A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

“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 | , , ,


  1. When you think about it, don’t we all “take care of the place while the Master is away?”

    Comment by A. | April 1, 2011 | Reply

  2. Damn. It’s not available from Netflix. I’ll have to try eBay.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | April 2, 2011 | Reply

  3. Amazing Manos Fact: Not one single member of the cast of this film has ever had a credited role in any other movie! What are the chances of that happening? Kinda makes you think.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | April 2, 2011 | Reply

    • Does that mean that this film is un-Kevin Baconable?!?

      Comment by tanatoes | April 2, 2011 | Reply

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