Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Something in the Way It Moves: The Restored Manos

The Master (Tom Neyman) in the newly restored Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Like most people, I knew nothing before January 30, 1993, of a low-budget, no-talent horror movie shot in 1966 by Texas insurance salesman Hal Warren. That’s when Mystery Science Theatre 3000 plucked Manos: The Hands of Fate from its obscurity for a ritual roasting, with astral exile Joel Hodgson and his mechanical sidekicks Servo and Crow T. Robot tossing barbs from the silhouetted theater seats of their spaceship prison, the Satellite of Love. Though fondly recalled by fans, it was a good-but-not-great MST3K episode. The premise of Manos was familiar—a Middle American family on vacation wander off the main road and drive straight to the hell house of a prairie cult—but everything about it, from the dialogue to the framing to the narcoleptic acting, was so hopelessly, unamusingly off that even these cleverest of cosmo-hecklers never quite found the funny zone. (The best joke came early: “What are we, about a half-hour into this movie?” “I’m afraid it’s more like a minute.”)

But those hands of fate wouldn’t let some of us go. A bit of flotsam flapping silently in desolate stretches of memory, Manos seemed to represent the very nadir of human creativity. It didn’t have what other beloved cult movies have: vigor, humor, outrĂ© attitude, some vestige of style, however misbegotten or inaccessible. Plan 9 from Outer Space looked like Howard Hawks in comparison, Pink Flamingos like Vincente Minnelli. Manos was slow, sleazy, dirty, ugly, stupid, shrill, discombobulated, and generally irritating. Especially in the filthy Mesozoic print screened on the Satellite, it was hard to see, hard to hear, and impossible to comprehend. It posited no normality and promoted no values. And finally it stuck, I suppose, for all of those reasons: some raw reptilian life unmediated by abstract intelligence, and only barely by civilization, had been caught here—as it can’t be caught by studio filmmaking, or even, anymore, by its aspiring independent cousin. So while it may not have been completely surprising to see Hal Warren’s folly return to general consciousness years later on the shoulders of a cult, the news that it was to be given a painstaking archival restoration seemed a bizarre, belabored joke.

Manos has zero straight entertainment value, and precious little camp appeal. What it has is its own thickheaded singularity and a not-bad back-story. Hoping to break into the entertainment business (or maybe just out of the insurance business), Hal Warren scrounged up funds, camera, and cast, shooting at a ranch outside El Paso. He also wrote the script, about a wayward family who blunder upon the malefic domain of the Master (Tom Neyman), a Satanist with a harem of wives and a twitching, bowlegged henchman named Torgo (John Reynolds). Warren played the husband and father, with beauty-pageant competitor Diane Mahree as his wife and Jackey Neyman (“Master”’s real-life daughter) as their child. The film was shot fast and edited in an afternoon; incredibly, Warren gave it a black-tie premiere in an El Paso theater, where it was met first with laughter, then with squirms, and finally with the resolve of all present to forget the evening had ever happened.

Margaret (Diane Mahree).

That resolve was broken by the MST3K zap, which inspired the curious to seek out the picture’s production history and surviving traces. Film scholar Ben Solovey discovered an original 16-millimeter work print; a Kickstarter campaign bought the restoration. That effort has culminated in an excellent new DVD release from Synapse Films, which includes a making-of documentary, audio commentaries, before-and-after comparisons, and even a Manos puppet show. The puppets are significantly more winning, and hardly less lifelike, than their fleshly originators, and the documentary is full of interesting information. (Example: all of the film’s numerous female voices were dubbed by a single, unknown Dallas voice actress.) The restoration itself is remarkable, evidencing every penny of the crowd-funded $48,000. The clarity of grain and depth of color almost ease you past questioning whether the detail you’re marveling at (say, the grime caked into an actor’s elbow) truly needs to be seen so clearly.

The Manos back-story has become front-story, with factional feuds ongoing between various parties—including Hal Warren’s son, who claims, problematically, that the film’s re-release infringes copyrights that are legally his; Jackey Neyman, who markets homemade Manos merchandise; and, unlikeliest by far, a New Zealander named Rupert Talbot Munch, Sr., who is obsessed with creating a Manos sequel featuring the surviving cast members plus, in the words of writer Jake Rossen, “musical numbers, break-dancing, and as many as 120 brides in an erotic grappling session.”

