Manos: The Hands of Fate Restored - The So-Called "Worst Movie" Has Never Looked Better

Friday, March 14, 2014 at 6:00 am

And here are some moving examples - "moving" in that they are motion pictures, though darn if they don't also get me a little verklempt:

Okay, so Manos isn't revealed to be an unheralded wonderland for the rods and cones - and even if it had been filmed in 3-Strip Technicolor, we're still talking about a pretty damn scrubby area of El Paso - but Solovey's 2k restoration does look a hell of a lot better, allowing us to enjoy Harold P. Warren's paunch in all its glory.

I've grown intimately familiar with the restored version, having created subtitles for its theatrical premiere in San Francisco at my weekly movie riffing show Bad Movie Night, and in my opinion, the sprucing up makes the film seem far more intimate. Even the shape of the frame is important; there's always been an allure to those rounded edges, conferring a (sometimes unearned) legitimacy that makes it feel like you're spying on the subjects. You're as close as you can possibly get, and everything you're seeing is exactly how it happened that day at the light hit the film. (For the moment, please forget that Instagram exists.)

This is doubly true for a film like Manos, which has no optical effects and is about as WYSWYG as movie can be. Even with the editing - and there is plenty of editing, since the limitations of the camera resulted in takes no longer than 32 seconds, so Rope it ain't - this cleaned-up, fully-uncropped makes Manos almost feels like a documentary of its own making.

Nor is it quite the same content-wise as the familiar public domain / Mystery Science Theater 3000 versions. "There's a little more material at the beginning and middle of the film than the MST3K version," Mr. Solovey told me, "and, as it was our only source for a good portion of the film, there are some slight editorial differences in the workprint that found their way into the final version: some shots are a little longer, some are a little shorter. That being said, the workprint is just as it came from the editing table, so it's possible that these minor differences were the preference of the director and editor: the out-of-synch sound often seems to match it better. The most notable scene cut from the MST3K version is one in which The Master slaps around a disobedient wife, smearing fake blood on her face, while she laughs at the loss of his powers. It's a little too stagy to take seriously."

That Manos: The Hands of Fate now borders on visually watchable only adds to what's kept it popular for the past two decades: the fact that it's just so damned odd, and it comes by that oddness organically. The picture has the most important hallmark of the true cult film: it doesn't know that it's a cult film. There's nothing self-aware about Manos on any level, the audience is never winked at, and there's no weirdness for weirdness' sake. Like many truly bad films, it was made a director who was trying to make a truly good film, but who was hampered by having absolutely no idea what he was doing.

Thankfully, the person doing the restoring has a much better idea of what he's doing, because unlike Manos director Warren, he actually works in the film industry. "I'm a Director of Photography and a Steadicam-certified camera operator," said Mr. Solovey, who's also experienced with the ubiquitous RED digital camera. "I've worked on variety of projects, from EPKs to a couple of independent features."

A neat-looking series Mr. Solovey shot:

Solovey was trained on 16mm film in school, but moved to Los Angeles just in time for the seismic shift to digital. As with everything, networking is key: "Knowing plenty of smart people in post-production was extremely helpful when planning a project of this magnitude."

And it's a project that a lot of people are looking forward to. Though Manos: The Hands of Fate is nowhere near a household word - unlike, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space, which even the most mainstream of moviegoers have heard of - the response to the Kickstarter was nothing short of astonishing. The goal of the Kickstarter was a mere $10,000, but by the time the 41-day funding period was over, 818 backers had donated a total $48,130. I'm no good at math, but I'd wager that over half of those backers donated after the initial goal had been reached - and Mr. Solovey told me that the original goal of $10,000 "would have been enough to fund a good, albeit dirty, transfer and a simple, self-distributed disc" - because they wanted to see the movie, and they wanted the final product to be as good as it could be.

Because of that generosity, there's not only a 2K DCP version available that's compatible with today's modern pixels-only theaters, but also 16mm and 35mm prints. Plus, there's that features-packed release from Synapse Films which will be emerging sometime in 2014.

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