Not long ago I was in San Diego, rummaging through a storage space full of old film and wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
I’d been tipped off about an e-bay auction that no one had bid on, probably because the freight was too high. It was boxes upon boxes of 16mm and 35mm film, titles that had lapsed into the public domain, all of which had belonged to a distributor called Emerson Films. Emerson’s properties were familiar to anyone that had watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the day, and on the list a few familiars jumped out at me. Six copies of The Atomic Brain in 16mm. Hamlet in 16mm and 35mm. Two copies of Manos: The Hands of Fate (Wikipedia IMDB) in 16mm. “A piece of film history”, I had thought half seriously, not intending to do much about it. But the more I thought about it the more I was wanting to get back into 16mm collecting, which is a hobby that can have an enjoyable social side to it. Who doesn’t want to host a movie night and show actual film?
I e-mailed the seller and made an offer on a small slice of the collection, about what you’d expect to pay for two or three 16mm prints, and offered to pick them up. I’d decided that I’d like to own The Atomic Brain and Manos, assuming they were in good enough shape. I got a reply the next day:
“You can have all the boxes… if you choose to eliminate some of them, so be it… (we are) moving to Florida on the 27th, and we don’t want them to be part of the move.”
The following Sunday I was driving back from San Diego with my car completely stuffed, a bill of sale tucked onto my dashboard. I had looked at a few reels on a loupe and found them in great shape, with no acidic odor. The one Manos reel I had been able to inspect was a little faded but otherwise good. Considering its rarity, it was well worth the trouble. I looked forward to checking out the others.
When I got home, I found the other copy of Manos. Immediately I saw the label, which read “WORKPRINT”.
And the leader, which had an alternate title I’d never heard of.
When I unwound a bit of the film, I noticed dual perfs and an immaculate Ektachrome image staring back at me.
It seems that, in a cost cutting measure, Manos: The Hands of Fate had been shot on 16mm reversal stock and edited using that same stock. A 35mm blow-up internegative had been made and theatrical prints had been produced from that internegative in turn. Audiences at the time would have been watching a copy of a copy, and along the way cheap labwork had cropped the image on every side and compromised the color.
A VHS transfer made from this material after 30 years of wear and tear is the version most commonly seen, and it’s no surprise that, compared to the workprint, it looks like you’re watching it through a shower drain.
A common refrain I’ve heard is that without Joel and the Bots, the movie is “unwatchable”, but I suspect a big part of that is the bad visual presentation that the movie has always had. When you divest Manos of its grimy, unpleasant patina, you are still left with a weirdly dubbed, strangely edited, small town, outsider horror film. But with a clearer view of the production design (paintings, metalwork, and stone sculptures by Tom Neyman, a local artist who played The Master), the off kilter handmade world the film presents, and the shaggy but poppy Ektachrome photography by Robert Guidry, 45 years later Manos assumes a different identity as a fascinating bit of 1966 ephemera.
Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60’s, a contemporary of 1962’s Carnival of Souls and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him. Although he had not yet infamously sold fertilizer- that would come later- he was a good salesman and was able to rustle up a reported budget of $19,000 (over $132,000 in today’s money) to get his script made.
If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. Actors dropping in and out of the production, a broken leg that stranded two in a car for their entire screen time…
A lack of reliable electricity, which creates a murky, crudely lit effect at night…
Animals that were unwisely written into the movie and refuse to cooperate…
It’s all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it’s memorable. If you’ve seen it you’ll remember Torgo and the Master. You’ll remember the interminable driving that opens the movie, the weird squabbling of the Wives, the loungey soundtrack, the unconvincing dubbing, the Scorpio Rising-esque invocation of Manos, God Of Primal Darkness. All this in a film that’s only 70 minutes and change.
So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I’ve resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.
I put up a simple website to share my project with friends and soon afterward made it public. The very idea of seeing Manos on Blu-ray started as a joke but now has become something more real and, in a way, natural. Making a living as a cameraman I’ve become familiar with postproduction and the steps necessary to properly remaster Manos. The scans you see were made by me on a simple desktop scanner so I could better share the potential of this workprint- a professional motion picture film scan will look even better with far more dynamic range.
The spare 16mm print will be used as a source of audio and as a reference to the movie as it was originally edited. The workprint has undergone a professional cleaning and been properly stored, and after I secure funds it will be captured in 2k to DPX files and given a touch of digital scratch removal. All the while I will be taking pains to preserve the original grain structure of the Ektachrome film (which in that era was quite prominent).
In addition to making a digital restoration of Manos of sufficient quality to produce a new print or digital projection files, I will be creating a limited run Blu-ray and making the restoration available for repertory screenings. While it remains to be seen if this film is for anything but a niche market, I also feel that if I don’t restore it no one else will.
Film restoration is something that too often falls by the wayside in troubled economic times. Though it’s doubtful I will change anyone’s minds about Manos, I would like to send a message that every film, regardless of the place it holds in movie history, deserves a fair shot to be maintained and presented in the best way possible.
(The preceding article has been crossposted by request from the forum at somethingawful.com, to which I owe a tremendous amount of the exposure this project has gotten.)