Monday, October 03, 2016

"I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the Master is away."

So yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate is an infamous little movie from 1966 that is often mentioned in conversations about the "Worst Movie Ever Made." While I don't think its the actual worst movie ever made (that's a matter of personal taste), it is a colossal turkey that earns its reputation.

Written, produced, directed and starring Harold P. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, the movie was famously made on a bet with a Hollywood location scout named Stirling Silliphant, who would himself go on to great acclaim as the screenwriter of such classics as In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and, uh, Over the Top. The bet was that Warren could complete a low budget horror film on his own.

After a tumultuous production and failing miserably in the Southwest, the film languished in obscurity until the famous MST3K episode aired in 1993. After that, it turned into a Z-movie icon, eventually spawning a mobile game, a blu ray digital remaster, and a successful crowdfunded project for Manos Returns, which is due some time this year if IMDB is correct. Much like Troll 2, its not exactly obscure anymore, but that doesn't change the fact that its still awful.

What's it about? 

After eight minutes of driving around the El Paso countryside, a family on vacation get lost looking for Valley Lodge. The father, Mike, is played by Hal P. Warren himself. The mom is Margaret, played by Diane Mahree, who would later find success in fashion modeling, and their daughter, Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, but dubbed into incomprehensibility. They stop at a house that “wasn't there before” first to ask for directions, then for lodging as night approaches. The caretaker is a twitchy and awkward man with strange knees (whether he was supposed to be a satyr or “like a hunchback, only hunchknees” seems a bit ambiguous, since I've seen both reported. Doesn't really matter, anyway.) He's named Torgo, and played by John Reynolds, a troubled young man who was apparently on LSD during filming and committed suicide at the age of 25 a month before the movie was released to theaters. 

So that's depressing.

Torgo's weird as hell, speaking in halting sentences and stumbling around with his own theme song. He takes care of the place while the Master is away, and while reluctant to allow the family to stay, he lusts for Margaret.

The Master is played by Tom Neyman, and is the leader of a mysterious and vague cult of possibly immortal, possibly undead people. He worships an abyssal being of primordial darkness named Manos that has a hand motif, and his cult centers their worship around a macabre bonfire where they sit, talk, argue, and eventually get into a catfight around. Essentially the Dark Souls of movies.

I'm only half joking. The similarities might be purely coincidental, but they are striking.

Tom Neyman is essentially the unsung hero of this movie. In addition to being the villain, his daughter played Debbie, his dog played the devil dog, he helped make Torgo's knees, built some of the props and his wife designed most of the costumes. He also gives the best performance of the movie, for what its worth.

I've noticed that in the best worst movies made, there's always some person with talent that is applying genuine effort to elevate the movie above its massive failings. Here, its clearly Neyman who gave it his best effort.

So what doesn't work? Saying “Everything” is a cop out, and also untrue. The editing is bad, with long and short cuts jumping around the place and long stretches of boredom that help drag its run time over 60 minutes. The cinematography is bad, with mostly dull scene composition, flat interior lighting and absolutely horrible exterior night lighting. There's the occasional flash of an interesting shot, but it passes just as quickly as it arrived. The acting is bad, with flat deliveries of dull dialogue. The female characters have it worse, with weird delays in their reactions and awkward expressions and just generally weird timing issues with their delivery. The audio itself was bad, and every sound, including dialogue, was added in post production, with voice recording occasionally being drowned out by sound effects. The smooth jazz soundtrack also doesn't fit the tone of a legitimate horror movie at all, with its flutes and saxophones and pianos.

So what's good about it? Or at least “good” with air quotes?

Torgo has become such an iconic character because he's so damn weird. He's a filthy creepy pervert that peeps through windows, yet he's the most sympathetic character because its obvious he's an unwilling servant of the Master who's fed up with being treated like dirt for a very long time.

The Master himself chews the scenery and glowers like a madman. There's even a kernel of a moody, mysterious horror film buried at the core (brigadoon house, strange cult, creepy caretaker, supernatural goings-on, etc), but the execution is so un-salvageable that it adds to the boredom and, oddly, its bizarro charm.

Like so many of its Z-level kin, Manos: The Hands of Fate ends up being a trainwreck that is simultaneously boring and utterly surreal.

Do I recommend it? As a movie that fulfills the basic requirements of entertainment, no, HELL NO. For the certain masochistic subset that has conditioned itself to find joy in weird cinematic failures this is absolutely essential, like a rite of passage. 

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