“Manos”: A Phenomenon of Ephemera
How a flippant wager produced the worst film of all time and a beloved classic.
Act I — The Production
In 1965, Hal Warren sat across the table from screenwriter Stirling Silliphant in a coffee shop in El Paso, Texas. Warren was a local theater actor who had secured a walk-on role on Route 66 where he met Silliphant (who had won an Oscar for the script for In the Heat of the Night). As the chatted, the conversation turned to the subject of film making. Warren commented that he believed that anyone could make a film without much trouble at all. As Silliphant belittled the remark, Warren claimed he could make an entire film on his own to which Silliphant suggested a little wager on the claim. Warren accepted the bet and set in motion a production that would, shockingly, become legendary.
Almost immediately after accepting the challenge, Warren began scribbling a plot summary onto a napkin at the coffee shop. He envisioned an ordinary family falling into the hands of a supernatural ghoul called The Master and his strange minions. Armed with a plot and rough script, Warren set about raising funds and hiring local theater actors from El Paso to play the various parts, though the leading man role was filled immediately by Warren himself. Somehow, Warren managed to raise around $19,000 to finance the production. Since the equipment rental and production costs would account for most of the capital, Warren did not pay the cast and crew and, instead, promised them a share of the film’s earnings at the box office. Production began in the summer of 1966 under the name The Lodge of Sins. Warren struck a deal to shoot the film on a ranch belonging to a local retired judge named Colbert Coldwell.
It wasn’t long before the project ran into the first of many problems. Warren had hired a number of models to portray the villain’s harem. Early in the production, one of the models broke her leg while shooting a scene. The modeling agency, Mannequin Manor, had crafted a contract that included heavy fines if a model was fired, so Warren decided to re-write her role and added a teen couple who spend the entire moving necking in a convertible. The model was able to remain seated throughout her shots and fulfill her contract. Unfortunately, the teen couple scenes are completely disconnected from the rest of the storyline and serve no practical purpose in the film.
One memorable character from the film was that of Torgo, the villian’s faithful and deformed servant. The character was portrayed by John Reynolds, a troubled young man struggling to get into show business. The Torgo character was conceived as a sort of satyr with fawn’s legs. To depict that, Tom Neyman (who played “The Master”) constructed an apparatus that Reynolds was to wear on his legs under large trousers and cloven hooves for his feet. Reynolds, however, was never coached on how the apparatus was supposed to be worn and actually put it on backwards. This error caused part of the apparatus to gouge his kneecaps repeatedly and caused him great pain. His hobbling gait in the film is quite noticeable. Reynolds counteracted the pain by taking large doses of medication which affected his on screen performance. The knee damage was permanent and caused him pain long after the film was completed.
Another problem was the shooting equipment. The cameras and rigs were rented and many scenes had to be rushed in order to return the equipment on time. To compound the problem, the cameras needed to be wound by hand and were only able to record 32 seconds of footage at a time. This created an editing nightmare in post-production. Not only that, but these cameras were not able to record sound. Therefore, Warren promised the cast that the dialogue would all be dubbed in later from a sound stage. Warren also shot all night scenes at night, which created many problems. The cast worked day jobs, so night shoots were difficult on them. Plus, Warren didn’t rent many floodlights, so actors were forced to remain in small circles of light during scenes even if the script called for movement.
As the production carried on, Warren changed the title of his film to Manos: The Hands of Fate as the cast began to be worried about the project. Any time concerns were raised to Warren, he assured the cast that any problems would be fixed in post-production. His pride and prima donna attitude sparked resentment from the cast and they began calling the film Mangos: The Cans of Fruit among themselves.
Through all this, Warren soldiered on and eventually completed the shoot after 2 ½ months. The cast was dismissed and Warren began the task of “fixing” the film with post-production and editing. The most important job would be to get the dialogue recorded and dubbed into the film since none was recorded on set. Due to scheduling conflicts, however, when the time came to dub the script into the film, only a few people were able to attend the recording sessions including Warren, Neyman and Diane Mahree who played the wife. So those people spoke every line heard in the film. Warren also had, apparently, intended to create a lengthy sequence of opening credits to superimpose over prolonged shots of scenery and a driving car. When it came down to it, Warren was unable to complete the credit sequence for unknown reasons, but the long shots stayed in the film and created a very strange and boring opening montage. The rest of the film was also poorly edited with some shots even containing the marker clipboard briefly.
Nevertheless, Warren completed this editing and scheduled a gala premiere for November 15, 1966, at a local theater called the Capri. He rented a searchlight for outside the venue. He even arranged for members of the cast to arrive at the theater via limousine. True to form, Warren was only able to afford one limo for the entire cast, so he had the cast meet up a block away so the same limo driver could drop the actors off two at a time at the theater and circle back.
One actor was missing from the premier: John Reynolds. Reynolds had struggled with depression, possible mental illness and drug addiction and, one month before the premier, he had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His death was not believed to have been connected with his involvement in the film, but it makes his appearance on it his only film credit.
