*. There’s a common vulgar criticism of the arts that goes along the lines of “Even I could paint a better picture than that,” or “Anyone could write a better poem.” In some extreme cases this may even be true, especially if the painting or poem in question shows no sign of technical skill or even proficiency.
*. It’s a much harder thing to say about a movie though. Movies are, by their very nature, team efforts that require a basic level of technical competence in several different departments as well as some financial outlay, however minimal. Whenever I hear someone say that they could make a better movie than what’s on screen I roll my eyes. No, they really couldn’t.
*. This brings us to Manos: The Hands of Fate, which apparently had its origin in a remark that Harold P. Warren, a Texas insurance and fertilizer salesman (not that improbable a combination in rural areas, even today), to Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant that “anybody could make a movie.”
*. I guess you could say, since Manos does in fact exist, that Warren proved his point. Though his achievement leads to a fair question, and one worth entertaining if only for a moment. Could anyone go out and make a movie this bad?
*. Manos: The Hands of Fate is often shortlisted as being one of the very worst films ever made. I don’t think it’s mentioned in The Golden Turkey Awards, the book that basically launched the “bad movie” cult in the 1980s, but that may be due to its having disappeared at the time. It’s present cult status is largely because it became perhaps the most celebrated butt of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) in an episode that aired in 1993.
*. I’m not a fan of MST3K, but their mockery is probably the only way to watch Manos straight through. To be honest, I’d tried to watch it years ago, several times, and could never make it to the end. This time I only persevered by making a supreme effort. It’s terrible, outrageously so, but it doesn’t take long before the smile drops from your face and you realize this is just a waste of time.
*. I think the MST3K treatment might have been what Ernest Mathijs had in mind when he wrote the following for the essay on Manos in 100 Cult Films: “Because of its failures, the film makes no demands on its audience. Quite the opposite: it empowers and liberates viewers. Manos lets its fans make the film what they want it to be.” That’s the MST3K approach, but I can’t endorse it. And even though it’s only a little over an hour long I also deny the claim that this movie makes no demands on its audience. It demands too much.
*. I haven’t said much about the film itself yet. It’s very bad. Not so bad it’s good, in the sense of being enjoyable as camp, but bad as in displaying total incompetence in every facet of filmmaking. You can be equally appalled at its acting, writing, lighting, music, photography, and sound. It’s hard to reckon which of these is the worst. For my money, however, what stands out is the editing.
*. According to Tom Neyman (who plays the Master) the editing was done in three or four hours. I can’t even imagine, but the results of this lack of effort, or concern, are all on screen. The jarring discontinuities are the least of it. Many of the shots are held far too long, leaving the actors stranded with nothing to say or do, either standing around, blinking and twitching in Torgo’s case, or just repeating lines of dialogue.
*. That’s just one factor that contributes to this feeling like such a long movie despite running only 68 minutes. The entire prologue that has the family traveling to the lodge doesn’t seem to have much purpose at all. Apparently the opening credits were supposed to run over this footage but that’s another one of the things that didn’t get fixed in post-production.
*. I don’t think anyone who sees this movie fails to come away with some sympathy for the Master. He tries so hard to keep things together, but he seems exhausted with having to keep his bickering brides in line, and he’s clearly not enjoying any part of this himself. It’s no fun serving Manos.
*. It’s also because of the lack of editing that many of the funny bits go on too long and stop being funny. Like the brides of Manos rolling around in the dirt. The best parts are things like the moths fluttering through so many shots, the police officers afraid of the dark, or how the performance of John Reynolds as Torgo rhymes so nicely with that of the Master’s dog: fidgety and always seeming to be about to wander off camera somewhere. Apparently Reynolds, who killed himself shortly before the film premiered, was on LSD at the time. I don’t know if that’s what people on LSD act like, but he certainly seems distracted.
*. Is it the worst movie ever made? Or the best worst movie? I’d have to put it in the running, even though I personally enjoy Plan 9 from Outer Space and Troll 2 a little more (to name just two other “good bad movies” so notorious that, like Manos, they’ve had entire movies made about just how bad they are). At least Plan 9 and Troll 2 don’t bore me as much as this one mostly does. I’d just call Manos recommended if not essential viewing for connoisseurs of crap. No one else will find it as much fun, or even worth bothering with.