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Manos: The Hands of Fate

Anyone who thinks that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst movie ever made has never seen Manos: The Hands of Fate.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single solitary thing about this movie is a cruel joke. Writer/director/producer/star/fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren made this on a bet, claiming that making a horror film was easy enough that he could do it on his own with a shoestring budget. John Reynolds, one of the actors on the film, killed himself a month before the film premiered. When the movie finally did premiere at a local cerebral palsy event in El Paso, the cast and crew had to make a hasty retreat while the audience kept booing and throwing their shoes at the screen.

But here’s the crowning ignominy: The only reason why anyone knows about this film at all is an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The crew at the Satellite of Love got their sticky fingers on a 16mm print of the movie and featured it on an episode in 1993. That episode has since become one of the most famous in the show’s entire run, in large part because this movie was so damned hard to riff. Seriously. If you’ve actually seen the episode, you’d know that there are points when the actors nearly break character, apologizing to the audience for how hard it is to riff on.

That’s this movie’s claim to fame. It’s the movie so boring, incompetent, tasteless, and bad in all the wrong ways that it was too much for the MST3K crew to process. And when the crew of MST3K — who’ve built a career on watching irredeemably bad movies — calls your film one of the worst they’ve ever seen… Jesus Tapdancing Christ, someone screwed up.

Watching the film for myself, I can’t begin to imagine why the film has gotten its cult reputation. I can understand why the MST3K episode is a classic, because it’s that damned hilarious watching Joel Hodgson and company suffer in the attempt to make this movie funny. But the movie on its own merit is fucking unwatchable.

Let’s set aside the godawful picture quality. The surviving copies of this film are all based on a public domain print, presumably from a VHS recording of a time when the movie played on a local TV station. As such, a significant downgrade in picture quality is completely understandable. Even so, everything that could possibly go wrong on a technical level did go wrong.

Every shot is terribly framed. The score is repetitive and sounds uniformly awful. The dialogue is repetitive and sounds uniformly awful. None of the characters act in any intelligent way, though I guess that comes standard with bad horror movies. And the editing… Oh, God, the editing.

A whole book could be written on everything this movie gets wrong in terms of editing. I’m sure it didn’t help that the movie was shot on a rented camera that had to be hand-wound and could only shoot 32 seconds of film at a time. Even so, the movie includes shots that only last for a split second, shots that seem to last for a fucking eternity, and cutaways that interrupt the score.

Most unforgivably, this movie may very well feature the worst pacing in all of cinema history. It’s not an exaggeration to say that huge stretches of this film go by with total dead silence. There are whole scenes in which absolutely nothing happens. I’m not even talking about stuff happening that’s irrelevant to the plot, I’m talking about characters standing around and doing absolutely nothing! This whole 74-minute movie could be compressed into 20 minutes of plot, if that.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that infamous subplot about a couple making out on the side of the street. That subplot is infamous precisely because it’s entirely useless. The only reason it’s in there at all is because the actress involved got her foot broken and Warren wanted to keep her in the movie. True story.

But of course, it gets worse. Due to the limited nature of the filmmakers’ shitty equipment, the production was filmed entirely without any sound recording. This means that all of the movie’s dialogue was dubbed in post. Badly. It’s blatantly obvious where the dialogue is out of sync, and you can plainly tell that it’s the same five actors recording every line. Then again, it’s not like the acting would have been worth salvaging anyway. The actors all move so stiffly that Warren would have done just as well and saved a lot of his precious shoestring budget if he had simply used cardboard cutouts instead.

Oh, and the filmmakers were very inconsistent in dubbing sound effects. This means that when a door closes, for example, there’s nothing but total silence. That looks every bit as stupid as you might think.

The film’s attempts at action have a sort of unintentional humor to them, particularly in the case of the massive catfight battle royale. There’s also the Master’s outfit, which almost manages to be sinister in a goofy kind of way. Torgo is probably the most memorable part of this movie, since the stilted line deliveries and profound technical limitations actually serve to enhance this depiction of an awkward inhuman whatchamacallit. Aside from those few and small aspects of the film, there’s really nothing here to merit the picture’s status as a cult classic.

By comparison, it’s obvious that Plan 9 was genuinely trying to be an entertaining movie. Ed Wood may have been a worthless filmmaker, but his lofty ambitions shine through all the crap. By comparison, Warren only made this movie on a bet to prove that he could, and it shows. There’s a total lack of behind-the-scenes effort that permeates through the entire movie, showing complete apathy for the audience and even for the actors.

Moreover, Plan 9 had an awesome premise at its core, with aliens come to obliterate humanity by way of a zombie invasion. Manos has a family stranded in the middle of nowhere, doomed after they stumble onto some half-assed polygamist cult. That brings me to another point: Plan 9 had some bold — if terribly misguided — statements about humanity’s potential for mass destruction. Manos features a villain who abuses his multiple wives, one of whom is a six-year-old.

(Side note: The MST3K crew went on to list that scene as one of “The Most Disgusting Things We’ve Ever Seen.” You can tell, watching the episode: They nearly broke character to yell at the screen when the child bride came up.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Plan 9 is an awful movie, but at least it was made in the service of a greater goal. The putrescence of Manos, on the other hand, is an end in itself. It has no greater aspirations, nor does it have anything of value for the audience to take away from it. The movie is offensive garbage, poorly-crafted and made without any thought or talent.

Needless to say, none of this picture’s cast or crew went on to anything else. In fact, aside from Jackie Neyman (who got a bicycle for playing the daughter character) and her family’s dog (whose food was provided) no one in this film saw payment of any kind. Warren promised to pay everyone with a cut of the (non-existent) profits as a means of preserving the budget, you see.

(Side note: The aforementioned Jackie Neyman was the daughter of Tom Neyman, who played the cult’s Master. It seems that the elder Neyman was away from home quite frequently, and his daughter cherished the chance to play with him for a summer. She’s living in Oregon now, by the way.)

Nevertheless, the film has somehow left a significant legacy. In 2011, a Florida grad student discovered an original 16mm workprint, and then raised $48,000 on Kickstarter to restore it for a Blu-Ray release. Only a few months ago, a 16-bit video game adaptation was made for iPhone and Android. There were rumblings of an unofficial sequel titled “The Search for Valley Lodge,” but I can’t find anything more recent than 2011.

Last but not least, there have been three stage adaptations. The very first one was made by Last Rites Productions, based right here in Portland. I’ve seen flyers for their Manos stage show as recently as a few months ago. The second one was a rock opera in Chicago. The third one was a musical version acted out with puppets, hilariously titled “Manos: The Hands of Felt.”

I have no idea why such a wretched movie continues to amuse and inspire, but I think it speaks volumes that this whole thing started with an MST3K episode. I’d assume that this is one of those movies that’s only as good as who you’re watching it with. The only way to make it through this unwatchable piece of shit is to apply your own jokes and ideas to it. Luckily, all the dead space provides more than enough blank canvas.

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