Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
I had to watch this movie more than once to verify that George Lazenby actually has more dialog than just, “Hmm? Hmmmmm,” mumbled with that smug chin-in-the-air look as if to say he has discovered something important and must now jut forth his chin and stroke it slyly. Who the hell does he think he is? Mr. Bean? He does have a few other lines, but for the most part, he just hums through the whole movie. I know this isn’t the best way to kick off a review, but come on! Speak, damn you! This isn’t Quest for Fire.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
I ended up owning Naked Fist through my desire to beat Teleport City head honcho Keith in our race to both own as many nude kickboxing movies as possible. I’m not doing too well in this race mind you; my ineptitude at competitiveness has never been more obvious than when, as soon as I got a copy of Naked Fist, I immediately ripped it and sent it to Keith. This despite knowing he has at least 3 nude kickboxing movies I don’t own. I guess my only hope now is that he doesn’t have TNT Jackson, Duel to the Death, Golden Ninja Warrior or any of those Alexander Lo Rei/Godfrey Ho flicks where Alice Tseng fights ninjas while taking a bath. I don’t hold out much hope though; this is Keith we’re talking about. Ninjas in the bath are his bread and butter.
My introduction to Hong Kong movies was, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to me as a direct result of my writing about film. The year was 1989, and I was writing for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco. I’d like to say that I was “working” for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco, but the truth is that I was actually working as a clerical temp downtown, and that I was, at best, just making a meager dent in my nightly bar tab by writing a couple of film or album reviews a month for the lordly sum of a nickel a word.
Anyway, one day my editor tells me that he’s pegged me as the right guy to cover a certain film festival that’s coming up at one of the city’s small repertory cinemas — a film festival dedicated to this crazy popular cinema that’s been coming out of Hong Kong in recent years. Though I was intrigued, I have to admit that my exposure to Asian cinema at that time was limited to the output of Japan and the Bruce Lee movies I’d seen as a kid. I really didn’t know what to expect. Still, what little I had heard about these films included the fact that they were extremely fast paced and filled with all kinds of crazy stunts, which, then as now, was more than enough for me. I accepted the assignment, and was in turn handed a stack of VHS tapes that had been provided by the festival organizer.
I hadn’t actually planned to watch all of those tapes in one sitting. In fact, upon arriving home, popping the first of the tapes into the VCR, and witnessing its dire picture quality, I despaired at being able to get through even one of them. Those of you who were fans of Hong Kong films during that era know exactly what I’m talking about: The Tai Seng logo, the washed out, dupey images, and just enough of the English subtitles poking up at the bottom of the screen to taunt you with their presence while at the same time remaining completely illegible.
Still, this proved to be less of an impediment to my enjoyment than I anticipated, and I was soon popping in one tape after another, devouring them greedily like a fat kid with a box of bon bons. As a result, my introduction to Hong Kong films was less of a gentle easing in than it was a process of total immersion, like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end. In that one afternoon and evening I watched Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and the first Police Story, as well as a couple others whose titles escape me at the moment. Then, on the following day, I skipped work to go to an early morning press screening that featured back-to-back showings of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II.
As you might imagine, to say that my mind was blown would be an epic understatement. This was a pivotal event in my life as a film fan, one that would change the way that I watched movies forever. But to understand just how blown it was, you really have to understand how different these movies were from what I, like a lot of other Americans, was used to at the time. It seems silly, thinking of it now, but previous to that time I had dedicated a lot of word count to decrying what I saw as Hollywood’s then increasing reliance on action spectacle, singling out now fairly conventional films like Lethal Weapon II and The Abyss for reeling out fast paced series of big “events” at the expense of those things that thoughtful and sensitive folks such as myself were supposed to place a higher premium on, like plot and characterization.
What I had yet to realize, though, is that it wasn’t that those Hollywood action films were going too far, but that they weren’t going far enough. With Hong Kong movies, I experienced for the first time the joys of pure cinema, of movies that you experienced viscerally as a blur of motion, speed and undiluted style. This is not to say that I had previously been a stranger to the thrills of genre and exploitation cinema, mind you. Thanks to the variety of theaters available to us, my friends and I came of age as film geeks on a steady diet of equal parts art- and grind-house cinema, and back in the day were just as likely to be found at a matinee showing of Death Race 2000 or Don’t Go In The House at the St. Francis as we were a Bunuel retrospective at the Castro.
It’s just that, in these Hong Kong films, I saw consistently demonstrated something that, in my long experience of watching American genre films, I had only very seldom seen: and that was a solid commitment to actually delivering. Though about as mercenary as could be, these movies paradoxically displayed a desire to entertain that seemed completely untainted by cynicism, refreshingly free of the air quotes that modern Hollywood tends to put around anything as corny as the idea of actually trying to inspire wonder in their audience, as well as of the short-cutting, bait-and-switch tactics of the exploitation game. With movies like Eastern Condors or Police Story, your mind was blown because their makers saw it as their duty to insure that your mind was blown, no matter how limited they were by their means.
Of course, who wouldn’t be blown away by their first encounter with Jackie Chan in his prime? Or by the Better Tomorrow films, whose on-screen body count was at the time greater than anything I’d seen before — to the point of being exponentially so — yet also exuded visual poetry, along with an awful lot of not-so-subtly gay undertones? Or the, at the time, very discordant seeming collisions of ruthless violence, wacky slapstick, and overweening sentimentality found in most of these films? And then there was Zu, my initial reaction to which I have been striving to recreate throughout all of my subsequent years of trolling through world pop cinema. I quite honestly had never seen anything like it. So taken with it was I that I excitedly subjected the girl I was dating at the time to an impromptu screening, which she effectively shut down after twenty minutes with an indignant cry of “I can’t believe you thought I would like this!” (We didn’t stay together too long after that.)
So, needless to say, there were a lot more of those warbly Tai Seng videos in my future, as I spent much of the next few months trying to make up for all the time I’d spent on Earth not knowing that these movies existed. Then, in 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and during the period of adjustment to a new town, a new job, and a new relationship, I started to lose sight of some of my old interests, including, for a time, my pursuit of crazy Hong Kong movies. This dark period, I’m sad to say, went on for far too long, finally coming to an end in the mid 90s, when an old friend, who thankfully hadn’t realized how lame I’d become, gifted me with a copy of the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head — a book which I now know featured contributions from an upstart young film scribe by the name of Keith Allison.
It didn’t take long for that book to rekindle my passion, and I was soon down at my local video store –- which, like many non-chain video stores by that time, had a lovingly curated section dedicated exclusively to Hong Kong movies — trying to catch up on what I’d missed. With the Sex and Zen book as my guide, I chose as my first two rentals Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio and the film that I am eventually going to get around to reviewing here, Naked Killer. Both films have gone on to count among my very favorites — not just in terms of Hong Kong films, but films, period. And while watching them for the first time, along with being blown away anew, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong films had changed while I was gone. For starters, everything was blue! And, as Naked Killer clearly evidenced, there was lots of sex now!
