Friday, April 25, 2014

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) - MST3K Review

To really get a handle... get it? Hand-le... Ok, I'll stop. Anyway, this episode starts with the short Hired – Part 2. This is the second half of an industrial short film made by Chevrolet in the early 40’s. It follows a sales manager who attempts to figure out why his salesmen aren’t successful. This involves montages of men with hats, and discussions about test driving. Probably the best scenes involve the middle-aged manager discussing the problems with his father who at one point puts a handkerchief on his head.

As for the feature, Michael (Hal Warren) takes his family on a nice little trip. Little Debbie (Jackey Neyman) has brought along the family dog, Pepe. Margaret (Diane Mahree) seems to spend most of her time doubting Michael's choices. It becomes very obvious why she does this. After a very long driving sequence, they find themselves lost. They arrive at a lodge in the middle of nowhere. There they meet Torgo (John Reynolds), a bizarre man with large knees. After some pressuring by Michael, Torgo allows the family to stay, even though he mentions that “The Master will not approve”. 

For most folks, that would ring some warning bells, but Michael is an idiot, so he gets the family settled in for the night. Almost immediately things go wrong. Pepe is killed, Debbie gets lost, Margaret is pawed at by Torgo and Michael can't get the car to start. Then The Master (Tom Neyman) arrives. This wacko worships the god Manos, has a bunch of wives that bicker and argue, and he has his sights set on Margaret as his newest bride! Will Michael obtain a molecule of common sense and save his family? Or will they all end up as sacrifices to Manos the Hands of Fate?

Dr. Giggles addresses the audience. 
Let's look at Hired: Part 2 first. It is the follow up to the short shown in the previous MST3K episode, Bride of the Monster, so if you want to follow the story then you may want to check that out. Or don't. You see Hired: Part 2 comes with a handy recap of the previous short. Essentially the sales manager requires the home spun wisdom of his father to realize that a real leader of men needs to, um, well actually lead. You can't just hire people and then let them run around without an guidance. Once the sales manager realizes this he turns over a new leaf.

Hired is like a lot of industrial films. It’s very serious, kinda goofy in it’s tactics and tries to hammer home it’s points. Is it bad? Not really. It has some valid points about mentoring and using knowledge as a tool for sales. It’s just the odd little moments that make the short entertaining. There’s the main character’s father, who looks and sounds like he should be in Grapes of Wrath. There’s the intense montage of high pressure salesmanship that looks like a World War II propaganda reel. Then you have the sales manager breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience directly in a “What have we learned here?” way. It is interesting to see what kind of sales tactics Chevrolet used back in the day, and it provides plenty of material for Joel and the bots to work with.

It is true, more people can identify Torgo than they
can identify their Vice President.
Until Mystery Science Theater 3000 did this show, few people had heard of Manos: The Hands of Fate. In a way MST3K needed Manos and Manos needed MST3K. They both became infamous because of their work together. Suddenly MST3K wasn't just a silly puppet show, but a daring series that unearthed some really god awful films. And Manos: The Hands of Fate became the poster child for "the worst movie of all time". The fame of both soared, and once the Manos episode hit VHS, even more people were exposed to the flick. These days, any bad movie fan worth his or her salt has seen Manos as many times as The Room or Birdemic. Hell, Manos was even made into a video game. Take that Red Zone Cuba!

So what is it about Manos: The Hands of Fate that makes it so horrible? The basic story is simple. A family gets lost, meets up with a cult and tries to escape. You’ve got a small set of characters, some conflict and some creepy atmosphere – this could be a successful low budget film. But the ineptitude creeps in all kinds of ways.

Settle in folks, this driving scene last nearly 3 years.
Well let's start with the opening sequence. It is essentially the family driving, and driving and driving, with nothing but a really bad 60’s song blaring in the background. Supposedly the opening credits were intended to unspool over this footage, but it never happened. This leaves you with one terribly long boring sequence right at the start of the film.

Then there’s the fact that the camera and film stock are extremely low grade, giving the whole thing a real home movie feel, or worse, the look of a snuff film. Camera angles are rudimentary at best, and it looks like most of the editing was done in camera or by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. Scenes seem to stop randomly, start before “Action” is called, or in the middle of dialogue. Rumor has it that the production could only afford film scraps, and so all the shots were short by necessity.

