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MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE


MANOS: GRIPPED BY THE HANDS OF FATE

by Dr. Abner Mality


"There is no way out of here. It'll be dark soon. There is no way out of here."-->

FATE guides the destinies of us all. There is no escape from it. Harold P. Warren could not escape his fate anymore than Abraham Lincoln or John the Baptist. It was fate that lead him to be the creator of what many consider the worst movie ever made: "Manos, the Hands of Fate".

Warren was a professional fertilizer salesman and semi-professional local actor in El Paso, Texas when the cast and crew of the popular TV show "Route 66" came to town to film an episode. Warren wound up doing a bit part in the episode and became acquainted with series writer Stirling Silliphant. One day, the two men had a heated discussion about the movie business at a local coffee shop. This is where events were set into motion that would change Warren's life forever.

Warren bet Silliphant that he could make and release his own movie with no more budget than what he had in his bank account. Silliphant accepted the bet and likely sat in amazement as Warren took a napkin and began to immediately sketch the bare bones of a horror movie that would come to be known as "Manos, The Hands of Fate". Looking at the finished product, it's hard to believe that Warren was not at a local dive drinking Everclear when he envisioned the epic that was to define his movie-making career.

Using his connections in the local theater community, Warren put together a small cast. For sex appeal, he got several girls out of a local modeling agency. These would later become the infamous "Master's Wives". Warren had no actual cash to pay his actors, so he promised they would all share in whatever profits "Manos" made. I suspect they may still be waiting, although in the last ten years, the reputation of the movie has grown so enormous that it may have indeed finally made a handsome profit.

Like other notorious "bad" films such as "Mesa of Lost Women", "Beast of Yucca Flats" and "Maniac"(1934), "Manos" is truly impossible to describe on the printed page. It must be seen to be truly experienced, to receive all the odd nuances of the numerous technical goofs, moronic dialogue and surreal breaches in logic. I had the good fortune to see it as part of a 100 movie horror pack from the infamous Mill Creek Entertainment. The actual playing quality of the disc was every bit as shitty as the movie itself...the print was so bad that the shadows actually seemed to glow red, giving a psychedelic solarized quality to the movie. Whereas with 99% of the movies ever made, this would ruin the film, "Manos" is actually enhanced by watching a panned-and-scanned, miserably transfered print.

Nevertheless, I feel I must soldier on and try to render in words what cannot be adequately described..."Manos, the Hands of Fate".

A mournful cocktail lounge refrain plays behind the credits as we see a spiffy convertible driving down country lanes. This musical motif is the theme song of "Manos" and has a certain memorable quality to it. When the credits end, we are introduced to a vacationing family that has become hopelessly lost while looking for the "Valley Lodge". Dad Mike is played by Harold Warren himself, billed as Hal Warren. During the course of the film, Mike gives evidence that he is seemingly brain-injured, as he constantly ignores blatant warnings of danger and barrels into demonic situations with all the mental fortitude of an Alzheimer's patient wandering away from the nursing home. He's an all-American dunderhead...oblivious to almost everything but himself. However, Mike is lucky enough to have a rather hot MILF as his wife, Maggie. Maggie is also no rocket scientist but is a lot more pleasing to look at than Mike, particularly in a later scene where she strips down to undies. At least Maggie seems to recognize the danger and weirdness of what is happening to them. Their little daughter Debbie is a pretty typical brat in danger, whining dialogue like "I'm cold, Mommy!" and "Where's my dog, Daddy?". It's obvious that Debbie's voice is an adult attempting to do a child. Word has it that a grand total of four people did all the voices in the film, which had to be dubbed in during post production. This nuclear family group is completed by Debbie's pet poodle, Peppy.

The opening scenes will test your willpower right away, as we get a lengthy tour of the drab Texas countryside that lasts for a good five minutes. It has been suggested that Warren originally wanted these scenes under the credits, but due to a snafu (one of many), it chewed up time in the actual movie itself. Thanks to the red highlights provided by the miserable Mill Creek transfer, these images of rural and suburban 60's Texas look as inviting as the surface of Mars. The family's car gets pulled over by a couple of hillbilly cops for a broken tail-light. We get an early inkling of how dense Mike is when he gives the fuzz this explanation of why the tail-light is broken: "We're lost, tired and hungry." The cops give them a break and they resume their search for the Valley Lodge.

Taking a turn onto a dirt road, they stumble across a couple furiously playing tongue hockey in another convertible. The girl was one of the model's originally cast to be one of the Master's Wives, but due to a broken leg had to play this role instead. Mike asks the randy couple for directions and is brushed off quickly with a half-hearted stab at guidance. Mike takes their advice and thereby dooms himself and his family to an eternity of torment...

