Manos: The Hands of Fate is a 1966 American horror film written, directed and produced by Harold P. Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. Warren also starred in the film, alongside El Paso theater actors Tom Neyman and John Reynolds. The film is best known for having been featured in a 1993 episode of the television comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), a show based on the premise of mocking B movies, which gave the film cult status.
The plot of the film revolves primarily around a vacationing family taking a road trip to a hotel. After a long drive in the Texas desert, the family is trapped at a lodge maintained by a polygamous pagan cult, and they attempt to escape as the cult's members decide what to do with them.
Produced as a result of a bet, Manos was an independent production by a crew that had little or no background or experience in filmmaking and a very limited budget at their disposal. Upon its theatrical debut, the film was poorly received, and remained obscure until its Mystery Science Theater appearance. It has since gained infamy as one of the worst films ever made.
Warren was very active in the theater scene in El Paso, Texas, and once appeared as a walk-on for the television series Route 66, where he met screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. While chatting with Silliphant in a local coffee shop, Warren claimed that it was not difficult to make a film, and bet Silliphant that he could make an entire film on his own. After placing the bet, Warren began the first outline of his script on a napkin, right inside the coffee shop. To finance the film, Warren accumulated a small sum of cash, reportedly $19,000, and hired a group of actors from a local theater and modeling agency. Warren promised the cast and crew a share in the film's profits due to his lack of funds to pay actual wages.
Under the working title The Lodge of Sins, the movie was filmed in mid 1966 with a 16 mm Bell & Howell camera which had to be wound by hand and filmed for only 32 seconds. This has been suggested as a possible explanation for the many editing problems present in the final cut. The Bell & Howell camera was incapable of double-system recording, and thus all sound effects and dialogue were dubbed later in post-production, reportedly by only three or four people including Warren. Later during production, Warren renamed the film from its working title to Manos: The Hands of Fate. The word "mano#Spanish" in the title is Spanish for "hands," therefore the film's title literally translates to Hands: The Hands of Fate.
Early in production, one of the actresses broke her leg, and Warren rewrote her role to have her make out in a car with an actor during the events of the entire film. The inclusion of these characters has been the focus of criticism for having no apparent connection to the main plot of the film.
To portray his character Torgo as a satyr, John Reynolds constructed what is described as a metallic rigging worn under his trousers. The effect conveyed by his work was to leave his character with oversized knees and difficulty in walking. Fake cloven hooves may have been made by Reynolds for his costume, but they were not worn during filming, as he is clearly shown wearing boots in several scenes, which can even be seen in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version.
Night time proved hard for Warren to work with, and for unknown reasons, Warren did not choose to use the normal technique of shooting day for night. In many of the night scenes, the camera and lights attracted swarms of moths, which can be seen in the film's final production. Also, in the scene in which the cops "investigate" Mike's gunfire, they could walk only a few feet forward, because there was not enough light to illuminate the scenery for a panning shot.
Post production efforts were reportedly minimal, despite promises by Warren that any problems in the film would be fixed in later editing. One of the more visible examples of this is a brief moment at the beginning of the film in which the clapperboard is visible after a cut to the "make-out couple". It is rumored that the entire opening sequence, which consisted of the main characters driving around looking for their hotel for minutes on end with minimal dialogue or effect on the plot, was the result of such neglect. Warren had intended to include opening credits at this stage of the film, but forgot or was unable to add them. Reportedly, Warren's small crew became so bemused by his amateurishness and irascible that they derisively called the movie Mangos: The Cans of Fruit behind his back.
Peppy then runs outside, barking continuously for a while, before falling silent. Margaret becomes frightened upon hearing an ominous howl and Michael investigates, retrieving a flashlight and revolver from his car. He finds Peppy lying dead on the ground. When informed of this, Margaret demands they leave, and Michael orders Torgo to put the luggage back in the car. Torgo does this, but has developed an attraction to Margaret. He confronts her and crudely gropes her hair. He tells her that, although she is doomed to become yet another bride of the Master, he intends to keep her for himself. Margaret threatens to tell Michael of Torgo's advances, but Torgo convinces her not to say anything to her husband by promising to protect her. Michael then returns, irate that the car will not start. With the revelation that there is no phone in the house (Torgo explains that the Master does not approve of such devices), the family reluctantly decides to stay the night.
The film returns to the teenage couple who were seen earlier. They are still petting, in the middle of the night, and are sent on their way by the same policeman as before, who is joined by his partner. The teenagers mention a second couple (Michael and Margaret) which they had seen driving on the road earlier.
At the lodge, Debbie leaves unexpectedly to search for her dog. Shortly before departing, however, Debbie prudently fixes the loose doorknob with the rusted screws that she held in her hand. A frightened Michael and Margaret search through the house and eventually find her outside leading the dog seen in the painting. Debbie releases the dog and runs to her parents, who tell her to never run away again. The parents ask where she found the dog, and Debbie leads them to a tomb-like structure where "The Master" (Tom Neyman) and several women dressed in translucent night gowns, later revealed to be his wives, lie asleep. In horror, the family runs back to the house, and Michael leaves to seek an explanation from Torgo.
Torgo has gone to the tomb himself, where he fondles the wives and berates the sleeping Master before knocking out Michael, tying him to a pole, and returning to the house to sleep. The Master suddenly comes to life and wakes his wives, and a short argument over the fate of the family ensues. One faction of the Master's wives wants to sacrifice the family whole; another faction prefers to spare Michael's wife and daughter. The Master angrily stops the argument, and decides to sacrifice Torgo (whose earlier rantings he could hear, even though he appeared unconscious) and his first wife to the film's mysterious deity and namesake, "Manos". He then makes his way back to the house to find Torgo. While the Master is gone, the women continue to argue over whether or not to kill Debbie, as well as who has the Master's favor. The argument soon degenerates into a fight, and the women wrestle in the sand for several minutes.
