MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)
Director: Hal Warren
The phrase "worst movie ever" gets thrown around quite a bit. Some will tell you that the worst movie ever is Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. Others will argue that the title belongs to Troll 2 or the American Idol movie, From Justin to Kelly. And the most popular answer to the "worst movie ever" question is the Ed Wood masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space. But folks, I can certainly tell you a tale about what could truly be the worst movie I have ever had the misfortune to watch. It's worse than Catwoman, It's Pat: The Movie, and Showgirls combined. It's my pick for the worst movie ever made, simply because it is a complete failure on every conceivable level. It is a movie so bad that it could possibly drive lesser people absolutely insane. That waste of celluloid is the one and only Manos: The Hands of Fate.
This is normally the portion of the review where I attempt to write a plot synopsis. But Manos doesn't have anything that even remotely resembles a plot or a story or even a coherent sequence of events. It's just one random nonsensical scene after another. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it. So I'll just try to describe this mess somehow so you'll know what to expect if you ever want to see it for yourself.
The movie focuses on a family of three Michael (Hal Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackie Neyman) as they take a road trip to an unknown destination. They're searching for a motel called "the Valley Lodge," but Michael has gotten them really, really lost. The family ends up arriving at a house in the middle of nowhere, tended to by a really odd fellow by the name of Torgo (John Reynolds). Michael asks for directions to the Valley Lodge, but Torgo only tells him, "There is no way out of here. It'll be dark soon. There is no way out of here."
And since he's apparently as dumb as a sack of hammers, Michael more or less forces Torgo into letting his family stay the night despite protests from both Torgo and Margaret. As night falls, things start going straight to hell. It turns out that the poor lost family has stumbled upon the domain of the Master (Tom Neyman), the leader of an underground cult that worships an evil deity named Manos. And folks, the Master doesn't particularly care for trespassers. Will the family be able to survive the night? Will Torgo be able to successfully make a pass on Margaret? Will anybody who has seen this movie retain their sanity?
Where do I even begin? Most bad movies have at least one or two particular mistakes that you can blame for causing the movie to fail. But with Manos: The Hands of Fate, everything is the mistake. Every single thing about Manos is awful beyond comprehension. The movie cannot go thirty seconds without something stupid happening. It was even featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993. It's become one of the show's most beloved episodes, and MST3K's creators even labeled it the worst movie to have appeared on the show. They watched a hell of a lot of bad movies over the course of the show's run, so for it to be called the worst they'd ever seen is really saying something. But seriously, how can someone make a movie where so many things go wrong and not care about it?
There is, actually, an answer to that question. But to find it, we'll have to go to El Paso, Texas, circa 1966. The story goes that local fertilizer salesman Hal Warren had become friends with screenwriter Sterling Silliphant (who would go on to win an Oscar for writing In the Heat of the Night), and bet him that he could easily produce, write, and direct a movie by himself. Silliphant accepted the bet, and Warren armed himself with a budget of 19,000 dollars and the crappiest camera he could find. The camera was a 16mm Bell & Howell camera that had to be wound by hand, could only record for 32 seconds at a time, and didn't record sound. And thanks to the lack of sound, all of the sound effects and dialogue had to be added in post-production (with the dialogue supposedly done by the same three or four people). The final result of this whole thing is the movie I'm reviewing now. Warren might have won the bet, but at what cost? At what cost?!
When it comes right down to it, Warren had absolutely no idea what he was doing. As a director, his choices are frustratingly bad. Pretty much every shot of the movie is either poorly framed or out of focus, and a lot of them go on too long to boot. It's not uncommon for a scene from Manos to start with an actor waiting several seconds to get their cue from behind the camera, then waiting several seconds for Warren to cut after they've delivered their line. It happens more a few times, too. Any competent director would have used a take where the actor didn't look at the camera, and chopped any excess time off in order for things to have some kind of flow. But not Hal Warren! Our dimwitted director supposedly even forgot to put any opening credits (beyond the name of the movie) at the beginning, so we're stuck with a useless sequence where we needlessly drive around the outskirts of El Paso for what feels like three long, boring hours.
