While many have seen the edited version of "Manos" The Hands of Fate via its inimitable showing on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in 1993 and later on home video, few have seen the unedited version that Hal Warren released, amid much mockery, in El Paso in 1966. That is because, until 2003, the original version was almost completely unavailable. I still don't know where Best Brains got the copy that they screened on MST3K, but they were reportedly among a very small group of people to have seen the unedited version before its commercial release.
In 2003, film distributor Alpha Video got a hold of the distribution rights for the original (sold to them from Hal Warren's daughter), and promptly released it on DVD. Thanks (or curses?) to them, I am watching it as I write this.
If you thought the MST3K treatment of this movie still made it unwatchable, then you probably wouldn't be able to watch the uncut version, with its stark, endless roadside landscapes and ripped-off, tinny jazz soundtrack without the familiar, comforting row of theater seats superimposed over the lower portion of the screen. You'd be right if you thought the uncut version would be the absolute bottom of the barrel as far as 20th century movies go. It is far worse than any of the other bad movies you can think of off the top of your head. Ed Wood doesn't even enter into it. He was Orson Welles to compared to Warren. Hell, Coleman Francis and Uwe Boll don't even enter into it. It's that bad.
Granted, given that the complete unedited version is only 69 minutes long, most of it was kept intact for MST3K's treatment of it. Most of what was cut out was the overlong driving scenes at the beginning (which, in the unedited version, take up the first nine minutes of the film, from the start until they happen upon Torgo). Originally, in Hal Warren's vision, the driving scenes at the beginning were meant to have the opening credits superimposed on top of them. Where'd they end up? No one knows, but they're conspicuous in their absence. (And I refuse to believe that it'd take nine whole minutes to credit the handful of people who worked on this.) The thing I noticed the most is that in the unedited version, there are an awful lot more instances of the audio becoming unsynchronised with the video. Mostly this occurs when the score swells and all the dialogue abruptly cuts out to make room for the music. The music, by the way, also gets all out of sync pretty often, too. We'll be shown something meant to be "shocking" and the camera will just wallow back and forth over it for a few seconds, then the eerie score will kick in and then cut out just as abruptly.
Everyone in the film could be spokespeople for attention deficit disorder; all of the principal actors continually flub lines, miss cues, stare into the camera, or aren't aware that they're on camera for the first few seconds of a great many scenes. If you watch carefully, you can also make out Hal Warren mouthing the word "cut!" a few times just before a scene transitions to another. There is also a veritable bouquet of uncomfortable silences as the actors stand around waiting for, and apparently not receiving their cues as they're committed to film. It is almost palpably painful to watch.
Perhaps uniquely for a film that was edited into MST3K, the edited version doesn't really leave out any major scenes (the most major is probably one in which the Master beats one of his wives, or rather, swings his fists while staring into the camera in a tight close-up); most of the cut footage is of pointless conversations and of people standing around. That leaves most of the cut version still in a (debatably) watchable condition. Given that the Alpha Video DVD cost me only $5.00, I thought a more complete review should be noded. (Admittedly, I have pretty poor judgment capabilities, and now this awful series of images is forever burned into my brain.)
Fun facts, rumors and anecdotes:
- Reportedly, three of the actors that appeared in this film all committed suicide within the year following the film's release. They were John Reynolds (Torgo), Joyce Molleur (the cough syrup/heavy petting girl), and Sherry Proctor (the master's first wife). I've read that none of their supposed deaths, other than Reynolds', can be verified, so they may still be alive. No one seems to know for sure.
- Reynolds wore metal rigging of some description under his pants. The intended effect was that he look like a satyr. He was apparently wearing it backwards (goats' knees bend backwards, so he should've been wearing them on the backs of his legs), which is why he doesn't really look a bit like a satyr (not a centaur, as ccunning says). I've read (but can't confirm) that they caused him some pretty bad pain in his legs, which lead to his suicide by overdose on prescription painkillers (not due to the film's, er, tepid response; he died a few weeks before the premiere). Hal Warren, in his infinite wisdom, decided not to tell Reynolds that he had them on backwards because some scenes were already shot and Warren didn't want to do re-shoots. Clearly, the rigging just made it look like he'd stuffed a couple of couch cushions into his pants.
- Tom Neyman, the guy that played Frank Zappa, er, I mean, the Master, painted the portrait of himself that appears in film. His wife Jacqueline designed all the costumes.
- Neyman's daughter, Jackey, appears in the film as Mike and Margaret's young daughter Debbie. She was the only member of the cast or crew that received any compensation for working—Warren bought her a new bicycle.
- Torgo's strange behavior and constant twitching may be explained by rumors that he was on LSD during much (if not all) of his screen time.
- This film is the result of a particularly ill-advised bet between Warren and Hollywood screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. The bet was that Warren could make a popular, profitable horror movie on a shoestring budget, which turned out to be approximately $19,000. Popular? Definitely (through infamy). Profitable? Not in Warren's lifetime (he died in 1985, eight years prior to the MST3K treatment of his film).
- Torgo was, in the first draft of the script, named Igor. This was changed because Warren didn't want him confused with Dr. Frankenstein's faithful assistant.
