A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 397 – Manos: The Hands of Fate

Manos: The Hands of Fate – April 1st, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk about this movie over the years. We first found out about it through MST3K, which is how I expect a lot of people found out about it. After all, it truly epitomizes the concept of indie filmmaking. Made by a fertilizer salesman on what amounts to a shoestring budget, it’s famous for being thoroughly unwatchable without riffing. The problem is that most people who watch this movie aren’t watching it in the right way. With the proper background, this movie takes on a completely different character.

The trick to this movie is interrogating it from the right perspective. As a horror movie it’s lacking a little something, but as a mythological allegory? It’s truly fascinating. Watching it with the MST3K jokes is all well and good, but it means that a lot of the little things get lost under comments and singing. And much as I love MST3K, that’s really a shame, because it’s given this movie a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve.

You do need to look closely to see the mythological implications in this movie, but once you look you can’t help but note them. And who wouldn’t think to look into the mythological content here once you know that the character of Torgo is a satyr? Really, I don’t see how anyone could miss it. It’s sort of like The Matrix, though, in that it’s not one single allegorical story. It’s combining many different elements from a number of myths. Which is really pretty masterful, when you think about it.

The story follows a couple and their daughter, lost in the desert and stranded at a remote house where the sinister Master lives with his brides and Torgo, his satyr assistant. The wife, Margaret, is clearly a Persephone figure here, wanted as a bride by the Master, who is the Hades figure. He represents death and fate and is inescapable and invulnerable. And yet he also seems to have elements of Zeus, what with the number of women he’s seduced. One of his wives is clearly Hera, loudly proclaiming her authority over matters when the Master appears to be contemplating taking Margaret for a wife. Just imagine if Hera had been let loose on all of the women Zeus impregnated over the course of Greek mythology. This movie poses that precise situation, set in what is clearly Hades’ realm, a remote realm only reachable by some.

The whole movie incorporates themes from the Persephone myth, which I mentioned, quest tropes like in the Odyssey, a touch of Orpheus. It’s fascinating to pick through the representations to see how they’ve all be recombined to relate to each other in what was at the time a modern setting in the desert outside El Paso. I wish I had more knowledge of the area at the time so I could look into Warren’s possible allegorical connections between his own personal experience and the mythology he was so clearly drawing his inspiration from. I hope that in the future more people will be able to look at this movie with a fresh perspective.

April 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Manos” The Hands of Fate

April 1, 2011

“Manos” The Hands of Fate

Amanda and I have bought and reviewed a few movies that we discovered on MST3K. Movies like the great sixties space western Moon Zero Two and the films of Alksandr Ptushko. We often comment on how these movies have been given a bad reputation by their association with MST – they’re actually very good movies in their own way. This movie is the epitome of that category of film.

Manos has a reputation, mostly propagated by fans of Mystery Science Theater, for being one of the most horrifically awful and unwatchable movies ever made. Now that we own it in its untainted and authentic form I can absolutely state that this movie is in fact an unsung gem. Writer/director Harold P. Warren was a visionary film maker who seems to have had an instinctual sense of the medium. It’s hard to believe that a simple fertilizer salesman could have accomplished so much with his very first effort at making a film.

This movie is a terrifying supernatural thriller. It tells the story of a hapless family who become lost on their vacation and find themselves trapped in a strange kind of purgatory at the edge of a lonely desert. In a shack on the edge of nowhere Mike and Margaret and their daughter Debbie discover the mysterious and tragic Torgo. He takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Torgo is reluctant to let the family stay, even with night approaching fast. He doesn’t think that the Master will approve. Eventually, after a tense stand off, Torgo allows them to stay, and thus begins their trouble. Over the course of the first half of the movie Warren expertly builds the tension as the young couple find themselves increasingly trapped. Their car won’t start – there is no telephone – mysterious dark beasts prowl the night outside. All the time there is the specter of the mysterious Master whose place this is.

Finally, when the tension has reached its peak, young Debbie discovers the strange alternate dimension where sleeps the Master and his imprisoned brides. This is when the real action of the movie starts. It was a bold choice, particularly in the late sixties when this movie was made, give all the action and fight scenes to the female characters. There is conflict among the Master’s wives because of Debbie, the child. They know that it is the will of the dark god Manos that the woman Margaret become a wife of the Master, but some of the wives don’t want to kill the young girl. Meanwhile, Torgo has plots of his own as he intends to steal Maggie for himself.

As the Master deals with this rebellion Mike, bound and left for dead in the desert, awakens and returns to the house in an attempt to rescue Maggie and Debbie. Can they possibly escape from the Master’s grasp across the desert at night by foot? The haunting end of this film will stay with you for years afterwards, I will tell you that.

I think that part of what makes this movie so astonishing is how far outside the Hollywood norm it is. Warren was not a director by trade and he has a unique style that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Take, for example, the peculiar editing choices. The way that the action often goes on just a little longer than is comfortable and the way that characters often seem to repeat themselves works to add to the viewer’s unease as the horror builds. These are choices that would not have been made by somebody steeped in the “proper” way of making films. Only a true outsider could craft something unique and wonderful like this.

He also uses some of the challenges that faced him to make the film stronger. Almost all of the dialog is clearly dubbed in during post-production which also gives an otherworldly feel to things. Take, for example, the scene when the Master’s newly awakened wives argue about the fate of the girl Debbie. All of their dialog is at first overlapping, a bedlam of shouting female voices, in a quick audio clip that is repeated like a chorus between individual declarations by each wife. As the scene progresses and they each get their brief say you begin to understand that each of their individual arguments can be heard within that chorus. “She’s a girl – she will grow up to be a woman.” “As the eldest wife I get to decide.” It’s an intricately crafted tonal poem of a scene.

Another treasure of this film is the powerful, tragic, and mesmerising performance of John Reynolds as Torgo. Many of the other performances in the movie are great as well (Tom Neyman with his grand, almost operatic, power as the Master, Diane Mahree as the trapped and increasingly desperate Maggie) but it is Torgo that truly defines the film. Reynolds creates this character and completely inhabits him with every tick and facial twitch. It’s impossible for me to look away, and he completely steals every scene he’s in.

This is an incredible, singular, impossible to duplicate movie. From its haunting, slightly off kilter score to its unique characters it will amaze you. It’s the sort of movie that leaves a lasting impression long after it is over. I’m so very glad we got to watch it uninterrupted and un-MiSTed tonight. I’m probably going to watch it again before I go to sleep.

April 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 4 Comments