The Master confronts Torgo in the home, where he informs him of his fate. Torgo offers some resistance, but ultimately succumbs to what appears to be a hypnotic spell by the Master. At the same time one of the Master's wives leaves the tomb, and appears to kiss and then slap the unconscious Michael. She then warns the Master of the unexpected brawl that has begun, and the two return with Torgo to the tomb. The Master stops the fight, and then has his first wife tied to a pole to be sacrificed. Torgo is then laid on a stone bed, where the wives subject him to what one El Paso reviewer likened at the time to "Torgo being massaged to death". This in itself does not prove fatal. The Master then evokes some mysterious power, severing and horribly burning Torgo's left hand. Torgo runs off into the darkness, waving the burning stump that remains of his hand. The Master laughs maniacally and goes to look for the family. The Master also sacrifices his first wife.
Michael regains consciousness and rejoins Margaret and Debbie. They attempt to escape, but encounter a rattlesnake, which is rendered via stock footage. Michael opens fire at the snake, which alerts the policemen who had been shown earlier. The cops decide to "investigate", which ultimately consists of them walking a few feet away from their squad car, briefly staring into the night and then leaving. Michael and his family decide to go back to the house, and barricade themselves in one of the rooms, where the Master confronts them. Michael fires several shots into the Master's face, at point-blank range, but they have no effect. The screen fades to black, indicating that the Master has again applied his hypnotic power.
The film ends with a coda involving two girls, driving in a convertible. They become lost, and stop at the home to ask for directions. They are greeted by an entranced Michael. A number of jump cuts show us the fate of Margaret and little Debbie: like the other wives of the Master, they sleep in the tomb, dressed in flowing white robes. The film concludes with Michael saying, "I take care of the place while the Master is away," just as Torgo had done when first seen. The production credits are superimposed over past scenes from the film with the words "The End?" on the screen at the very end.
The film premiered at the Capri Theater in Warren's hometown of El Paso, Texas on November 15, 1966. Warren arranged for a searchlight to be used at the cinema, and for the cast to be brought to the premiere by a limousine, in order to enhance the Hollywood feel of the event. Warren could afford only a single limousine, however, and so the driver had to drop off one group, then drive around the block and pick up another. The premiere was attended by numerous local dignitaries, including the mayor and local sheriff. Shortly after the film began, the audience began laughing at its poor quality and redundant dialogue. Humiliated, Warren and the rest of his cast made a hasty exit. The film ended with a mixture of laughter and applause. Following the premiere, Warren claimed that he felt Manos was the worst film ever made even though he was proud of it, and he suggested that it might make a passable comedy if it were to be redubbed.
The film was briefly distributed by Emerson Releasing Corporation. Following its debut, the film had a brief theatrical run at the Capri Theater, as well as a few screenings at various drive-in theaters in West Texas. Reports that the only crew members who were compensated for their work in the film were Jackey Neyman Jones and her family's dog, who received a bicycle and a large quantity of dog food, respectively, would seem to indicate that the film failed to break even financially. Official box office figures for the film are currently unknown, if indeed they ever existed. Although the film received poor reception, Warren did win his bet against Stirling Silliphant, proving that he was capable of creating an entire film on his own.
In the MST3K episode guide, the show's team of writers stated that they still feel Manos is the worst movie they ever covered, and that the film subsequently "became the standard by which all others are measured." During a Q&A session at the 2008 Comic-Con International, a question was put to the cast and writers of MST3K about any movie they passed on that was worse than Manos. Many cited the film Child Bride.
Manos has been described as one of the best, if not the best, episode of the series. TV.com grades the episode 9.6/10, garnering "superb" status, while separate pages on Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database for the MST3K cut give it an 80% "fresh" ranking and a 9.3/10 ranking respectively.
The MST3K episode featuring the film was released on DVD on its own in 2001, and in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Essentials collection in 2004. A DVD of the original version of Manos has also been made available through Alpha Video, which also released original versions of other "MST-ed" films including Teenagers from Outer Space. In attempting to explain the film's appeal, the Los Angeles Times hypothesized, "After screening Manos for probably the 10th time, I've concluded it has to do with intimacy. Because it is such a pure slice of Warren's brain—he wrote, directed, produced and starred, and brooked no collaboration—Manos amounts to the man's cinematically transfigured subconscious."
Manos also holds a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the one positive review posted for the MST3K episode rather than the film itself (which was described as "unwatchable"). The June 10, 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly contained an in-depth article which proclaimed Manos "The Worst Movie Ever Made".
Two humorous stage adaptations of the film have been made. The first, by Last Rites Productions, was given in Portland, Oregon in early 2006. The second, a musical titled Manos: Rock Opera of Fate by the New Millennium Theatre Company, was launched in Chicago in October 2007.
The scene in which Debbie is dressed as one of the Master's wives has also attracted the attention of observers due to the implications of pedophilia. The crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 later included the scene in a list of the most disgusting things they had seen.
In March 2008, the "Ten Sessions" episode of How I Met Your Mother featured the main character arguing Manos to be the worst movie ever made even when compared to Plan 9 From Outer Space, a brief discussion of the film, and an ultra-condensed twelve-second screening of the film as part of a two-minute date.