“J.R.R. Tolkien’s kid catches shit, but he just wants to protect his father’s work. Same thing.” So says Joe Warren, whose father, Hal Warren, directed what many people consider to be among the worst films of all time. Shot in 1966 for a miniscule $19,000 in the badlands outside of El Paso, Manos: The Hands Of Fate tells the tale of a vacationing family who find themselves at the mercy of a polygamous pagan cult led by a robe-wearing megalomaniac called the Master and his satyr-like sidekick, Torgo. The film was an utter bomb in ’66 and disappeared after a brief run on the drive-in circuit, only to resurface in a big way in 1993, eight years after Hal Warren’s death, when it was used as cannon fodder in one of the most infamous and beloved episodes of Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. Host Joel Hodgson and his robot pals were grimly fascinated by Torgo’s oversized knees, the nonsensical plot, the horrendous dubbing, the asleep-at-the-switch editing, and the fact that “every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.” For years, the film was only available in a dingy public domain print, until an original negative was discovered by a collector. This, somehow, led to an improbably bitter mini-war over Manos, which has now been detailed by Jake Rossen in a Playboy article entitled “The Battle Over The Worst Movie Ever.”
When Manos fan Ben Solovey discovered the precious original footage in 2011, the film “looked like it had been run over by a truck.” Nevertheless, Solovey trumpeted his find online, attracting the attention of both Roger Ebert and MST3K’s Mike Nelson, and was able to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to restore the film to its former quasi-glory. The director’s heir, Joe Warren, strongly felt that his dad’s movie was not in the public domain and that the Warren family was entitled to some cut of whatever proceeds Manos: The Hands Of Fate was able to reap, including T-shirt sales. Another unexpected combatant in the fight over Manos is actor-turned-artist Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones, who as a girl portrayed Debbie in the film and whose father, Tom Neyman, played the Master and designed some key Manos props and costumes, including the Master’s robe and portrait. She, too, now finds herself in conflict with Joe Warren.
A wild card in the already-convoluted Manos saga is a mysterious man named Rupert Talbot Munch Sr. who has made numerous YouTube videos in character as Torgo and who “attempted to install himself as the curator of the Manos estate” after trying and failing to produce a sequel to the 1966 film. Munch’s main accomplishment thus far has been strong-arming his way into RiffTrax’s live showing of Manos in 2012.
While all of these people settle their differences over a movie nobody wanted for decades, the restored version of Manos: The Hands Of Fate lands on Blu-ray this month from Synapse films.