Harold P. Warren, 1966
Starring: Harold P. Warren, Diane Mahree, Jackie Neyman, Tom Neyman, John Reynolds
"I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the Master is away."
Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the brand new, digitally restored version of Manos: The Hands of Fate at Philly’s best cult film spot, PhilaMOCA, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. Co-presented by film writer Travis Crawford of Danger after Dark! and excellent new film label Artsploitation, Manos has long been regarded the worst film ever made (though I think Nomads is far, far worse).
Michael, his wife Margaret, their daughter Debbie, and her dog Peppy are on vacation in the Texas desert when they make a wrong turn. Determined he can find it on his own, Michael accidentally drives them to an isolated house where a strange man named Torgo stands guard and tells them that the Master wouldn’t like it if they were there. Because the car won’t start, night soon falls, and they are stranded, they have no choice but to spend the night against Margaret’s better judgement. Peppy goes missing and is presumably killed by some animal in the darkness. Debbie wanders off into the night and befriends a doberman pincher, but returns safely. A creepy portrait of the Master and his dog, which looks suspiciously like Debbie’s new friend, lords over the house. Torgo’s intentions toward Margaret becomes increasingly distressing.
They soon meet the Master and his wives, all of whom are asleep in a bizarre circle out in the desert. Torgo captures Michael and the Master and his wives awaken. He is determined to take Margaret as his new bride and sacrifice the rest of the family to his god, Manos, but his wives debate whether or not they should kill Debbie. His first wife, the most headstrong, insists that she will not kill a child or allow the others to sacrifice one.
The Master’s wives break out into a full on fist fight in the sand that lasts about an hour and involves a lot of hair pulling, enforced sand eating, and dress tearing. Meanwhile, the Master puts Torgo in a trance and lays him out to be sacrificed because he tried to take Margaret for himself, but he is instead viciously attacked by the wives. The Master performs a ritual and burns off one of Torgo’s hands and he runs screaming into the night. The Master continues the ritual and sacrifices his troublesome first wife. Meanwhile, Michael, Margaret, and little Debbie run off terrified into the desert. They trip a number of times and are accosted by a rattlesnake. For some reason they decide that the best place to hide will be in the Master’s house, where he confronts them, is immune to bullets, and puts them under a trance before the screen fades to black. In the epilogue, Michael has taken Torgo’s place and welcomes two lost women into the house where events will theoretically repeat themselves.
Manos was basically created as the result of a bet and writer, director, and producer Harold Warren also stars in the film. Filmed in a pretty short amount of time on a friend’s El Paso ranch with rented equipment, Warren tried what worked so well for William Girdler: using friends, family members, and locals as cast and crew on his film. While Manos is certainly inferior to the similarly themed Asylum of Satan (1972), it has a certain lovable charm and is definitely not the worst film of all time. There are some particularly great sound effects and moments of dialogue. Because everything was recorded in post-production and dubbed into the film, a number of that scenes that could have been fairly normal (re: terribly boring) are transformed into some completely ridiculous moments. A prime example would be all of Debbie’s scenes, where an adult male is clearly speaking her lines in falsetto. Other than this, of course, there is no proof that any other post-production work done, namely editing. Scenes jump and skip all over the place with little regard to continuity and others simply go on for what feels like ten hours.
While there are any number of questions one could ask about the production or the script, something brought up by Mystery Science Theater is the fact that Torgo has hilariously giant thighs. It turns out that, as I suspected, he was intended to have satyr legs under his clothing, though this revelation was later removed from the film. It also explains his bizarre walking patterns, as he was wearing elaborate rigging and a fairly cumbersome costume. El Paso theater actor John Reynolds (Torgo) is clearly the star of the film and sadly died of a drug overdose not long after Manos’s release and abject box office failure.
Aside from the bright point that is Torgo, the rest of the characters are unlikable, forgettable, or simply played by such lousy actors that there is little choice but to laugh at them. Michael was played by director and creator Harold P. Warren. The less said the better The Master (theater actor Tom Neyman, who also did the set design on Manos) is outdone by Torgo at nearly every turn, but he does have an amazing costume and some tremendous dialogue. Margaret, Michael’s wife (Diane Mahree) seems on the verge of laughter or total confusion throughout filming, and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman, presumably Tom’s daughter) could probably have been played by a cardboard cut out. The wives were all from a modeling agency; enough said. There are a few nice repeat cameos, such as from some cops who drive around aimlessly, unaware of any danger, and two teenagers who spend half the film making out in a convertible.
Manos was featured on a very popular episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Shout! Factory gave it a lovely, 2 disc release with a bunch of extras, including the original film and a documentary, Hotel Torgo. Last year film student Ben Solovey discovered the original 16mm work print and resolved, despite all odds, to restore the film. He accomplished that with the help of crowd funding on Kickstarter (earning almost five times his goal). He blew the original up to 35mm for the restoration, which looks fantastic. Of course the expected age damage isn’t completely gone, but it looks far better than any existing print. Later this year (or early next year) there will also be a Blu-ray release of the restored version of the film.
To learn more about Manos check out Jackie Neyman-Jones’ blog (she played little Debbie), visit http://www.manosinhd.com/ for more info about the restoration, check out the soundtrack here, and read this interesting Seattle Star article about the restoration that features some interviews with cast members.
The next PhilaMOCA and Danger After Dark! collaborating is a double feature of Frank Henenlotter’s (Basket Case) new documentary, That’s Sexploitation, and Doris Wishman’s cult classic, Let Me Die a Woman.