The constant bitching between Mike and Maggie as well as the phony whining of Debbie will bring to mind many unpleasant memories of family trips turned into nightmares. After much insipid and repetitive sniping (repeated dialogue is a key trait of "Manos), finally the family pulls into the driveway of an isolated estate...and that's when things really start to get interesting.

Lost, tired and hungry, the travellers are now confronted by one of the most whacked out and unforgettable characters in the history of psychotronic film. This is Torgo, played by John Reynolds, who gives a performance of such neurotic eccentricity and physical oddness that Dennis Weaver's role as the Night Watchman in "Touch of Evil" seems like bland sleepwalking in comparison. It is really something that you have to see to believe...the poor guy is so convulsed by tics, twitches, shrugs and shuffles that he absolutely gives the impression of somebody from another world. Which, ironically, is what Torgo was originally meant to be, but producer/director Warren never pulled the trigger on the scene which would have revealed Torgo as a satyr in human guise. Suffice to say, Torgo's chief distinguishing characteristics are his hugely swollen thighs and knees, his scruffy beard and his floppy, beat-up hat (which was supposed to conceal his horns). He also carries a gnarled staff which ends in an open hand (surely one of the "hands" of Manos).

Not only is Torgo's physical appearance strange, but his speech pattern is also warped beyond belief. It seems as if he is a Tourette's patient constantly on the verge of an outburst but instead mumbling apologetically for an offense he never committed. Constant repetition is a key trait of Torgo's speech and in these early scenes, he engages in a great exchange with a clueless and befuddled Mike. When Mike asks how to get off the isolated estate where the family finds itself, Torgo blinks and mutters "There is no way out of here. It will be dark soon. There is no way out of here."

Over the whining disapproval of Maggie, Mike asks if it would be possible to stay the night, even though any rational person would run like lightning from somebody as obviously loony as Torgo seems to be. Torgo replies, "The Master would not approve. He does not approve of children." Later, he also adds "The Master would not approve" when he gets a look at Peppy. After bullheaded Mike continues to force the issue, Torgo finally gives in and allows the family to enter the residence. We find out later that he has more than a passing interest in Maggie...as does The Master himself. In a hilarious scene, the crippled Torgo lurches and shuffles with the family's luggage, obviously hamstrung by his enormous knees. His gait rather reminds me of the Cyclops in "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad", but his struggles with the luggage are accompanied by silly cartoon music that seems to have escaped from an episode of "Heckyl and Jeckyl".

Inside, the "mansion" is a rather dingy suburban dwelling typified by tacky decor and dominated by a large painting of a scowling mustached gentleman accompanied by a Doberman pinscher. Maggie is taken aback by the portrait: "Oh Mike, he has the meanest look in his eyes!" This dour character is indeed "The Master" who rules the hellish house in the name of Manos, his god. When further asked about The Master, Torgo supplies more confusing babble. "He is not dead as we know death," he offers."He sleeps but he is here with us always. He is always with us." He also lets Maggie know that the Master thinks she is pretty...and so does Torgo.

The scene is now set. Debbie whines continuously in her phony kid voice, Mike and Maggie argue about how much danger they are in, and Torgo hovers in the background ominously. As night falls, Peppy gets agitated, starts barking and runs out an open door into the night, setting off a calamitous scene. Big dumb Mike runs out to get the poodle, but hears snarling, howling and then a frightened yip. To the relief of all, Peppy has been torn apart...likely by the fierce dog that accompanies The Master in the portrait. Now Maggie really goes overboard and demands that they leave the hellish suburban domain.

Mike agrees and goes outside to start the car... While he does, Torgo puts the moves on creeped out Maggie, who looks more and more attractive as she becomes more frightened. Torgo says that The Master already has enough wives and that he should not mind Maggie being Torgo's own wife. As he says this, he paws through Maggie's hair, causing the spooked MILF to scream and tell Torgo that her husband wouldn't like what she is doing. Torgo says if she doesn't tell Mike, he will protect her from The Master's wrath. At this crucial moment, big dumb Mike returns in a state of ire. The car doesn't start, so the family will be forced to stay the night.

Back out on the road, the clueless cops we encountered earlier blunder onto the amorous couple who are STILL liplocked in their convertible. They limply inquire if the lovebirds saw the family of tourists that were in the area. They admit that they saw them earlier and sent them down the lonely road to the Valley Lodge. The cops then ask the couple to take their foreplay elsewhere, to which the chick replies "Man, you guys are so square! We're not doing anything!" To which the weary older cop replies, "Well, don't do it somewhere else!". This is probably the only deliberately humorous moment in the film.

