“The woman is all we want! The others must die! They ALL must die! We do not even want the woman!”
The third film of the day (and the second bad one), Manos: The Hands of Fate – literally translated as Hands: The Hands of Fate – is currently the third worst film of all time according to IMDB’s Bottom 100. While it has almost nothing in common with Troll 2‘s plot, it does, oddly, share an almost identical scene quite early on, in which a mother encourages a disgruntled child to start singing while on the drive to their holiday destination. The song picked by both Joshua in Troll 2 and Debbie in Manos? The beloved classic, Row Row Row Your Boat. Apart from this unexpected coincidence, however, what both films share is a cult status borne out of their badness.
Manos: The Hands of Fate exists because of a bet made by Harold P Warren, an insurance salesman. He wagered with Stirling Silliphant (who went on to win an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night) that he could make a horror film on a minimal budget. Two and a half months and $19 000 later, the result is an unbridled mess. The inexperience is visible from start to finish: the story is incomprehensible and strangely irrelevant; the acting terrible and the dubbing obvious; the editing and pacing an incoherent and disconcerting jumble. Like most of the really bad (cult) movies, it is of course a lot of fun – at just 74 minutes, it just manages to not outstay its welcome.
Warren, like many other badfilm creators, is the film’s writer, director, producer, and leading man. Using the alias Hal Warren (a far less assuming pseudonym than Ray Dennis Steckler’s Cash Flagg or Arthur White’s Vic Savage), he plays Michael who, with wife Margaret (Diane Mahee) and young daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) takes a wrong turn down a dusty desert road and becomes mixed up with the adherents of Manos, namely The Master, his bickering wives, and his servant Torgo.
Problematically, however, Michael is a thoroughly dislikeable man. Reaching the isolated farmhouse, he encounters Torgo, whose giant, crooked knees, twitching demeanor, and plaintive pleas that the “Master” would not want to entertain visitors should surely ring alarm bells for this supposedly caring husband. Yet, instead, Michael forces his family upon Torgo, ordering the awkward man to carry all their bags indoors so they can stay for the night – as Margaret tells him she’s frightened, he even pushes little Debbie into the house first. Now that’s truly gentlemanly behaviour!
We don’t get to see the Master until almost half way through the film; so much time is taken up with the family settling – or failing to settle – into the house. The building itself appears to consist of two rooms – the living room, complete with ominous portrait, and a tiny bedroom. Margaret eventually spends the majority of her time in here, first being molested by Torgo, then lying in her negligee wailing about the absence of her husband. Like most women in badfilms, she is utterly useless, serving only to constantly reiterate her fear and wait for the man to save the day. In contrast, the other women of the film, the Master’s wives, are a strange group – their screen-time is devoted to arguments, complaining, moaning, and physical fighting. This is a truly dysfunctional sect, and it’s a wonder how anything is ever achieved in Manos’ name.
Narratively, almost nothing actually happens. Everyone is unhappy – Michael’s family don’t want to be stuck in the desert, the Master and his wives don’t want guests at their home, Torgo wants Margaret to be his wife, and the couple of necking teenagers in a car down the road want to be able to smooch each other in private without the cops constantly turning up. The film jumps back to these latter characters on several occasions, for no apparent reason; allegedly the girl was supposed to have a different role but had broken her leg so couldn’t fulfil her original duties.
Choosing to film in colour was an audacious move by Warren, considering his tiny budget – and it shows. The film is washed out and frequently completely out of focus; exterior shots are poorly lit yet manage to capture every insect that flies by the camera. The restrictions of production dictate several stylistic and narrative decisions: on two occasions characters are supposed to go and search for something, yet in both scenes they only make it one or two steps away from the primary source of light, because the camera couldn’t pick up anything beyond that. The house is entirely isolated from its surroundings also, seeming to sit in a black void. Meanwhile the camera used for shooting could only record 32 seconds of film at a time, resulting in some intriguing editing decisions. There are frequent cutaways to character close ups, shots that appear for no reason yet affect the film’s pacing and spacial awareness in such a way that scenes are jumpy and uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time in awkward silence, looking sheepish and petulant.
Is there anything redeemable about Manos: The Hands of Fate? John Reynold’s performance as Torgo is curiously effective – one can even develop some sort of sympathy for this disfigured, doomed creature. Aesthetically, there are some interesting results – not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but interesting. Yet it, like Troll 2, deserves its status; it’s an incomprehensible muddle of a movie that has somehow managed to capture the attention of a dedicated niche audience. Its cult/bad status is enough even to warrant discussion in an Oscar-winning movie (Juno). Unlike the films of the 50s, which generally end on a happy resolution, Manos reveals a change in low-budget horror, with a surprising, and quite controversial final shot. Yet this transgressive conclusion cannot conceal the fact that it is a bad movie. It’s no wonder that most of the cast never worked in films again. Despite all this, one thing should be acknowledged: Warren said he could do it, and he did. I guess it was never specified whether it had to be good or not.