Freddie Mercury is Maude!
The script to Manos isn’t too bad, as far as low budget films go. It’s very simple and sometimes the characters repeat themselves (I wonder how much of this was improvised). The lines all make sense and convey the plot, but they don’t do much more than that. Some of the plot ideas have merit for a horror film. The Master gathering wives for his cult is sinister. The idea that Torgo and the Master are both after Margaret has a real creepiness to it. Then they film the scene where Torgo paws at her and it gets even more disturbing. 

I mentioned the blaring song at the beginning, but the entire selection of music is really odd. There are themes, of a sort. Torgo has the most distinctive one, and it is usually the theme that pops into anyone's head when they think of this movie. There seems to be music specifically for the chase scenes. It all simplistic and none of it is very long, and so you get to hear it looped over and over again. But it does all end up giving the film an actual musical identity, which is something other really bad films lack. 

"We brought the kid, where's the money?"
What makes Manos: The Hands of Fate really fail (or provide rich comedic value) are the performances. Some characters appear to have been dubbed after the fact, especially the cops and kissing couple. There are points where it sounds like there is one person doing all the male voice for the characters on the screen. Other times the actors go WAY over the top with facial expressions and hand gestures. Were they told they were rolling without sound?

The family is hilarious. Hal Warren, who did triple duty by directing and writing this film, makes Michael come across like a complete idiot. His actions are senseless and would make a brain dead box turtle look normal. Like nearly everyone else, he overacts violently, but is also capable of looking a lost in front of the camera. I believe Michael is supposed to be a sympathetic hero: a husband and father who made a wrong turn and now must protect his family. Warren makes you cheer when the idiot gets attacked, because he deserves it.

Margaret is an odd character. She knows there’s something wrong about the place the minute they get there, but dumb old Mike doesn’t want to leave. Mahree overacts too, but she’s actually fun to have around. The moment where she throws back her head and wiggles it around yelling “Mike! MIIIIKEEEE!” is very funny. I do end up feeling a bit bad for Margaret, but she should have realized what a moron she had married.

Then there is little Debbie. She’s your typical precocious daughter, who disappears and causes worry, and then re-appears with a Hell Hound. There are times when Jackey is obviously bored and annoyed by the filming of Manos, and it’s kind of funny to see these moments caught on the film. Mostly she just seems like a little kid who making movie because her daddy is in it.

"Have you considered taking Manos into your life?"
Speaking of daddy, Tom Neyman plays, The Master. As the driving force of evil in the film, Neyman goes for long stares and a creepy voice. He could almost be scary except for his goofy robe with hands on it and some of the flailing motions he makes with his arms. The Master is also prone to long silly monologues about the power of Manos and the Will of Manos. Neyman isn’t bad, and adds a bit of creepiness to the film.

Various actresses play his wives and you get some serious bad acting with this lot. I think most of them were hired because they didn’t mind rolling around in mock combat in diaphanous robes. They get some of the dumbest lines in the film, such as “The man, YES! The child, NO!” Most of them chew the scenery and a few look bored or possibly high on something.

Torgo in his action slacks!
But the favorite of Manos and most distinctive character is Torgo, the bizarre caretaker of the house. With his floppy hat, satyr like beard, huge thighs and knees, and bizarre staff with a hand on it, Reynolds makes Torgo the most interesting character. Then he speaks, and it’s sealed – Torgo steals the movie from everyone. His stuttering goat-like performance is classic stuff. I believe he was supposed to be a goat turned into a human, or maybe a satyr. It would explain his appearance and acting style. Reynolds throws himself into the role, and really makes it work. Torgo is creepy, funny, and pathetic all at the same time. 

Manos is one of those movies that is bad in spite of the fact that the cast and crew tried to do something. With some bad movies, you can tell that no one cared. But with this one, there was an attempt to make it spooky or creepy. In places it nearly succeeds. But as a whole, the ineptitude just shines through. Yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate is a bad movie and what better target for Joel and the bots at their prime.

