The long, strange journey of ''Manos: The Hands of Fate''

By Dalton Ross
Updated June 06, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Out in the desert, almost 20 miles from downtown El Paso, stands a relic of film history. Of really, really bad film history. To view the area now is to see only broken beer bottles, a collapsed roof and floor, and such graffiti scrawlings as ”In memory of the dead” and ”No one gets out alive.” It looks like any other abandoned property-turned-vandals’ delight. But here, 39 years ago, among the prickly pear cacti and mesquite trees — and just a stone’s throw away from Mexico — a ragtag group of Texans banded together to make their own little horror picture. Little did they know they would end up creating what is widely regarded as, quite simply, the worst movie ever made. It is even ranked as such on, the encyclopedic Internet Movie Database. But this is a story about more than mere incompetence. It’s about hope, possibilities, embarrassment, humiliation, tragedy, and — finally — redemption. It is the story of Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Leave it to a fertilizer salesman to make the crappiest film in history. Harold P. Warren (Hal to friends and family) may have sold manure for a living, but he dreamt of leaving a different sort of imprint in the soil. Warren was active in the local El Paso theater scene, wrote books and plays, and was constantly seeking new adventures. (Once, after watching his children Wendy and Joe play with LEGOs in the basement, the aspiring inventor came up with the idea of creating giant cement LEGOs to use for building real houses. He called them Superblocks. Okay, not exactly Edison material, but still. . .)

But it was during a meeting with Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant at a Texas coffee shop that Manos was born. Warren had previously met Silliphant while filming a walk-on as a bus driver in an episode of the TV show Route 66. During the conversation, Warren boasted that making a movie wasn’t so hard. Anybody could make a movie. Heck, even he could make one. Warren bet Silliphant that he could take a film all the way from conception to completion. Tellingly, the first outline for his master script was written right then and there on napkins. The story was standard B-grade horror — family (husband Michael, wife Margaret, and daughter Debbie) gets lost en route to a vacation and stumbles upon a horrifying fate. Less standard, however, was a half-man, half-goat character named Torgo, or the mysterious cult leader known simply as the Master who walked around sporting a robe with giant red hands on it. Perhaps the film’s first sign of ineptitude was the title itself, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates a tad redundantly to Hands: The Hands of Fate.

After raising $19,000 from neighbors and friends, Warren went about assembling his dream cast. He started with. . .himself. In addition to writing, directing, and producing, Hal would also play the husband. The rest of the cast came mostly from either local theater (including Tom Neyman as the Master and John Reynolds as satyr Torgo) or the Mannequin Manor modeling school (from which Warren plucked women to play the Master’s multiple wives who would spend the majority of their screen time catfighting in oversize girdles).