Column: Slicing Score: Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

By Maria Mitchell

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). Composers: Robert Smith Jr. and Russ Huddleston.

“That was Manos: The Hands of Fate, on Music through the Night.” – Tom Servo. MST3K.

It has been maligned as the worst movie ever made by film critics and filmgoers alike. It has been ridiculed mercilessly by Elvira and the Satellite of Love crew from Mystery Science Theater 3000. It appears to have been made with the sole intent of destroying itself. So it would appear. But the enduring cult popularity of Manos: The Hands of Fate speaks otherwise. I take the position that this movie is a movie, not just “home movies from Hell,” one of the kinder insults it has endured. I staunchly say that I have seen far worse films than Manos: The Hands of Fate. The plethora of the films I loathe more than Manos includes, but is not limited to: Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Halloween III, House II: The Second Story, and In The Cut.

The many technical lighting, filming and editing errors in Manos do not bother me. The lack of synchronization between the score and the visuals are not the least bit distracting from the unusual beauty of the score. I am used to listening to film scores as entities that are separate from the films they are written for because I’m used to finding “good” scores in “bad” movies. Although the music hasn’t escaped ridicule, the score to Manos is a score that has eldritch appeal. As a film, Manos has a Lovecraftian flavor to it that is utilized nicely in the Master’s invocations to powers of dark chasms. A December, 2011 NPR article by Chris Heller interviewed Ben Solovey, a Florida film grad working towards restoring an original 16mm work print of Manos. Solovey said of Manos, “It feels like you’re watching a film from another planet.” Much like the workmanship of the tiara in The Shadow Over Innsmouth? Perhaps.

Listening to the score gives a Manos viewer a similar feeling of creepiness. Saxophones, flutes, clarinets, pianos, and crazy drums are some of the instruments you’ll hear in this score. While composer Les Baxter had no involvement in the score, its odd mix of tribal drums, mystical-sounding flutes, saxophones, and ragtime-meets-gothic piano scales gives this score an unusual “Exotica” sound. Les Baxter is credited with the popularization of Exotica, a musical movement characterized by music that combines various tribal, aboriginal, and contemporary Western music elements, but the Exotica sound floated outside Baxter’s sphere of influence in 1960’s cinema into obscure little independent pockets, like Manos, as well.

What is socially appealing to me about this score is how other listeners have responded to the music. From “Torgo: Failed at Bitches,” (which uses plenty of SNL Christopher Walken- inspired Cowbell) to the “Epic Torgo Theme,” this score has moved fans of Manos to bring their own interpretations of the music to the rest of the world via YouTube. The “Torgo Theme,” described, jokingly, as “haunting,” by Crow in MST3K, is haunting because of its infectious catchiness. While its use in the film doesn’t make much sense, except to make carting luggage suspenseful, many listeners will have to agree that the theme stays with you long after it has stopped playing in the film. The crew of MST3K probably felt the same way, and they had the “Torgo Theme” carry them out through the end credits of their popular episode.

A joke may be a joke, but Tom Servo’s joke about a soundtrack to Manos: The Hands of Fate being available for purchase is a joke that should be taken seriously. The end titles are accompanied by a beautiful song, “I’m Forgetting You.” This song may, or may not, have been sung by Diane Mahree, the actress playing Margaret in the film. This rumor is too obscure, at present, for me to say for sure. What sets this song apart from most love songs is its empowering flavor. The woman singing sounds strong and capable of moving past that which she’s “forgetting” without sounding angry or resentful.

“Torgo: Failed at Bitches” can be heard here.

The “Epic Torgo Theme” is found here.

The MSTK version of Manos: The Hands of Fate is available through Amazon. Until the release of an actual soundtrack occurs, the best that admirers of “I’m Forgetting You” can do, in regards to listening to the song separately from the film, is listen to it here.