"What kind of movie would a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas make?"
-- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film
# # # #
For many years, Manos: The Hands of Fate must have been the Holy Grail for aficionados of obscure, low-budget, really godawful cinema: seldom mentioned, hardly ever seen, exactly the kind of movie that, yes, a fertilizer salesman named Hal P. Warren would decide to make, one fine summer in 1966.
That all changed when the grandmeisters of la cinema du fromage at Mystery Science Theater 3000 delved into the bottom of the barrel and found this epic lying in ambush. For those without access to Comedy Central or some other clue, MST3K (for short) is about two scientists who torture a spacebound employee and his robot pals by force-feeding them movies, into which they interject their own snide remarks and alternative dialogue. Bad movies. Really bad. Really, really, really bad.
As one of the scientists confided when Manos came up for its turn, "I think even we may have gone a little too far this time."
So, instant cult phenomenon. Even if 'admirers' is not quite the word, Manos has been embraced by legions of 'MSTies' and cult film fans who passionately argue its demerits over the Internet. Even Roger Ebert's forum on Compuserve isn't safe.
And yet, as we shall see, there very nearly wasn't a Manos: The Hands of Fate at all.
How to describe Manos fairly? I tell locals that it's about a couple who take a wrong turn on Scenic Drive (that being the one landmark in the film still recognizable after three decades) and wind up at a 'Lodge' managed by a cult leader, his wobbly-kneed sidekick, and his harem of lingerie-clad wives. Wow; a cult movie that's really a cult movie!
"So, Richard," my fellow film buff Craig tells me over the phone, "for the next Amigocon you should really round up some of the cast and have a reunion panel."
"Hmmm," I said, the gears in my brain starting to grind away implacably. Problem is, how to locate some of these folks thirty years after? Assuming they're not dead, who would have hung around after perpetrating something like Manos upon the townfolk?
Suddenly my dreams are haunted by the spectre of Manos. In my sleep I can see myself after grueling detective work uncovering a fugitive cast member; hey, that little girl who played the daughter must still be alive by now eh? Only why hasn't she aged any by now....Aggggggh! Time to wake up, eh?
To the rescue: my old pal Roy, who springs on me the revelation that two of his poker buddies had fessed up to being in the cast and crew. What's more, it turns out I had met both of these guys. Bob Guidry, the 'Director of Cinematography' as he insisted on being billed, had been doing public relations work while I was in the TV news business. Bernie Rosenblum (stunt coordinator and featured player, now a noted Southwestern photographer) I had met one night when Roy had been misinformed that a poker party was underway at his house.
So I begged and pleaded and cajoled for Roy to be our intermediary with these two legends of the cinema, and he brought back these terms: they'd come to a panel on Manos in return for free con memberships and dinner at La Hacienda Café.
We ended up shifting the panel to late Sunday afternoon, as a big finale to wrap up the convention. Of course, throughout the weekend and especially as Sunday began to wane I kept a watchful eye out for Roy and his pals, to no avail. Finally, as we were knocking down some of the last items in the Sunday afternoon art auction, Roy breezed in with Bob and Bernie in tow. Craig and I sat them down, popped in a tape of the MST3K rendition of Manos for reference, and laid into "the Manos Guys."
One of the first questions I asked was how they reacted to all the newfound public clamor for their work, what with MST3K picking it up and, I even hear rumors of, a laserdisc edition.
"Well," said Bob, "we'd be extremely interested, because we're still owed a piece of the picture."
"Yeah. Hal only raised $19,000 to rent the cameras and pay for the film and processing, and so he couldn't afford to actually pay any of us. So we were all working for a percentage of the profits. Like Mel Brooks in The Producers, I think he gave away several hundred percent of the picture...."
"So whatever possessed Hal to make something like Manos anyway?"
"Well, Hal met Stirling Silliphant [the Oscar-winning screenwriter of In the Heat of the Night] when he was scouting locations for Route 66, and the two of them got to be friends. Hal had a lot of conversations with Stirling about filmmaking, and became convinced he could make a movie himself."
So Hal wrote a screenplay -- a copy of which Bob whipped out of his satchel; Bernie produced the original shooting script, studded with Bob's camera-angle diagrams -- which he called The Lodge of Sins. (At some point during production, Hal decided to change the title to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Why? No man can say...Although as time wore on and tempers frayed, the crew began referring to the project as Mangos: Cans of Fruit.)
And then it was time to round up a crew and "A Cast of Local Stars!" as the poster would say.
"I was the grand old man of the bunch at thirty," Bob said.
"The rest of us were all in our twenties," said Bernie, "because if we'd been any older we couldn't have pulled it off. We were shooting the whole night through, then running home, showering and changing, and going to work."