Of course, one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong cinema during my several year period of inattention was the transformation undergone by the country’s “Category III” rating, which went from simply being part of the ratings code to becoming a distinct genre all its own. Essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the U.S.’s NC17, Cat III was notable for being the one tier on the HK ratings system that was actually enforceable by law; underage audience members who flaunted it could be subjected to heavy fines. Though the rating had been around for a while, it was not until the late 80s, with the success of films like the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun, that producers recognized a substantial potential audience for exactly the kind of taboos that the rating was designed to prohibit. Thus came forward a wave of films that courted the Cat III rating with depictions of almost every kind of depravity imaginable, as well as, of course, copious amounts of those age old friends of the exploitation filmmaker, nudity and simulated sex. Rape, cannibalism, sexual mutilation and graphic child murder were not uncommon in the Cat III films. And if the film happened to be directed, written, or produced by Wong Jing, it likely added to those disturbing elements a jarring dose of lowbrow slapstick comedy.
I want to say that Wong Jing is a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema, but the truth is that there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the fact that his films are generally awful. Or, I should say, a consensus among those who do not include the many, many, many filmgoers who made Jing a very wealthy man as a result of his not underestimating their appetite for trash. Jing was one of the most prolific and successful commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, thanks to a factory-style production technique, a shrewd ability to identify and shamelessly copy popular trends, and a willingness to stoop as low as necessary to provide his audience with what he deemed their desired (very generous) level of sex, violence and vulgarity. This last quality, unsurprisingly, made him a pretty heavy presence in the Cat III scene. And while I have not exactly sought Jing’s work out, I have to say that, in my experience, his name in the credits is not necessarily an impediment to a very enjoyable viewing experience. For instance, he acted as a producer on The Seventh Curse, which, alongside The Eternal Evil of Asia, is one of the most crazy and flat-out fun examples of Cat III supernatural nonsense out there. He also both produced and wrote the Clarence Ford directed thriller Naked Killer, which, as I’ve already said, is one of my favorite movies.
Now I should say here that Naked Killer definitely exists on the tamer end of the Cat III spectrum. In terms of sex and violence, its content doesn’t go far beyond what you’d see in the kind of direct to cable erotic thrillers that Cinemax was showing at the time. But while, in the case of those thrillers, the most you could hope for, in the best of circumstances, was that they would actually deliver those promised elements, Naked Killer sets itself apart by being so much more than even the most unrealistic thrill seeker could hope to expect. This means that, along with our very generous apportionment of skin and gore, we also get a raft of bizarre characters, a seemingly inexhaustible series of outlandish situations, and one jaw-dropping plot twist after another, all thrown at us at the reckless, head-spinning pace that we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong at the top of its game. And to put the bow on the package, the whole is at once coolly stylized to within an inch of its eroticism-oozing life and as slick as a stretch of rain covered blacktop.
Naked Killer demonstrates its good will toward its audience by making good on its title within scant minutes of its opening credits. And by that I mean that there is a killer, and that she is indeed, by all appearances, naked. This automatically makes Naked Killer better than approximately 80% of all other non-porn movies with the word “naked” in the title. After an opening shot of a mysterious woman hurrying down a rain slicked street bathed in atmospheric blue light, we see an armed man making his way through a darkened apartment and surprising a woman in the shower. “What are you doing in my apartment?”, he asks, effectively making our expectations do a quick somersault. Well, it turns out she’s there to kill him, which she does by handily disarming him, then hobbling him with his own workout equipment before crushing his skull and sealing the deal with a well placed bullet to the groin.
We later learn that this woman is Princess (Carrie Ng), a professional assassin who, along with her partner and lesbian lover Baby (Madoka Sugawara), is responsible for a string of castration murders that have the Hong Kong police baffled. Participating in the investigation is improbably fashion-forward young police detective Tinam, played by former model Simon Yam. And, because this is a Wong Jing film, Tinam has a partner named Shithead (or “Dickhead”, as he’s referred to in certain, more dainty translations of the film) who we will later see mistakenly eat the severed penis of one of Princess’s victims thinking that it’s a sausage, as well as verbally abusing a Filipino maid with all kinds of sexually inappropriate questions. Comedy!
This being a Wong Jing film, poor Tinam is also not without a few peculiarities of his own. It seems that, ever since a recent shooting incident in which he mistakenly killed his policeman brother, he is unable to handle a gun without becoming physically ill and vomiting. He also can’t get it up. In order to allay his blues, his superior officer suggests that he go get a haircut.
At the salon, Tinam witnesses a beautiful and provocatively dressed young woman named Kitty flirting with, and being aggressively hit upon by, one of the hairdressers. Things heat up when the hairdresser’s pregnant girlfriend shows up demanding to know why he dumped her. Kitty at first eggs the guy on in his contemptuous treatment of the woman, but then reveals that she is in fact the woman’s friend, and that she was merely setting him up in order to demonstrate to her friend what a scumbag he was. Then she takes the hairdresser’s cutting shears and stabs him repeatedly in the groin with them.
Kitty is played by the actress Chingmy Yau, here saying goodbye forever to the nice girl roles that she had played previously and embarking on her career as one of HK cinema’s biggest sex symbols of the 90s. Yau was the girlfriend of the married Wong Jing at the time, and the producer had — and would continue to — cast her in a number of his films, including, in the wake of Naked Killer‘s success, quite a few Cat III titles. Intimations of the casting couch aside, it’s easy to see why this was. Yau is a star with enormous sex appeal, and, in Naked Killer the camera just can’t get enough of her. Cinematographer William Yim takes great care to insure that no opportunity is missed to milk the beautiful star’s every pose and gesture for all of its fetishistic potential, whether she be zipping herself in or out of some picturesquely restricting pleather or spandex garment, or suggestively wielding an automatic weapon.
Interestingly, despite her status as a star of erotic films, you will never see Yau fully nude in any of her pictures — though the lengths gone to strategically place mussed sheets, picturesquely out of place strands of hair and resplendently splayed limbs to accomplish this render her “not nude” in only the most technical sense. This is a product of the general desire to avoid the stigma of nudity on the part of those actresses who appeared in Cat III films but also wanted to maintain their foothold in mainstream fare. Such career-protecting reticence is also the reason for the absurd lengths to which the actress Amy Yip went in almost every one of her films to conceal her nipples while at the same time showing us virtually all of the goods. In the case of Naked Killer, Japanese pinku actress Madoka Sugawara had to be imported in order to deliver the necessary quota of skin, as all of the other lead actresses keep their wardrobes within teasing yet strictly PG-13 parameters. (Note that this only holds true if you have something other than the US DVD of the movie, which has all of Sugawara’s full nude scenes, among much else, edited out. So be forewarned: If you are not seeing a naked Madoka Sugawara, you have been sold an inferior product.)
