Jackey Neyman Jones had never been so excited before. The seven-year-old had spent the summer shooting her first feature film; tonight was the premiere. As the lights dimmed in the cavernous 860-seat Capri Theater in El Paso, she settled in next to her parents, staring saucer-eyed at the screen.
After a curiously long driving montage, Jones finally appeared on camera, cradling an uncooperative dog that kept slipping out of her arms. When she opened her mouth to utter her first line, something odd happened: A middle-aged woman’s voice came out, dubbed in and horribly out of sync with the footage.
The audience burst into laughter. Jones burst into tears.
The movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate, was written, directed and produced by insurance salesman Harold Warren in the summer of 1966, an era when virtually no one was making independent films. While the average studio production cost roughly $3 million, Hal Warren raised $19,000 and shot the entire movie with the absurdly named Filmo 70 camera, a handheld device that was spring-wound, could not record sound and could shoot only 33 seconds of film at a time. He promised a local theater troupe, of which he was a member, a share of the profits if the movie did well. The movie did not do well. The only cast or crew member to receive compensation was Jones. She got a 50-pound bag of dog food.
“And a bike,” Jones says.
A flimsy horror story centered on a vacationing family who run afoul of a polygamist cult leader and his henchman, Manos played a handful of drive-in theaters before slipping into obscurity. Decades later, Mystery Science Theater 3000, a television show specializing in the mockery of misguided films, unearthed the movie like a fossilized turd. The 1993 episode devoted to Manos became an instant cult classic. Fans marveled at the seemingly endless footage of Warren driving around the desert, the inability of the Filmo 70 to focus and frame shots at the same time and the utterly bizarre performance of John Reynolds as the character Torgo, portrayed as a twitchy, knobby-kneed groundskeeper while Reynolds himself was often baked out of his face on LSD.
“It seemed like it was maybe a crime against humanity, but you couldn’t be sure,” says MST3K writer Frank Conniff, who had pulled Manos from a stack of tapes at the show’s offices. “It has an atmosphere, a vibe. Why did people latch on to it? I don’t know. It’s like the Supreme Court’s definition of porn: You’ll know it when you see it.”
For a long time no one wanted to see it unless it was accompanied by MST3K’s taunts. Then, in 2011, a collector of film prints uncovered the original negative of Manos and embarked on an inexplicable project to restore the film with all the white-glove attention archivists give to Hollywood classics. His efforts would incur the wrath of a mysterious man with a fake New Zealand accent named Rupert, as well as Joe Warren, Hal Warren’s embittered son, who intends to preserve the Manos legacy at all costs.
“J.R.R. Tolkien’s kid catches shit,” Joe Warren says, “but he just wants to protect his father’s work. Same thing.”
Hal Warren loved the theater. “He was a ham,” says Shelley Connor, his daughter from his second marriage. Warren went on USO tours during World War II; an early adopter of the latest technology, he would film his kids getting up on Christmas morning, rousing them in the middle of the night for a rehearsal before sending them back to bed.
He was also a hustler, pushing newspapers before getting into insurance sales. A product of the Great Depression, Warren dedicated himself to staying one step ahead. Once, Connor recalls, a physician turned down a deal Warren offered him. Warren donned scrubs and followed the man into the operating room.
“He lost the sale,” Connor says.
Spare moments were spent in the theater. Warren, who bore a slight resemblance to Vince McMahon minus the gorilla neck, often played the heavy in productions that lacked polish: One playbill for a Shakespeare presentation was titled Makbeth. When he settled in El Paso with his third wife, a number of things crystallized. He was in the desert, which would make a great setting for either a horror film or a Western; he could talk a bunch of repertory actors into working for nothing; and if he wrote the screenplay, he could portray the hero. A rumor persists that Warren once met Academy Award–winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and obnoxiously argued that “anyone” could produce a film. Silliphant disagreed. Motivated by ambition, spite or both, Warren decided to mount a feature titled The Lodge of Sins, inspired by a long-held interest in the Freemasons and their ritualistic gatherings. Calling on his salesman persona, he raised money from local investors at a reputed $700 a share and began to write a script on napkins about a husband, wife and daughter who take a wrong turn and run into a sacrificial cult run by the Master and his dim servant, Torgo. For added salaciousness, the polygamous Master would have several scantily clad brides (portrayed by women recruited from a local modeling agency) who would engage in a free-for-all wrestling match.
