[David Krause checks in with a very cool interview with Ben Solovey, the man who is working to restore one of the best worst movies to ever assault the retina of the giant, sentient eyeball we're growing in the basement.]
Ever since Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooned the horrible yet strangely riveting ’60s schlockfest Manos: The Hands of Fate, the film has entered B-movie lore. Of all the films on IMDB’s Bottom 100, Manos is one of the most commented and speculated on. The grainy, bottom-of-a-dirty-glass footage that is available for sale is almost unwatchable, yet it still has some charm.
Enter Benjamin Solovey. The LA-based cinema fan saw an eBay listing for film reels and thought it would be worth checking out. The seller was moving and wanted to get rid of the collection as soon as possible. What seemed at first like typical basement clutter soon became the stuff of bad movie legend. One of the reels in the collection was a Manos workprint – the original reel from which low-grade copies were made. Solovey knew he had something special on his hands, but didn’t know what to do with it. After posting his finding on Facebook, he decided to create a Something Awful thread.
The forum went crazy. After seeing the thread go viral, Solovey created a Kickstarter campaign to restore and digitally transfer the film. The campaign was a success, raising $48,130 – well over the $10,000 goal.
Pending a tentative release in the near future, Rue Morgue contacted Benjamin and asked him a few questions about his exciting find.
When I wrote up the post on the forums, it was mainly to share the images I’d been seeing with a crowd that I thought would appreciate it. There are plenty of people there for whom Mystery Science Theater helped formulate their sense of humor growing up… I’m one of them. That being said, when you make a post on that forum there’s always a chance you’ll be laughed out of the room.
People who attempt to virally market something there are invariably called out. At that point, it was more about sharing something fun that only my Facebook friends had seen, and I didn’t really have anything to market at the time. I envisioned a modest release sold from an online storefront, but soon people were suggesting Kickstarter and reaching out to certain distributors. One of the moderators decided to put the post on the front page and it went outward from there.
Where are you in the restoration process and when will we (hopefully) see the film released? Do you plan on showing it in theatres, releasing it on DVD, or making it available as a digital download?
I’d say we’re 50 percent done, but the slow and delicate work of cleaning and scanning is already finished. All of the footage is accounted for and properly organized; now we’re into color correction and damage correction. I expect that it’ll be showable by August, and maybe some tweaks will follow as we finalize the contents of the disc. There will be a Blu-ray and a DVD in autumn, but if a distributor picks us up, the release date might change. Expect to see Manos screening at some festivals and at repertory theaters as well.
What have you learned about the film in the process of restoring it?
The workprint came straight from the edit bench, so you can determine a lot about how they approached the film just from the way it was assembled. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was edited quickly in a local television station. Why the workprint consists of color reversal stock instead of regular print stock is unclear, but the print is sharp and well-saturated and will be our primary picture source for the restoration.
I’ve also become acquainted with some of the surviving cast members. Jackey Neyman-Jones, who played the little girl, Debbie, has been very supportive of the project the whole way through. Since her entire family was involved in the film, right down to the dog, Jackey has shed a lot of light on the production process. Her father, Tom Neyman, who played the Master, was a local artist who was far more involved in the production than anyone acknowledges. He and Jackey’s mother were in charge of production design, makeup and costuming. Torgo’s outfit is actually made of Tom’s old work clothes, which explains why nothing fits. I’ve also heard from more than one source that the pagan god being named ‘Manos’ and the hand motif were Tom’s ideas… he’d been exploring ‘hands’ as a theme in his art at the time.
Manos: The Hands of Fate is resonant first of all because it is an early example of an independently-produced regional film, one made by people outside of the established filmmaking circles. Today more than ever, thanks to accessible equipment as well as the internet, we’re seeing outsiders pick up the camera to realize their dream of making a film with all of their friends, much like Harold Warren in 1966.
You can see a little bit of Manos in every indie [film] that is thrown together today with a shoestring budget, inexperienced actors and an unpaid crew, fueled by sheer enthusiasm. The resources to make a film were much harder to come by 46 years ago, so you have to appreciate the significance of them actually getting it together in the first place and seeing the movie through to completion.
At the same time, Manos is so educational that you could use it as a teaching tool. Everything that can go wrong in the film does, partly from environmental factors and partly due to indifference. You really start to sense the frustrations of filmmaking while you watch it: continuity goes out the window, actors miss their cues and look to the camera for guidance, animal actors wander off and moths attack the lights and the camera. On top of that, the entire film [was] badly dubbed in postproduction by four people, and you can count the sound effects on your fingers.
Unlike many directors with ideas too big for their budget, Hal Warren was not striving for art but pulpy entertainment. As a result, there’s no ambiguity in the experience that can possibly disguise how far he missed the mark. Every time someone on a set shrugs off a problem with “we’ll fix it in post!”, that’s the attitude that went unchecked and made Manos what it is.
When were you first exposed to the film?
I first saw the film the same way that almost everyone else did: in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. For many years that was the only way to see the film at all, and it creates quite a feeling of discovery in the episode itself – “Oh no, what have we found?” Now I’m very interested in seeing how people react to Manos: The Hands of Fate in a vacuum with no prior experience, with the film looking as good as it possibly can.
What is your day job and what do your co-workers and family think of your project?
I’m primarily a camera operator, but also do work as a camera assistant and was recently certified for Steadicam. I’m occasionally a director of photography, and recently shot a really fun independent UFO comedy (The Ufologist) that’ll be playing festivals soon. On the surface, a cameraman might not seem like the obvious choice for a project of this nature, but post-production is the next stop after we shoot our footage and it pays to know as much as possible about that field.
Today, if a DP isn’t able to interact with the VFX artists or the colorist or the lab or the people preparing the DCP [Digital Cinema Package], he or she isn’t fully prepared for the job. So as soon as I inspected these reels, I knew exactly what was required to restore them and who I’d need to get in touch with to do so. Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with do not know what Manos: The Hands of Fate is, but I’ve managed to get quite a few of them interested.
Finally, what is your favorite horror movie, bad or otherwise?
There are so many different kinds of horror movies – and that’s why we love them – but I keep coming back to the Val Lewton films (I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, etc.) where the power of belief and the power of the supernatural are effectively the same. Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is brilliant in much the same way – it’s probably the one “new” horror film that I’ve re-watched the most.
If you’re interested in helping fund the project, a PayPal link is on Ben’s website.
For any fans who missed out on the Kickstarter project, according to Ben there will be ways to get your hands on schwag in the future: “I’m working on a special t-shirt with proceeds going to Tom Neyman, the ‘Master’ himself, but I’m holding off on disc pre-orders until duplication begins [in order] to prevent a backlog.”