“DO SOMETHING!” Joel Hodgson shouted at the screen while viewing Harold P. Warren’s staggeringly awkward 1966 curiosity, “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” on his hilarious program, “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The episode originally aired on January 30th, 1993, and it introduced a whole new audience (myself included) to a film that surely ranks alongside Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” as one of the most gloriously inexplicable works of cinema ever made. Warren stars a thick-headed family man who drives his wife (Diane Mahree) and daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman Jones), into the middle of nowhere, thus forcing them to stay at the Valley Lodge run by the Master (Tom Neyman) and his creepy henchman, Torgo (John Reynolds). The repetitive title, translating to “Hands: The Hands of Fate,” sets the tone for the entire film—characters say things like, “There is no way out of here. It will be dark soon. There is no way out of here,” while the music repeats the same notes over and over (oddly enough, the score for Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” inadvertently borrowed the “haunting Torgo theme,” as evidenced in its trailer).
Jones wrote a memoir on the making of the film, Growing Up With Manos: The Hands of Fate, with co-author Laura Mazzuca Toops, and both women will be at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre this Friday for a 50th anniversary screening of the film. I spoke with Jones about her memories of the production, her friendship with Torgo and her key role in the upcoming sequel.
I must start by saying that you give the most convincing performance in the movie.
That’s so funny! My youngest sister saw the film for the first time a couple weeks ago, and she said the same thing. It just cracks me up.
Was acting among your interests as a kid?
Well my dad was heavily into theatre since the time I can remember. I adored my dad and I was deeply interested in anything that he was doing. When he asked me if I wanted to be in “Manos” with him, I wasn’t thinking of it from an acting standpoint at all. I was thinking of it as an opportunity to spend more time with my dad. He knew just how to get me too because when he approached me with the question and I didn’t answer right away, he said, “Well it’s okay honey, we can always get another little girl,” and I was like, “Uh…no!” [laughs] No other little girl is going to be hanging with my daddy!
Not only did my father play the Master, he created all the sets, props and costumes. He also titled the film. Hal Warren had changed the title from “The Lodge of Sins” to “Fingers of Fate,” and my dad suggested “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” Everybody who worked on the film had a full-time job, and my dad was the director of the El Paso Boys Club at the time. My father was also an amazing artist, and was in the midst of his hands phase during production, so all of the hand sculptures in the film were his. He also designed the robe and the Master’s wives’ dresses, which my mother sewed. The doberman was our dog and most of the furniture in the house was our’s, so to me, “Manos” felt like a family movie.
I always thought that doberman looked friendly.
Oh he was. He was the sweetest.
Hal’s frustration onset is certainly apparent in his performance.
He was very frustrated. During my sixteen months of research for the book, I found people who were involved in the film and were never credited. It was very interesting to find how my personal memories lined up with the things that people remembered. I was a very observant child and I still am observant. I see a lot of things that many other people don’t see. I really held on to those memories of the film because after the premiere, it just disappeared. Nobody wanted to talk about it or think about it. In my personal life, everything got pretty dark after that. My dad was suicidal and my parents’ divorced and things were dark for many, many years. “Manos” was always the bright spot of my childhood. It’s sort of like if you had a memorable birthday or if your family took you to Disneyland. You may not remember the other things that happened in that year, but the details of those happy experiences will crystallize in your mind, and that’s what the whole experience of “Manos” was for me. Once the Internet got up and running and I started seeing people talking about “Manos,” I made it my mission to tell the real story of what happened, and of course, the truth is more interesting than the made-up stories.
Your father’s involvement in “Manos” was so extensive that he almost seems to have been a co-creator of the film.
He was. Hal Warren had moved to El Paso from Houston, and pretty much everyone from “Manos” came from the community theatre in El Paso. My dad was the lead actor in many, many plays, and Hal was a supporting actor. When they were all performing “Henry IV,” Hal looked around at the people in the play and realized that he had almost everyone he needed,—including John Reynolds, who played Torgo, and William Bryan Jennings, who played the sheriff. They weren’t really friends, but they were acquaintances. And they weren’t friends after the film either. [laughs] In fact, after filming wrapped, Hal took the Master’s robe and painting home with him. My dad didn’t even get his stuff back, and he never got paid for it. Hal’s son still has those things and he’ll never give them up. I think Hal felt that he was very successful. The guy was a wheeler-dealer, and nothing knocked him down for long.