The local paper ran an add boasting that this film was the work of many local folks — producers, directors, actors and support personnel. The hype managed to bring in a full house for the premier. As the film rolled, the audience quickly realized it was terrible — poorly shot, scripted and edited. They began to murmur, then chuckle and finally boo. The cast and crew snuck out of the theater in shame before the film ended and the crowd threw their shoes at the screen as the lights came on. The newspaper review the next day was vicious and suggested the film could perhaps be salvaged by stripping the dubbed audio and using subtitles or Esperato and marketing it as a foreign art film.
Warren echoed that critique himself at the premiere’s after-party, suggesting that it could be re-dubbed completely as a comedy. He insisted that he was glad he completed the project, but that it may indeed be the worst film ever made.
The cast and crew returned to their day jobs and most never worked in the film industry again. Warren continued to try his hand at screenwriting (he even pitched a sequel idea at one point), but the Manos millstone hung heavy around his neck and he never succeeded. He was able to sell distribution rights to the film to Emerson Releasing Corporation which got the film screened at a few local drive-ins over the next few years. He eventually became a fertilizer salesman in the El Paso area and died in 1985.
Manos: The Hands of Fate quickly faded into obscurity.
Act II — The Discovery
In 1988, comedian Joel Hodgson was brainstorming with his friend Jim Mallon, the production manager of St. Paul UHF television station KTMA, about ideas for a comedy program to fill a Sunday night slot for the station. Hodgson outlined an idea that would cater to his talent for building comedy props and puppets. Joel would play a human who is sentenced to orbit the earth with two robot companions and watch bad movies. KTMA had a library of “bad movies” that it would play late weekend nights to fill airtime, so that part was easy. The hard part was building the sets and finding the right people to get the project off the ground.
Hodgson and Mallon quickly called in some of their friends in the Twin Cities area. Trace Beaulieu had worked with Hodgson in a local improv comedy workshop, so he was ready to ham it up as the villian of the show — Dr. Forrester, but he was skeptical that the show would actually be a long term gig. Kevin Muphy was a KTMA employee who had produced a few comedy shows with Mallon in the past and he was hired to help as well. The show was dubbed “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (abbreviated MST3K).
The show premiered on KTMA in November of 1988 and met with mixed reviews. Some viewers called the station and complained that the show looked like it was produced by junior high kids. However, a number of people loved the concept and pleaded with the station to keep the show going. 21 episodes were produced for KTMA and were deemed a modest success for the station.
Following the production of those 21 episodes, Hodgson and Mallon went to New York to shop the show to a few cable comedy channels to see if they could get some bigger funding to keep the show going. Comedy Central (then called The Comedy Channel) liked the idea and had heard good things about Hodgson’s earlier stand-up career, so they picked up the show and sent the men back to Minneapolis to produce more episodes.
From there, things moved quickly. Mallon quit KTMA and, with Hodgson, incorporated Best Brains to produce the show. The team built bigger and better sets in a warehouse in Eden Prairie, hired more production staff and retooled their puppets and premise. They also hired more writers and asked them to fill in some guest roles here and there. One of those writers was Michael J. Nelson, who would go on to host the show after Hodgson departed. Nelson soone pushed for his friend Frank Coniff to also be hired and Coniff was added to the writing staff. When Josh Weinstein left the show after the 1st Comedy Channel season, Frank Coniff was added as the onscreen sidekick to Bealieu’s villain — TV’s Frank. This cast configuration lasted for 5 years.
The Discovery and The Cult
As you can imagine, the production crew was always looking for more bad movies to use for their show. Some film distributors realized that their “bad” films could actually bring in some money if they were licensed to MST3K, so they would send copies of films to the production offices for consideration. In 1992, one such supplier sent a box of films to The Comedy Channel that then made its way to Frank Coniff at the offices of Best Brains. As Coniff perused those tapes, he came across one called Manos: The Hands of Fate. The film was in rough shape as a result of being repeatedly copied, but it was usable enough for the purposes of Coniff and the crew. They selected the film for use in the 4th season in 1993.
The episode went on to become a classic and vaulted Manos into the public awareness. The poor quality of the print coupled with the poor quality of the film itself kindled discussion about whether it was the worst film ever made. Indeed, even the MST3K cast comments throughout the episode that this film is painful to watch. With the dawn of the internet, film rating communities began discussing this film as the worst one ever and zealously pushing it to the bottom of the rankings. It currently sits as the #3 worst rated film on IMDB.
This campaign became a cult following and Manos was soon almost universally referenced as one of the worst films of all time in the same category as Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. Ed Wood was the master of low-budget drive-in fodder in the 1950’s and had an uncanny ability to crank out movies almost monthly for very little money. His legacy was so unique and charming that a biographical film was produced about his life directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. To compare Plan 9 to Manos is fascinating. On the one hand you have a film that was hastily produced to capitalize on existing sets and equipment by a Hollywood misfit and on the other you have a film hastily produced to win a bet by a struggling local theater actor in El Paso. Both films faced major production problems and continuity problems. And both films had to contend with the death of an actor — Bela Lugosi died early on in the filming of “Plan 9” and stock footage was used to fill out his scenes.