MST3K Review:
Tonight on Night Gallery, women and the Manos
who love them.
Not only did this movie become infamous because of its appearance on MST3K, but this episode is often considered one of the highlights of the Comedy Central years. This episode was also part of a one two punch that ended season four (the final season in which Joel hosted for the entirety). Previous to this episode, MST3K tackled their first Ed Wood masterpiece: The Bride of the Monster. To follow that film with Manos: The Hands of Fate is either genius or insanity. Perhaps it was the divine will of Manos. Either way, Mr. Wood was often considered the worst director of all time. But when you see what Hall Warren created here, you really have to eat those words. Because Manos shows you what a bad movie can really be.

The dead eyes, the handkerchief on his head, this
man has seen too much.
Things start off well with the Hired: Part 2. This creation from Jam Handy (the folks who would bring us A Case of Spring Fever with Coily and his evil) and it is as ernest and good intentioned as you could hope for. Besides talking about leadership it also manages to be a propaganda piece for Chevrolet.

The entire scene where our protagonist talks with his father on the porch about his troubles is riffing gold. The sales manager shouts nearly all his lines, and his father swats at flies we can't see and then puts the napkin on his head. Tom says as the Sales Manager "I'm sobering up and you're starting to scare me." 

"Are you, or have you ever been a Ford owner?"
Then we jump into the scenes where the sales manager works with his staff. There is one exceptional loser (who we followed in Hired: Part 1), and the boys have lots of fun with him. The whole thing spirals into a montage of quick action, close ups of men talking, showroom gawking and test drives. Tom declares it "Triumph of the Salesman!" The final result is a solid riffing session for the short, not the best they ever tackled, but one that gets you nice and ready for a full blown riff-fest that is coming up.

To be honest, Manos starts off with it's most difficult sequence, the extended driving scenes as Michael and his family journey to the Valley Lodge. Joel and the bots do come up with some good stuff, mocking the quotes around the word "Manos" in the title, and commenting on all the fields that go by. They even start to lose it a little bit, reminding me of the rock climbing scenes in Lost Continent or the sandstorm scenes in Hercules Against the Moon Men. One of my favorite comments is when we get a close up of Michael and Joel says, "How come every frame of this movie looks like a last known photo." Crow replies with "It is filmed in Zapruder Vision". It's a pretty good riffing sequence for Joel. Usually Mike and the bots did a better job with those long stretches of nothing like Starfighters or The Beast of Yucca Flats.

Torgo performs some Dance Magic.
But things certainly improve when Torgo makes his appearance. If there was ever a character tailor made for MST3K, it has to be Torgo. His wobbly gait, his stuttering speech, his twitchy nature all lend themselves to excellent riffing. All the boys do a great job imitating his vocal performance and laughs really kick into high gear. 

I also love all the riffs based on the fact that the family dog is killed and the parents don't want to tell little Debbie. Joel provides plenty of riffs as Michael telling his daughter, "Stop this nonsense about a dog, you never had a dog." To which Crow answers as Debbie, "What about my dog?"

It's about this time that the host segments also start playing into how bad Manos: The Hands of Fate is. Each time the boys comment about the horror of the film. The mad scientists actually contact Joel to apologize about the film. Frank and Dr. Forrester even use the same words, "We really went too far this time. I'm sorry." 

The real reason this film was made.
When The Master shows up, all bets are off. Michael makes dumber and dumber decisions, messing around with the car while his daughter gets lost and his wife is hit on by Torgo. Eventually he gets his revolver and wanders around in the desert only to be knocked out by one of The Master's wives. Joel asks, "When is this guy going to demonstrate some simple common sense?" Never, I'm afraid. 

Those wives! The scenes of them bickering go on way too long, but Joel and the bots join into the conversation adding all kinds of additional things to bicker about (other than human sacrifice and killing Torgo). Stuff like buying the cleanser with the whole skin care package. When The Master tries to restore order and keeps shouting "Silence!" Joel adds, "is golden!" 

Oh ick, they're watching "Manos" again.
Then you have the scenes with the kissing couple, and Tom wonders why they drinking A1 sauce from the bottle. When the sheriff shows up, Joel points out that one guy is performing as both the sheriff and the beau. Then you have the coda scenes with the two ladies who end up at the Valley Lodge to meet the new caretaker. Tom goes off the deep end performing a long monologue as one of the ladies, while we are treated to another long driving scene. Joel and Crow are stunned. 