After witnessing Kitty’s de-balling of the hairdresser, Tinam pursues her out of the salon, only to be overcome with nausea when she grabs his gun from its holster and points it at him. Apparently fascinated by this strange and pathetic creature, Kitty uses her shrewd skills at manipulation to convince Tinam to leave the scene without arresting her, but then uses the excuse of his left-behind pager (ah, the 90s) to contact him later. With some dogged persistence on Kitty’s part, a cautious, teasing courtship between the two begins, one which soon show signs of developing into a full-blown case of amour fou. Before this can happen, however, Kitty comes home one day to find that her father, a humble food cart operator, has been killed by his much younger wife’s lover, a Triad type by the name of Bee. Kitty responds to this by showing up at Bee’s offices with a sub-machinegun and killing absolutely everyone in sight –- receptionists, secretaries, file clerks, everyone –- before finally doing in the man himself. With some of Bee’s goons in pursuit, she then takes as a hostage an older woman who, it appears, just happened to be visiting the office at the time, and makes her way to an adjacent high-rise parking garage.
Once in the garage, however, it is quickly revealed that Kitty’s hostage is much more than she initially seemed. As the goons close in, this woman suddenly whips off her dowdy business attire to reveal a skintight cat suit, then assumes one of those cat-like, battle ready ninja poses that lets you know that the shit is on in no uncertain terms. What follows is an absolutely spectacular set piece in which quick cutting, masterful stunt work, and lots of blood packs combine to present us with the vision of two female badasses making hash out of an army of hapless stuntmen. 70 seconds later, when it’s all ended with an explosion and the two women using a fire hose to rappel down the face of the parking structure, one can only catch one’s breath and immediately reach for the replay button. Truly, what’s most amazing about the sequence is that, despite it’s skittering pace, chaotic staging and lightning fast edits, the viewer is never left confused as to what exactly is happening or whom is doing what to whom. Michael Bay take note.
Kitty’s new friend, it turns out, is a sort of hitwoman mother superior by the name of Sister Cindy (Taiwanese singer Kelly Yao, aka Wai Yiu), and, when Kitty next awakens, she finds herself in Cindy’s house, which is basically a multicolored comic book funhouse well suited to being a villain’s lair in an old episode of Batman. She also finds that her fingertips have been removed. Cindy tells her that she has decided to take her under her wing and train her as an assassin, and given that the alternative is for Cindy to either kill Kitty or turn her in to the police, Kitty reluctantly agrees. And so the training begins.
Like any hitwoman worth her salt, Cindy has a violently psychotic pedophile chained up in her basement, and Kitty’s first lesson involves her being locked in with him with no choice but to kill him in order to get the key, which Cindy has planted on his person. Once this is out of the way, much of the other lessons involve Cindy drumming into Kitty’s head the idea that her most formidable weapons are her body and feminine wiles, all the while groping and fondling her suggestively. Finally, school is out and it’s time for Kitty’s first assignment, which involves icing a Yakuza at one of those classic 1990s erotic thriller nightclubs where there are half naked people in masks on the dance floor, orgies going on in the bathroom, and men quite literally snorting coke off the backs of whores. While Kitty’s mission is completed successfully, it has the unfortunate consequence of the Yakuza hiring a rival pair of female assassins in order to get payback against her and Cindy –- and these turn out to be none other than Princess and Baby. Princess, we learn, is a former pupil of Cindy’s, one whom Cindy has warned Kitty to be wary of, as, unlike the two of them, who only kill people who “deserve” it, Princess and Baby would kill their own mothers –- or mentors –- for the right price.
Along with being something of a classic among Cat III films, Naked Killer is also a key entry in the whole “Girls With Guns” sub-genre that flooded Hong Kong’s screens during the late 80s and early 90s. And, truly, it’s hard to imagine a film that makes more explicit the already none-too-subtle “chicks with dicks” subtext of those particular movies. (Though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suggesting that, in the varied and perverse world of Cat III and GWG cinema, another such film might not exist.) The film’s world of male characters is made up either of violent, sexually predatory curs who deserve nothing less than the castration meted out to them by the female leads, or ineffectual neurotics like poor Tinam, who appears to have some difficulty with getting his “gun” to work properly in the first place. Really, in the end, it’s only Naked Killer‘s chicks who have the dicks. And while the film’s depiction of lesbianism is — let’s not kid ourselves –- clearly intended to titillate, it ultimately ends up looking less “naughty” than it does to be the only sane alternative in the world the film presents. In this sense, Naked Killer reminds me a lot of the Japanese films in the Pinky Violence genre, as, like those films, it comes to its male viewers with the self loathing already built in, reflecting them back to themselves as an unseemly parade of slavering potential rapists and impotent boy-men. I suppose all the better to be squished under Chingmy Yau’s imposing thigh high boots.
And, of course, first in line to be squished is Tinam, whose investigation of the castration murders ultimately leads him to Sister Cindy’s doorstep. However, by this time, Kitty has assumed a new identity, and, upon seeing Tinam, pretends to have no idea who he is. At this point, Naked Killer briefly feints toward being a sort of Hong Kong new wave take on Vertigo, but Tinam and Kitty’s mutual attraction soon proves too strong to allow this situation to stand. We are treated to a montage of each masturbating languorously in his and her separate corners of Hong Kong, cluing us in that the mounting pressure will soon place them in bed together where we all now want them. When this does happen, I imagine that few will be surprised to learn that Tinam’s former erectile difficulties are now firmly consigned to history. In fact, so heated is this coupling that Princess, spying on the two through her rifle’s telescopic site, finds herself instantly in the throes of sexual obsession with Kitty, and, at the height of her arousal, discharges her weapon skyward in frustration.
Clarence Ford has said that his primary inspiration in making Naked Killer was Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, while Wong Jing had wanted a Hong Kong version of the recent American hit Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the finished product does, to some extent, come across as a combination of Chor’s more refined and elegant approach to eroticism and Paul Verhoeven’s coarser one. Though I think that, in the end, Chor Yuen won out. Ford was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes, as well as with requiring nudity of his actresses, and so kept both to a minimum (certainly by Cat III standards, at least). He compensated for this by conveying sensuality through lushness of atmosphere and luxuriousness of texture, along with a voyeur’s obsessive focus on the physical beauty of his actors. In other words, by an engagement with the truly erotic. Dated 1990s fashions and trip hop music notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone can deny that Ford’s is a movie that’s oozing with a potent sexuality — one of the type that only gains intensity by it’s proximity to mayhem.
