Essay

The Story Behind The Best Worst Soundtrack To The Best Worst Movie Ever Made

Written, directed, and produced in the mid 1960s by an El Paso fertilizer salesman named Harold P. Warren, Manos: The Hands Of Fate has developed a reputation as the worst movie ever made. As of this writing, the family-roadtrip-gone-wrong horror disasterpiece has an IMDB rating of 1.9, tying it with such flops as Disaster Movie and the Paris Hilton vehicle The Hottie & The Nottie. Penning the most extensive history of the film in a 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Dalton Ross hailed it as the crappiest of the crappy, noting, “Perhaps the film’s first sign of ineptitude was the title itself, Manos: The Hands Of Fate, which translates a tad redundantly to Hands: The Hands Of Fate.” In the 1990s, it nearly broke the spirits and processors of Joel and the ‘bots on one of the best episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and more recently it was re-riffed by the MST offshoot Rifftrax.

In the cult of bad cinema, there are few films quite as technically incompetent, as narratively incoherent, as tonally jarring, as flat-out weird as Manos — or as beloved. This fall will see the film’s first Blu-Ray edition, based on a painstakingly restored print, via Synapse Films, and later this month Ship To Shore PhonoCo. will release the soundtrack for the first time on vinyl. Even when there are labels devoted solely to releasing new LPs of old horror soundtracks — such as Death Waltz, Waxworks, and One Way StaticManos might seem like an odd candidate for multi-colored vinyl, new liners, and snappy artwork.

For one thing, there are no known recordings of these compositions apart from prints of the film, so the new reissue necessarily includes some sound effects and snippets of dialogue. Furthermore, we don’t know much about the composers, Robert Smith Jr. and Russ Huddleston, who wrote the film’s distinctively skewed horror-jazz riffs. But at least we do know their names. The actual musicians who played on the soundtrack are lost to history, including the female lounge singer who croons the intro and the Gene Vincent wannabe who caterwauls the makeout exhortation “Do A Thing” (possibly the vaguest innuendo in all of rock history). And maybe they didn’t want their names on it at all: This isn’t some lost classic, at least not in a popular sense. In fact, some listeners might say the soundtrack is just as bad as the movie. And it is.

But it’s much more complicated than that.

Manos is one of those very rare movies that’s so bad it’s good. Its colossal incompetency can be compelling, as its bumbling camerawork dredges up unusual narrative threads. After betting a friend that he couldn’t complete a film on his own, Warren hired a cast of community-theater actors and a crew comprised almost entirely of locals. He shot using a faulty camera that could only record a short bit of footage at a time. The acting ranges from wooden to hammy in scenes that start and end awkwardly. Some shots are poorly framed, others out of focus, and the dialogue is almost entirely overdubbed with little regard for character or synching.

Watching Manos can be just as entertaining as watching The Room or Birdemic, two recent films enlivened by their clumsy storytelling and not-so-special effects, yet Warren’s sole work as an auteur transcends the bad movie genre in ways those films do not. It is genuinely weird and effectively creepy, every poorly framed shot and rough transition adding to a tone of unusual and palpable unease. To quote an MST3K riff: “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.” You get the feeling you shouldn’t be watching it at all.

Central to that queasy impression is Smith and Huddleston’s strange score, which adds a layer of what might be called nuance to the story. The film starts abruptly, with a breezy flute theme introducing a family on vacation: father Michael (Warren, casting himself in the lead role), mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman), and their beloved poodle. As they drive through the blurry mountains of Texas, looking for someplace called the Valley Lodge, that flute dawdles unhurriedly, then dives headfirst into an upbeat nightclub number, an untitled track that drips with piano and guitar. “We’ll have a ball,” the unidentified singer promises, sounding like Shirley Bassey, except without her polished brassiness. It’s hard to imagine Warren actually intended the grim irony of that chorus: Maybe the viewer will have a ball, but the family will only get lost in the desert and run afoul of the “god of primal darkness.”

