The term “cult film” has two very distinct definitions.
Of course, there are cult films literally about cults, such as Rosemary’s Baby and Midsommar. But then there’s a far more nebulous definition: a film that inspires a cult following, usually after initially failing at the box office.
It’s these latter kinds of movies that most inspire rabid fandoms, midnight screenings, and creative works of fanfiction. One 1966 film, available to watch for free online, is both kinds of cult films at once — and it’s obvious why the film has inspired such feverish dedication beyond the obsessive sects of its story.
Manos: The Hands of Fate is a 1966 horror film written, directed, produced by, and starring Harold P. Warren, otherwise known as an insurance and fertilizer salesman. It’s a classic tale of a young family lost on a road trip and seeking assistance at a strange house they discover along the way. Once inside, they’re caught up in the actions of a polygamist cult, dedicated to worshipping a strange god known as Manos.
Calling Manos: The Hands of Fate a low-budget affair would be an understatement. Though it’s been lovingly restored over the years, the film still resembles someone’s home movie. Thanks to its extraordinarily low production values, all dialogue had to be dubbed in after production, making Manos sound like an international drama translated into English.
According to Entertainment Weekly’s oral history of the film, Manos: The Hands of Fate was born out of a bet between Warren and Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Warren had said that making a horror movie was easy, and Silliphant wagered that Warren couldn’t do it himself. $19,000 (about $150,000 in today’s money) and a couple months later, Manos: The Hands of Fate was completed; so, technically, Warren won the bet.
Ask any fan of Manos about the best part of the film, and their answer will undoubtedly be Torgo. The Igor-esque servant to the Manos cult leader known as the Master, Torgo (John Reynolds) is the figure who first sparks the concern of that aforementioned family: Michael (Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman). Reynolds’ only film role, Torgo is an enigma of a character. His unique style of walking, as if wearing leg braces, is as iconic as the movie itself, and his behavior is more unnerving than any line of dialogue.
Sure, Manos sits at a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is heralded as one of the worst movies of all time, but it’s also one of the most entertaining cult movies ever made. Cults are creepy, inexplicable, and look comical from the outside, just like this film. While other “bad” films exist purely to be laughed at, Manos is a puzzle that keeps you engaged and sickly fascinated.
Whether streaming the original film or the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode that later popularized it for free on Tubi, Manos: The Hands of Fate proves you don’t need a million-dollar budget to make a memorable film that will last the test of time. In fact, you don’t even need to be talented. All you need is an off-the-wall cult plot, some unwitting actors, and a truly unorthodox approach.