And mayhem there indeed is, with Sister Cindy taking it upon herself to kill everyone who can establish a connection between Kitty’s new identity and her former life, including Tinam’s boss. Tinam himself only escapes as a result of Kitty’s constant interventions. Meanwhile, Princess combines her stalking of Sister Cindy with an increasingly fevered erotic pursuit of Kitty, inspiring not a small amount of ire in the heart of the lethal Baby. It probably goes without saying, given all that has lead up to it, that the end will come in an epic conflagration fraught with grand tragic gestures and operatic bloodletting. Who would expect anything less?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Naked Killer. But, to me, it’s only the subpar exploitation films that give sex and violence a bad name, while the ones like Naked Killer put sex and violence back on the pedestal where they belong. Rather than the nihilistic sleaze-fest that one might typically expect from the Cat III genre, Naked Killer is a film that rages with vitality, and offers about as good an example as I can think of of cinema’s unique ability to show us a vision of our waking world merged with that of dreams. And by “dreams” I don’t mean the kid stuff that Hollywood usually sells, but the sweaty adult variety, teeming with submerged guilt and forbidden desires. It’s an aestheticized orgy of sex, death, lust and murder that, when it’s all over, somehow leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty damn wonderful place. And for that I can only say this: Thanks once again, Hong Kong, for delivering.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Carrie Ng, Madoka Sugawara, Wai Yu (as Kelly Yao), Ken Lo, Shiu Hung Hui, Cheung Jing | Writers: Wong Jing | Director: Clarence Ford | Cinematographers: William Yim, Peter Pau | Music: Lowell Lo
Producer: Wong Jing
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
I have stared into the abyss of unspeakable madness, and in it I saw myself. I was taller, had darker hair, and was wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, but other than that, the likeness was both striking and disheartening. His name was Paul, and he was the protagonist in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I didn’t like him at first, and then at some point during the movie, I realized that I probably didn’t like him because he was the protagonist I and many of you would be — confused, irritating, panicky, awkward — rather than the protagonist we like to assume we’ll be — manly, brave, competent, and possessed of 20/20 vision. Of all the unnameable horrors that are HP Lovecraft’s stock in trade, none is perhaps more terrifying than staring into the eyes of a spastic dweeb with ill-fitting spectacles and realizing with horror that, yep, that’s me.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
Whenever I’m confronted with a film that lies immeasurably far beyond the boundaries of anything that could be considered competent, coherent, or even sane filmmaking, I find some superficial comfort in attributing said work to the hands and mind of a deranged lunatic possessed of an inner monologue so warped that agreed upon notions of human logic and morality seem to melt entirely away. This is, perhaps, a defense mechanism, as I encounter such films — as you might guess — pretty frequently. I suppose there is some solace in thinking that these films sprung from the fertile yet twisted mind of a madman, that surely there is no way a sane and normal human could have produced such alarmingly, hilariously awful material. To be hyperbolic about it, I suppose it is much the same as when we reflect upon the infamous dictators of our past as monsters rather than men, soothing our horror somewhat by casting them as some otherworldly ghouls rather than what they were and still continue to be: mere men, who remind us that the capacity of man to commit acts of near unimaginable cruelty is vast. They are not monsters. They are us, and but for a chance of fate — being born in another time, another place, or having a minutely different chemical balance in the brain — any of us could have been them.
Slightly less chilling is the similar revelation that a filmmaker like Harinam Singh isn’t some collective of 19th century schizophrenics who somehow started making movies for the Indian horror market, as I hypothesized previously. He is, in fact, just a man, and probably even a fairly ordinary one at that. When I reviewed what has to be his finest film, the mind-bending Shaitani Dracula, I likened it to many things, not the least of which was the product of a lunatic. I also said it had a kindred spirit in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, and it was right then and there, when I wrote that sentence, that I knew my own hands of fate were guiding me slowly but inevitably toward grappling with a review of Manos.
It’s a fitting name for the movie, because my fate seems intrinsically intertwined with Manos. If any movie was my long lost evil twin brother, it would be Manos. I know that one day, billions of years from now, as the earth boils and dies, Manos and I are fated to stand atop a craggy cliff as a tumultuous sea of lava crashes below us and volcanoes spew fire and dinosaurs into the sky. There we stand, face to face, battered, bloody, aware of the fact that we are both doomed, yet never the less unable to extract ourselves from the eternal combat into which we have been and always shall be locked. I have seen the road lain before me, and I know that it leads to Manos: The Hands of Fate just as surely as its road leads to me. My ties to Manos are sundry, and even I did not realize most of them existed until I started peeling back the layers of the onion, each one confronting me with a revelation more unspeakable than the last, until one day I found myself actually standing on the very grounds that served as the location for the film, at which time I fell to my knees, cried out to the heavens, and went stark raving mad.
Forgive me. Let me begin this tale again, at the beginning. You see, it all started in 1966.
It was in that year that fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren from El Paso, Texas, entered into conversation with a man by the name of Stirling Silliphant while the two men sat at a coffee shop together. Silliphant was a screenwriter, and he would later go on to pen scripts for movies like Village of the Damned, The New Centurions, The Poseidon Adventure, Shaft in Africa, and The Towering Inferno. He was also the man called in to string together the various stoned ramblings of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Bruce Lee into the movie that became Circle of Iron. Even before all that, he was a regular contributor to a variety of television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66.
It was, in fact, on the set of Route 66 that Silliphant first met Harold P. “Hal” Warren. Warren, who moonlighted as an actor from time to time in local community theater productions, was appearing in the show as an extra, driving a bus or some such task as payback for doing some location scouting around El Paso. Warren — and this is just my impression of the man, based on conjecture and what other people said about him — seems like he was something of an obnoxious blowhard, the kind of guy who would have loud-mouth local commercials that played all hours of the day and night until everyone in town knew who he was, for better or for worse. You didn’t really hate the guy, because he was basically decent, but you didn’t really want to hang around with him either. So during the course of the conversation that took place at that coffee shop (I only wish I knew which shop it was), Hal boisterously proclaimed that making movies was easy money, that a trained chimp could make a movie, and hell, an untrained chimp could probably get by. He then bet Silliphant that ol’ Hal himself could make a movie, start to finish. And so was it all set in motion. Silliphant went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for the film In the Heat of the Night, a slick police thriller that explored boiling racial tensions. Hal Warren went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
As the legend has it, Warren not only placed this bet with Silliphant; he even went so far as to complete the script, right then and there, sitting at the table. You know, in the past I’ve joked that several films felt like the entire plot was scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin. Well, in the case of Manos, it’s actually true. Warren outlined the entire plot on a napkin, right before what I assume to be Silliphant’s mystified eyes. What happened after that was a campaign of bullying, hucksterin’, and probably a whole hell of a lot of hornswagglin’, as Warren began his crusade to fund this new endeavor of his. Against all notions of sanity and reason, Warren managed to raise $19,000 for the completion of his film. Looking back from our informed vantage point in the future, the question isn’t so much how Warren was able to swindle people out of so much money — he was, after all, a fertilizer salesman, and presumably adept at the art of the hard sell (or shoveling bullshit). No, the question is, once he had the money, what the hell did he do with it all? Because of all the things that have been written and uttered about Manos since it was made, few people have claimed that it looked like $1,900 — let alone $19,000 — went into it.
