My first experience with “Manos: The Hands of Fate” was at a Halloween house party, where a few friends of friends (including crew from “Portlandia”) clustered excitedly to watch their favorite obscure 60’s horror film, in which an eccentric undead warlock kidnaps a young family in the desert with plans to dispose of the father and add the mother to his hypnotized, scantily-clad harem of “wives.” As this hokey film played, errors (and my companions’ laughter) abounded. The dramatic timing was terrible. The cuts were abrupt, the characters’ actions implausible. The women in the film spoke in ill-synced voice-overs. They sleepwalked and slap-fought. But the costumes? The costumes were kind of amazing. Lead antagonist “The Master,” skinny and pale with piercing eyes and a striking black mustache, wore a black-widowish black-and-crimson cloak, unfurling it at a climactic moment to fully reveal its pattern: a giant pair of blood-red hands. “Oh my GOD,” several agreed. “That would make the best Halloween costume EVER.”
Since its re-emergence from “a grab-bag of public domain beta tapes,” Manos has steadily amassed a cult following as the perfect B-movie, full of comical mediocrity, psycho-sexual titillation and—by far most importantly—unique, unforgettable iconography. Say what you will about the film, “The Master”‘s got mad style. Last summer, puppet adaptation “Manos: The Hands of Felt” premiered in Seattle. Los Angeles digital film restorer Ben Solovey recently raised 48k on Kickstarter to clean the film and re-release it. And last Thursday, a stage version of “Manos” resurfaced in Portland at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, thanks to the efforts of Blitzen Trapper drummer and theater director Brian Koch, who played one of the lead roles.
Jackey Raye Neyman Jones, who played “Manos”‘s sole child role, said Friday that she “always thought of it as a family movie”—natural enough since her dad Tom Neyman was the art director, costume designer, set designer and star, but very odd considering the spooky adult subject matter. Now living in Salem, Jones had given up searching for the 1966 film when she happened to flip to Comedy Central in 1993 to find it being screened with new commentary as the butt of a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” joke. “I called Comedy Central and said, ‘Where did you find that film? I’m in that film!’ They said, ‘No way! Are you Debbie? [her character] That’s our favorite movie!’ They were as excited as I was. They sent me a copy.”
Still sentimental about the El Paso-shot film that captured “the best summer of [her] life,” Jones was delighted to join the IFCC production, providing live offstage voice-overs for her original character Debbie. It’s an oddly appropriate role reversal, since her child character’s voice-over was originally dubbed in by a middle-aged woman. In a post-show talkback last Friday, she recounted how her father, an El Paso community theater director, had poured his soul into the movie, creating all the bizarre-yet-unforgettable “hand” art with—well—his own two hands. On Saturday, Solovey was set to deliver a copy of “Manos” to its Master—now in his 70’s—who hadn’t watched the darned thing in more than 40 years. Neyman may as well reacquaint himself with his orphaned brain-child, while a slew of trick-or-treaters immortalize his signature poncho.
The IFCC play, presented by brand-new theater company Capital I Productions, is goofy in some of the same ways as “Troll 2: The Musical”—unsurprising since female lead Jade Harris co-wrote that production. Most of the laughs come from variations on the same joke—a spoof of stilted acting replete with unnatural pauses and awkward movements—but other campy gags include cardboard set elements and cross-dressed goddesses. In a particularly whimsical device, a stationary cardboard car is depicted as “moving” by actors in cactus suits running past it.
Koch, who plays The Master’s sweaty goat-footed minion Torgo, hams his character’s perviness to the hilt, occasionally collapsing into, if you will, “Torgasms” while peeping on the leading lady or The Master’s wives. Meanwhile, a live band of the producer’s esteemed Portland music friends (Viva Voce’s Kevin Robinson, Parson Redheads’ Charlie Hester, and Blitzen’s Eric Earley) breezily accompanies the show. The best conceptual boon to the widely-acknowledged-as-wobbly storyline are Capital I’s pre-filmed prologue and epilogue, which not only provide a back-story for the tragic Torgo but hilariously reframe the other characters in modern TV formats a lá “Where Are They Now” and “To Catch a Predator.”
Paul Glazier as The Master is the ultimate uncrackable straight-man amid the wacky hijinks, flaring his cape forebodingly and savoring his lines poetry-slam style. “Arise, My Wives!” he commands. And with his incantation, a long-dormant story springs back to life.