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