Manos: A Phenomenon of Ephemera – Act I

SiW now presents the strange and wonderful history of a film entitled Manos: The Hands of Fate. The story unfolds in 3 acts. 

Act I – The Production

The Bet

In 1965, Hal Warren sat across the table from screenwriter Stirling Silliphant in a coffee shop in El Paso, Texas. Warren was a local theater actor who had secured a walk-on role on Route 66 where 

Hal Warren
he met Silliphant (who had won an Oscar for the script for In the Heat of the Night). As the chatted, the conversation turned to the subject of film making. Warren commented that he believed that anyone could make a film without much trouble at all. As Silliphant belittled the remark, Warren claimed he could make an entire film on his own to which Silliphant suggested a little wager on the claim. Warren accepted the bet and set in motion a production that would, shockingly, become legendary.

Almost immediately after accepting the challenge, Warren began scribbling a plot summary onto a napkin at the coffee shop. He envisioned an ordinary family falling into the hands of a supernatural ghoul called The Master and his strange minions. Armed with a plot and rough script, Warren set about raising funds and hiring local theater actors from El Paso to play the various parts, though the leading man role was filled immediately by Warren himself. Somehow, Warren managed to raise around $19,000 to finance the production. Since the equipment rental and production costs would account for most of the capital, Warren did not pay the cast and crew and, instead, promised them a share of the film’s earnings at the box office. Production began in the summer of 1966 under the name The Lodge of Sins. Warren struck a deal to shoot the film on a ranch belonging to a local retired judge named Colbert Coldwell.

The Filming

It wasn’t long before the project ran into the first of many problems. Warren had hired a number of models to portray the villain’s harem. Early in the production, one of the models broke her leg while shooting a scene. The modeling agency, Mannequin Manor, had crafted a contract that included heavy fines if a model was fired, so Warren decided to re-write her role and added a teen couple who spend the entire moving necking in a convertible. The model was able to remain seated throughout her shots and fulfill her contract. Unfortunately, the teen couple scenes are completely disconnected from the rest of the storyline and serve no practical purpose in the film. 

John Reynolds as Torgo

One memorable character from the film was that of Torgo, the villian’s faithful and deformed servant. The character was portrayed by John Reynolds, a troubled young man struggling to get into show business. The Torgo character was conceived as a sort of satyr with fawn’s legs. To depict that, Tom Neyman (who played “The Master”) constructed an apparatus that Reynolds was to wear on his legs under large trousers and cloven hooves for his feet. Reynolds, however, was never coached on how the apparatus was supposed to be worn and actually put it on backwards. This error caused part of the apparatus to gouge his kneecaps repeatedly and caused him great pain. His hobbling gait in the film is quite noticeable. Reynolds counteracted the pain by taking large doses of medication which affected his on screen performance. The knee damage was permanent and caused him pain long after the film was completed.

Another problem was the shooting equipment. The cameras and rigs were rented and many scenes had to be rushed in order to return the equipment on time. To compound the problem, the cameras needed to be wound by hand and were only able to record 32 seconds of footage at a time. This created an editing nightmare in post-production. Not only that, but these cameras were not able to record sound. Therefore, Warren promised the cast that the dialogue would all be dubbed in later from a sound stage. Warren also shot all night scenes at night, which created many problems. The cast worked day jobs, so night shoots were difficult on them. Plus, Warren didn’t rent many floodlights, so actors were forced to remain in small circles of light during scenes even if the script called for movement.

As the production carried on, Warren changed the title of his film to Manos: The Hands of Fate as the cast began to be worried about the project. Any time concerns were raised to Warren, he assured the cast that any problems would be fixed in post-production. His pride and prima donna attitude sparked resentment from the cast and they began calling the film Mangos: The Cans of Fruit amongst themselves.

Through all this, Warren soldiered on and eventually completed the shoot after 2 ½ months. The cast was dismissed and Warren began the task of “fixing” the film with post-production and editing. The most important job would be to get the dialogue recorded and dubbed into the film since none was recorded on set. Due to scheduling conflicts, however, when the time came to dub the script into the film, only a few people were able to attend the recording sessions including Warren, Neyman and Diane Mahree who played the wife. So those people few spoke every line heard in the film. Warren also had, apparently, intended to create a lengthy sequence of opening credits to superimpose over prolonged shots of scenery and a driving car. When it came down to it, Warren was unable to complete the credit sequence for unknown reasons, but the long shots stayed in the film and created a very strange and boring opening montage. The rest of the film was also poorly edited with some shots even containing the marker clipboard briefly.

The Fallout

Local Print ad for the film.

Nevertheless, Warren completed this editing and scheduled a gala premiere for November 15, 1966, at a local theater called the Capri. He rented a searchlight for outside the venue. He even arranged for members of the cast to arrive at the theater via limousine. True to form, Warren was only able to afford one limo for the entire cast, so he had the cast meet up a block away so the same limo driver could drop the actors off two at a time at the theater and circle back.

One actor was missing from the premier: John Reynolds. Reynolds had struggled with depression, possible mental illness and drug addiction and, one month before the premier, he had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His death was not believed to have been connected with his involvement in the film, but it makes his appearance on it his only film credit.

The local paper ran an add boasting that this film was the work of many local folks – producers, directors, actors and support personnel. The hype managed to bring in a full house for the premier. As the film rolled, the audience quickly realized it was terrible – poorly shot, scripted and edited. They began to murmur, then chuckle and finally boo. The cast and crew snuck out of the theater in shame before the film ended and the crowd threw their shoes at the screen as the lights came on. The newspaper review the next day was vicious and suggested the film could perhaps be salvaged by stripping the dubbed audio and using subtitles or Esperato and marketing it as a foreign art film. 

Warren echoed that critique himself at the premiere’s after-party, suggesting that it could be re-dubbed completely as a comedy. He insisted that he was glad he completed the project, but that it may indeed be the worst film ever made.

The cast and crew returned to their day jobs and most never worked in the film industry again. Warren continued to try his hand at screenwriting (he even pitched a sequel idea at one point), but the Manos millstone hung heavy around his neck and he never succeeded. He was able to sell distribution rights to the film to Emerson Releasing Corporation which got the film screened at a few local drive-ins over the next few years. He eventually became a fertilizer salesman in the El Paso area and died in 1985.

Manos: The Hands of Fate quickly faded into obscurity.

To be continued…

One thought on “Manos: A Phenomenon of Ephemera – Act I

  1. Pingback: 300 Posts in 13 Years | Stargazing in Winter

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