I first saw “Manos” The Hands of Fate back when I worked at the L.A. Weekly. One of my co-workers brought it in and we watched the whole thing over lunch. Needless to say, I’ve never been the same. Considered by many as the worst movie ever made, it is a delightful example of what can happen when lack of talent meets lack of money in the middle of the wasteland.
Tagline: It’s Shocking! It’s Beyond Your Imagination!
More Accurate Tagline: I’m the Master, and I Approved This Message!
Guilty Party: Harold P. “Hal” Warren, who wrote, directed, produced, starred as Michael and overdubbed several other actors in post-production. A good deal gets made of his being a fertilizer salesman, like it’s ironic somehow. This film was made on a bet. Warren lost.
Synopsis: Michael, his wife Margaret and daughter Debbie go on a vacation in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, or as it’s also known, Texas. After taking a wrong turn, they wind up in a tiny building in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t even look upscale enough to be a meth lab. The caretaker, a creepy guy named Torgo who suffers from elephantitis of the knees and is really worried about what the unseen “Master” will and won’t approve of, greets them. Torgo is reluctant to let Michael and family stay, but eventually relents, following his bizarre theme song into the other room.
When an unseen creature (probably a coyote, considering they’re in the middle of Texas where coyotes are the second-largest ethnic group) kills the family dog, Michael thinks its time to pack up and leave. Of course, had they gotten a real dog rather than that ridiculous toy poodle, the dog would still be alive and the family would be in a lot less danger. It’s called a rottweiler, people. Look it up. Unfortunately for Michael and family, the car won’t start and the nearest phone is ten miles away.
Debbie locates the Master’s wife-pavilion, a small outdoor altar surrounded by collection of columns. The Master, a robed man that looks a lot like John Wilkes Booth, snoozes on the altar, while his gaggle of nightgown-and-granny-panty clad wives lean against the pillars, apparently dormant. The family decides this is a little creepy and head back to their room.
The Master wakes up in a crabby mood. After a little light ranting about his dark god Manos, he wakes up his wives. He’s angry with Torgo for letting the family stick around, and irritated with his first wife for not wanting to kill little Debbie. While the wives have a fruitless debate over who will live and who will die that rapidly turns into an extended catfight, the Master and Torgo argue over who gets Margaret. Torgo sensibly reminds the Master that he’s got tons of wives, but the Master points out that he’s the fucking Master and Torgo can suck it.
The Master then has his wives brutally massage Torgo, which has to be the oddest punishment ever. What kind of crime would merit a threesome? This is the question that Torgo should be asking himself.
Michael and family try to escape, but some stock footage of a snake turns them back. The Master makes Margaret and Debbie into his wives and Michael gets to be the new caretaker. Because the Master isn’t a total dick, he lets Michael keep his normal-sized knees.
Life-Changing Subtext: Be the best Torgo you can be.
Defining Quote: “The woman is all we want! The others must die! They all must die! We do not even want the woman!” It’s the stream-of-consciousness quality of this line that marks it as Manos’s special brand of “say what now?” In the beginning of the line, the Master’s wife really wanted the woman, but halfway through, nah, she changed her mind. A lot can happen in two seconds.
The best misheard line is “You’ve failed at Torgo!” I’ve officially added the occupation of “Torgo” to my resume. 2001-2004, Torgo, Master Inc. Responsibilities include severely dilating one’s pupils, staggering around aimlessly and giving objects and people the Master’s approval. (The actual line is “You’ve failed us, Torgo!” which isn’t nearly as funny.)
Standout Performance: John Reynolds as the big-kneed Torgo is the standard to which all Yakmala performances must be compared. By all accounts, Reynolds was a respected local stage actor, but he spent Manos baked out of his mind, and like all the performances, his voice was dubbed over in post-production. It’s the former that really propels Torgo into the stratosphere. Every action, no matter how minor, looks like it causes him very real physical pain as he carefully waddles his way into cinematic legend. In another fun fact, Reynolds did his own Torgo makeup, which basically consists of gigantic knees. It’s never made clear why this makes him a monster. Supposedly, the scene in which Margaret glances down at Torgo’s feet (but the way it’s shot, she could be noticing that he has a sizable erection) and gasps was to indicate that Torgo had cloven hooves, however, in every long shot, Torgo has normal feet. Torgo also has his own theme music, which sounds sort of like a dyslexic calliope trying to wheeze out the opening from Jaws.
What’s Wrong: Everything. Entire scenes are shot out of focus, there’s no sense of geography to the Master’s compound, there’s an eight minute driving sequence in the beginning that accomplishes nothing, there’s a subplot about teenagers making out that has nothing to do with what could loosely be called the plot, the script is nearly nonexistent, the dialogue is redundant and nonsensical, and the monster is a monster because he has big knees. Big knees, people. The clapperboard even makes a cameo appearance. The only way for this movie to be more incompetent was if it actually broke into your home and pooped on your coffee table. The film was so bad that the crewmembers nicknamed it “Mangos: The Cans of Fruit” which only proved that humor hadn’t been invented yet.
Flash of Competence: It’s only 69 minutes, so it just sails by.
Best Scenes: As the car trip begins, the family starts singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Maybe the mom from Troll 2 told them that was her favorite song. In all seriousness, what is it with bad movies and that song? Manos, Troll 2, and Star Trek V all feature “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in the early going. Maybe it’s a coded warning by the filmmakers. If you hear that song, you get the hell out.
The car trip is done over a grating jazzy score with extended shots of “scenic” West Texas, which might be the only place on earth that would be improved by a population of Smegma Crazies. Though it’s a long sequence in the beginning of a film with music, there are no credits. My guess is no one wanted to take credit for the movie, which is the one difference between it and a terrorist attack.
Transcendent Moment: Early on, Torgo and Margaret are alone together, and Torgo really wants to stroke Margaret’s hair. This is where Reynolds’s altered mental state really comes into play. How far away is Margaret? Is that hair or a nest of writing snakes? Is… is the hair whispering to me? So Torgo does what anyone would do in that situation: he tries to fake the hair out. His hand ducks, dips, dives, dances and dodges.
Now, this is important. Margaret lets him do this. She stands there like a mannequin for about five minutes while Torgo pretends he’s Muhammad Ali of the follicle. Then, suddenly, Margaret has had enough. Of course, this is Manos, so the last thing she’ll do is act like a person. She screams for help without actually moving away from Torgo. And here’s the thing. The guy can barely walk. Outrunning him should be a breeze.
Manos is an amazing piece of outsider art that proves once and for all that not everyone can make a movie.