"We all had day jobs," said Bob. "And it was a good thing!"
In fact, two of the cast, Stephanie Nielson and Joyce Molleur, lived in Las Cruces, about an hours' drive away. After Joyce broke her leg while performing a stunt early in the shoot, new parts were written for her and stunt man-turned-actor Bernie, as a couple of kids who are perpetually hassled by the cops as they neck in their car. They start at dusk and are found still at it by dawn -- a moment which drew Bernie a rousing ovation from our audience -- but Bernie noted that the two of them were crammed into a convertible with her leg in a cast. "Not as fun as it looks," he concluded.
With Hal typecast as the hero 'Hal', the rest of the cast was largely recruited from the local community theater: Diane Mahree, as the damsel in distress; Tom Neyman, as the Master, who wears a black cape lined with red-embroidered fingers; and the tragic figure of John Reynolds, whose creepy Confederate-uniformed character of Torgo so endeared himself to MST3K that they incorporated him into their act.
"I heard a rumor on the net," I said, "that John had committed suicide."
"That's no rumor," said Bob. "He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn't really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It's a shame, because he was really a talented young actor."
Bob explained that John Reynolds had built himself the metallic rigging underneath his costume which produced his ungainly, knobby-kneed walk. One of the reasons he hates the Mystery Science Theater version, he said, is the silhouettes of the MST cast which block the bottom portion of the screen throughout the film. They obscure the few shots where you can see that Torgo actually does have cloven-hoofed feet. The subtle explanation for Torgo's awkward gait: he's a satyr.
As for the Master's 'wives', they were recruited from a local modeling agency, Fran Simon's Mannequin Manor.
"And they gave poor Hal fits," said Bob. "They kept doing little turns every time they walked. 'This is not a runway!' he would scream at them."
Bob then pulled out a script and read where the wives' attire was described as "flowing, white tight robes." Hal evidently had something sheer and diaphanous in mind, but Fran Simon wasn't having her girls parading around in some flimsy bit of nothing. So the wives' uniform on-screen is a translucent white nightgown over a girdle and a sports bra, with a red strip of cloth trailing from the back that we assume is supposed to represent a tail. Aside from the last, it's uncomfortably like watching your mother getting dressed. Not that the crew ever gave up hope, though:
"We kept asking ourselves, 'And when do we start shooting the European version?'"
So, armed with nineteen grand worth of equipment and film stock, Hal and his troupe headed for County Judge Colbert Coldwell's ranch in El Paso's lower valley (where the exteriors for Manos still stand), and commenced a grueling two-and-a-half-month shoot.
Some of the crew soon chafed under the prima-donnish hand of self-made auteur-and-star Warren.
"One day," Bob said, "just to show Hal up, I showed up on the set wearing a beret and a safari outfit and carrying a riding crop, and barking out orders like Erich von Stroheim."
"I remember," said Bernie. "That's the day he threw the slate at you."
Bob also got back by slipping in some decent camerawork against Hal's express orders.
"See that?" he says as we watch a shot of the setting sun reflected from a rear-view mirror onto Diane's face. "Art. Hal would hate it when I did that."
Certain technical limitations of a $19,000 budget also soon revealed themselves.
"We had a spring-wound 16-millimeter Bell & Howell," said Bob. "Now, the maximum wind of the Bell & Howell was 32 seconds, so that was the maximum length of any shot."
...which explains away one of the film's first mysteries: why a lengthy driving montage is patched together from a series of choppy takes.
"We also shot the whole thing wild track" -- meaning no sound recorded on the set -- "then Hal, his wife, and Tom and Diane went to a sound studio in Dallas to do their voices. Everybody else in the film was dubbed in by two people."
"Wait a minute!" I said, incredulously. "You mean Torgo's voice was dubbed?!" -- the quavery quality of Torgo's voice being his most imitated trait -- and Bob confirmed this, yet another reason why John Reynolds' performance can't be properly appreciated.
Bob also explained away a scene in which two cops hear a gunshot, get out of their cars, take about three steps, look around and wave their flashlights, then without a word turn around, get back in their car and drive off.
"That's as far as our lights would illuminate," Bob said.
With limited lighting and a wide aperture, Bob had to apologize for the photography in some spots, which was, to put it politely, not quite in focus.
"At first," he said, "when we saw the dailies and I spotted any shots that were out of focus, we would do re-takes. But as the film stock started to dwindle, Hal made it clear that our $19,000 worth would only go so far, so after a certain point we had to just leave the shots in."
The crew's motto became: "We'll Fix It in the Lab."
Bernie was especially disgruntled about the setup for his big stunt, when he goes rolling down a dangerously precipitous slope; it was shot from back of the crest of the hill, and so you can't see any of him as he goes rolling merrily away.