All this was somehow made palatable to members of the theater company, who agreed to work for a share of the profits. Many of them took on multiple responsibilities. William Jennings, who portrays the sheriff, served as Warren’s legal counsel and president of his Sun City Films banner. Tom Neyman, who portrays the Master, was an artist who painted a large and disturbing portrait of his character posing with a dog. Neyman’s wife made many of the costumes, including the now memorable Master’s robe, a billowing cloak with two enormous red hands that resembles an occult-themed Snuggie. Before filming, Neyman asked his daughter, Jackey, to play the family’s daughter. Warren, then 42, retitled the film Manos: The Hands of Fate and shot throughout the summer of 1966, hampered considerably by the Filmo 70 and his own inexperience. The novice director’s production techniques were beyond guerrilla. For a human-sacrifice scene, Warren dumped piles of dirt around a group of old courthouse pillars on land owned by a lawyer running for county judge. (He left the dirt for the lawyer’s family to clean up.) Since the cast and crew had day jobs, they toiled all night in the dark, illuminating some scenes with car headlights. If something went awry—and virtually everything did—Warren dismissed it by claiming they would “fix it in the lab.”
There was no lab. Still, after six hours of editing at a local television station, Warren had finally made a movie. It was often out of focus, lingered on the backs of actors’ heads and featured interminable shots of people staring at each other, but it was still a movie. He set the premiere for November 15, 1966 and invited El Paso’s luminaries to fill the vinyl turquoise seats at the Capri Theater. He rented a limousine and instructed the driver to keep circling the block, picking up cast members and dropping them off as though he had a fleet on standby. He paid street urchins to run up to the actors—who were and remain virtually anonymous—and ask for their autographs.
The movie started, and the Filmo 70 immediately proved why it was best relegated to Korean War footage. Because it couldn’t record sound, Warren was forced to overdub the entire film. All the voices were out of sync. The editing was a mess. Crew members sneaked away in shame. Warren, whose character, the husband and father Michael, comes off as an ungracious jerk to the hapless Torgo even before the Master’s motives are revealed, sank deeper into his seat.
“Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the production,” wrote one El Paso reviewer, “is that Hal Warren, who wrote, directed and produced and starred in the movie, wrote for himself the worst part.”
Aside from a handful of drive-in engagements, Manos would disappear for the next 26 years. Warren distanced himself from the theater, never making another movie, and continued in sales until his death from lung cancer in 1985. He would not live to see the film’s resurrection on MST3K, the name-drop on an episode of How I Met Your Mother or the sincere attachment fans have developed toward his fumbled experiment—particularly the character of Torgo, who lives to please the Master and winds up being strangely sympathetic even as he spends a good portion of the movie carrying luggage. (A troubled Reynolds committed suicide just a month before the film’s premiere.)
Like any great bad film, Manos is blissfully unaware of its own two left feet. Many of the sets look like drug dens; manos means “hands” in Spanish, making the title Hands: The Hands of Fate. Torgo, who sports peculiar padding around the knees, may have been conceived as part animal, an idea abandoned at some point but far enough along for Reynolds to move with a staggered gait. In Manos, even walking across the frame appears to be a half-assed effort.
There is no end to how badly executed the film is, and there is no ignoring that every creative misstep was entirely Warren’s doing: He had total autonomy. If he did indeed brag that “anyone” could make a film to a respected writer like Silliphant, it makes his failure even more epic. Like a boastful Evel Knievel, he wipes out so spectacularly on the tarmac that it demands closer observation. The film’s fandom may as well be a support group, inviting a level of fervent discussion that good movies rarely garner.
“Ben-Hur is a cool movie,” says Tony Trombo, a fan who hosts the podcast Talking Manos. “But nobody ever talks about it.”
Ben Solovey, 30, is sitting in a farmers’ market in Los Angeles, sunglasses obscuring a pleasantly boyish face. He’s fond of punctuating sentences with a horizontal air punch.
A cameraman by trade, he grew up on the side of a mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was all right except that he couldn’t get cable. One day, his mother was given a 16-millimeter film projector that had been sitting unused in the local elementary school and took it home. Solovey checked out reels from the town library and realized that movies were tangible, not just some ephemeral signal beamed to your television. They had a smell, a feel, and he became preoccupied with collecting them.
“I was not,” he says, “the most popular kid at the lunch table.”
Solovey attended Florida State before taking an internship at Panavision in Los Angeles, entering the industry just as digital shooting began to take over. He continued to collect prints and bought a 35-millimeter projector. In 2011 he found an eBay listing for a pile of canisters located in San Diego. They were full of the kind of schlock Solovey had been weaned on in the horror section of his local video store: The Atomic Brain, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and, improbably, Manos, a film he had seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and embraced for its sincere awfulness.