All of which seems to stem somehow from the kernels of craziness rattling about in the dissociative frames of the film itself. Almost nothing about Manos makes sense. The character of Torgo, with his lolling head, drooping eyelids, palsied hands, and bulbous kneecaps, is odd beyond reckoning. (John Reynolds is supposed to have been on acid during the filming, and he shot himself to death shortly after.) The “eclectic” soundtrack combines piano glissandi, bossa nova beats bending into contemplative jazz duets, and even, over a sudden cut to necking teenagers, rockabilly. (“Come on and do a thing with me,” drools the tenth-rate Elvis, doing for seduction what Donald Trump does for statesmanship.) The film is misogynist in the exploitation manner, with its useless wife, its daughter whose dubbed falsetto makes the skin crawl, and its endless shots of the Master’s jealous wives catfighting in the dust while protecting their hair and eyeshadow. (This is offset somewhat by Warren’s no doubt inadvertent portrayal of the husband as an incompetent blowhard, his every lurching show of masculinity taking the family a step closer to doom, and by the ponderous pomposity of the Master himself: “Silence!” he commands, though no one is talking.) Then there are the details which in some other context would be called grace notes but in Manos simply appear as elements of a joke the film doesn’t know it’s telling—e.g., the opening pan across an expanse of yellow desert that resolves on a receptacle stenciled with the words “Deposit waste.”

Torgo (John Reynolds) .

For the most part you simply stare at Manos, either going slowly insane from the absence of rational development and recognizable behavior, or deciding to surrender and submit to its plodding absurdity. One thing it shares with later cult horror movies like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), albeit on a much lower level of artistry, is the virtue of its vacuum. Locked in a finite location with a small cast and desperately limited means, it’s able to submerge you not just in the penury of its production but in some parallel dimension where normal rules don’t apply. There’s something in the way Manos moves that simply wouldn’t have survived had Hal Warren had more money and a modicum of talent. It’s found in everything from the moths that buzz around the Master’s porchlights to the incessant wobbling of the camera—not the slick, faux-documentary frame-float of classy TV, but the unsteady hand of a real person who can’t afford a tripod. The story goes that the footage was edited on the fly, in just four hours and under the influence of alcohol, at an El Paso TV-news station. Nothing could be easier to believe, because the pieces that in other movies fit together to make readable film language are here not merely detached but are alienated from each other. Instead of looking at the person talking, we might be staring at the back of his or her head, and the pacing is typified by unconscionable lags between action and reaction. The infatuated Torgo fingers the wife’s hair in a masturbatory daze, and it takes her five seconds or more—an eternity of fingering—to give the little man-goat the slap he deserves. And the dubbing is so asynchronous as to make a chop-socky movie jealous.

These are all signals of poverty and ineptitude, perhaps even of drunkenness and druggedness. But every artwork is autonomous once it leaves its maker’s control and enters the hands of fate: it is what it is, regardless of how it came to be that way. Though I can’t overstate how poor Manos is, I want to give it its stubborn due. Its virtues are all of absence (of polish and professionalism, of conventional meaning and merit), and that very absence clears a void in which something else lives—a starved and straining something, but a something that makes the movie not a complete waste of 74 minutes. That something may not be much more than the viewer’s own propensity to find diversion in the phenomenon of stupefaction. But that’s a decent description of the cult sensibility right there—and surely anyone who loves art, in any form, for any reason, has a cultist lurking somewhere inside.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is


  1. "it was a good-but-not-great MST3K episode." SEZ You.

  2. Superb article! I would quibble with only one thing, though: I think it has a lot of camp appeal, but it's a very unique and bizarre sort of camp, perhaps unique to this film alone. I've forgotten how many times I've watched this (mostly with MST3K at the bottom of the screen), and although I consider myself a film buff, I can't help but love this mess, especially when watching the restoration with its brilliant colors and previously muddied backgrounds now clearly visible. I love the devilish feeling I get when introducing it to newbies and watching the expressions on their faces. Thanks for a wonderful read!

  3. Great article. Thank you. I played Debbie in Manos and my dad is The Master. He is nearly 80 and old school about computers so I'll print this for him so he can read it too. I'm sure The Master will approve.