There's also scenes that contribute absolutely nothing to the movie, like the bit where Mike gets a ticket for his car's busted taillight and the multiple scenes with the two people whose make-out sessions keep getting busted up by the cops. And there are scenes that run on way too long, like the giant brawl with the Master's many wives. I know the movie is barely an hour long as it is, but did that scene need to take up at least three minutes? Ugh... this whole movie is stupid and it makes my head hurt. And there are so many glaring errors and flubs that there's no way that a director who knew what he was doing would have let them stay in the finished movie. The actors repeatedly stare directly at the camera. Actors and props occasionally change positions (or outright disappear) from shot to shot in the same scene. One shot that is supposed to be of three people ends up being an extended close-up of the back of Diane Mahree's head. Sound effects are often mistimed or simply nonexistent. Moths swarm around the camera, haven been drawn by the lights used for outdoor night scenes. Perhaps the silliest one of all is the brief appearance of a clapperboard at the beginning of one early scene. While clapperboards are often used to identify a particular take during editing, the most common usage of them is to synchronize the video with the audio recorded with it. But since Warren didn't record any of the dialogue during filming, why would he need a clapperboard in the first place? Most directors would either edit around the bloopers or simply not use those takes at all. But not Hal Warren! He just leaves them in there for God and everybody to see. It's like he just didn't care.
I can say the same thing about his script, a god-awful mess that doesn't know what to do with itself. The dialogue is nonsensical and repetitive, and the fact that Warren couldn't even be bothered to give the movie a coherent story is maddening. Nothing goes anywhere, and if it does, you can't tell, because none of it makes any sense whatsoever. It's like Warren just pounded his fist against his typewriter a few times, and he called whatever random crap that ended up on paper a script. Even the movie's title is ludicrous. As many other online reviewers have pointed out, "manos" is the Spanish word for "hands." So fully translated into English, the movie is named "Hands: The Hands of Fate." I'm just going to let that speak for itself. But really, the problem with the script is that nothing of note actually happens. The movie is so unbelievably tedious to watch that it feels like it drags on forever, despite lasting just barely over an hour. It takes so much blasted time for something anything to happen, and then what does happen varies from banal to insulting to just plain random. I've said it once or twice already, but it's just the most pathetic mess ever. The fact that somebody actually wrote all this and had hired actors and a crew with the intent of committing the material to film makes me want to weep and then die.
I actually pity the poor actors who had to appear in this piece of crap movie, especially since none of them got paid. The only one who got any sort of compensation was Jackey Neyman, who (according to stuff I've read online) was given a bicycle for her work. Everyone else ended up doing it for free, because Warren couldn't afford to pay them. I can understand when an actor agrees to be in a movie that they know will suck, because they'll at least be able to get a paycheck for it. You've got to pay your bills somehow. But the fact that nobody got paid for appearing in this makes me feel so sorry for them. Then again, the actors don't really do all that great of a job either. They're certainly not convincing, and it doesn't help anything they keep looking at the camera or just plain don't seem to care. And if I were in this movie, I wouldn't bother trying either. And the dubbing hurts the acting an awful lot too, especially with whoever decided to dub Jackey Neyman's dialogue. The character's voice is practically indecipherable. It's all just gibberish and noise, with the occasional word slipping through once in a blue moon. Debbie's dubbed voice is so terrible that I heard it actually made the poor girl cry the first time she saw the movie. But the only member of the cast that truly stands out is John Reynolds as Torgo. Combine his twitchy mannerisms, how greasy and unkempt he looks, his odd gait, the repetitive dialogue, his staccato dubbed voice, and the weird music that MST3K called "the haunting Torgo theme," and you have a character that very nearly makes the movie watchable. I've heard that Reynolds may have been whacked out of his mind on drugs during filming, which I'd definitely believe. He died not too long after the movie's release, but at least he had the chance to give us Torgo before he passed away.
Any hopes Hal Warren had of being a Hollywood star were quickly dashed away by the movie's disastrous release, and the movie itself fell into complete obscurity before Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a cult classic. Each second of Manos: The Hands of Fate proves that any random idiot can take a camera, film a bunch of stuff, and call their footage a movie. There is nothing good that I can say about the movie. Every last detail in regards to the movie the direction, the writing, the acting, the dubbing, the annoying jazz music, the set design, the costumes is utter garbage. The first time I ever tried to watch Manos without the MST3K commentary, I literally made it two minutes before pulling the DVD out of the player and throwing it at the wall. I am not making that up to be funny. That is a testament to just how awful Manos is. I know I've badmouthed Uwe Boll more than once in my reviews, but at least I can make it through his movies in one viewing. But this... this is just torture. I cannot give the movie anything more than one star. It probably doesn't even deserve that.
Final Rating: *