Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #69 Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

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Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.

Yes, I made a cool one hundred dollars watching and writing about the unintentionally hilarious zero-budget shocker and Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Manos: The Hands of Fate. This consequently marks the first time that I was paid more money to write about a movie than the film itself cost to make. 

Then again “film” is an awfully generous term to use when describing exquisitely amateurish nonsense like Manos: The Hands of Fate. Even “movie” is too high falutin’ when discussing this glorious travesty, this all-time classic of the “So bad it’s good” variety. 

I have absolutely no idea why it has taken me this column and forty-three years to finally get around to watching and writing about Manos: The Hands of Fate, a formidable contender for worst movie of all time and one of the most legendary bad movies ever made. 

Manos: The Hands of Fate’s reputation precedes it. As with so many terrible movies that have endured, the story behind the film is every bit as fascinating, bizarre and unlikely as the film itself. 

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Manos: The Hands of Fate but writer, director and star Harold P. Warren did not come from a filmmaking background. Before he made an accidental bid for cult immortality Warren made his living selling fertilizer and insurance. 

So, I suppose you could say that as a fertilizer salesman, he literally sold for a living. And as a life insurance salesman, he also sold shit. He understandably figured he would be able to sell shit to moviegoers as well. 

Get a load of this White Bread-ass motherfucker!

Get a load of this White Bread-ass motherfucker!

The movie is the product of a bet between shit salesman Harold P. Warren and prolific television and film writer Stirling Silliphant, whose credits include In the Heat of the Night, Village of the Damned and The Towering Inferno. 

Warren bet the future Academy Award winner that he could make a movie from conception to completion despite having zero experience in the filmmaking business. 

Now if there is one quality that unites all of mankind, beyond adoration for the actor Paul Rudd, it’s a stubborn if wholly insupportable conviction that if they really put their minds to it, they could totally make a good movie. 

How hard can it be? You just make up a story, think of some dumb stuff for your characters to say, tell the phony, egotistical actors in your film where to stand and BOOM, the next thing you know you’re onstage at the Academy Awards accepting the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and thanking your grandma for nurturing your love of film by taking you to see Ernest movies as a kid. 

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That’s clearly how Warren saw filmmaking. He set out to prove that despite what fancy types like Silliphant might think, in actuality it was super-easy to make movies. Anyone could do it! Instead he ended up proving the opposite point. 

Manos: The Hands of Fate is often bandied about as the worst movie of all time. On IMDB, it currently holds down the number three spot on the reader-voted list of the worst films of all time. But even that is being generous since Manos: The Hands of Fate is less a singularly terrible motion picture than a hilarious and unexpectedly poignant attempt at making a movie. 

Manos: The Hands of Fate is less a film than an attempted film. Warren failed miserably in his attempts to make an actual movie yet succeeded in making something much weirder and rarer and more perverse, a b-movie that’s closer to outsider art than the b-movies Roger Corman’s production company was cranking out at the time. 

I did not spend five and a half years getting a degree in Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for nothing, or because I had an obscenely generous financial aid package. As a film student the only thing I learned of any value was the rules of filmmaking, the time-tested conventions that make movies movies. This information is only useful when movies flagrantly disregard the rules of movie-making the way Warren does here. 

Touch Torgo’s hand through the screen and let Torgo take you away!

Touch Torgo’s hand through the screen and let Torgo take you away!

The fascinating disconnect with reality begins with all of the sound being poorly post-dubbed by a few cursed, defeated souls. 

Warren doesn’t just write and directly ineptly; he also stars as Michael, a Perry Como-looking motherfucker who gets hopelessly lost while driving one day with his daughter, their dog, a smoking hot wife (Diane Adelson as Margaret), who is several decades younger and many times more attractive than her doughy, cardigan-clad husband and their daughter Debbie (Jackie Neyman Jones). 

Also adding to the amateur hour vibe: in the early going characters routinely look at the camera (breaking one of the cardinal rules of film in the process) with a pained expression that silently but powerfully conveys “Get me out of here!” and “Why did I agree to do this?” 

