Day 245: Spooling The Spew – Worst Films Part 2

originally published September 1, 2012

A couple months ago I began what I hoped would become a regular segment, a landmark I could pace myself with as I rode around this project, month by month, lapping my words with more words. I wrote about three awful films, taken from Wikipedia’s page of films considered to be ‘the worst’. A friend offered a suggestion for the next entry, and while I opted to highlight some television weirdness last month, today I took his advice.

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, and I just finished watching Manos: The Hands of Fate.

I need to be clear – actually watching these terrible movies is not a requirement for writing about them. When I scribbled some mockery toward From Justin To Kelly back in July, I did no research that involved actually sitting through that waste of celluloid. I would love to do that someday, to sit through horrendous movies and write about them, but when I’m working on a 24-hour deadline to punch out a thousand words every day, corners must be cut.

But Manos: The Hands of Fate was an exception. I’d heard such impressive reports about the magnitude of the film’s awfulness, it needed to be seen. Entertainment Weekly bumped Manos above Plan 9 From Outer Space and called it the worst film of all time. Manos possesses the rare and almost unfathomable 0% rating on This is a movie whose stink must be smelled to be believed.

Here’s the man I need to thank for that lost 68 minutes of my morning:

That’s Harold P. Warren, an insurance salesman and occasional actor who lived in El Paso in the mid 1960s. He met Route 66 co-creator Stirling Silliphant, who became best known for penning the script to In The Heat Of The Night, a film that will never make it into this feature due to its unredeeming greatness. Warren made a bet with Stirling that horror films were so simple, even he could make one on his own. He then excused himself to the nearest toilet stall and crapped out Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Actually, Warren managed to raise $19,000 to shoot the film. Nineteen grand. That’s equivalent to over $136,000 in today’s money, more than five times what Kevin Smith worked with when he made his indie masterpiece, Clerks. Warren hired a group of local actors and some models, then positioned himself as writer/producer/director/star, which is handy because now we can blame him exclusively for what was to come.

The film follows a couple, their daughter and dog as they get lost on their way to some inexplicable vacation spot in the Texas desert. They show up at a house to ask directions, and meet Torgo, a shaky-voiced creep with a large walking stick, quivering stride and puffy knees. Torgo is the glue that holds the movie together. His performance is a cross between Norman Bates in a rotten mood and those two Czech brothers Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd used to play on Saturday Night Live.

The husband insists they spend the night. The dog runs outside and is killed – by what we never find out. Torgo claims he is watching the house for the ‘Master’, who turns out to be a polygamist cult-leading Frank Zappa look-alike, with a bunch of hypnotized wives he keeps in a state of perpetual slumber. The wives wake up and have a fight over whether or not the little girl should be killed, then eventually Zappa takes two bullets in the face from the husband. The Master is unharmed, because he’s mystical and magical and they couldn’t afford fake blood. Torgo gets punished by having his hand burnt and severed (somehow), then the husband gets hypnotized into taking Torgo’s place, and Zappa takes the wife and daughter as his two new wives. The end.

Actually, it’s “The End?” – the question mark shows up on-screen, so I suppose it deserves a mention here.

Warren won his bet; he made the movie. What he didn’t do was make a remotely good movie. He shot a lengthy driving montage that was intended to have credits overtop, but never got them. He included recurring scenes of a couple making out in a convertible – these people have nothing to do with the plot. In one make-out scene, you can actually see the clapboard fly through the frame. I’m not making this up.

This strikes me as particularly odd, considering the film was shot with a 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time and recorded no sound. The voices were all dubbed during post-production.

Another unusual choice Warren made was to opt for night-for-night shooting. Back before camera and film technology made the leap to effectively capture low-light footage, low-budget productions often shot night scenes under the sun, using lens filters and underexposed film stock to create the dimmed effect of night. Warren didn’t change a thing; he just splashed a couple lights on the scenery and hoped for the best at night. This is why, when the two police officers hear a gunshot and leave their car to investigate, they only walk about two feet from the vehicle before giving up. Any further and they’d have been invisible to the camera.

Also, the lights attracted moths, which flutter distractingly through some of the shots. There was no CGI-ing them off the frame.

Manos: The Hands of Fate was shown at one El Paso theatre and a few nearby drive-ins in 1966. That was the extent of its theatrical run. During the premiere, which the cast and crew attended (sharing a single limousine, which rode around the block to pick them up one at a time), the audience allegedly laughed at the film, then threw their shoes at the screen. The cast slipped out before the end credits had rolled.

Actor John Reynolds, who stole the show as Torgo, put a shotgun to his head on October 16, 1966, a month before the film was released. This had nothing to do with the movie, just a sad little footnote to this weirdness. Harold P. Warren, who may or may not have gone on to sell fertilizer later in life, never made another movie. He died in 1985, his film lost to obscurity.

What brought the movie back to life, allowing it to be plunked on so many ‘Worst Film’ lists, was the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which regularly showed low-budget Z-movies and mocked them in real-time. The 1993 season four closer episode which showed all of Manos: The Hands of Fate was one of their most popular broadcasts, and this obscure bomb became a cult classic.

And so it was that I spent my morning sitting through it. And thanks to the generous folks who visit the fund-raising site Kickstarter, Floridian Ben Solovey has found financing to bring Manos to a fully-restored, high-def Blu-ray release, due out this fall.

If you like chuckling at bad movies, this may just be the most fun you’ll have all weekend.

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