Back at the Casa del Manos, Debbie has run outside to find her pooch Peppy. I am sure everyone in the audience is praying she will meet the same fate as the poodle...to be torn apart by wild dogs. Naturally, Mike and Maggie are frantic to find the loathsome brat. After several moments of panicked looking around, they find her outside, where she is now accompanied by the fierce looking Doberman that seems to be in the portrait of The Master inside. Although the hound now seems as dangerous as a Yorkie (most Dobermans I've met are big babies), Mike and Maggie are terrified of the dog. They ask Debbie where she's been and the tot leads them into a underground structure that seems to be a huge dark basement ( in fact, I'm guessing that's exactly what it was). In this sinister grotto, they spy several women in filmy gowns standing apparently asleep and motionless around a sleeping man who is the spitting image of the man in the portrait upstairs. This is indeed The Master, along with his many wives. Also in this shabby tomb is an open fire pit and a twisted metal sculpture in the shape of a hand. This is the altar of Manos, who apparently doesn't demand much in the way of expensive fixtures.

The family retreats in fear and Michael searches for Torgo, to get an explanation of what's going on. Now, Torgo himself enters the Master's tomb and engages in a long, bizarre monologue, alternately pleading and chastising the Master. It is Torgo's intention to take Maggie for his own wife. He has been a faithful servant and deserves his own wife. The Master has several of his own, though none of them are really as attractive as Maggie. It should all work out in the end!

Mike blunders into the tomb and demands Torgo tell him what the hell is up, but in true Mike fashion, Torgo brains him from behind and ties him to one of the many columns. After he leaves to find Maggie, The Master and his Wives suddenly awaken. Now I have to tell you that Tom Neyman, who plays the Master, unleashes a performance of pure unadulterated camp evil that even Snidely Whiplash would cringe at. Appearing much like an overworked postal employee at a Halloween party, this hollow-eyed and mustached priest of evil is fond of making grand, overblown soliliquies in florid fashion. In other words, he talks like I write!!!! His first words are "Arise, My Wives! Give ear to the words of Manos! Arise my Wives! And hear the will of Manos!"

The Wives do awaken and as women everywhere are wont to do, they immediately start to whine and bitch. They are aware of the family in their midst, but are not sure what to do with them. "We cannot kill a child!" one wife bitterly complains. "We must make her one of us!". Another wife strongly disagrees: the family must be sacrificed to Manos. To put it lightly, none of these women can act, though their dialogue is just as florid as The Master's himself. No wonder the old boy is so grumpy! He erupts in anger and demands the wives be silent! Not only will all the family be sacrificed, but Torgo and his first wife will also be punished for their disobedience. So has Manos decreed, so it shall be done. Or something like that...

The Master leaves the dingy basement sanctuary of Manos in search of Torgo. The minute he takes off, the Wives begin an incredible hair-pulling, bitch-slapping brawl between the factions that disagree about the fate of Maggie and Debbie. No kidding, it seems like the next ten minutes are taken up by these negligee-clad Texas honeys feebly wrestling and slapping each other while more carnival jazz plays wildly on the soundtrack. It's a testament to how bad Warren's direction is that this scene isn't the least bit titillating or sexy...even Ed Wood or H.G. Lewis could have managed more with such a schlocky scene. But then, this is one of the delights of "Manos"...

The Master confronts Torgo and threatens him with ultimate damnation for his disobedience. Our boy with the oversized knees tries to put up token resistance but the hypnotic power of the Master, fueled by Manos, is just too strong. He returns to the basement/sanctuary wtih Torgo in tow only to find the aftermath of the Wives' wild brawl. The First Wife now rebels outright against the Master and he has her tied to a column and beaten for her trouble. "You grow weak!" the First Wife spits at the Master. "Manos will no longer show you his favor!"

The Master replies, "You are temporary, I am permanent!" He then turns his attention to Torgo and forces the hapless buffoon to recline on the stone altar to await his dreadful fate. This seems to consist of being "tickled to death" by the Wives...a punishment somewhat akin to being abused by the "soft cushions" and the "comfy chair" in Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch. But being tickled by nightie-clad models is not enough! The Master turns Torgo's hand into a burning torch and then pulls it right out of his arm! In a goofy scene, Torgo runs screaming into the night waving his burning stump while the Master looks at the fiery hand and explodes into cackling laughter!!!