We asked if Bob had shot a cutaway of a rattlesnake that threatens our heroes.
"No," said Bernie, "that was a clip from a Disney nature film, I think."
"You can tell," said Bob. "You'll notice the snake was in focus."
So after a couple of months of ordeal in the desert, it was time for the grand premiere at the Capri Theater in downtown El Paso. Hal managed to attract a lot of local media attention. "Reputedly based on an old Mexican legend," quoted one reporter, "the tale has a surprise climax and people will not be admitted during the last 10 minutes of the program!"
Bob and Bernie and the rest of the cast and crew rented tuxedos for the occasion; Hal outdid them and rented a searchlight to sweep the skies on opening night. He also rented one 1955 Cadillac limousine which would arrive at the door of the theater, unload a couple of the stars, then drive around the block to where the rest of the cast and crew were waiting, pick up two more, and make another run.
The theater was packed to the balcony with local dignitaries, they recalled, and the suspense was unbearable; you had the trailers of coming attractions, a cartoon, a twenty-minute True Life Nature Adventure set in the Antarctic, and then finally, the feature.
"And then," said Bob, "as soon as Hal opened his mouth, you heard it from the balcony: a little..." and then he mimicked the small snorting sound of a suppressed guffaw.
"And as the film unreeled, and you heard more and more laughs and catcalls, I started to slide down further and further in my seat. All my life, I had lived for one thing: to see my name in the credits of a motion picture. Well, the credits for Manos aren't until the end of the picture, and I sneaked out before then."
Betty Pierce, the movie reviewer for the El Paso Times, was particularly taken with the climax, in which, she headlined, Torgo is "Massaged to Death," although she also claimed to see Torgo as the film's Existential Hero. (Torgo does in fact eventually rebel against the Master, a parallel no doubt to the relationship between Hal Warren and his crew.)
"For an amateur production," she went on, "the color came out very well, however, and perhaps by scrapping the soundtrack and running it with subtitles or dubbing it in Esperanto, it could be promoted as a foreign art film of some sort or other."
In spite of all this, Hal managed to find a distributor -- Emerson Releasing Corporation -- who gave the film its shadowy half-life of a theatrical run.
"You have to give Hal credit," Bob said. "If you have any idea, even in Hollywood, how difficult it is let alone to get a film made, but to get it finished, and get it through post-production, and then get it distributed...well what he did was something of a miracle."
On which note it was time to adjourn and escort the celebrities from the stage ("You two were glowing," Craig's lady friend said accusingly) and on to La Hacienda. Roy pulled out some replicas of the Manos poster art he had produced with his Mac, scanner and laser printer so that we might get the local heroes' autographs ("Recognition at last!"). Outside the café, Bob and Bernie let us know that the adjacent road had actually been part of the driving-montage shoot, which prompted us all to pose for Craig's camera with a full moon overhead and genuine Manos scenery in the background.
"You know," I told them, reflecting on the genesis of this meeting, "this really is like a dream come true."
What about the rest of the Manos gang? One of the 'wives', Robin Redd, went on to a career as a genuine honest-to-God movie and TV actress. Tom 'The Master' Neyman dropped out of sight. The production's still photographer, a young Allied German soldier from Fort Bliss, discovered Susan Blakely on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, and went on to shoot for Vogue. Hal is long gone and his widow lives now in Colorado.
But Bob had one last word in defense of Hal's peculiar genius.
"Although I sneaked out of the premiere, I did go to the cast and crew party afterwards, at Bernie's parents' house. At one point Hal said to us, 'You know, maybe if we took it back and re-dubbed the dialogue, we could market it as a comedy.'"
"Well, look what happened," I said. "The son of a bitch was right!"
- - - - - - - - - -Todd Mason's comment on Richard's article seemed to pretty much sum up readers' opinion about the piece: "My goodness, to actually seek these people out was a brilliant idea! Kudos to you for running this piece, and to Richard Brandt for not selling it to Film Threat, instead (which he should probably do now!)."
It turned out that M18 was the last issue of Mimosa we published that didn't have an overt theme. Mimosa 19, which was published in November 1996, was an "L.A.Con" themed issue, starting with our Opening Comments about our epic two-week trip to California, which included an encounter with an oversize moose and squirrel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, accidentally gate-crashing the worldcon equivalent for belly-dancers in San Francisco, a tour of the Ackermansion in the Hollywood Hills, and losing the Fanzine Hugo at L.A.Con III (to Dave Langford's Ansible) by just eight votes. Someone else who lost a Hugo by a narrow margin was Michael A. Burstein, who related the story in an article in the issue. Here it is again:
All illustrations by Diana Harlan Stein