What are your memories of John Reynolds?
He and my dad were actually pretty good friends. John was deeply troubled. He was 24 years old and my dad was 31, but they both shared a deeply creative soul. They also both battled depression at a time when men weren’t supposed to have emotions. It was the ’60s, and John used drugs a lot. He ended up committing suicide almost one month to the day filming ended and a month before the premiere. He got talked into “Manos” and like everybody, he was hoping that it would lead to something more. If someone who is passionate about their art is given an opportunity to expand on it, they are going to take it. I can imagine what a huge disappointment it was for everyone involved. It’s pretty obvious to most people that John was high during filming, and it’s even more obvious in the restoration. He was a very serious Method actor, and though nobody has confirmed this theory, I doubt that he got high for other performances. I think he saw the handwriting on the wall.
I had met John several times when he would come over to visit, or my dad and I would go over to check on him. He just lived three blocks from us. On set, he was very shy when he wasn’t performing. He was shy around women, and he wasn’t very tall—he was like 5’ 9’’—but he was more comfortable around me and seemed like he could relate to me more than pretty much anybody else on the set. When he wasn’t off by himself or he didn’t have to be on camera, he would hang out with me. He’d do some magic tricks such as coin tricks, and he’d act silly and do pratfalls to entertain me during the down time. I remember him being a very sweet, gentle man.
He’s very funny in the film, and his Torgo walk has become iconic.
My dad built those braces, by the way.
Were you unaware that the film was being shot with a camera that couldn’t capture sound?
I had no idea, but everybody else was in on it. Nobody thought to tell the 6-year-old kid. In fact, Hal had me repeat a couple lines. I knew I wasn’t loud enough, but then he’d say, “Oh it’s fine, we’ll fix it in the lab.” He shot the film with a Bell & Howell camera that was usually used to capture news footage, particularly on the battlefield. It shot 32 seconds at a time, and Hal knew that the film would have to be dubbed. He ended up driving to a sound studio 800 miles away to record it all.
What do you recall about the film’s premiere?
When my family arrived, we were instructed to wait in an alleyway behind the theater. We gathered there, all dressed up, and then this limo would come by. It would pick up a few people at a time, drive around the block and deposit them in front of the theater. There was a red carpet and big lights that moved and scanned the sky. Hal had borrowed them from a local car dealer. We were right on the border of Mexico, and there were Mexican street kids who would sell newspapers during the day. Hal hired those kids to be autograph hounds, and he gave them little pads of paper and pencils. When we went in the theater, the city alderman was there, along with the mayor and the sheriff. Everybody thought “Manos” was going to bring the film industry to El Paso. Hal had convinced everybody that this was going to be a big deal for the city, even though nobody had seen it yet.
We sat fifth row center because my dad wanted to be sure that I had a good view of the screen. The film started and I remember that I was watching the screen in fascination—until my mouth opened and that voice came out. Then I just started crying. I was miserable because I was so embarrassed and apparently everyone else was too. My dad felt trapped. He knew that he couldn’t escape because he was the lead character. If he had gotten up in the middle of the theater and left, it would look really bad. So we just sat through it and everybody around us kind of disappeared. The audience walked out of there as quickly as they could, and that was pretty much it. Nobody talked about it after that.
My first encounter with “Manos” was on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
My dad called me up and said, “You’ll never believe what I just saw on television.” It was 27 years later and suddenly, there it was on TV. I had gotten ahold of a bootlegged copy of the film, and I didn’t watch it with anybody because no one was interested. I was just happy that I had it, and I thought that was it. Then little by little, the interest around “Manos” just kept growing and growing. The fan base is so creative, innovative and intelligent—they’re really awesome people. Joel Hodgson very happily wrote the forward to my book and then I recently noticed Jonah Ray wearing a Master robe to events. I’m like, “This is crazy.” I’ve been promoting “Manos” and putting myself out there and loving every minute of it, but now, it’s time to make it sustainable for me. I understand that “Manos” is taught in many film schools to illustrate everything not to do in filmmaking, and I’m looking at creating a speaking tour where I’ll be traveling to colleges.
