Director: Harold P. Warren
Synapse Films

Reaching new highs (or is it lows?) in ineptitude, the independently-made regional schlocker MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE has by and large become many a filmgoer’s premium choice as the worst movie ever made (though my vote still goes to MONSTER A-GO GO), as it makes anything shot by Ed Wood look like the work of Akira Kurosawa. Its public awareness over the last 25 years can almost entirely be indebted to its lampooning of on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the early 1990s. Since then, the mainstream media publication Entertainment Weekly did a lengthy piece on it a few years ago and in 2009, it inspired an hour-long video documentary (“Manos: The Fans of Hate”). With The Criterion Collection apparently declining to properly represent it, the fate of MANOS has well been assuredly entrusted to Synapse Films, who now deliver it on Blu-ray in an amazing 2K restoration!

In their convertible, a family consisting of middle-aged daddy Mike (writer/director/producer Harold “Hal” P. Warren) pretty mommy Margaret (Diane Mahree, aka Diane Adelson) and perennially sleepy daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) take a pleasant road trip towards a vacation destination. After driving around aimlessly, they stumble upon a long, mysterious road that brings them to a dilapidated shack (or possibly an inn) safeguarded by the strange, bearded caretaker Torgo (John Reynolds, who fatally shot himself before the film was released), who is either a mythical half-man creature or really has a bad case of the shakes. Torgo warns the traveling trio that his “master” doesn’t like visitors, but they still manage to talk their way into staying the night. As darkness arrives, the odd occurrences begin with little Debbie’s poor black poodle getting slaughtered outside, as well as the burden of oddball Torgo, all over Margaret like a cheap suit. When they finally decide it’s a good idea to leave, their car won’t start and the Master appears as a warlock-like cult leader (Tom Neyman) who parades around a backyard pagan altar with a handful of white-gowned bickering, catfighting “wives” (their sheer nightwear lets you gawk at bulky 1950s style bras and panties), and they all worship an ancient deity known as “Manos”. As the Master and his ladies are looking for new female-gendered cult members, Margaret and her daughter could be easy fodder for their Satanic shenanigans.

Shot on 16mm in El Paso, Texas by do-it-all would-be auteur Warren, it’s ironic that his day job was a fertilizer salesman, since he manufactured a turd on screen. Simply put, even in terms of “bad” movies, MANOS is one of the most un-cinematic efforts committed to celluloid, and almost works as a “what not to do” instructional guide for aspiring filmmakers. The 16mm camerawork (some money shots are actually out of focus) in this un-artistic instance makes the entire show look like someone’s static 1960s home movies with footage from a dull Halloween party thrown in. When the ridiculous dialog is spoken, it’s obviously dubbed in, meaning that there was no real sound during the shooting, cheapening the surreal viewing experience even more (and in the post dub, one actress did the voices for all the female characters, including little Debbie!). The film has no sense of pacing (it’s incredible how 70 minutes can be stretched), the editing includes a number of jump cuts (hence the “home movies” look), with technique and lighting also being the absolute pits.

The film’s natural Texas locations (including a secluded bunch of pillars and an altar, perfect for a low-budget devil worshiping picture) had promise, but come off totally minimalist on camera, with MANOS only having about three or four setpieces altogether. The villains of the piece are far from menacing, with Reynolds’s idiotic Torgo being the most relished by fans, and Neyman’s Master looking like a sickly cross between gonzo rock legend Frank Zappa and 1960s pop artist Peter Max. There’s even a demonic Doberman that’s supposed to be so evil, you momentarily feel nervous when little Debbie takes its leash to replace her demised poodle, but all bets are off when you soon realize the Master’s hell beast is about as threatening as Scrappy Doo. The only impressive parts of MANOS are the Master’s cloak (with its giant red hands frontal design), an eerie painting of the Master and his pooch, and a bizarre jazzy score that’s almost too good for the film (not to mention the female-crooned tune that has no place here whatsoever). But all in all, MANOS remains a jaw-dropping, excruciating viewing experience, especially without the MST3K treatment.

Due to a Kickstarter campaign by MANOS fan Ben Solovey, enough funds were raised to do a new 2K restoration on the film from a recently discovered 16mm Ektachrome camera workprint, with Synapse now releasing it on Blu-ray (as well as a standard DVD). When Andy Milligan titles started to see DVD release around 15 years ago, that seemed like something of a miracle, but now that what is possibly the worst movie of all time sees issue on Blu-ray, it all comes full circle. The 1080p transfer presents the film in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio as the full aperture of the 16mm camera is what the filmmakers had in mind (any kind of matted letterboxing would have resulted in disaster). Even with the various blemishes and grain inherent of the original shoot and the original negative, this is miles above the previous public domain releases out there (which all seemed to stem from the same murky video master) with colors now having some attractiveness to them. There is more than adequate detail, so much so that with the corrected colors, the film actually has a sliver of aesthetic value to it, if that’s possible. The framing now also has more picture information, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track also has been restored, so everything on that level sounds as clear as possible (and we’re talking about a movie which has totally been post-synced). Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included. Like previous DVD releases, the film actually runs under 70 minutes, with a new scroll of technical credits and “special thanks” upping the running time closer to 74 minutes.

Jackey Neyman (now Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones) and her father Tom Neyman are on hand for an audio commentary, recalling everything they can about making the film, with Neyman-Jones telling the now famous story about how she cried when she saw the film on the big screen, only to discover that her voice had been dubbed by an adult. They share some insight on actor John Reynolds, and how Tom provided wardrobe for the Torgo character (which he never got back) and made a number of props and costumes for the show (his elaborate robe was designed by himself and sewn together by his wife), and that nobody of course got paid. Both have a lot of fun reminiscing, making fun of what’s on screen (and they were there when it happened!) and marveling at the film’s ineptitude. “Hands: The Fate of Manos” (30:46) is a new documentary by Daniel Griffith and Benjamin Solovey for Ballyhoo Motion Pictures that includes interviews with Solovey, Tom Neyman, Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones, Bryan Jennings (son of William Bryan Jennings, who played a sheriff in the film), Diane Adelson and Anselm Spring (the film’s still photographer). For its half-hour running time, this is entertainingly thorough “making of” piece, with solid interviews which cover all aspects of the ultra cheap production. This would include how the actors were mostly cast from local community theater and a modeling school, that the film was made on the concept that B movies do well (and that it would lead to something bigger!), raising the funds for it, the various technical aspects of it and its disastrous theatrical premiere. “Restoring the Hands of Fate” (6:36) has Solovey discussing the restoration and how much work went into the physical cleaning of the elements, the film scanning, and the damage they were able to fix. “Felt: The Puppet Hands of Fate” (3:58) is an interview with Rachel Jackson, the writer/producer of “Manos, The Hands of Felt” a recent puppet musical re-imagining of MANOS. Exclusively on the Blu-ray is the “grindhouse version” of MANOS, which has the film in its entirety before any major restoration or color corrections were conducted. (George R. Reis)