Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate

by Jackey Neyman Jones, Laura Mazzuca Toops

As Joel Hodgson notes in his introduction to this book, Manos: The Hands of Fate was not the best riff MST3K ever did—not by a long shot. It has become the most notorious for a variety of unclear reasons, one of which is that it is bad in many of the right ways. Although, unlike, say Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its goofy throwback to ’30s-era horror, Manos is also bad in ways that make it a “hard watch”.

Jackey Neyman Jones has diligently researched the topic for her book, which is also based on many of her own personal recollections, as she played “Debbie”, the young daughter of the poor saps who are drawn into The Master’s web of…web of…well, whatever it was The Master was doing up there in San Antonio.

The paradox of the movie (and many like it) is that the very person who has the personality to cause a movie to suddenly spring up in the deserts of Texas is the very person who will aggressively work against the things that might make a decent film. (This is so frequently true in low-budget film-making as to be a cliche.) In this case, our culprit is Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in this film.

Some of the stories sounded familiar. If you’ve ever read the brilliant Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, you may recognize the bombastic tales of artistic excellence, overshared profits (that never were), and a charismatic ringleader a bit over-convinced of his own brilliance. And Warren was no Wood, that’s for sure. Warren seems to have had a fair bit of talent at his beck-and-call (which he exploited ruthlessly), and a fair bit of talent in making others’ talent look bad.

The making of Manos included many fixtures of young Jackey’s life: Her father was The Master, and he expertly manipulated her into playing Debbie. Her mother made the (wonderful) black-and-red hands costume The Master wore. The wild sculptures on the set were the work of her father’s, and he had some hand in the special FX as well.

But only part of this book is about the making of Manos. A fair portion is about Ms. Jones, her adoration of her father (who played The Master), and how after a period of estrangement, the sudden re-emergence of the film allowed her to re-connect with her father. You can really understand how the author became the virtual mascot of the MST3K crew, introducing “The Mads” and being at the premiere for the recent MST3K reboot, because people coming together over truly bad (but sincerely made) films is what that show was all about.

There’s a lot of fun stuff about the post-MST3K “Manos” craze, which has been truly phenomenal, with stage productions, sequels, and even a video game based on it. Another (sad) cliche is that, when the whiff of fame and wealth came around, a lot of would-be Warrens came out of the woods to try to exploit it.

There’s a chapter toward the end called something like “Little Debbie reveals all” and, thankfully, she does not. It’s enough to have the arc of her life separating and reconnecting with her dad without the sorts of highly intimate details that fuel some more self-indulgent works. The effect is to be touching without being, you know, gross. (The sort of subtlety missing from, say, the film in question.)

Anyway, this definitely joins Nightmare and The Evil Dead Companion on my list of great low-budget movie-based reads. Much like the MST3K episode that features it, this book is a testament to how even a bad movie (one of the worst even) can result in good things.

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