Driving further and further into the desert, the family leaves behind the real world and wanders into what film journalist Tim Ferrante describes in the new liners as “an irritating and nebulous place where reason and insanity co-exist.” Soon we meet the film’s oddest character, a henchman named Torgo (John Reynolds), who “takes care of the place while the Master is away.” With his dingy jumpsuit and scraggly beard, he looks like the gardener of the gods — unthreatening in his servitude, yet heralding something wicked this way coming. As the camera pans back, we get a full shot of him, our first sight of his most prominent physical feature.

Torgo has gargantuan knees.

Reportedly, Reynolds wanted the character to have the bent legs and hooved feet like a man-goat, as though he were a lesser demon banished from hell. But the homemade prosthetics, reportedly worn backwards, look ridiculous and make him wobbly on his feet. His theme song, “A Strange Gait,” was no doubt composed to mimic that signature stagger: a short loop of stair-step notes, with irregular percussion in the background. Grating yet undeniably hypnotic, this is arguably the most famous part of the Manos soundtrack, if any part of the soundtrack can be called famous.

Torgo is only the doorman to the gates of hell — Manos’ welcoming party. Soon we meet the Master (Tom Neyman), curiously mustachioed and clad in a black-and-red robe with enormous hands (manos!) embroidered on the front, his snarling Doberman straining against his chain. Around him he keeps a bevy of wives clad in girdles and diaphanous gowns, who wrestle each other during the cacophonous “A House Divided.”

And still we descend even further into the maw of madness: down through the demented incantations of “Prayer to the God of Primal Darkness,” past the sleazeball seductions of “Uncontrollable Passion.” As Manos proceeds, the score gradually breaks down, every familiar element growing aggressively unfamiliar. Instead of that placid flute that opens the film, a lurid saxophone growls in the background. Piano and drums pound out increasingly nervous rhythms, and a piano flutters mysteriously up and down, up and down. The breezy lounge jazz rankles into something like free jazz, tense and menacing and loosed form any musical or moral mooring. It’s as if the songs cannot hold together in the presence of such a dark deity.

Then, abruptly, the film circles back on itself. The lounger singer returns on “Forgetting You (Love Theme From Manos: The Hands Of Fate),” this time asking us to remember … something … some distant event, some faded fear we’ve battled to repress … some encounter with primal darkness. We see two young women drive off to their fate and we learn the fates of that family, the worst of which is reserved for poor Debbie. And that lounge singer acts like it’s all been a fun little jaunt, her tone so bright the song becomes a taunt: “Don’t forget … the silly way we met.” Did Warren intend to end Manos on such a bleakly ironic note, or was it snuck into the film by some invisible hand of fate?

And perhaps it’s this sense of haphazardness that makes this film so weirdly compelling nearly half a century after its creation. Everything feels so wrong, every decision so misjudged, every shot so wonky, that something much larger than Harold P. Warren seems to be guiding the production. Perhaps it is Manos Himself, working the cast and crew like puppets — which might explain the poorly dubbed dialogue: He is actually speaking through the characters, willing them to join His army of wives and followers. It’s hard to shake the sensation that there is some other force in the film, that it is in fact haunted, and sadly that impression is only reinforced by the fact that two of the cast members, Reynolds and Joyce “Teenager In Car” Molleur,” committed suicide not long after its completion.

Like the film, the soundtrack refuses to slide easily into familiar categories like “good” or “bad.” This new LP reissue gives us an enticing opportunity to hear the music apart from the film’s grubby visuals and to appreciate some of Smith and Huddleston’s odder flourishes on their own merit, even if there are snippets of dialogue mixed in with the music. On vinyl the music somehow sounds even more perverse as it traces that familiar arc from sanity to madness, each note like a synapse firing in a fevered brain.

We can laugh at Manos all we want, but it is nervous laughter.

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The Manos: The Hands Of Fate Soundtrack vinyl reissue is out 9/29 via Ship To Shore PhonoCo./One Way Static Records/Light In The Attic. Pre-order it here.