In line with the ego others claimed he had, Warren cast himself in the lead, a seemingly decent if somewhat overbearing husband and father who is trying to drive his family to a vacation. The rest of the cast was assembled from friends and acquaintances, members of the local community theater group, and students from a local mannequin modeling agency. None of the performers were paid for their services. In fact, so solid with the spin was Warren that he somehow convinced them all to work for nothing more than a promise of a portion of the profits once the film was released. Say what you will about Warren’s soon-to-be-realized lack of talent as a filmmaker; the man was apparently one of the best salesmen in Texas history.
So with money on the cast thus saved, Warren went on to procure the proper equipment for making a film. This involved him salvaging a spring-loaded 16mm camera. The camera could not shoot sound, and Warren didn’t want to pay for audio recording equipment, so the decision was made that the entire thing would be redubbed in post-production — actually fairly common in low budget films of the time. More impactful than the sound on the limitation of Warren’s armada of one camera was that the spring-activated motor had to be rewound every thirty seconds.
So, free cast: check. Free camera: check. The next step for Wallace was to get some equally cheap location for his film. This came in the form of a ranch owned by a local lawyer named Colbert Coldwell. Coldwell had an office on the same floor as Warren, and I guess the two men knew one another well enough for Warren to know that Coldwell lived on a decent size ranch just outside of town. Coldwell, for his part, was looking at running for elected office, and I suppose he thought that donating a location for an entirely local film product would look good in the campaign. Whatever mesmerizing bullshit Hal Warren was spinning everyone else worked just as well on the ambitious would-be judge, who was lead to believe (by Warren, of course) that Hal Warren was already an experienced hand at making films. I’m sure being able to drop Silliphant’s name and play up the time Warren was a walk-on extra in an episode of Route 66 gave the wily fertilizer salesman more than enough rope with which to snare his prey. Coldwell went on to win his eventual bid for judge; Hal Warren, again, went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
With all the pieces put in place and ready to fall, the time came for shooting on what was then called The Lodge of Sin to begin and for everyone to discover that Warren had no clue what he was doing. On top of that, he was apparently a grade-A jerk while on set, so much so that the small cast and crew did everything in their power to avoid the guy as much as possible. Frequent questions by the cast about what was happening, what was written, and what was being filmed, were met by Hal with the mantra of “We can fix it in the lab.” Hal’s impression that “the lab” was a magical place where horrible work was turned into works of art and all the faucets ran with gumdrops and glitter was fostered primarily by his actor/stuntman/DP, Bernie Rosenblum, who (like most of the cast and crew) recognized what crap Hal was making but, irritated that he wasn’t getting paid, didn’t feel like having to go back and do multiple takes and reshoots. Not that reshoots and retakes were all that realistic an option anyway. As Hal soon discovered, $19,000 sounds like a lot of money until you start paying for film stock and processing.
As one might expect, complications arose at every turn. One of the girls (Joyce Molleur) slated to play a bride of “The Master,” the film’s bizarre Satanic priest-like character who seems to wield no discernible power beyond bullying an acid freak and collecting a harem of women who badger him incessantly, broke her foot and so could not complete her previously assigned tasks. But Hal had her out there, so he was going to make sure she got into the picture. And so was born the “make-out couple,” Joyce and Bernie Rosenblum, who spend the entire film making out in a convertible in a subplot that can’t be called a subplot, because it has nothing to do with the movie itself. It did earn Bernie considerable accolades, since the film’s complete disregard for the flow of time means that he and Joyce were making out in the same spot for over twenty-four hours. While this is indeed impressive, one also has to question the ability of a guy to “close the deal” if, after necking clear through the night, he still hasn’t advanced beyond first base.
When they went to film the big “catfight” scene that takes place between the various wives of The Master, Warren found that his plan to have them all in sexy diaphanous gowns didn’t fly with the school marm-like head of the modeling agency that had lent him the girls. No way were they going to let these future mannequins be seen on a movie screen parading about in a state of tawdry undress. So they all showed up wearing formless see-through gowns on top of what can only be described as “granny panties,” those above-the-navel, below-the-thigh girdles that are usually only worn by the stuffy wife of the stuffy dean in a 1980s teen sex comedy.
When it came time to go into post-production, most of the duties were handled by Warren, who had no experience with such things. He and a couple others (including his wife) dubbed all the voices. With money fast running out, the editing process was slapdash, at best. But by hook and by crook, Hal completed his film. And in a testament to sheer unbridled ego and skill as a swindler, he convinced the people of El Paso that this was a huge event. A premier was booked. A spotlight was rented. Hal even arranged for the cast to arrive at the gala event via limo — one limo, which dropped off a couple performers at a time then drove around the corner and picked up a couple more, so as to create the illusion of lots of limos delivering lots of people.
What happened once the film started to roll was pretty much what you’d expect to happen if you’ve ever seen the movie. By the time the film was over, most of the audience had bailed, and most of the cast had slinked out to the nearest bar to drown the disappointment. But Hal won his bet, even if only technically, and he soon began work on a second film which, sadly, never got made. The rest of the people involved with Manos faded into the background of everyday life. Manos itself vanished into the gauzy folds of memories most people don’t want to remember.
Until January of 1993.
But let us turn back the clock once again, before we learn how it all converged at the same point, to 1984. In that year, I got my first job. It was through my dad, and as he is the owner of a carpet store, it means that any job he could get me would be rather on the undesirable side of things. Said job was working with a landscaping crew, back when landscaping crews were less Mexican and more stoned teenagers. One of my many jobs was hauling around and spreading bags of…wait for it…fertilizer. On the weekends, I worked on my grandpa’s farm, baling hay at some points and, at others, spreading manure on the fields to be used as…yes, fertilizer. Though I didn’t know it yet, my eventual date with Manos was already being seeded in the vast Kentucky fields that needed to be properly coated with the very substance Hal Warren used to build his El Paso empire.
In time, I got other jobs. Some better, some worse, but many of them involving my having to spread fertilizer on some surface or other. In 1993, I got a fairly cushy job at a college bookstore, where I whiled away the hours selling Chemistry texts and bright orange Florida Gator Panama hats of which I did not approve, though they ended up being wildly popular despite my sartorial disdain for them. I thought that my fertilizer-related days were far behind me. But then, someone showed up one night at my apartment with a copy of a movie they swore I absolutely had to see, even though it was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. I didn’t know much about MST3K other than it existed. It was on Comedy Central, and Gainesville didn’t get Comedy Central. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because I didn’t have cable or even a cable-ready television. I had heard of the show, to be sure. One doesn’t get to be a college nerd in the 1990s without at least having heard of the show and getting kind of irritated at all the people on IRC who would randomly post “Hi-keeba!” and “A forklift!” But that’s about all I knew of the show. Heck, I didn’t even know what the premise was, or that it was people sitting around making fun of bad movies rather than it being bad movies they’d made themselves.