He e-mailed the seller and asked to buy just two titles. “You can have them all,” the man said.
Solovey drove to San Diego to pick up the lot. He expected Manos to be just another print, but as he hefted the canister, two things caught his eye. One was the title on the spine, which read Finggrs [sic] of Fate, and the other was a label that read “work print” on the front.
Solovey had unwittingly stumbled upon celluloid straight out of the camera, upchucked by the Filmo 70 and left to wither by Emerson Film Enterprises, the distributor Warren had convinced to pick up the movie. The Northridge earthquake of 1994 had destroyed many titles from Emerson’s library, but Manos survived, sitting in a storage space until the founder’s grandson auctioned it off.
As he inspected the reels (“It looked like it had been run over by a truck,” he says) Solovey remembered a book he had once read on the search for the missing footage of an old Napoleon feature and how it had instilled in him the idea that films—all films, no matter their perceived merits—had a right to exist. The Manos DVDs being sold online were copies of copies that looked, Solovey says, “like they were shot through a screen door.” (Or as MST3K had put it, “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.”) Here was the original, ready to be cleaned, restored and preserved for future generations to mock.
“I wanted to make the best version of the worst movie ever made,” he says.
After Solovey posted his find on SomethingAwful.com, a clearinghouse for internet snark, his campaign began to gather steam. Commenters told him he was “doing God’s work.” Movie critic Roger Ebert tweeted that Manos had been rescued from the waste bin. Comedian Mike Nelson, who once hosted MST3K and now roasts bad movies online at RiffTrax.com, called him up to chat about the discovery.
Emboldened, Solovey approached the Texas Film Commission about funding a restoration. “They weren’t receptive,” he says. Instead, Solovey turned to Kickstarter and showed off sample footage of actress Diane Mahree, who plays Warren’s wife, in a before-after comparison. The difference was striking: Previously covered in soot, the image of Mahree—who later became a model—looked stunning after Solovey’s restoration.
“That blew people away,” Solovey says. Fans pledged nearly $50,000 to help clean, scan, restore and distribute a high-definition copy. Solovey hired two specialists to assist in the process, wiping the print down by hand and then using the same scanner preferred by archivists at the Criterion Collection. “It was like adopting an ugly puppy,” he says.
Because some of the original image had been cropped, their work uncovered more filth in the margins. Erasing the hazy screen-door effect revealed the film to be even more incompetent than previously believed, with the Master sporting blue jeans under his foreboding cloak and footage of one of the brides cracking up in the background during a scene. The clunky dubbing was left untouched. “It’s my job to present it,” Solovey says, “not fix it.”
Solovey started in late 2011, and by the summer of 2012 he was far enough along to field a call from Charles Horak, who ran the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso. Citing the city’s “mythic attachment” to the movie, which may or may not have been a joke, Horak wanted to screen Manos for some of the festival’s 40,000 attendees.
Also showing that year: On the Waterfront, Casablanca and Dog Day Afternoon.
There was only a brief discussion over the necessary permissions. To the understanding of Solovey and most everyone else involved, Manos had suffered the same fate as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead: A copyright symbol had been left off the film, which in the 1960s meant it automatically entered the public domain. There was no telling how many millions Dead director George Romero lost to the gaffe.
But someone was doing the accounting for Manos—and what had been intended as a victory lap for Solovey turned into something far less pleasant.
Joe Warren’s wife, Aimee, remembers the first time she walked into the Warren household. A four-by-five-foot painting of the Master hung over the couch, staring down visitors and upsetting children.
“I thought these people were freaking nuts,” she recalls, watching her husband shuffle through a Sterilite container full of papers. “What are you looking for?”
“The novel,” Joe says. In his late 40s, graying hair buzzed tight to his scalp, Joe lives in a St. Louis suburb. Preoccupied with baseball, he didn’t see Manos until high school and had little idea his father ever held creative aspirations. When Hal screened it for him, Joe fell asleep. When he woke up, Hal asked him what he thought.
“It’s okay,” Joe said.
“You can tell me the truth,” Hal said.
“Well, it’s kind of terrible. It doesn’t make any sense.”
