Manos: The Hands of Fate

(Reviewed in 2002.)

Before “Mystery Science Theater 3000” made it legendary, “Manos: The Hands of Fate” had deservedly been forgotten by history. It was not a cult-classic bad film like “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” nor had it been a big-name or big-budget disaster like “Waterworld” or “Ishtar.” I doubt it ever played anywhere outside its native El Paso, Texas, where a fertilizer magnate financed, wrote, directed and starred in it. It was a non-entity.

Then “MST3K,” that mixed blessing of a brilliant television show, brought it to our consciousness. The makers of that show declared it the worst film they’d ever watched, which made it more notable than other offerings on the series, and now it is something we all must reckon with.

People unfamiliar with how “MST3K” works may feel that the worse a movie is, the more enjoyable it is to watch when your intent is to heckle it. This is not the case with “Manos.” “Manos” is virtually unwatchable without the aid of Joel and the ‘bots and their merciless mocking. The cast members of that show have described their own horror at having to view the film several times; indeed, writer Mary Jo Pehl observed, “There were many times during the writing process when we simply couldn’t make comments, so caught up in the wretchedness of this movie were we.”

Did you catch that? These are people who made a living at commenting on wretched movies, yet THIS one was SO wretched, they often were at a loss for words. I do not advise anyone to watch “Manos: The Hands of Fate” unassisted. It’s not “so bad it’s good”; it’s just bad.

The plot is as follows: Michael (Hal Warren, also director/producer/etc.) and Margaret (Diane Mahree) are going for a weekend trip with their little girl, Debbie (Stephanie Nielson), when a wrong turn takes them to a weird little lodge in the middle of the desert. It’s run by The Master (Tom Neyman), and assisted by Torgo (John Reynolds), a dim, lubricious, other-worldly man who immediately starts hitting on Margaret and creeping everyone out.

What is The Master the master of, you ask? Good question. We know he has a bevy of semi-dead wives out in the backyard, and that they do weird cult stuff and summon “Manos,” whoever that may be; jokes about the Mormons should be kept to yourself, thank you. We also know The Master is not a very good boss, occasionally abusing Torgo and at one point burning his hand off.

Anyway, Michael can’t even get his car started, much less make his shrill wife or daughter shut up, and for as much evil and repulsiveness as the film contains, it’s actually quite dull.

What makes “Manos: The Hands of Fate” noteworthy is that every aspect of it is badly done. Writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound, lighting, sets, costumes, music, plot, character — it’s all inept and worthless. With most bad movies, at least you can tell professionals were making it. For example, “Freddy Got Fingered” may be an awful film, but at least everything is framed properly in the picture. And “Armageddon” is really stupid, but at least you can hear people when they talk.

I’ll tell you who should see this movie without the “MST3K” hecklings: film students. They need to see what evil can be unleashed when they are careless, lazy, or on cocaine. Just as “Citizen Kane” is a textbook example of how to make a quality film, “Manos: The Hands of Fate” is exemplary in showing us, step-by-step, how to make a bad one.

F (1 hr., 14 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for some violence and thematic content.)