Widely considered one of the worst films of all time, Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) is a horror movie that’s scary for all the wrong reasons. This aimlessly slow-paced motion picture features plenty of bizarre choices, including an ill-fitting jazz soundtrack and copious amounts of desert driving. The few people who can stomach a screening are certainly left with a lot of questions: Can the movie really be entirely blamed on fertilizer-salesman-turned-film-director Hal Warren? Did he really tell Stirling Silliphant, creator of Route 66 (1960-’64), that making a movie is easy – that anyone could do it? Did John Reynolds, who played Torgo, really suffer from severe mental illness? The mysteries of Manos run deep, and rumours have spread among fans for decades. Fortunately, these questions and more have all been answered in the incredibly personal book Growing Up With Manos The Hands Of Fate by Jackey Neyman Jones and Laura Mazzuca Toops.
Clocking in at 134 pages, this brisk read serves as more than just author Neyman Jones’ personal Manos memoir. Jackey was the six year old child star of the film, and she can only remember so much of being on set as a youngster. To help fill in the blanks, she’s tracked down cast and crew members to ensure no detail is overlooked in her account of how Manos was made. While the behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating, I was most compelled to learn that Manos, to Jackey, is a lot more than a bad movie.
For Jackey, watching Manos: the Hands of Fate is like opening a time capsule containing her family’s legacy. She considers the film to be a ‘home movie,’ simply because of the massive influence her entire family had on the finished product. Her father, for example, who plays The Master in the film, was a hobby artist and a lot of his work is featured in the movie. Tom Neyman had a knack for building hand sculptures, and when he agreed to act in the film he also wound up responsible for art direction. The man took his existing artwork into the picture, giving the film it’s iconic ‘hand-themed’ title along the way. Jackey’s mother was also heavily involved in production, having designed all the costumes, including The Master’s robes. Say what you will about the movie, that costume is certainly one of the most memorable and creative features of the film. Their family dog was even featured as The Master’s pet, not to mention furniture from their home. To Jackey, watching Manos is an exercise in nostalgia, an opportunity to revisit her past.
Then and now: Jackey and her father, Tom Neymen.
I expected behind the scenes stories from this film to be comedic, and while most are, an equal number of Jackey’s anecdotes are, unfortunately, quite sad. In most cases, director Hal Warren’s eccentricities are to blame. The man comes across as a charming, yet pushy salesman who manipulated a lot of people, promising more than he could ever repay, to get his film made. His questionable ethics cost a lot of people their reputations, and may have contributed somewhat to John Reynold’s suicide. The book does offer karmic comeuppance when Warren is laughed out of the theatre at the Manos premiere.
But then again, the hardworking cast and crew received the same response.
Speaking of sad stories, Jackey also writes about the legal war currently being waged over the film to this day. Joe Warren, director Hal Warren’s son, has recently noticed the cult success of his late father’s film and is looking for ways to profit. Despite the film having been in the public domain for over 50 years, Warren insists on obtaining the legal copyright licence for a movie he had nothing to do with and was made before it was born. While I understand his sentiment, and his family’s connection to the film, his approach seems all wrong. Rather than embracing the Manos culture, Warren is trying to monopolise it, to take ownership of something that truly belongs to the fans. He’s currently working on a legal campaign to stop public screenings of the film. To any Manos fans out there who want to keep Manos in the public domain, you can help by donating here to aid Manos defenders in paying legal fees. And Joe, if you’re ever reading this – you can’t beat us, so please join us. Maybe you’ll have some fun on the way.
Overall, Growing up with Manos is a compelling non-fiction read that’s engaging, honest, and fun. If I had to find something to nitpick, my only gripe with the book would be that even with it’s short length, the same details are occasionally repeated throughout the narrative. While the language is presented in a very linear, matter-of-fact way, it’s also clear that a lot of heart and passion went into each and every word. Neyman Jones is profoundly open while examining not just the making of the film, but also her relationship with her family and growing up in El Paso in the 60s. There’s a strong sense of optimism and inspiration, a kind of innocent wonder in seeing the world of such a dark film through a child’s eyes. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.