- The production made use of only one (rented) camera, and that camera could hold only 30 seconds of film before needing to be reloaded, hence all the jump cuts (though the lack of competent editing makes this feel worse than it really should be). It had no sound input and the film didn't have a sound crew, so all the dialogue was later overdubbed by only three people—two men and one woman—which is why almost everyone sounds exactly the same. This means we'll never really know whether or not Torgo actually spoke as he does in the film—staccato-like and stressing unstressed syllables—was Reynolds' intention or an invention of the people who dubbed the dialogue. The camera was used mostly because it could film in color. In the mid-1960s, most independent films were shot in black and white and color was just starting to become affordable to independent filmmakers.
- The Master's harem of wives were not actually actresses (except for one; see below), even in the loosest sense of the word; they were models from an El Paso modeling agency, contracted for the film due, apparently, to their willingness to wear flimsy chiffon nightgowns, granny panties and rather institutional bras.
- Only one of the actors to appear in this film, Mary-Robin Redd (one of the Master's wives), went on to appear in other films, appearing steadily in B-movies until the early 1990s. The rest of the cast went swiftly back to obscurity. The only crew member to escape the Manos mire was Stephane Goulet, who worked as a painter and property master on a variety of films (including Tiger Child (1970), the first IMAX movie) into the 1980s.
- Since the budget was so small, the production couldn't afford outdoor lighting fixtures, which is why the cops near the end limit their search to about two feet in front of their car, beyond which lay the dark of night. The reason why this scene, which does nothing but highlight their lack of money, was filmed, is a complete mystery. I'll chalk it up to gross incompetence.
- Quentin Tarantino reportedly owns one of the very few surviving copies of the 35mm print of the film. He has said it's one of his favorite comedies.
In 2004, Canadian film students Aaron Allard and James Lafleur made a documentary about the making of Manos, entitled Hotel Torgo. It features Bernie Rosenblum (who played the cough syrup/heavy petting guy), and focuses primarily on his recollection of the filming. Had they got an earlier start, they would have been able to interview a couple more people involved in the making of the film, although by 2004, Bernie Rosenblum was the only member of the cast or crew to still be alive and locatable by the filmmakers. They had scheduled to interview cinematographer Robert Guidry, although he too succumbed, dying about two months before the interview was to take place.
Hotel Torgo is available on YouTube, as of 2008. It uses Manos-style incidental music throughout. Shoot me.
A sequel, Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge, is in development as of 2010. Featured performers include Tom Neyman, now in his 70s; Jackey Neyman-Jones (Debbie); Diane Mahree, aka Diane Rystadt (Margaret), who changed her name after filming "Manos" and became the 1960s-70s equivalent of a supermodel; Hal Warren's son Joe Warren; professional wrestler Gene Snitsky; MFC fighter Ryan “Big Deal” Jimmo; and Playboy Playmate Maria Kanellis. Torgo impersonator Rupert Talbot Munch is the director. An actual professional crew is also getting involved. It includes Tim Martin, who has worked on virtually all the recent Marvel Comics film adaptations; and Jay Lee, whose only other credit I could find was as the director/writer/producer of Zombie Strippers, which I've never heard of—he'll be the director of photography.
Two stage adaptations were made: Manos: Rock Opera of Fate, which was produced by New Millennium Theatre Company and played at the National Pastime Theater in Chicago in 2007; and another, titled simply Manos, was produced by Last Rites Productions in Portland in 2006. There's also been a Manos-based puppet show, Manos: The Hands of Felt, put on by Puppet This at the Odd Duck Theater in Seattle.
There's also an 8-bit style video game! Because, why not?
Additionally, the word "manos" is Spanish for "hands," so the translated title is "Hands" the Hands of Fate (yes, the scare quotes are a part of the title). This, if my ramblings have failed to convince, should give you some indication of what to expect.
Believe it or not, a "pristine" work print of Manos was discovered in 2011. It's being digitized and a Blu-Ray release is forthcoming and the HD edition got a premiere in an actual theatre on December 4, 2012. God help us all.
UPDATE 2016: The sequel mentioned above seems not to have been made, or, if it has been made, it's never been released. Jackey Neyman-Jones, who played Debbie in the original film, had been in the midst of producing a sequel entitled Manos Returns, but that, too, was drawn to an abrupt end with the death of her father, Tom Neyman, who played The Master in the original film, on November 12, 2016. He was 80 or 81. Jackey maintains a blog, which is an interesting and unique read as she chronicles her remembrances of making Manos. Oh, and that Blu-Ray release is finally available for purchase. It includes a 97% restoration of the original 16mm Ektachrome work print, which was found in a film archive in California in 2011. I have NO idea how it ended up there. Bonus features include the original film as it looked during its spectacularly brief run at the movies. This version is now know as the "grindhouse" version while the restored version is now considered the authentic original.
'Manos' the Hands of Fate (1966) -- http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0060666/
Hotel Torgo (2004) -- http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0422433/
Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge (2013) - http://www.torgolives.com/
Manos The Hands of Fate (DVD) -- http://www.oldies.com/product/view.cfm/id/4251D.html
The original film at the Internet Archive is available if for some devious reason you want to watch it: https://archive.org/details/ManosTheHandsofFate