The best bad movies often play like the cel­lu­loid ver­sion of out­sider art. The true anti-auteurs bypass the idea of being bad at film­mak­ing and move into a realm where the dia­logue, act­ing, sto­ry design and film­mak­ing choic­es are so far out­side what is nor­mal or accept­able that the sum total of all the­se ele­ments force you to ques­tion real­i­ty. Ed Wood Jr. is the patron saint of this kind of out­sider cin­e­ma but peri­od­ic chal­lengers to the throne pop up, often being redis­cov­ered long after they were first reject­ed by the main­stream.

Manos-09Manos: The Hands Of Fate is amongst the most inter­est­ing exam­ples of non-Ed Wood out­sider art cin­e­ma. It was revived for mod­ern audi­ences via one of the most pop­u­lar episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, an episode that found the show’s res­i­dent snark­meis­ters reduced to weep­ing and wail­ing in agony. The brain­child of El Paso sales­man Hal P. Warren, it was intend­ed to be a b-movie that would allow him to build a film­mak­ing career. Instead, it became one of the great one-off bizarro clas­sics of out­sider cin­e­ma.

Manos-10The premise of Manos: The Hands Of Fate plays like a dement­ed, fea­ture-length ver­sion of a Twilight Zone premise. Michael (Warren), his wife Margaret (Diane Adelson) and their daugh­ter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) are dri­ving to a vaca­tion when they become lost and end up at an iso­lat­ed lodge. Said lodge is tend­ed to by Torgo (John Reynolds), a weirdo desert rat who reluc­tant­ly takes them in. The fam­i­ly doesn’t know they stum­bled onto the lodge of a sin­is­ter deity known as the Master (Tom Neyman), who has sin­is­ter plans for the brood.

Manos: The Hands Of Fate quick­ly wears the view­er down with its non-aes­thet­ic approach to film­mak­ing. The visu­al style is raw and some­times blur­ry, the result of a prim­i­tive 16mm cam­era that could only shoot half-min­ute takes and had a tricky viewfind­er that made focus dif­fi­cult. The odd­ball score veers from cock­tail jazz to an cock­tail jazz band’s awk­ward ver­sion of a hor­ror movie score. Performances range from bare­ly-there to com­mand­ing­ly eccen­tric, with the weird­ness enhanced by hasty post-synch dub­bing. Top it all off with a Manos-11sto­ry­line that man­ners to be sur­re­al, per­verse and pedes­tri­an all at once and Warren’s non-tech­nique as a direc­tor and you have a movie that will send any­one in search of easy enter­tain­ment run­ning for the door.

However, those brave enough to stick with Manos: The Hands Of Fate might find its acci­den­tal weird­ness cap­ti­vat­ing. Even at its most mun­dane, there’s some­thing unde­fin­ably creepy about the film: the MST3K crew famous­ly touched on this when they said every image in the film looks like “someone’s last-known pho­tograph.” Themes of polyamor­ism, child homi­cide and pagan wor­ship lurk beneath the film’s G-rat­ed Manos-12exte­ri­or. Torgo is almost like a char­ac­ter from a David Lynch film, with a twitchy, sleazy per­for­mance from Reynolds that is unfor­get­table. Tom Neyman is also pret­ty mem­o­rable as the robe-clad Master and his harem of squab­bling ghost brides provide some indeli­ble moments, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they get into a huge cat­fight.

In short, Manos: The Hands Of Fate is a lit­mus test for a viewer’s appre­ci­a­tion of out­sider cin­e­ma. Whatever its fail­ures as a con­ven­tion­al piece of nar­ra­tive film­mak­ing, those same flaws allow it to offer the view­er a glimpse into a gen­uine, dement­ed alter­nate real­i­ty. It will nev­er be respect­ed but its infamy will live on long after this year’s Oscar bait has been for­got­ten.