And none of that really mattered. Because as soon as we popped the tape into my 1985 top-loading VCR that was twice the size of my tiny little television and gathered around the diminutive screen while chowing down on items from Taco Bell’s 39-cent Fiesta Menu, I quickly forgot there were any wisecracking robots at all, so mesmerized was I by the film I was watching them watch: Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Watching Manos, like watching Shaitani Dracula, is an experience that can’t be described to anyone who hasn’t done it themselves. And once you have done it, you don’t need to have it explained to you. It is, I assume, not entirely unlike reaching that point in Hinduism or Buddhism where you become enlightened — which is the polite, religious way of saying you start saying and doing things that seem batshit insane to anyone who isn’t enlightened. I am reminded of the koan-like narration that appears at the beginning of Jodorowski’s El Topo, about how a mole spends his entire life trying to dig toward the surface only to discover, when he reaches the surface, he is blinded by the sun. When you dedicate a portion of your life to the pursuit of obscure cinema existing beyond the limits of mainstream film, a movie like Manos is both exactly what you’ve been looking for as well as the ultimate instrument of your destruction. I searched far and wide for a copy of the film in its original form, only to discover that none was to be had at the time. That situation quickly changed, however, as the Manos episode of MST3K proved to be one of their most popular. Before too long, copies of the movie sans the MST3K editing and embellishments began popping up.
Our strange and twisting narrative now takes us into the contents of the movie itself. The action begins with stolid early 60s family man Michael (Hal P. Warren) on a road trip with his wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree) and young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman). This drive is apparently shown in real time, as it seems to go on forever with no real point. It doesn’t even function as filler travelogue footage, as most of what’s shown is the hood of the car, nondescript city outskirts, or southwest Texas scrubland. I’ve spent my fair share of time driving back and forth across Texas — an adventure I shall mention in more detail shortly, as it ties directly in with Manos, as so many things in my life do — and while I’ve had a great deal of fun on these drives, I would not really think of filming the driving parts from beginning to end and releasing it as a movie. In time, we learn that Michael and his clan are heading to…well, we never really have any idea where they are heading, though it seems like their intended destination was the middle of nowhere. By and by, they get lost on the twisting dirt roads of backwoods Texas (or whatever you call the backwoods when there are no woods) and, while driving aimlessly through the desert, stumble across…the hotel.
It’s the kind of structure that, at best, looks like the sort of place an ax-swinging maniac with a burlap sack over his head would come running out of. It also has a goat-legged hillbilly hippie (or, you know, whatever) loitering in the front doorway. Michael decides it’s the perfect place to spend the night, rather than making the drive back out to the main road. Despite this lapse in judgment, the journey to the mysterious motel reminded me of a drive of my own. During one of my excursions through Texas, I was lured by free admission to a place called the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument outside of Amarillo, where I was eating at and sleeping in the Big Texan Steakhouse, home of the 72-ounce monster steak, as well as a Texas shaped pool and squeaky saloon doors to the bathrooms in every room. You may think, as I did, that squeaky saloon door bathrooms are pretty cool, and they are, at least until the morning, when in the course of two people performing daily hygiene, you walk through them dozens of times…each time with that incessant squeaking…and creaking…and squeaking…
Where was I? Oh yeah, Amarillo. Anyway, we drove out to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument even though the name didn’t really strike us with a great degree of interest. But whatever. We had one of those National Parks passes, and we’d been to a lot of out-of-the-way, forgotten parks as a result. Each one had proven to be pretty interesting to a road trippin’ history nerd like myself, so maybe Alibates would surprise us the way Washita and Wilson’s Creek did. So we drove. And we drove. And we drove. Down what seemed like endlessly and randomly winding roads through dusty red-brown Texas hill country, stopping occasionally to snap photos of lizards running across the blistering hot pavement, always following the beckoning finger of road signs that assured us we were going in the right direction. Eventually, however, I started to suspect that the signs had been planted there by desert-dwelling maniacs who liked to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by tempting them with the siren song of…well, you know. A flint quarry. In the end, the signs disappeared and the road just sort of petered out, turning from sun-bleached, cracked pavement to dirt, and then dead-ending out in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea if we saw the flint quarry or if we just got lost, but as we traced our route back toward the civilization and steaks of Amarillo, I was keenly aware of just how much our ultimately directionless sojourn resembled the opening of Manos.
Incidentally, we were in Amarillo because we were driving along what remains of Route 66 — the road that birthed the series that brought Hal Warren and Stirling Silliphant together for that fateful meeting which, in turn, resulted in the birth of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Somehow, on the way back, we got sidetracked and ended up at what looked like an abandoned Air Force base, though signs assured us it was operational, and there were military jets flying overhead if not landing at the base. Still, it looked pretty overgrown and tattered to be in use. Visions of Weird War Tales flashed through my brain. But that, like stumbling across the plains and up to a Texas-sized slaughterhouse, is a horror story for another day.
Speaking of horrors, few experiences in life can prepare you for the tortuous yet impossible-to-turn-away-from sequence with which Manos now challenges the viewers. Convinced that this hellhole with a man-goat out front is the ideal spot for his family to spend the night, Michael starts barking orders to said man-goat, who informs us that his name is Torgo, and he takes care of the place while The Master is away. Torgo also adds that Michael and his family are not welcome, though on this Torgo seems to flip-flop his position like a modern politician. Torgo is played by a young guy named John Reynolds, and the only way to even begin to understand his performance is to realize that Reynolds was, according to everyone else on the set, whacked out on acid the entire time. In the similarly bizarre but more lavishly mounted Ray Dennis Steckler film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, I’ve always maintained that despite whatever shortcomings the film may possess, there were some moments of genuine creepiness generated mainly by the grainy, DIY nature of the film and film stock. I feel the same way about Reynolds’ performance as Torgo. It’s so completely bizarre, awkward, and unlike anything that a human would ever think of doing, that it becomes a moment of absolute brilliance.
Coupled with a few other factors — chiefly, the weird dubbing job and the uncomfortable moments of inaction and silence where you can tell everyone was waiting of the camera to start or finish — Torgo becomes an otherworldly, totally successful element of the film. According to Rosenblum, Reynolds built himself a metal contraption that attached to his legs, so as to better mimic the look and movement of someone who has goat legs. This, predicatbly, means that Reynolds staggers and lumbers wildly every time he tries to move (I’m sure the acid didn’t hurt…or help). And so the simple scene of Torgo being bullied into fetching Michael’s luggage out of the car becomes both an ordeal and an odyssey to behold, made all the stranger by the irritatingly haunting “Torgo walks” theme song. Hal Warren elevates his film to near Hitchcockian levels of anticipation by having this luggage scene go on forever, then have Michael and his family change their mind and make Torgo carry everything back to the car, then having Michael change his mind again and having Torgo carry everything back in one more time. It’s excruciating, exquisite pain worthy of Pinhead himself, and like everything in this film, it has to be witnessed to be understood.