However, Plan 9 managed to remain an drive-in staple throughout the 60’s and 70’s, never fading into the ether or threatening to disappear for good perhaps due to the fact that Ed Wood had become an unlikely Hollywood legend. What makes Manos so unique is the fact that it probably should have been completely forgotten and all copies lost or discarded. It was sheer luck that a dull copy of the film found its way into a box bound for a television show that featured bad and forgotten films and was selected for inclusion. Or was it fate? In any case, Manos was now a part of the collective consciousness and a new generation was discovering it for the first time. But the film’s resurrection as a punchline was only the second act of its incredible story.
Act III — The Reincarnation
The Twist of Fate
Once Manos had found its way back into the collective consciousness by way of MST3K, a strange (and perhaps wonderful) thing happened: it became popular. In the age of the internet, any piece of irrelevant popular culture can find a core of fans who appreciate it. While many simply used the film as a cliched example of a bad film, others began to view the film as tragically misunderstood. They started referring to the film as an object lesson on the difficulty of film making rather than the hubris of an amateur. A fascination with the film was slowly growing out of universal disdain.
Various admiring theater troupes performed interpretations of the film’s story during the early 2000’s which included musicals and puppets. Indie video games were even produced and distributed which were set in the world of Manos.
In November of 2008, a small crew produced a documentary about the making of Manos and called it Hotel Torgo. This 27 minute project gained some notoriety for attempting to excavate the particulars of the 1966 production, but further examination of the facts revealed many inaccuracies in the documentary. Specifically, the producers declared a few of the actors to be deceased when, in actuality, they were alive and well. Diane Mahree, for example, was said to have been killed in a car accident in the 80’s, but was actually still working as a successful model. Still, the release of this production kept the cult of Manos alive and fueled a curiosity about the history of the film.
Recently, there were rumblings that a fan of the film was attempting to put together a crew to film an actual sequel to the original. Rupert Talbot Munch, Sr. attended the 2008 Comic-Con in costume as Torgo. While there, he decided to stay in character throughout the event and found himself hobnobbing with MST3K alums and meeting many fans of Manos as well. Soon after, in a scene eerily similar to Hal Warren at the diner in 1966, Munch was dared to attempt a sequel to Manos and he accepted the challenge. Munch set about trying to track down the original cast of the film in hopes of convincing them to reprise their roles in his sequel: Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge. Remarkably, he located and recruited a number of them including Tom Neyman (The Master), Jackie Raye Neyman-Jones (the daughter) and Diane Mahree (the wife). Hal Warren’s son Joe agreed to reprise the role his father played in the film. Munch then cast a number of D-list actors and WWE wrestlers in supporting roles and the shooting is currently underway with a 2012 release date in mind. Who would have thought that one of the most universally derided films of the past century would see a sequel 50 years later?
Then, in late 2011, something even more remarkable happened. A film buff named Ben Solovey was perusing a lot of 16mm and 35mm prints that were for sale. The films were mostly of MST3K-worthy drive-in fodder, but he was told that a copy of Manos was included as well. He decided that he would like to own this piece of ephemera and purchased the lot of films. Upon returning home and examining his merchandise, he found the copy of Manos to be in the same degraded quality as all known copies were. But as he dug further into his boxes, he discovered another copy of Manos and this one was marked “workprint”. It even bore a label with a different title: Fingers of Fate. Ben knew he had something unique here.
It turns out that this 16mm print was one of the originals created from the shoot and copies had been made on 35mm film and copied from that for distribution to theaters. Audiences were seeing a 3rd generation copy right away, which is why the quality was so bad. Worse still, the copies distributed today are VHS copies of the 3rd generation copy.
By comparison, Solovey’s workprint looked pristine and he realized that he had a rare oppurtunity here. The opportunity to restore the film and create a high definition rendering on Blu-Ray. He shared his story on a forum on the web and received a lot of positive feedback, so he built a website to get the word out, post scans of the workprint to show the quality and raise some funds to get the project off the ground. When he put the project up on Kickstarter he asked for $10,000 with any funds exceeding that amount going to recording a commentary track, producing a new documentary and other wish-list features. The goal was met in 2 days and now over $24,000 has been raised for this project! Solovey is pledging to do this project right and produce a release that all fans of Manos will be amazed by.
So it appears that 2012 will be the year that Hal Warren’s vanity project comes full circle with a sequel starring original cast members and a high definition Blu-Ray release of the original film in its original “glory”.
In this digital age, it seems that nothing will ever really die. Long forgotten films, music albums and books are constantly finding new audiences that appreciate them. Before, it was easy for these bits of ephemera to turn to dust, but no longer. Even things that probably deserve to be forgotten are being polished up and lovingly enshrined by a new generation. There is now a sense that nothing ever deserves to be forgotten. There is a philosophy that no matter how bad the art is, it must not be discarded, for there may come a time when someone will see beauty in it. When someone will find it worthy of display. When someone will choose to spend years crafting an tribute to it. When hundreds of people will pitch in to help bring it back to life.
So while Manos can hardly be called “good art” in and of itself, I find the arc of its existence to be strangely beautiful. And yes, I will probably purchase a copy of the restored film.