For the next three hours, Hal attempted to make sense of it. He knew, Joe says, it was a bad movie, but he never completely abandoned his ambitions. Hal wrote a novel, Forever and Always, which he turned into a script and submitted to HBO in 1983. Joe still has the polite rejection letter. (HBO would later own Comedy Central’s precursor, the Comedy Channel, which aired Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
There are pictures of Hal emceeing events and appearing onstage. “Great widow’s peak,” Joe marvels, admiring his father’s hairline. There’s a Masonic Bible with Hal’s name written inside and the original cloak worn by the Master in the film, replicas of which remain a staple of cosplayers at Comic-Con and other conventions.
“We’ve had to stitch up the bottom,” Joe says, the heavy linen material having grown frayed from both Joe and Hal wearing it on Halloween.
The painting, the cloak and the Sterilite container are what remain of Hal Warren’s entertainment career. Manos may not be a good film—at 69 minutes, it may not even qualify as a feature film at all—but Joe insists it is the property of the Warren family. “Something needs to be done to protect Dad’s legacy,” he says. “People are trying to make money off of it and don’t even care.”
When Solovey began his restoration work, he consulted a lawyer who believed the film was firmly in the public domain. But Warren was agitated. His father’s movie had just been given a public grant of $50,000 and Solovey was starting to screen it; Jackey Neyman Jones, who played the little girl in the film, was selling Manos T-shirts. Someone was cashing in, and the Warrens appeared to be an afterthought.
On Jones’s Facebook page, Warren wrote, “We need to talk about this: T-shirts, paintings, etc. I don’t want to be the bad guru [sic] but all the characters are copyrighted and as such can’t be used without permission either by you or by Solovey…please contact me otherwise I have to make my own choices to protect it and all its characters. Ben knows this and has crossed the line and I don’t want you to be put in that position…this is serious and could potentially cost a lot of money if you pursue this without asking and covering your butt.”
Jones was not swayed. “He has my dad’s painting and robe. I wrote back, ‘Here’s my address. When can I expect them to be returned?’ ”
Jones’s father had been promised profits, which would seem to stifle any argument over selling a few T-shirts. But Warren insists any deals made by his father died with his father. More important, he disagrees with Solovey that the film is in the public domain. In 2013, he discovered among his father’s belongings a notice of copyright for the screenplay. A friend dug through the Library of Congress records and confirmed it was more than just a submission—the script had been logged, which Warren interprets to mean the movie itself is protected.
No one, however, knows for sure, as no precedent exists and no one seems willing to spend the money to have a court figure it out. “No copyright filed for theatrical release and no copyright notice on the film from that period is a fatal, defective thing,” says Ian Friedman, Solovey’s attorney. “But in the end, it’s not whether you’re right or wrong. It’s whether you want to litigate it.”
Warren took a different tack. A day before the celebratory screening in El Paso, someone phoned Horak and told him he did not have permission to screen the film. A license fee was required, along with another demand: Security personnel should be given a picture of Solovey and instructed not to let him in.
The festival board had no time to investigate whether the claim had any merit. The following afternoon, as Al Pacino was setting up a one-man show in the theater intended to screen Manos, Horak made hasty arrangements to show the film in a nearby hotel ballroom, making it an unofficial part of the festival. The late notice, Horak says, “felt like a shakedown.”
“I’m not trying to stop people,” Warren contends. “I’m not some George Orwellian guy. I just don’t want people making money off my dad’s work.”
“Joe seems to think I’m in it for the money, and nothing will dissuade him from that perception,” Solovey says, insisting there’s not much to be made in the Manos trade to begin with. “Where was he when nothing was going on with the movie?”
Warren, meanwhile, bristles at screenings hosted in Finland and Germany, likening them to a subsidized world tour. “Why not have Hal’s kid there?” he says. “No one’s inviting me, the director’s son.”
In August 2012, Warren did get an invitation to what was intended to be the largest Manos spectacle of its kind: The film would be roasted a second time by a portion of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast, now doing business under the name RiffTrax. The screening in Nashville would be beamed live to theaters across the country. Like most things the film touches, it was a disaster, but not because of any of the usual suspects. Most parties lay the blame at the feet of Joe Warren’s onetime associate, a curious man who can be found on YouTube in character as Torgo and who calls himself Rupert Talbot Munch Sr.
In 2010, Munch, sporting a vaguely New Zealand–sounding accent, approached Warren with the idea of shooting a sequel to Manos. It would pick up some 40 years after the original, featuring the return of Jackey Neyman Jones and her father, musical numbers, break-dancing and as many as 120 brides in an erotic grappling session. The script was reputed to be 250 pages. Munch—a bearded man who favors fedoras and who declined to comment for this article—had composed music for television but had no prior experience directing a feature.