And so the nightmare begins. Michael and his family are disturbed by the eerie painting of The Master that adorns the rustic lodge, probably because it looks so much like Frank Zappa crossed with the Frito Bandito. Debbie’s poodle runs outside and gets mauled to death by some unseen desert creature. Michael starts snooping around for no real reason beyond the fact that he had a gun in his glove compartment and felt like prowling around with it. The leaves poor Margaret alone to be peeped on by Torgo, who then approaches her in a scene whose off-kilter (i.e., dreadful) editing makes it even more awkward than the “Torgo gets the luggage” scene. And then The Master (Tom Neyman, the father of the little girl who plays Debbie) awakens and decides that, even though he is surrounded by catty, bickering wives, he wants to claim these two new females as part of his harpy harem. This sets the Satanic dames off to catfighting while The Master half-heartedly attempts to intimidate them by frequently stretching his arms out to yon heavens in order to show off his keen “hands of fate” robe. I don’t know what he’s a master of, but it sure ain’t keeping his broads in line. This just goes to show, as I’ve said elsewhere, that unless you are an all-powerful sultan or god-king, having multiple wives really never amounts to much more than having ten people yell at you for not regrouting the shower when you were supposed to.
Torgo seems to share my sentiments, and after The Master has claimed so many women as his own, just so he can make them lean against pillars, The Master’s goat-legged servant is wondering when the main man in the boss robes and man-sandals is going to throw a little love the way of his loyal assistant. In fact, Torgo seems to think Margaret would make the perfect Mrs. Torgo, a notion he stammers to her while engaging in the aforementioned quivering-hand pawing of her hair, which Margaret reacts to by, well, by not reacting. She just sort of stands there staring blankly at the camera as if the actress isn’t even aware that they’ve started filming.
The Master, despite the fact that he obviously has his fill of sniping women, doesn’t take kindly to this show of independence and lust from Torgo. What’s more, some of The Master’s wives are jealous of his interest in the new woman. Others want to kill the adults but let the child live. And some just want to throw down and have a good ol’ fashioned catfight in their underlovlies. Meanwhile, Michael is — I don’t know. He’s just sort of prowling around with a gun and getting knocked down hills for a while, before he finally recovers and comes walking to he poorly executed attemped rescue of his wife and child. It all culminated in a finale that is as ludicrous and inept as it is disturbing and grim.
Obviously, discussing the technical merits and the acting in this film is a moot point. Like I said, though, I think Jeff Reynolds’ performance is terrifically bizarre and effective. So, too, do I think some of the photography, marred though it may be, is successful at creating a disturbed, eerie atmosphere. Even when it’s just the gaunt, robed Master staring listlessly at the camera, there’s something compelling about it, a sort of Videodrome quality that makes it feel like the guy is staring right at you even though he was probably just waiting for someone to say “The camera has stopped rolling.” Manos is one of those films that fails on every logical level but triumphs when regarded as some sort of “nightmare on film,” relying heavily on strange imagery and a dreamlike structure as would be found in the European horror films of the late 60s and 70s. There’s no reason to apply logic to this film, because it does not operate within the realm of logic. Instead, it inhabits that rarefied air where total incompetence transforms into accidental genius. I’d love to compare it to a similar sounding film, Coffin Joe’s Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasure, but alas, that movie seems to elude me every step of the way. Hal Warren sits at the same table as Harinam Singh, Jean Rollin, Doris Wishman, Coffin Joe, and Jess Franco (who, ironically, would be the most accessible and mainstream of all the assembled artists). Really, isn’t that a table any of us would want to be seated at — especially if it’s a table at one of those groovy, surreal nightclubs that only exist in Jess Franco’s mind and films?
Most of the people involved with the film faded into the background, returning to their day jobs after the humiliating and/or hilarious world premiere. Jeff Reynolds, who was described as a kind and friendly but deeply troubled kid, committed suicide shortly after filming of Manos closed. Hal Warren spent much of his life trying to get money for a second film, but he was only able to snooker people once. Rumor has it that among the pitches he made to potential investors was a sequel to Manos. He passed away in 1985. Bernie Rosenblum stuck around long enough to see Manos going from local embarrassment to cult phenomenon and was interviewed extensively by a couple Canadian filmmakers when they made the short documentary film Hotel Torgo. Manos itself played very briefly in limited engagements at a few Texas drive-ins before vanishing, only to reappear again in 1993. Since then, as befits a film this odd, it has become something larger than itself. If it’s not quite a pop culture touchstone the way, say CHUD is, or Gymkata, where even people outside of cult film fandom can still drop references to it (even if they’ve never seen it), it’s certainly cemented its place in the black, black hearts of cult film fans across…well, probably not the world. But at least around the United States. People cosplay as Torgo and The Master at conventions. I once planned an adults-only remake of the movie (I still have the 75% finished draft of the script). Hell, I remember a while back, someone even made a Torgo screensaver.
This movie…I love this movie. I Shaitani Dracula love this movie. I love everything about it, right through to the startling, bleak, and grim “no one gets out of here alive” ending. Because I am a dark and twisted individual, I love “corruption of the innocent” movies, and I think Manos is a surprisingly effective entry into that category, partly because it feels less like a feature film and more like someone’s fucked up home movies of a boring, terrifying vacation. Michael is just a regular guy, a bit of a dick maybe, but hardly evil. As corny (not to mention taxing) as the opening is, it becomes oddly evocative when placed in the context of what ultimately befalls our seemingly happy family. Mundane driving, the almost ghostly repetition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” – and then all of a sudden everything begins to unravel in a macabre fashion. No one in the family does anything to deserve the horrible fate that befalls them — there is no generic “dark secret” that somehow justifies the punishment meted out to our hapless protagonists. One can only marvel at what must have been going on inside Hal Warren’s head. Was he just copying dreck he’d seen before, with no thought at all? Or are we watching the machinations of the mind of a seemingly normal man revealed to be somewhat freaky? Is Manos really “don’t give a damn” filmmaking, or is it the product of that sinister side of the brain we all possess but generally elect to repress in deference to the notion of a polite and civil society?
Which, in a way, is just a flowery way of asking Hal Warren, “What the hell were you thinking?” but it goes deeper than that. Whatever conflict may have been raging within Hal between his id and superego manifests itself on-screen, be it consciously or by accident, as we watch Michael and his family struggle then succumb to whatever boring corruptions with which The Master has assaulted them. The movie seizes upon that thinly-veiled thread of perversity that exists within us all and yanks on it until the whole carefully knitted sweater falls apart, dooming Michael, Debbie, and Margaret in the process. I know, I know. Some of you think that’s too much credit for such a bad movie. But I disagree. I think in spite of itself, Manos stumbles into moments where it works well, if you look past the obvious short-comings and agreed-upon popular consensus that this movie is thoroughly wretched.
