Last week, an actor named Tom Neyman passed away at the age of 80. Calling him an actor might be a bit of a stretch, since he only made one movie way back in 1966, but that one movie is legendary…for being one of the worst films of all time. Well, since it’s Thanksgiving anyway, let’s take a look at that famous turkey – a little movie called Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Manos: The Hands of Fate is about a family (played by Harold P. Warren, Diane Adelson, and Jackey Neyman) who gets lost while on a road trip in Texas. They pull up to a house to ask for directions, and are greeted by a creepy fellow named Torgo (John Reynolds). With darkness falling fast, the family convinces Torgo to let them spend the night. Unfortunately for them, the house is occupied by a mostly-female cult lead by a man named The Master (Tom Neyman), and that night they are planning their ritual sacrifices to their god, Manos. The family must escape before they become the ceremonial victims of The Master and his followers.
Let’s call Manos: The Hand of Fate what it is; it’s essentially the result of a bet that writer/director Harold P. Warren made with a friend of his that he could make a movie on his own. Warren used his friends and family as cast and crew, most of whom never worked in the industry again, and played the lead protagonist role himself. None of the cast or crew members were paid, instead being given non-existent profit-sharing points, and so, the film cost less than $20,000 to complete. It would be a fine example of an effective low-budget movie, if it was an effective movie. Manos: The Hands of Fate is not going to satisfy those who are looking for a truly frightening horror movie. For those who are wanting fun, it’s there in droves, however unintentional it may be.
Manos: The Hand of Fate wears its no-budget aesthetic like a badge of honor. The film was shot by cinematographer Robert Guidry on a wonderfully gritty and soft-focused 16mm camera that could only hold enough film to shoot thirty seconds at a time, so the picture is rife with continuity errors and jarring jump-cut editing. There was also no sound recording on set, so all of the dialogue had to be overdubbed later and is not always in sync, but that’s okay, because the images captured on the film are so dark that the character’s mouths can hardly be seen anyway. The whole production is very amateur, and would have been forgotten immediately if it wasn’t for its discovery by camp-exploitation programs like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Rifftrax.” The “loving tributes” that were paid to Manos: The Hands of Fate by those institutions helped the movie find the cult following that it enjoys today.
The Master is one of the most enigmatic characters in B-movie history. Tom Neyman overacts the part beautifully, looking like a combination of a vaudeville showman and a sugar-kicked kid showing off for his parents. For most of the film, he is draped in a black smock that has two big red hands emblazoned across the front, an outfit that has inspired everything from puppet tributes to Halloween costumes. In addition to playing the role, Neyman wrote many of The Master’s speeches, and even painted the portrait of The Master and his dog that features prominently in the house. The Master is a commanding presence, and Neyman’s fingerprints are all over the character, so it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the role. His ironic and iconic place in cinematic history was cemented the second he donned The Master’s robe.
Manos: The Hands of Fate has more than its fair share of “what the heck?” moments. The film is riddled with padded dialogue and uncomfortable conversations. The Master’s assistant, Torgo, is a sexually perverse creeper who repeats every line he says twice and makes the audience uncomfortable by just showing up onscreen (the rumor is that actor John Reynolds was on acid during filming, so his performance is extra twitchy). Every so often, a couple making out in a convertible is shown onscreen for no discernible reason other than to just show a pair of teenagers getting hot and heavy. When the ladies in The Master’s cult disagree with each other, they get involved in knock-down, drag-out catfights. There’s a lot of weird exploitative stuff in Manos: The Hands of Fate, but it wouldn’t be the cult classic that it is without it.
For such a low-budget affair, the music in Manos: The Hands of Fate is pretty cool. The score, done by Russ Huddleston and Robert Smith Jr., sounds like hilarious stock music at the beginning of the film, with a hip flute-bass-bongos groove to help get the audience into the mood. Once The Master and his cult of Nefarious Women enters the picture, however, the fun is over; the score turns into a clash of spastic pianos and crazy rhythms. The soundtrack is very well done – it’s actually the most professional aspect of the film. Which, granted, isn’t saying much, but the musical score to Manos: The Hands of Fate is worth a listen, with or without the film.
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Manos: The Hands of Fate is a bad movie, but that’s part of its naïve charm. Tom Neyman’s overly melodramatic performance is the feather in the cap of this one-of-a-kind turkey. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!