With all this going on, big dumb Mike has finally regained consciousness and slipped off to rejoin Maggie and Debbie. He's finally figured out, enough of this shit, let's make a run for it! The family takes off across the desert as we hear the howl of The Master's dog. A rattlesnake briefly menaces the fleeing family, but Mike uses his pistol to make short work of it. We then see our bumbling friends the cops standing by their car...they decide to "investigate" the shot by taking three steps away from the cruiser and then getting back in and taking off. Sources state that Hal Warren couldn't effectively film a night scene away from the one Klieg light he had...hence, the weakness of the police "investigation".

The encounter with the rattlesnake was apparently too much for the wimpy suburbanites. Mike's latest brainstorm is to return to The Master's house, barricade themselves in a room and shoot The Master when he arrives to pull them out. How this guy managed to make it as far in life as he did is one of the biggest mysteries of the film.

The final confrontation comes. The Master easily makes his way into the room where the family has sequestered themselves. Mike warns him to stay back and then shoots him point blank in the face. No effect...Mike keeps shooting, the Master keeps advancing, until his bloodshot eyes fill the screen, which fades to black..

We then cut to broad daylight as another convertible drives leisurely through the back roads of Texas. This time, two young women are in the vehicle and they are looking for the Valley Lodge. Hopelessly lost, they stop by a parked car with two frantically kissing teenagers in the front seat. Yep, it's the same couple, still at it...they ask for directions to the Valley Lodge and are half-heartedly directed up the nearby road. The car continues on its way and pulls up into the driveway of a lonely house. The women get out of the car and a strange figure greets them at the doorway. The figure mechanically intones "My name is Michael. I take care of the place while The Master is away..." We then see a brief glimpse of Maggie and Debbie, asleep and entranced in the basement, wearing the white gowns of The Master's Wives. The implications of little Debbie being one of the Master's concubines along with her mother is by far the most horrifying part of "Manos".

The End????

  Warren had won his bet and finished his movie. It may have been poor and  
cheap beyond belief, but it was finished. Now all that remained was to release it to the general public and watch the cash roll in. None of the actors had been paid (except Jackie Neyman Jones, who played Debbie...she got a bike out of the deal)...they were all to get portions of the movie's profits.

  Warren arranged for the film to make its debut at The Capri Theater in El Paso with much ballyhoo. A sold out crowd turned out to see the local hero's homemade movie, including the town's mayor and the families of those involved in the movie. It took about five minutes for the snickering and laughter to begin, which soon increased to a torrent, laced with hoots of derision. A mortally embarrassed Warren and many of the cast members left early, with as little fanfare as possible.

From there, "Manos, The Hands of Fate" played only a few regional engagements before disappearing into obscurity. An urban legend had it that many cast members suffered "The Curse of Manos" and came to untimely deaths. Actually, the only cast member known to have died relatively soon after the film's release was John Reynolds, the brilliant portrayer of Torgo. He died of a drug overdose that was unrelated to regret over being in the film...as far as anybody knew. None of the other actors, including Hal Warren, continued in the film business. We don't know if Hal ever got paid by Stirling Silliphant for winning his bet. I hope he did.

The film literally disappeared from the mind of man until a few mentions by Michael Weldon's Psychotronic magazine started to arouse interest. Then the mocking robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 managed to find a print of the movie to savage and the resulting MST3K episode emerged as one of the most popular and infamous of the series. MST3K head Mike Nelson was heard to say that he considered "Manos" the worst movie he and the bots ever saw. I happen to despise the whole Mystery Science Theatre concept but it's hard to argue with Nelson here. The movie, however, does not need any wisecracks from anyone to impress viewers with its surrealistic ineptitude....it speaks for itself.

The movie has now achieved a popularity that Warren could have never dreamed. Not only is the MST3K version still popular, but Alpha Video's "unadulerated" version is also a best seller. I saw it as part of Millwood Creek's 100 movie horror pack. And believe it or not, "Manos" has inspired two live action theater pieces. The movie has been talked about and dissected about as much as "Citizen Kane" or "The Virgin Spring".

As a movie, "Manos" fails on just about every level. Therefore it succeeds. There's something about the simplistic surrealism of its plot that embeds itself on your brain. Torgo, Mike, The Master...these are all primal archetypes slumbering deep within the reptillian portion of the mind. And Manos himself remains the ultimate mystery...what is Manos? The name itself means "Hands" in Spanish, so the title would therefore be "Hands, the Hands of Fate". The hand symbol appears throughout the movie. It would take a greater mind than mine to fathom the deep meaning of it all.

Every person should watch "Manos, The Hand of Fate" at least once in their life. It's like going to Mecca or Graceland or Disneyworld...a trip to an unreal place inhabited by strange powers. And nobody should pass up a chance to see the late great John Reynolds as Torgo...he is truly incredible.

ARISE! AND HEAR THE WORDS OF MANOS!!!