The lost and desperate family ends up seeking refuge in a creepy domicile where they encounter Torgo (John Reynolds), who looks like a cross between Vincent Van Gogh and Dr. Frankenstein’s sidekick/helper Igor. 

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Everything about Torgo angrily screams, “Go away! Flee while you still can! There is nothing here but death and insanity. Nothing but ruins awaits you in this most cursed of hellholes!” 

The huge and ever-growing cult of Manos: The Hands of Fate is largely the cult of Torgo. Reynolds is so twitchy and mannered that it seems like he broke every bone and is black-out drunk every moment onscreen. That’s actually not that far from the truth.

In actuality Reynolds was apparently blasted off his mind on LSD throughout filming, which, honestly, makes all the sense in the world, in no small part because watching Reynolds act on LSD is liable to make you feel like you’re on LSD yourself, and in the midst of a trip so bad and crazy and yet awesome that it makes you feel like your own grasp on reality is disintegrating rapidly.

Torgo’s essence is ineffably disturbing. The only way Torgo could more overtly convey sinister menace would be if he was introduced covered in blood and talking proudly about someone he just murdered. Instead, he manages to convey the sense that he has killed before and will happily kill again through body language and facial twitching. 

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If Michael were not the single stupidest, most gullible human being in the history of the universe when he asks Torgo about staying the night and Torgo twitches and glares and screams that someone known only as “ The Master” doesn’t like children, and that “The Master” won’t let them stay he would take a hint and get the fuck out while he can. 

Instead, he seems to think The Master this bizarre, clearly unwell lunatic is serving in some Renfield-like capacity is like the night manager of a Holiday Inn and if he just flashes a credit card he’ll be shown to a nice room with a queen sized bed near the ice machine with color television and air conditioning.

Yorgo’s whole vibe is “I’m going to murder you and your family as soon as I can, and then drink their blood” and Michael is all, “That’s cool. We’ll have to get to an early start tomorrow to make up for the time we lost while lost today. Do you offer free breakfast or take credit cards?”

Yet the family has the literally unbelievably terrible judgment to figure that Yorgo and The Master’s pad is a creepy but acceptable place to crash for the evening. 

It isn’t long until Torgo is giving them ample reason to regret their choices. 

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While ogling the lovely wife while she undresses, a very necessary scene, Torgo accomplishes the formidable feat of masturbating furiously with just his eyes. As far as we can see, his grubby, lustful hands never actually touch his disgusting, no doubt foul-smelling genitals but he has such a repellent aura that he conveys crazed onanism all too well using only grotesquely cartoonish facial expressions and some of the broadest physical acting in the history of film. 

Nobody moves like Torgo moves. That’s probably a very good thing. Thanks to the powerful LSD coursing through his veins Reynolds’ face never stops moving either. Like everyone in the film his acting is silent-film broad and big. Since the whole disaster was post-dubbed actors couldn’t really use their voices to express emotion and nuance so everything has to be conveyed visually, through hilariously over-the-top mugging. 

Early in a very unfortunate evening the family dog is killed by the evil minions of the Master. At that point I’m bailing if I’m the dad. When an evening involves an animal getting iced it’s beyond redemption. 

But like the stupid fuck that he is, Michael convinces his family to stay in this low-budget house of horrors, adorned with a spooky portrait of the mustachioed Master in his trademark bloody hand cloak (they really lean into the whole hands motif) and an even more sinister doberman. 

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Then at a certain point the attempted film’s focus shifts completely from Torgo and the family to The Master (Tom Neyman), a Luigi-looking, mustachioed master of menace who upon being resurrected almost immediately gets into a spat with his six wives.

Sure, he may call himself the Master but once he’s resurrected he falls more snugly into the role of henpecked husband. 

His wives, they won’t stop jibber-jabbering! They’re making him crazy with all of their talking and womanly squabbling. It isn’t long until The Master sports an expression that silently but powerfully conveys, “Oy yoy yoy, women, amIrite? Always with the talking! And the fighting! Even if you’re evil incarnate you can’t get a word in edgewise!”