Tell me about your plans for the sequel, “Manos Returns.”
I’m producing the film, and we raised $32,000 on Kickstarter. We’re going to do some more fundraising, but I just got an e-mail this morning from someone offering to help finish paying off our expenses. We’re in postproduction right now. There was another sequel that had started a few years ago that just didn’t get off the ground. Things went horribly wrong in so many ways with that project. It was called “The Dark Side of Manos,” and it featured Diane Mahree, my dad, and Bryan Jennings, the son of the man who played the sheriff. I always felt bad that they never got the chance to follow through with that film, so I got together with Rachel Jackson, who created “Manos: Hands of Felt.” Her wonderful assistant director, Tonjia Atomic, was out of Seattle, and she served as our film’s director. Joe Sherlock of Skullface Astronaut was our director of photography, and the support we’ve received on this project has been incredible. I am amazed at how good our film is looking on this incredibly minuscule budget because of the passion and talent of the people that have come together to do this. I actually have a trailer for the film that I’d like to show in Chicago.
In “Manos Returns,” I’m really taking on my dad’s role. Debbie has become the Master of the Valley Lodge, so I am in charge now. Diane is there too, my dad makes an appearance and Bryan Jennings reprises his dad’s role as the sheriff. In addition to producing and acting in the film, I created all the sets, props and costumes, just as my dad did on the first film. We also have Nicki Mathis doing the vocals of the original songs she sang back in 1966. She’s going to be at the Music Box, and I’ll finally get to meet her face to face. I found her when I was writing the book, and she was never credited in the original film. No one knew who sang “Forgetting You” until I found her.
What role has art played in your life during the time between “Manos” and its resurgence?
I’ve been self-employed since 1986. I had a business making hand-painted T-shirts, and then that evolved into doing faux finish wall treatments. I had a 25-year career doing high-end faux-finish—marbling and plastering and murals and just about anything that you can do. After the market crashed in 2008, I’ve just been piecing it together. I do my own art. I’m also doing some painting workshops that have become popular in bars and restaurants. I did a two-hour painting workshop where we painted 16 x 20 canvases. You drink and you paint and have fun, and I have this little niche here in my tiny town of 1,000 people. My classes often have 22 people, and my mantra is, “We are all just Kindergartners with Cocktails.” [laughs] I’m looking forward to seeing my first royalty check after writing the book, and I’m planning to write another one. I’m also working on a documentary, and I’m just looking at getting more into film while writing, doing more art and talking “Manos.”
Like “The Room” or Ed Wood’s filmography, it’s clear that “Manos” comes from a genuine place. I find it most intriguing as an exercise in repetition—dialogue-wise, music-wise, title-wise and plot-wise, since the story ultimately folds back in on itself.
That’s so amazing to hear. Without thinking of it exactly in those terms, that’s what we’ve done in “Manos Returns.” We really tried to honor everything about “Manos” without making a bad film. I agree that the sincerity and earnestness is one of the things that makes it so eternal. Hal Warren had this idea and he carried it all the way through. No matter how bad it is, he did it, and there is something to be said about that.
“Manos” is better than any movie that is trying to be bad. You can tell that everyone involved in this picture is trying like hell to make something of worth.
That’s what creative people do, hoping that maybe tomorrow might be different. Nobody wants to be the one to give up on their work, and they hang in there till the bitter end. [laughs]
Jackey Neyman Jones will be at the 50th anniversary screening of “Manos: The Hands of Fate” at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, on Friday, November 11th, at 7:30pm. She will also participate in a book signing at Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records from 5pm to 7pm on Sunday, November 13th. For more information on Jackey, visit the official sites of her book and her artwork.