"Manos" The Hands of Fate (1966) (part 1 of 7)
You will hear the term “worst movie ever made” bandied about by many different people to describe many different movies. For a long period of time, it was fashionable to say that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space was the “worst movie ever made”. And so it seemed to many, until a program called Mystery Science Theater 3000 took to the airwaves (or, rather, the coaxial cable-ways) in the early 90’s and rendered that designation wholly irrelevant. Bad movie connoisseurs quickly realized just how competently directed Plan 9 really was in comparison to the work of cinematic criminals like Coleman Francis, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Bill Rebane, or Arch Hall, Sr. However, there is one director featured on MST3k whose name would come to epitomize torture caught on celluloid far more than any of those mentioned above.
That name, of course, is Harold “Hal” Warren. In 1966, Warren (up until then a fertilizer salesman in El Paso) wrote, directed, and starred in “Manos” The Hands of Fate, a film that would come to be the yardstick by which all bad movies are measured. This feat becomes all the more astonishing when one learns that it was his first (and only) directorial effort. The sheer incompetence of this film, coupled with the ninety minutes of glory that Joel and the ‘Bots would ultimately visit upon it on MST3k was more than enough to forever wrest the title of “worst movie ever made” from anything in the Ed Wood oeuvre.
(To clear up a minor point: There exists some confusion out there as to what the title of this movie really is. Some will call it Manos, the Hands of Fate, Manos: the Hands of Fate, or even Manos: Hands of Fate, but upon careful examination of the title frame captured above, I can now say with complete certainty that this movie is in fact titled “Manos” The Hands of Fate, complete with nonsensical quotation marks. So, do those mean the film is only about “Manos” in a sarcastic sense?)
Given the movie’s sheer awfulness, the appearance of “Manos” on MST3k naturally generated a lot of subsequent interest, leading a correspondent for the fanzine Mimosa to host a Q&A session with two former cast and crew members. The entire event was summarized in this 1996 article that I highly recommend you read, as it provides a rare insight into how movies that never should have been made in the first place end up getting made anyway.
If you don’t have time to read the in-depth account, here’s the short version: Sometime in the mid 1960’s, Hal Warren met Stirling Silliphant, who was visiting El Paso to scout out film locations (Silliphant would later go on to write screenplays for real films like In the Heat of the Night and The Towering Inferno, and not-so-real films like The Swarm). After several conversations with Silliphant, Hal Warren somehow got it into his head that he could make a movie just as well as anybody in Hollywood. After pounding out a script (tentatively called The Lodge of Sins), he rounded up a few college kids to be his crew, then got some actors from the local community theater and a few models from a nearby agency to be his cast. (Say what you want about ol’ Hal, but he must have been a hell of a salesman to convince so many others that he could really do this.)
Finally, he secured a camera and got down to business. The camera that Hal used, unfortunately, was a 16mm Bell & Howell model that had to be wound by hand, meaning it could only record film for roughly thirty seconds at a time. (This is the reason for most, though not all, of the choppy editing work you’ll see in the film.) In addition, it couldn’t record sound; Therefore, all dialogue and sound effects were dubbed in later. (It’s said that nearly all of the voices you hear in this movie were provided by the same three or four people.)
In spite of all of this, Hal somehow managed to get “Manos” booked in an actual El Paso theater, and it even got a fair amount of coverage in the local press leading up to its premiere. However, at the first showing, nonstop audience laughter prompted the cast and crew to sneak out halfway through. And after an almost non-existent theatrical run, this movie was promptly consigned to the compost heap of obscurity, where it languished for decades before finally being resurrected by MST3k.
This raises the question, however: Is it really the worst movie ever made? Those who disagree still have to admit that the movie is incompetent on a level rarely seen in an actual theater. (I add the “actual theater” qualifier because I’m sure that somewhere, somehow, there’s got to be a home movie or two that are more ineptly made than this.) Every possible mistake you can make in a movie is on display here, plus a few new ones that Hal seems to have invented all by himself.
For one thing, the editing is simply an abomination; Throughout the movie, there will be constant, unexplained gaps of silence where absolutely no one talks and nothing is happening. For another, there was no attempt by anyone to make sure this film maintained basic shot-to-shot continuity—Absolutely none! If a character has his or her arms raised in one shot, they will be down at the sides in the next shot. If a character is facing one way in a shot, they will be facing the other way in the next shot. In this review, I can unfortunately only take note of the most egregious continuity lapses. If I listed them all, this piece would be about ten times longer than it already is. So let me just put it this way: This movie will make you pine for the technical prowess of Eegah or The Beast of Yucca Flats.
The film opens on a shot of a family of three (father, mother, and daughter) sitting in a convertible. Apparently, the whole “driving and talking” thing was a little beyond the technical adroitness of this crew, because for no reason whatsoever, the family’s parked on a hill somewhere to deliver their dialogue. Setting the tone for things to come, this supposed “horror” film features music in the background that we can safely assume has been stolen from a grocery store Muzak system.
The young daughter is antsy because she’s getting cold and hungry. The mother assures her that they’ll be getting to their destination soon. Just then, a black poodle pops up into the frame. In the next shot, the poodle has magically jumped into the child’s arms, and we see the girl get a look on her face like she doesn’t know what the hell this thing is.
