In 1966, a fertilizer salesman named Harold P. Warren sat down in a coffee shop in El Paso, TX to have a warm and friendly klatch with a screenwriter friend named Stirling Silliphant. Warren, a sometimes actor who worked a lot in local theatrical productions, had met Silliphant while working as an extra on the set of ROUTE 66. Silliphant began to bemoaning how difficult it was for screenwriters in Hollywood, and the two likely exchanged showbiz horror stories. By the end, Warren and Silliphant had made a bet. Warren posited that making a horror film couldn’t possibly be that hard, and that he could find funding for whatever film he was able to come up with on the spot. Warren sketched out an idea on a napkin, right there in that El Paso coffee shop.
That idea would eventually flower and bloom into a complete low-budget horror film made for a mere $19,000. Warren himself would star, and the cast would be filled out by friends of his from the local El Paso theater community. He also cast a Texan beauty queen, Diane Mahree, to play his wife. John Reynolds would play a scary satyr named Torgo. The film was set to be shot on 16mm film on a vast ranch owned by a local lawyer. The working titles of the film were THE LODGE OF SINS or perhaps FINGERS OF FATE, although Warren eventually settled on the bizarre moniker of MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.
MANOS is a film you know. You’ve likely seen it, as its reputation precedes it. MANOS is often regarded as one of the worst horror films of all time, and some have called it the worst of all films. Many mainstream audiences are likely familiar with MANOS thanks to its resurrection via a 1993 episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 where it was thrust back into the public eye after staying comfortably obscure since its 1966 release.
And yes, the film is every bit as awful as its reputation. From just a technical standpoint, the film is nearly unwatchable. The sound is garbled. The visuals are muddy and indistinct. The framing is haphazard. The sets and costumes are cheap. Reynolds, who played Torgo, was given a leg appliance to make it look like he had goat legs, but he accidentally wore the appliance backwards, making it look like he had large lumps on his thighs. Since the dialogue never describes Torgo as a satyr, and since Reynolds’ costume was never corrected by anyone on set, the character merely looks like he has two enormous matching tumors. The film’s night scenes are poorly lit, and people disappear into the darkness for extended periods.
What’s more, the editing is terrible. The camera lingers at both the beginnings and ends of scenes, in a few cases capturing the actors prepping for a shot. In one notorious edit, the audience can even see the clapper exiting the frame. There is also a notorious sequence at the film’s opening wherein the audience is treated to an interminable shots of the protagonists silently driving past many, many open fields of Texas. There is no momentum, no sense of pace, no artistry whatsoever.
Filmmaking aside, the story is bonkers. MANOS ignores the rules of traditional screenwriting and filmmaking. It’s about a family of three that travel out into the middle of nowhere looking for a lodge (Hotel? Vacation spot?), but instead find a shack where a dark, evil wizard – The Master – happens to be hibernating with his comatose wives. The wives are dressed as if they are ready for a production of LYSISTRATA. Torgo is the caretaker who clumsily encourages our protagonists to stay the night.
MANOS is derided and hated and jeered… and yet it is also celebrated, enjoyed, and has even been restored for generations to enjoy. Many people have watched the film multiple times and are clearly getting some sort of kick to it. Yes, much of the film’s enjoyment can only be the result of incredulity and schadenfreude…. but surely there is something here to be enjoyed. What unironic pleasures does MANOS hold? Let us explore.
For one: MANOS is raw. The cheap cameras and the filmmakers’ lack of cinematic understanding display an innocence, honesty, and purity that an experienced hand would not have been able to manufacture. This is not a film that seeks to manipulate or cleverly hide its banality with slick production values. The film is, as Immanuel Kant would say, the thing in itself. It is exactly as it appears. There are no aesthetic barriers between MANOS and its audience. It’s a raw, up front, down-and-dirty production of quick ideas, tossed-off performances, and hasty decisions. It’s immediate. It’s hot (in the McLuhan sense). And there is a definite appeal to that immediacy and heat. While the pacing may be sluggish and the visuals ugly, MANOS still manages to have a hypnotic appeal brought on by its complete lack of guile. There’s truth to it.
What’s more, with its rawness wielded so guilelessly, and its story so nihilistic, MANOS achieves a unique aesthetic that may be the logical beginning point of films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. MANOS is about a family that, while traveling through Texas, encounters nothing by ugly fields and bland landscapes. There is no art or beauty left in America, the film seems to be indicating, and Texas has become the featureless vanguard of a new America that has sacrificed its natural opulence for brown fields of human-owned banality. And, just like in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, in the very heart of this insipid landscape is the physical aperture to Hell.
A dark wizard enslaves women out there. He employs dirty hobos, and absorbs whatever souls may fall into his path. MANOS is about how a rotten American landscape has given rise to dark, desperate, sex-fueled cults, operated by appetite and evil. There is no longer morality in this place, and it’s because it’s become so ugly.
Here, there is sexism. Women are objectified to the point of being enraged when one women is abused in favor of another. Here, a typical dad can be easily stripped of his initiative, his wife, and his daughter, and be made impotent and subservient in the face of a dark wizard. Here, the law is a distant concern, and the local law officers are lost in a physical labyrinth of monotony; they are unable to find anything. A local necking couple seems to be trapped eternally at second base, as they tongue kiss all day, only taking the time to take drags from a bottle of vile hooch. Time has no meaning here. Nothing has meaning here. Evil is all that’s left. Evil, in the eyes of MANOS, is not based on the scheming of immoral murderers or any sort of malice, but on a gentle and gradual flattening of color and interest. Evil is what happens when texture vanishes, and boring, boring, boring life is all that remains.
To offer further comparison to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or even Harmony Korine’s wholly unsettling TRASH HUMPERS, the film looks like it was made by the very people who reside in it. That is to say, it’s so gross and dirty, it could only be made by dark wizards and dirty hobos. The snuff-like filth of the production is enervated by a weird nihilistic enthusiasm that could only be held by the film’s subjects. The film was shot by Harold P. Warren, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to think that it could have been made by Torgo, himself. There is a documentary-like verisimilitude to MANOS’ dark energies that seek to induct the viewer into a deeper plane of abysmal existentialist realization. Here is where the abyss lives, MANOS seems to say, and where the abyss comes to look into you.
Exploring this truthful need to vivisect human decency gives MANOS a terrifying and unsettling undercurrent of genuine horror that is difficult to shake. Audiences leave MANOS dazed and confused, but only partly by its dizzying filmmaking and bad sound. There is also a perhaps-deliberate, perhaps-accidental patina of despair, and is that not the goal of some of the best horror films ever produced?
MANOS is, admittedly, a chore even for the most staunch of bad movie lovers. As there is no joy in the filmmaking, B-movie aficionados have trouble traversing its endless 70 minutes, and most admit to having only seen the version riffed on by MST3K. But, if one is willing to explore a little (and be brave), you may find a philosophy at work. A dark philosophy, yes, but a mind nonetheless.