According to Andy Cope, a documentary filmmaker whose grandfather appeared in the original Manos (“He didn’t talk about it, like he had killed somebody,” Cope says), Munch explained that he was home ill one day and caught Mystery Science Theater 3000. He became a devoted fan of both the series and its signature episode, sometimes dressing up as Torgo for comics conventions. No one is sure why Munch adopted an alter ego, though Cope believes he may have felt more comfortable directing as “someone else.” Confusing the issue further, he would also be playing Torgo in the film.
“He was in character playing a character,” Cope says. “It was very convoluted.”
Jay Lee, who served as director of photography for the ill-fated sequel, recalls accidentally calling Munch by his real name, Phil Francis, during filming, prompting Munch-Francis to shut down production for the day. Lee, who had already toiled in the B-movie trenches directing Zombie Strippers! starring Jenna Jameson, says he attempted to remedy some of Munch’s directorial deficiencies, to little avail. A fraction of the film was shot before Munch stopped, possibly due to lack of funds.
“We could’ve shot the whole thing for his budget,” Lee says, “but he spent almost $30,000 in one week in El Paso.”
With the sequel on ice, Munch instead attempted to install himself as the curator of the Manos estate. Both Jones’s and Solovey’s attorneys claim Munch falsely presented himself as their representative. Solovey says Munch offered to finance the Manos restoration back in 2011, but he wanted too much control over the project, prompting Solovey to turn to Kickstarter. Warren, who believed Munch’s heart was in the right place, claims Munch helped locate the original Manos copyright notice. After the Nashville debacle and Munch’s overzealous efforts, though, Warren now refers to him as “the Entity.”
The trouble started when, according to RiffTrax co-owner David Martin, Munch contacted the company to discuss the Manos copyright and licensing fee after it had begun to advertise the live Nashville show. It was too late to switch movies, so RiffTrax reluctantly agreed to Munch’s terms—most notably, that he appear in character as Torgo and deliver pizzas to the cast. His cameo was later edited out of the DVD release.
Warren was given a seat, but the cast and crew largely ignored him, thinking he was colluding with the troublesome Munch. “There was sadness,” Warren says. “This was supposed to be about me being able to see Manos on the big screen for the first time. I wanted to meet the guys and say thank you. I wanted, as my dad’s son, to go backstage. That was supposed to be my coming-out moment. It was frustrating.”
After the screening, Munch disappeared.
“Munch had the gift of gab,” Jones says. “He talked a lot of people into doing a lot of things.
“He reminded me of Hal.”*** After considerable delay, Solovey’s Manos restoration will be released on Blu-ray this month by Synapse Films. The original negative is now safely tucked away in cold storage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive.
“That’s not a joke,” Solovey says. “Their holdings are very diverse.”
Solovey—who next plans to tackle a repolishing of The Atomic Brain—says he was successful in copyrighting the restoration, which would appear to settle the matter once and for all. If Manos is in the public domain, then other fan labors, including a puppet show (Manos: The Hands of Felt), a Mario-style platform video game for smartphones and a planned microbudget prequel featuring a high-school-age Torgo, can be copyrighted on their own.
Warren, however, remains adamant that Solovey’s copyright is not enforceable. “I still say the movie is protected, and as such, developmental work or restorations are thereby protected,” he says. “I’ve tried to be nice, but he has his own ideas about protected works and infringing on them.”
Warren’s assertion that he’s being reasonable is backed by RiffTrax’s Martin, who quickly came to an agreement regarding the inclusion of Manos outtakes in a recent DVD release, crediting the “Harold P. Warren Irrevocable Trust.”
“When we finally had a chance to talk, I found Joe to be a really nice guy,” Martin says. He doesn’t rule out Torgo-related business in the future. “Manos remains one of our 10 top-selling titles.” He says his copyright attorney, who has extensive experience with public domain cases, believes Warren has an arguable claim to the original property.
Jackey Neyman Jones hasn’t heard from Warren in some time. She continues to sell Manos-inspired casualwear, including a scarf. Semi-estranged, she and her father, Tom Neyman, got back in touch while helping to promote the restoration.
“It’s a strange way to develop a relationship again, but I’m grateful for it,” she says.
“I adore my dad.”
MST3K’s Conniff, who admits his discovery essentially opened a gateway to movie hell, remains a bystander to the latter-day animosity but is happy to take some responsibility for the affection directed at Manos. “There are a lot of bad movies, but there was something special about this one,” he says. “It somehow captured the public’s imagination, even though there wasn’t a lot of imagination in it in the first place.”