We then cut to Dad (played by auteur Hal Warren) telling his wife that they should be close to their destination. The wife nags him that he should have gotten better directions, prompting Dad to yell, “Listen, I’ve never gotten us lost before!” in a way that makes you wonder if he’s about to whip out his belt and slip into a sleeveless white undershirt.
After ten seconds of dead silence, it looks like Dad is about to say something else. Instead, we cut to the little girl again complaining about being cold. Dad is about to put the top up, but Mom, apparently not wanting to set Dad off again, suggests that the girl climb up front and sit between them instead. This leads to a thrilling twenty-second shot of the daughter climbing over the front seat. Once she’s up there, Mom thinks that they should “sing a song to pass the time!” (This will soon prove to be extremely helpful advice for everyone in the audience.)
Mom then starts with a rendition of “Row, Row Your Boat”, and Dad soon joins in with his flat, awkward baritone. To make matters worse, he staggers his vocal, leading to one of the most deplorable instances of singing in “rounds” ever caught on film (edged out ever so slightly by a similar scene in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). Adding to the misery is that this entire sequence is shot with the camera focused on the back of the wife’s head. As the two intone that “life is but a dream”, my hopes were briefly raised that I’d be waking up soon. Instead, they continue singing for about fifteen seconds until Dad backs his car out of the shot.
And with that taut little opening scene, we’re off and running. (Actually, we’re off and stumbling, wheezing, and collapsing to the ground.) We see the family’s convertible heading down an isolated country road and the title of the movie is flashed on-screen. We then get a defining example of this film’s cinematography as the camera violently jerks sideways two or three times to keep the car in the frame. (Which is more reminiscent of security camera footage from a department store than anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.) As the car gets closer, we see a sheriff’s deputy is following close behind, and eventually the family gets pulled over. Apparently, the guy who did the sound effects was jealous of the camera operator’s gross incompetence, because he waits until the two cars are practically stopped before finally dubbing in a siren.
A deputy wearing a cowboy hat jumps out and walks up to the car. This is our first indication that, in the grand tradition of movies like Rope or High Noon, this thing seems to be shot in real time, because not one second of the deputy walking up to the convertible is left out. He tells Dad that he has a “tail light problem”, and proceeds to lecture him for quite a while about it. He then starts writing Dad a ticket, but I have to wonder what name he’s putting on there because he didn’t ask to see a license. Or is this a formality that small-town sheriffs usually dispense with? Suddenly, Dad engineers a crafty plan to escape citation:
|Dad: Can’t you give us a break, officer?
Deputy: [thinks about it for two or three nanoseconds.] Well, alright.
Pretty sneaky, sis! Before letting them go, however, the deputy sleepily lectures them some more about the tail light, sounding a lot like Claude Akins playing Sheriff Lobo playing a guy strung out on Vicodin. Eventually, though, the family is back on the road, treating us to a lengthy view through the car window of some of the butt-ugliest scenery footage ever filmed. Compounding the pain is when the movie teases you by fading out in the middle of the scenery footage, only to fade back into—surprise!—more butt-ugly scenery footage!
Finally, they come to a sign that says “Valley Lodge”, and this moment is accompanied by a piercing piano glissando on the soundtrack. A few seconds later, we hear a singer who could be Shirley Bassey’s crackbaby start crooning a jazzy number. The car turns at the Valley Lodge sign, and this is followed by… more ugly scenery! To be fair, this time the scenery is moving from left to right, instead of vice versa. If that doesn’t scream auteur, I don’t know what does.
As the scene (and I use that term loosely) progresses, the singer’s awful warbling almost completely covers up some expository dialogue from the wife where we learn the husband’s name is Mike and the daughter’s name is Debbie. Meanwhile, another twenty seconds of flat, barren wasteland rolls past the camera.
Suddenly, there’s an abrupt cut to an uptempo Sergio Mendes-style number as we focus on two kids making out in a convertible. (For reasons I can’t quite discern, everybody in this movie drives a convertible.) We find that even though they’re out in broad daylight, they haven’t bothered to put the top up before they start making out. Ain’t no shame in their game, I guess.
The guy momentarily stops so that he can pull out what I think is supposed to be booze, but appears to be a bottle of cough syrup. The girl takes a swig, then attempts to bogart the Robitussin by gulping down two more swallows. Apparently, the taste of Vicks 44D doesn’t appeal to her, because she makes a weird face. Then the boyfriend takes a swig and his eyes spring wide open. (The jazzy number in the background, by the way, is titled “Baby Do a Thing with Me”, but it doesn’t say how much NyQuil it will take to get her to do it.)
Make Out Guy puts the bottle down and they go back to making out for another twenty seconds, in which time a car zooms past them. Since we only see a small blur up near the top of the frame, it takes a while for it to sink in that this is supposed to be Mike and family heading for Valley Lodge. It’s so far out of the shot that I initially thought it was just normal traffic accidentally caught during filming.
Ten seconds later, Make Out Girl eventually reacts to Mike’s car passing. (This is only because someone off-camera has obviously just reminded her that the car passing was supposed to be her cue.) Unfortunately, she reacts by looking directly into the camera. Hey, you’re acting! You’re not supposed to do that! She then turns around and wonders where the other car is going, jerking her eyeballs around like Susanna Hoffs in the “Walk Like an Egyptian” video. Make Out Guy says, “Man, like, there’s nothing up that road!” Translation: Shut up and go back to making out with me, or I’ll make you drink more vanilla extract.