The fact most often repeated about Hal P. Warren, the auteur of the cinematic freak show “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” is that he was a fertilizer salesman, as if the occupation somehow disqualified him from moviemaking.
Maybe, maybe not. In the summer of 1966 Warren led a band of justly uncompensated players into the desert around El Paso to make what is now widely celebrated as the worst movie of all time. The tale of a family who falls into the grip of a Satanic cult--though the spoils of soul-selling amount to no more than a screen-door shack with a filthy couch--"Manos” is a work of dazzling stupidity and an incompetence so decadent that it’s hard to understand how Warren managed to dress himself in the morning.
Clapboards flash by, moths fly into the camera, characters look at the director and back at the camera as if to ask, “Now?” The dialogue--every word of it looped in a studio--is so out of synch that it appears to have been dubbed from Bantu. That’s when there is dialogue. “Manos” is the “Citizen Kane” of agonizing pauses, when actors just stand there in a void of silence and perplexity. It’s brutal.
And people love it.
This is the Summer of “Manos.” In June, Entertainment Weekly ran a story--"The Worst Movie Ever Made"--detailing the film’s odyssey from drive-in trash to art-house treasure. The short version: After the black-tie premiere in El Paso in 1966--during which the mortified cast snuck out while the audience howled--the movie was forgotten until it resurfaced 27 years later on the brilliant spoof-athon Mystery Science Theater 3000. The “Manos” episode remains the most popular DVD in the MST3K catalog.
“Manos” is the subject of a new documentary, “Hotel Torgo,” currently making its rounds at Canadian film festivals. Produced and directed by Aaron Allard and James Lafleur, students at the Niagra College in Canada, “Hotel Torgo"--the title refers to the caretaker character with, yes, gigantic knees--is told through the puffy eyes of one of the last surviving crew members, Bernie Rosenblum, who informs us that Warren was “just [expletive] nuts.”
And, as if to add a fateful punctuation to the “Manos” narrative, in June the adobe shack where it was filmed burned to the ground.
With the coronation of “Manos” at hand, so to speak, now seems like a good time to ask why we adore bad movies so much. As far as I can tell, film is one of the few artistic mediums to rejoice in utter failure. No one revives hack 18th century opera or hangs paintings by Rembrandt’s butcher. But just try to rent a copy of “Battlefield Earth.”
Part of the reason, obviously, is schadenfreude. Celebrity obeys the engineering principle of the square-cube law, that is, celebrity can grow so huge that it can no longer support its own weight. And when it overextends itself, as it did in the painfully blond “Alexander,” there’s the same satisfaction as watching a building collapse. There are films sabotaged by their own box-office cynicism (“Gigli”) or consumed by their own willfulness (“Heaven’s Gate”).
But the cult of bad movies doesn’t revolve around big-budget disasters so much as the penny dreadfuls of mid-century American cinema, the discreditable, low-budget horror movies peopled with attacking 50-foot women, killer shrews and aliens with zippers down their back. You’ve got to love any film in which Martians wear Timex watches.
What makes these films so watchable? After screening “Manos” for probably the 10th time, I’ve concluded it has to do with intimacy. Because it is such a pure slice of Warren’s brain--he wrote, directed, produced and starred, and brooked no collaboration--"Manos” amounts to the man’s cinematically transfigured subconscious. What, then, to make of the 10-minute scene where six women, wearing bras, girdles and what appears to be mosquito-netting, wrestle for rights to the “Master”?
The worst-best movies of all time are these encephalograms of very ambitious, strange people, including Ed Wood of “Glen or Glenda” fame, or the notorious and paranoid Coleman Francis, who in “Red Zone Cuba” attempted to dramatize a U.S. invasion of the island with six guys. The Jungian weirdness of these films defies description.
And yet they have an odd and sweet authenticity. Often shot on next-to-no budget--with minimal expense in costumes, sets and production, and with few second takes--they can have an unvarnished, documentary feel, like historical footage that happens to have zombies staggering around in the foreground. Is there a more telling portrait of early ‘70s Arizona than “Night of the Lepus”?
Making the worst movie of all time is no small accomplishment. After all, Kevin Costner has had many more at-bats than Warren, who never made another movie and died in 1985. But it was enough. Thanks to the notoriety, a straight version of “Manos"--sans MST3K’s riffing robots--has been released on DVD, assuring that this cinematic cautionary tale will live forever. Hal P. Warren, filmmaker and fertilizer salesman, has achieved greatness.
The Master would approve.