Reaching new highs (or is it lows?) in ineptitude, the independently-made regional schlocker MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE has by and large become many a filmgoer’s premium choice as the worst movie ever made (though my vote still goes to MONSTER A-GO GO), as it makes anything shot by Ed Wood look like the work of Akira Kurosawa. Its public awareness over the last yeast 20 years can almost entirely be indebted to its lampooning of on Comedy Central's “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the early 1990s. Since then, the mainstream media publication Entertainment Weekly did a lengthy piece on it a few years ago and in 2009, it inspired an hour-long video documentary (“Manos: The Fans of Hate”). With The Criterion Collection apparently declining to properly represent it, the fate of MANOS has been entrusted in the hands of the Shout! Factory and this loving two-disc special edition, embodying both the MST3K and movie-only presentations.
In their convertible, a family consisting of middle-aged daddy Mike (writer/director/producer Harold “Hal” P. Warren) pretty mommy Margaret (Diane Mahree) and perennially sleepy daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) take a pleasant road trip towards a vacation spot. After driving around aimlessly, they stumble upon a long, mysterious road that brings them to a dilapidated shack (or possibly an inn) safeguarded by the strange, bearded caretaker Torgo (John Reynolds), who is either a mythical half-man creature or really has a bad case of the shakes. Torgo warns the traveling trio that his “master” doesn’t like visitors, but they still manage to talk their way into staying the night. As darkness arrives, the odd occurrences begin with little Debbie’s poor black poodle getting slaughtered outside, as well as the burden of oddball Torgo, all over Margaret like a cheap suit. When they finally decide it’s a good idea to leave, their car won’t start and the Master appears as a warlock-like cult leader (Tom Neyman) who parades around a backyard pagan altar with a handful of white-gowned bickering, cat-fighting “wives” (their shear nightwear lets you gawk at bulky 1950s style bras and panties), and they all worship an ancient deity known as “Manos”. As the Master and his ladies are looking for new female-gendered cult members, Margaret and her daughter could be easy fodder for their Satanic shenanigans.
Shot on 16mm in El Paso, Texas by do-it-all would-be auteur Warren, it’s ironic that his day job was a fertilizer salesman, since he manufactured a turd on screen. Simply put, even in terms of “bad” movies, MANOS is one of the most un-cinematic efforts committed to celluloid, and almost works as a “what not to do” instructional guide for aspiring filmmakers. The 16mm camerawork (some money shots are actually out of focus) in this un-artistic instance makes the entire show look like someone’s static 1960s home movies with footage from a dull Halloween party thrown in. When the ridiculous dialog is spoken, it’s obviously dubbed in, meaning that there was hardly any (if any) real sound during the shooting, cheapening the surreal viewing experience even more. The film has no sense of pacing (it’s incredible how just under 70 minutes can be stretched), the editing includes a number of jump cuts (hence the “home movies” look), with technique and lighting also being the absolute pits.
The film’s natural Texas locations (including a secluded bunch of pillars and an altar, perfect for a low-budget devil worshiping picture) had promise, but come off totally minimalist on camera, with MANOS only having about three or four setpieces altogether. The villains of the piece are far from menacing, with Reynolds’s idiotic Targo being the most relished by fans, and Neyman’s Master looking like a sickly cross between gonzo rock legend Frank Zappa and 1960s pop artist Peter Max. There’s even a demonic Doberman that’s supposed to be so evil, you momentarily feel nervous when little Debbie takes its leash to replace her demised poodle, but all bets are off when you soon realize the Master’s hell beast is about as threatening as Scooby Doo. The only impressive parts of MANOS are the Master’s cloak (with its giant red hands frontal design), an eerie painting of the Master and his pooch, and a bizarre jazzy score that’s almost too good for the film (not to mention the female-crooned tune that has no place here whatsoever). But all in all, MANOS remains a jaw-dropping, excruciating viewing experience, especially without the MST3K treatment.
The movie-only version of MANOS (found on Disc 2) looks to be the same video master used for Alpha’s budget DVD release, which seems to have originated from Sinister Cinema’s print. If you’ve seen this transfer, you’ll know it’s a rather murky, brown-tinted presentation with bleeding colors, and while perfectly watchable given the film at hand, we can probably give up hope that MANOS will ever look “good”. The MST3K version (found on Disc 1) presents the entire original episode (which originally aired in January, 1993) in its entirety, starting with part 2 of a 1940s industrial short called “Hired!” ( along with its first part, “Hired!” can be found in its entirety, with the MST3K treatment, as an extra on this disc). Here, original host/creator Joel Hodgson (playing Joel Robinson) suffers through MANOS on the Satellite of Love, making comical outbursts with mechanical sidekicks Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. The transfer of the film used here actually looks better than the movie-only one, with a cleaner, brighter image, and it includes a few extra seconds of traveling footage during the opening (with some minor editing throughout to make way for the cut-ins and various skits). Both presentations are of course 1.33:1, as the full aperture of the 16mm camera is what the filmmakers had in mind (so and any kind of letterboxing would have resulted in disaster).
Extras on Disc 1 include “Group Therapy” (18:01), where Hodgson and MST3K writers Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl sit down to relive the horror of the infamous MANOS episode, and discuss its popularity among fans of the show. Disc 1 also includes two sets of MST wraps for when MANOS was split into two hour-long airings. Both are hosted by a heavily disguised Mike Nelson. Moving over to Disc 2, it’s there you’ll find an excellent making of documentary on MANOS entitled HOTEL TARGO (27:18). It includes interviews with MANOS historian Richard Brandt, former El Paso court judge Colbert Coldwell (who was in contact with Warren during the shoot) and best of all Bernie Rosenblum, who played a teen constantly making out with his gal in a convertible, and had a large handful of crew duties on the film (including camera and assistant director!). As most of the film’s talent has either passed away or conveniently disappeared, Rosenblum really sheds some light on the production as well as the ambiguous Warren (who died in 1985), and he’s not afraid to let go in front of the cameras. There's some great footage of him revisiting the film’s locations, as well as greeting students and fans during a college university screening. “Jam Handy to the Rescue” (23:21) is a black & white satirical look at the Jam Handy Organization, the company responsible for a great number of training short subjects, some which were aired on MST3K (including “Hired!”). Produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, real 1960s interview footage of founder Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy is incorporated here with new narration and on screen talent, spoofing the types of films the company made while at the same time documenting facts for a clever and amusing piece. “Jam Handy to the Rescue” also includes some sub extras: a blooper reel, an archival “Look Over” TV spot and an interview with Hodgson focusing on these nostalgic short training films. Also included inside the disc's case is an exclusive mini poster by artist Steve Vance. (George R. Reis)
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