Manos: The Hands of Fate
Medium: film
Year: 1966
Writer/director: Harold P. Warren
Keywords: low-budget, horror, rubbish
Country: USA
Format: 74 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 4 January 2013
I don't get it. Where's this "worst film of all time"? You'd have to be insane to pretend it was good, but for the most part it's not aggressively bad either. It's like being smothered to death by a lack of inspiration. Watching Manos: The Hands of Fate isn't painful, hilarious or anything else so dramatic... for the most part it's merely a bit dull.
The first thing you need to know is that it's an amateur movie. Its writer, producer, director and lead actor was an insurance and fertilizer salesman, doing it on a bet. That's the level on which it should be judged. Thus, compared with other micro-budget home-made "independent films", it's not that terrible. Its problems are, in descending order of importance:
1. The writing.
This is what really kills the film. Harold P. Warren has clearly never given a moment's thought in his life to the question of how to plot or write dialogue. Every word he writes is flabby, fumbling and unsure of where it's going. The first thing you'd do with the dialogue would be to cut half of it. The plot meanders. The story appears to be advancing by osmosis. The audience get bored waiting for something to happen, as characters say the same things over and over again.
That's the upside of Warren's scripwriting. The downside is that when something actually does happen, it will either be unmotivated, unconvincing or offscreen. I sat through most of this movie placidly enough, but I got actively irritated by the way in which the narrative turns into kaleidoscopic randomness in the last act. Our heroes were captured, but now they they've escaped! Where did the husband spring from? Did that gun appear by magic? Diane Mahree has spent the entire movie whining that she doesn't want to be in Manos's mansion, but now she wants to go back there! "Let's go back. They'll never think of looking for us at the house." "You might have a point there."
It's as if someone threw the film into a blender.
2. The editing.
This is partly explained by the production nightmare. Warren had raised nineteen thousand dollars to make his film, which I'm sure he thought was a lot of money until he started shooting. Most of the film equipment was rented, so Warren had to go like the wind and would allow no more than two takes of any scene. (If both takes were unusually bad, he'd tell the cast that the magic of Hollywood would fix any errors in post-production.) What's more, he was using a hand-wound 16mm Bell & Howell camera that couldn't shoot more than 32 seconds of footage at once and wouldn't allow sound recording. The entire soundtrack was dubbed later, making the child actress playing Warren's daughter cry when she heard her on-screen voice.
None of that is an excuse. This is the worst editing you've ever seen, so bad that even small children will notice. Continuity is abysmal. Dialogue frequently doesn't match what's happening on-screen.
3. Half-heartedness.
For the most part, this isn't a film of aggressive badness. It's just the ultimate meh. There's little sense that anyone really cared, so for instance the little girl's crying after she's lost her dog is so bad that it's hard to be sure that crying was even the actress's intention. The face-slapping wouldn't knock down a three-year-old. The acting ranges from "poor" to "not acting at all", but the good news is that it's so indifferently shot that you're not close enough to the performances to care. "I'll never forget!" ...but nothing's happened, except a dog.
Summary: not a good film. However it also contains things I like.
Firstly, I have a soft spot for the music. It contains an actual song or two, not just incidental plinky-plonkiness, and it's often music that you'll notice instead of just having it drift like sludge beneath your consciousness.
Secondly, the freaky painting's quite effective. It was painted by Tom Neyman, who plays the master, making it a self-portrait.
Thirdly, there's John Reynolds. He was on LSD throughout the shoot and he committed suicide the same year, which is a tragedy, but he's extraordinary to watch. I'm not saying he's good, but he certainly livened up the movie. He twitches. He walks very, very slowly. (Apparently he's meant to be a satyr and in some shots he's got cloven feet, but no one in the film ever notices.)
Fourthly, I like the Parliament of Wives. Tom Neyman is some kind of satanic undead immortal with a harem, which at first I assumed would be one-dimensional female objectification. However when Neyman decides that the newcomers have to die, his wives don't simply obey, but instead sit down together and discuss it! Should they kill the child? She's female! Only men should die, then? Has Neyman unwittingly created some kind of She-like communal matriarchy? The wives talk and talk, then unexpectedly start wrestling in a big catfight that goes on longer than you'd believe and unfortunately doesn't have any nightdresses getting interestingly torn.
Admittedly the acting's weak and the wrestling silly, but this is still way more original than the usual Brides of Dracula nonsense.
Finally, it's just... odd. Tom Neyman is dressed as a red and black butterfly and is playing some kind of obscure undead thing (I think) whose nature is never revealed. "You are not one of us." What is he, then? The killing of Reynolds is almost brilliant in its surrealism. Hands are waved at the camera, then it's over! The sexual politics and mildly suggested paedophilia can get kind of disturbing. If you don't like formulaic Hollywood cookie-cutter movies, then trust me: this ain't that.
Not recommended, even to bad film lovers. The depths of badness can be wildly entertaining, but this film isn't even distinguished enough to go there. It's just bleah until the final act, which is tiresome. There's no reason why this should have got so famous, except that MST3K covered it and raised its profile enough to get, for instance, an iPad game.
"Don't you ever try that again, you beast!" ...AFTER NOTHING.