhile Margaret is an utter waste of space, unable even to open the door when her husband comes to rescue her from her room. She falls over every five yards in the desert because she won't take off her high heels and she pleads with her husband to leave her behind and save their daughter instead. She's so decisive that it doesn't take her long to give up even on escape. 'Let's go back. They'll never think of looking for us at the house!' she decides. You can tell that she'd be awesome with a spatula in her hand or an egg whisk or a rolling pin, because a woman's place is in the kitchen not in Manos: The Hands of Fate. And in Warren's kitchen, only the men wield the knives.

If Mike and Margaret are the old way, perhaps the Master and his six wives are supposed to be the new way, living in some sort of occult commune setup where polygamy is fine and the women paralyse themselves when the Master goes to sleep on his stone slab. The Master is played by Tom Neyman, top credited even though he doesn't turn up for half the film, perhaps because he also built the sets, painted the Master's portrait and sculpted the iron hands that appear on the mantelpiece. He provided the sinister Doberman too and is also Debbie's real life father, though she probably hated him for life after putting her into this debacle.

Apparently young Jackey Neyman cried when she heard her dubbed voice for the first time, because Warren's camera didn't record sound and so he dubbed in the voices later. That's pretty standard but for some reason he only used three people for the dubbing, two men and one woman, so characters like Debbie and Girl Teenager in Car sound inhuman and male characters talk to each other in precisely the same voice. When the cop talks to Mike at the beginning, the two sides of the conversation are merged into one stream of consciousness monologue and it takes us a while to work out what's actually happening.

If we'd waited for Tom Neyman to see some real acting, we'd wasted our time. When he finally wakes up and starts spouting gibberish in his expanse of a black gown with huge red hands painted on it, he looks less like Frank Zappa and more like a tribute to the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. He's so powerful a Master that he can browbeat Torgo into submission by merely looking at him for that inevitable 32 second shot, but he can't deal with even one of his wives, let alone all six of them. If Mike and Margaret were the old American way, the Master is the failure of the counterculture to come up with meaningful change. He has six wives, plucked from the local model agency no less, and yet he's nothing but henpecked.

The lead wife is actually the best actress in the film, but she and her fellow wives turn out to be a bickering hen party who wear modern underwear under their flimsy and translucent white gowns and spend most of their awake time wrestling in the sand, randomly changing partners like they're being called in a square dance. 'This foolishness must stop!' the Master shouts at them, but he's presumably talking less about how much Manos will be upset at them and more about how Hal Warren could make a six girl catfight boring. The ripping of diaphonous gowns is what this movie needed, but these wives have flimsy clothing that doesn't even get dirty let alone rip.

I was so stunned by this film that I watched it twice. Then I watched the MST3K version. I still don't understand how Warren could have so much tenacity as to see this thing through and get the picture to a theatre. He even had balls big enough to invite the VIPs of El Paso to the premiere, the mayor and the alderman and the chief of police. The only reference point I have is Joe Queenan's book, The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card, in which he succeeded only to the same degree that Warren did: to actually complete the thing. He failed to meet the budget and he failed to make something worth watching, so much so that he refuses to let his film, Twelve Steps to Death, be seen by anyone else. I get the impression it's something like this.

Manos is legendary for making what seems like every mistake in the book, something also Queenan tried and failed to avoid. Warren shot his night scenes at night, which meant that nobody could see anything, least of all us. There's one amazing scene where two cops begin into the desert after hearing a shot only to promptly turn back after two steps because they can't see enough to put one foot in front of the other. Warren assumed that things that can sound gripping on paper would look gripping on film and this movie is the ultimate proof that he was wrong. People being engrossed by a painting could read well, but watching people look at a painting is utterly boring. The Master dominating Torgo with his eyes sounds cool but it looks like two people looking at each other really hard.

And at the end of the day we have no idea what anything means. In a film that translates from Spanish as The Hands: The Hands of Fate, we have no idea what either hands or fate has to do with anything. Who is Manos? Is he really a deity who requires his followers to commit every cliché in the book. Peals of maniacal laughter? Check. Wild staring eyes? Check. Title card at the end that reads 'The End?' Check. Yes, that's right. Perhaps it isn't the end. Perhaps there's room for a sequel. Perhaps people like David Hayes, Jeff Dolniak and Kevin Moyers have one in their sights. What could be better to follow a sequel to The Beast of Yucca Flats than a sequel to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Can I be Torgo? Please? Just as long as I don't have to wear metal satyr rigging under my trousers. We can afford CGI, right? I don't want to die...

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