It’s like a slightly dated joke the Master might tell: what are the three fastest ways to send a message? Telephone, telegram and tell a woman!

The Master has fun.

The film’s not so secret message is that if having one wife can be a headache and a hassle imagine having six! 

Let’s give the boy a hand!

Let’s give the boy a hand!

So Manos: The Hands of Fate is about a figure of supreme evil, a demonic force of supernatural menace whose wives give him the business something awful! 

Manos: The Hands of Fate is the cross between Rosemary’s Baby and The Lockhorns we never knew we needed. 

Manos, incidentally is the evil, Satanic deity The Master, Torgo and his wives all serve. The Master and his wives all have different ideas on how to best serve Manos. Some of the wives take a strong stance against sacrificing a girl child on the rock-solid logic that she will grow up to be a woman. #Girlpower. 

Others take a more positive view on sacrificing the girl so that they can better serve Manos and the Master. 

The wives settle their philosophical differences the only way they know how: through a 3 on 3 catfight that takes up much of the film’s very nice 69 minute runtime. 

As for Torgo, he’s just a fucking dick. For a craven supplicant, Torgo is a huge asshole to The Master. Yes, The Master sentences him to death but Torgo has it coming. 

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In its third act Manos: The Hands of Fate becomes a struggle for survival with the family trying to stay alive and The Master trying to take Mike’s wife and daughter as new wives, what with the old ones really getting on his nerves and all, talking about “You’re selfish in bed” and “This compound isn’t big enough for all of us” and “Wouldn’t you love to hear the pitter-patter of the feet of little Masters? Wouldn’t that just brighten the place up? C’mon, Master. Why won’t you even talk about having children? Is it because Manos hates children? That’s it, isn’t it? Well maybe you should start thinking about how Manos would feel about us getting divorced!?!”

To watch Manos: The Hands of Fate is to step outside the realm of competent filmmaking and sanity and embrace the free-floating madness of a production that’s jarringly off in every conceivable way to such an extent that the film gains the queasy power of a waking nightmare. 

Manos: The Hands of Fate entirely lives up to its reputation as the worst of the worst but also best kind of worst. It’s so bad it’s fucking great, a one of a kind abomination overflowing with quotable lines and unforgettable aspects, like a pair of teenagers necking and getting drunk in a car who keep popping up for no fucking reason at all, or a score that sounds like Warren kidnapped a few of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and forced them to provide jazzy accompaniment for the film whose score is often surreally inappropriate and sometimes brutally effective. 

My all-time favorite SNES game

My all-time favorite SNES game

Watching and loving and marveling at the existence and afterlife of Manos: The Hands of Fate I had a thought. This cosmic joke of a motion picture, which should never have been made, that was essentially made as a dare, as a “fuck you” to a Hollywood professional should lead to more movies. 

After all, Plan 9 From Outer Space led to a great movie in Ed Wood. Troll 2 led directly to the wonderful documentary Best Worst Movie, whose title would apply just as easily to Manos: The Hands of Fate. The making of The Room led to the wonderfully entertaining show-business comedy The Disaster Artist. The wonderfully terrible films of Rudy Ray Moore became the subject of the Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle, My Name is Dolemite, which is getting terrific notices on the film festival circuit. 

So why not make a narrative film or feature-length documentary based on the too-strange-for-fiction production of Manos: The Hands of Fate? I’m not kidding when I say that the role of John Reynolds, the doomed actor who so unforgettably breathed life into Torgo, then took his own life before the world could appreciate his unique gifts, could win the right actor an Academy Award. 

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The worst movie in the world could very easily lead to wild critical acclaim and Oscar victories so let’s get cracking on this idea, Hollywood! If Harold P. Warren could make his cinematic ambitions happen despite a complete lack of qualifications there’s no reason dedicated Hollywood professionals with actual talent couldn’t turn the behind-the-scenes insanity of this preeminent “so bad it’s good” camp classic into the latest rapturously funny ode to show-business ambition at its most exquisitely misguided.

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