Having recently exhaustively read and reread every issue of Cult Films and Psychotronic that I own, having read and reread the various books about obscure cult cinema from a round the world that make up my library, I started shopping around for new books to help me pass the time on those late nights when I can’t sleep and have run out of steam for making my zombie apocalypse plans (though such plans are more important than ever, as my current apartment possesses a few notable weak spots that must be properly attended to when the day comes). One of the books I picked up recently is Sleaze Artists, a collection of essays about badfilm, why we love it, and what our love means. I’ve started thinking in a dangerously pseudo-academic fashion about some of the movies I like, or more specifically, about why I like some of the movies that I like. Some are obvious, of course. I mean, when Pam Grier pulls a pistol out of her afro and blows away Shelly Winters, is there really a need to explore the reasons it’s awesome? But other films — films like Manos, films like Shaitani Dracula, films like Jean Rollin’s ponderous and surreal vampire movies — I love these films, despite the fact that by any sane measure, they are so bad so as to hardly even qualify as films. As I was reading through the introduction of Sleaze Artists, though, I came across some references to an older article by Pauline Kael, a critic with whom I have a somewhat contentious relationship (well, on a theoretical level — I’ve never actually met her or engaged in a duel of wits). But in this instance, she managed to perfectly sum up why a film like Manos hold such unholy appeal for me, and in a rare moment of journalistic integrity, I’m even giving her credit for the thought instead of paraphrasing it and pretending like I came up with it all by myself.
We like these films, she states, because we are so educated in the tropes and cliches of “good” filmmaking that such filmmaking has become tedious, predictable, and boring. And this is true. After years of doing this on my own, to say nothing of that film criticism minor I tacked on to my virtually unused journalism degree, I can hardly bear to sit through another by-the-numbers “quality” film. Sit me in front of a quirky indie comedy, and I can describe the whole movie to you before it even happens, right down to the moments of poignant reflection accompanied by ennui-tastic piano music or a crudely played folk-punk tune. The same goes for an indie drama, to say nothing of an Oscar-baiting studio film. Yes, I can see the film is good. Yes, I can see the performances are top notch. And I really do not care. It’s become so rote that it’s near impossible for me to give a damn, even when I think a movie is all right.
But, as Kael puts forth, cult films are the place you can go and be taken by surprise, to see something completely outside of the expected. We watch these films for the thrill of discovery, for the joy of witnessing something that would not be done in any other film, by any more talented and predictable filmmaker. Cult films are the places where true vision and madness find free reign, unfettered by industry and commercial training. In that freedom, yokels like me find great entertainment. Manos appeals to me because it is so wrong, because it is so unlike what any of us expect from a movie. It is the breath of fresh air in a stale environment full of movies in which damaged, quirky people try to reconnect and cold, disillusioned suburbanites struggle for feeling in a sterile environment. In an industry laden with clumsy messages and delusions of importance, the utterly baffling nonsense of Manos has more to say to me than any dreary lesson taught to me by a more competent film. Perhaps I have merely been bewitched, or had my evil side tempted by Hal Warren in much the same way Michael and his family are hopelessly entangled in the laconic and directionless plans of The Master. I mean…what was that guy trying to accomplish, anyway? If you don’t want any visitors, why build your lair in a motel? And if you want to possess people and turn them into your minions, why would you not want visitors? And whata re you up to, anyway? As far as I can tell, The Master harbors no dreams of plunging the world into darkness, or taking over, or summoning Satan or anything. He’s just this pasty dude who uses his black magic powers to arrange poorly executed dances out in the desert. Does he exist purely to corrupt the innocent? Is he trying to establish a less irritating version of Burning Man?
In the hands of someone who knew what the hell they were doing, Manos would never have achieved the air of total strangeness that makes it such an entrancing work of…art? Sure, why not? The out-of-focus camera work, the terrible editing, the silent scenes of people standing around waiting for their queues…these things never would have happened with a real editor on the crew, and Manos would have been worse off because of it. It would have been merely terrible. But Hal Warren, bless him, had no clue what the hell he was doing, and by lucky happenstance, his incompetence elevates Manos to a transcendental plane of existence. It is the sort of out-of-its-mind experience that we jaded filmgoers spend years looking for, and like the mole, when we finally see it, we are blinded by its brilliance.
It was, perhaps, some sort of naive blindness that led me, in the late winter of 2003, to El Paso, Texas.
Ostensibly, I was in Texas to meet up with some friends from Japan whose band, Petty Booka, was playing at SXSW in Austin. My job was to putter around, do the driving, and eventually get them from Texas to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. They were traveling across the southwest by van from California, an I flew in to San Antonio a few days early to hang out with some people I barely knew, before making the short trek up to Austin for the festivities. Well, the San Antonio thing ended up being kind of weird, though I did get to see the Alamo and that lovely canal they have running through downtown, so I decided to rent the car early and meet the gang from Japan in El Paso, where they were scheduled to play a gig. Insane, yes, to drive clear across Texas just so I could drive clear back across Texas a couple days later. But something compelled me. Something which, at the time, I could not fully explain. So I left San Antonio early one afternoon and drove, as fate would have it, south by southwest, through the night, across the great plains of Texas, listening to a Mexican oldies station.
When I arrived in El Paso, deprived of sleep and fueled by middle-of-nowhere diner food consumed at places best left in the mind of David Lynch, I checked in to the Coral Motel on Montana Avenue. Beautiful old-school place. Probably hasn’t been redecorated since the time of Manos. It was two days before anyone else was scheduled to arrive, so I decided to forgo sleep and wander around El Paso, eventually finding myself across the border in Juarez — the Chicago of border towns, to Tijuana’s New York. What happened in Juarez is a tale worth telling, though not right now. At some point I can’t nail down, since the entire time seems like one long, hazy hallucination (and, at times, probably was), I ended up at a diner with a couple people I can only assume I met at some point, since they were with me. I have no idea how the subject of Manos was broached, though I’d put good money on me being the one nerdy enough to do it. As the hands of fate would have it, though, two of the people I was with knew the movie through MST3K and, even better, because they were El Paso based fans, knew where it had been filmed.
So it was that, through cheap beer, long drives, ukulele playing Japanese girls, questionable tequila, dominatrixes, seedy Juarez nightclubs, substances I should not have ingested, and all-night diners, I found myself lying on the very stones that served as The Master’s altar, and standing in what remained of the doorway in which Torgo himself once stood so many years ago when he shakily announced…
“I am Torgo. I take care of the place while The Master is away.”
Release Year: 1966 | Country: United States | Starring: Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren, Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jackey Neyman, Bernie Rosenblum, Joyce Molleur, William Bryan Jennings, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, Lelanie Hansard, Pat Coburn, Pat Sullivan, George Cavender | Writer: Harold P. Warren | Director: Harold P. Warren | Cinematographer: Robert Guidry | Music: Russ Huddleston, Robert Smith | Producer: Harold P. Warren
So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.