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31 Days of Halloween: Manos: Hands of Felt

Published Monday, October 25, 2021 at 10:55pm

I frequently use the 31 Days of Horror project as an excuse to finally watch stuff that's been sitting on my To-Watch list for years. I can't really explain it, but the appeal of a lot of the movies on that list diminishes quickly once I make the decision to watch them. That's why it took me such a long time to get around to Manos: The Hands of Felt; I was initially excited about it, but that was years ago. I've had a copy for at least half a decade and it's available to stream for free now, so what was I waiting for?

I also have a strong memory of reading that it wasn't very good, but I enjoyed it very much and IMDB's users have rated it 7.9/10. It doesn't have a Rotten Tomatoes score which seems like a more trustworthy arbiter, but I'll agree with IMDB on this one.

Manos: The Hands of Felt is a filmed stage performance of the play of the same name, itself a remake of the film Manos: The Hands of Fate. The original Manos was made on a bet by a fertilizer salesman who was pretty sure he could make a successful horror movie on a modest budget. He was wrong, and his movie is regarded as one of the worst films ever made. It's not, of course, in that I've seen movies whose incompetence makes them much harder to sit through, but it's pretty bad.

Manos has been adapted and sequelized. There are novels and a video game. All of these derivative works are unauthorized, and Manos itself is in the public domain simply because director Harold Warren failed to assert his copyright over it.

Manos: The Hands of Felt is also unauthorized, and began as a crowdfunded effort on Kickstarter. It's essentially Manos remade with puppets in front of a live audience, and watching the movie is a bit like watching Avenue Q; no effort has been made to hide the puppeteers. I don't really like that, but the puppets move all over the stage, and there's really no way to do that live on stage without at least bringing the actors along.

The story begins with a family on vacation, driving their convertible along secluded roads somewhere near El Paso, TX. Well, they're not really driving, the actors are shuffling along in formation to suggest drawing. Point is, they're trying to get to the Valley Lodge, but they must have made a wrong turn somewhere. A piggy-looking policeman stops them for a broken taillight, agrees to let them off with a warning. The father thanks him, then asks if they can do another take. This is the central conceit of the film: we are watching Harold Warren orchestrate the making of the Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Just as in the original movie, they make a Y-turn and drive on in the hopes of finding the lodge. The driving scenes in the original are famously excruciating; a better director would have cut together a series of abbreviated shots to suggest the Y-turn, but Harold Warren gives us the whole thing. The puppets save it from being boring as hell.

Eventually they come to... well, not the Valley Lodge, but it looks safe enough, and the goatish gentleman out front might be able to offer directions... On the other hand he might be the demonic servant of a maniacal occultist bent on collecting as many wives as he can.

Look, if you've seen the original version of the movie, then you've seen the less funny parts of this one. I can't decide whether Hands of Felt is a good introduction to Manos or not. One one hand, this is a much better movie, and all the important stuff is there. On the other hand, you'll get more out of the parody if you've seen the original movie. On yet a third hand, nobody needs an entry point into the Manos universe because even if you like it you're not going to be spending a lot of time there.

It's great, though, and really makes me miss experimental live theater. Manos has never been more watchable and the plot has never been this coherent before. Did they find a good story hiding underneath the ineptitude? No, of course not! But it's incredibly funny, has a handful of musical numbers (at least one of which was enjoyable), and breaks the fourth wall more often than an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast. It's better than the source material deserves and is totally worth your time if it sounds at all interesting. And it's on YouTube.

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