The host segments for Manos: The Hands of Fate are pretty entertaining. The show opens with Joel programming the bots to agree with everything he says. Sounds like a good idea… at first. Then Joel and Mad scientists do their invention exchange. Joel creates a machine to make un-funny comic strips funny. The mad scientists come up with a cool little guillotine for chocolate bunnies – just in time for Easter! The first break has Joel and Bots attempting to recreate the long driving scene from Manos. They flub it and break down in tears. Frank apologies for the movie. The next break has a great discussion on what makes Torgo a monster. Then Joel and bots come up with their own monsters. Later Joel puts on an outfit similar to The Master’s, except his has feet on it. Everyone breaks down, and Doctor Forrester apologizes for the film. In the finale, the bots try to wrestle like the wives in the movie. Meanwhile the mad scientists get their pizza delivered – by Torgo! Yep, that’s Mike Nelson doing a great imitation of Torgo. He would appear a few more times in future episodes while the show was on Comedy Central.

This host segment makes "Manos" an Easter episode.
No really, it does!
Manos is a fan favorite episode. Most people who enjoy the show rate this one very highly. I enjoy it quite a bit myself, but the long driving sequence is a bit of a drag. It is also one of those episodes that I find really funny sometimes, and less amusing other times. You really have to be mentally prepared for how bad this movie really is. I wouldn't rate it as the worst film the series tackled, but it is right down there with The Beast of Yucca Flats or Monster A-Go-Go.

This is not an episode I would start a newbie with. The movie is too bad for most people to even conceive of. This is an episode that is better appreciated after you’ve seen a few episodes of MST3K or have watched a good share of bad movies. If that sounds like you, and you haven’t seen this episode, seek it out. The Master will be very pleased.

I give it four and half hand of fate out of five.

This episode has been released a few times on DVD. Rhino gave it a single disc release as well as including it as part of their Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – The Essentials, which also had Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Shout! Factory gave it a great two disc special release which included documentaries about making the film, as well as interviews with MST3K cast and a documentary about the industrial shorts by Jam Handy. 

And now, some additional pics of the cast having a good time with the episode.

Such a wonderful pose. It can only inspire.

"Come to me Tom Servo. I am the magnet and you
are steel!" "You look like Maude."
Torgo is fascinated by Frank's hair.


  1. The appeal of bad movies is hard to explain to those who don't share it. After all, we don't enjoy other bad art the same way. "Come and look at my paintings: they're dreadful!" or "There's a really crappy band playing at Harry's Pub tonight: let's go hear them." But there is something about a movie that is different. Maybe it is the full-blown alternate reality that it presents -- when the alternate reality is ludicrous enough, we have to smile.

    I prefer most of my bad movies raw without commentary (I drink my coffee black and and my whiskey neat, too), but I must admit that some are so very bad (just as some coffee is so very bitter) that they need the mixer of MST3K to be watchable. This is one of them.

    1. Ok, you make a great point about bad movies. I don't think I'd ever got to hear a lousy band on purpose. But my wife and I have been known to go to the modern art side of art museums just to snicker at it. When it comes to paintings and sculpture, I have to admit we are philistines and find the whole "modern" movement very funny. Especially if they have quotes from the artist about their little lump of metal with piece of bubble gum on it. I think it is more that the stuff sells for thousands of dollars, and I'm bitter that no one plays me to write horrible poetry (the only kind I can write). :)

      I did end up going to a bad production of "Macbeth" once. But that wasn't because we knew it was going to be bad, it just turned out that way. I can tell you the desire to start riffing the whole thing was so strong. Especially when Banquo came out in his pajamas (as a ghost) with what looked like catsup on his collar, to show his wound. So... so bad. But so.. so funny.

      "Manos" is certainly one you need to have MSt3K along for the ride on. It is just too painful otherwise. Even "The Room" I think is a lot of fun in the raw, but Rifftrax does some great stuff with it.

      If you're looking for a very riffable bad movie, check out the made for Sci-fi saga "Clash of Empires". Wonderfully bad, with poor dubbing, scenery chewing acting, silly and random plot moments and an score that tries so hard to make the whole thing epic. Beautiful scenery because it was all shot in Malaysia I believe. But it had so much to riff on, a new favorite at our house.