5 Things I Learned As A Child Star Of The Worst Movie Ever
In 1966, when Jackey Neyman Jones was seven years old, she played the character Debbie in a movie called Manos: The Hands Of Fate. The independent horror flick went unnoticed at the time, but would later be made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000, a science fiction comedy show which ... You know what? If we have to explain MST3K to you, just stop reading. You've got some homework to do. Manos deserved every bit of the bots' mockery. It was technically inept, the plot was nonsense, the actors seemed to be actively trying to escape the set in every scene -- the list goes on. Here's what Jackey had to say about her weird place in film history.
It Was A Dream, A Bet, A Family Project, But Never A Good Idea
Manos is about a lost family spending the night in a hillbilly's house, only to discover that he's hiding the evil "Master" of a polygamous cult. Nasty consequences slowly and incompetently ensue. It's strangely beautiful, because while any director can make a bad movie, making a terrible one requires special talent.
Manos was the brainchild of Harold "Hal" Warren, an El Paso fertilizer salesman, active local theater member, and all-around lunatic who once dreamed of inventing giant cement LEGO blocks for housing construction. In short, he was a dreamer. Not good dreams, but he had them.
Warren playing Michael, the dad. The mop of hair at the bottom is Jackey.
Like many great movies, Manos was the result of a bet. Warren was an acquaintance of the awesomely-named screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. He figured that making a movie wasn't as hard as fancy Hollywood types claimed, and bet Silliphant that he could make one. Then, to illustrate the kind of respect he had for filmmaking, Warren scribbled the story outline on a napkin in the very coffee shop they were sitting in.
Silliphant probably forgot the discussion the moment he left, but Warren wanted to see the ill-advised dream through to completion. So he raised $19,000 from friends and family -- a staggering amount of money to whip up for a crazy wager, but not nearly enough to make a good movie. Luckily, "good" wasn't a criteria of the bet, so Warren recruited a cast and crew. And Jackey's dad, Tom, happened to have been in a play with Warren.
"Hey Tom, want an acting gig? I'm trying to show a Hollywood type that
we can do as good a job as whatever bomb he's working on."
"He looked around the cast and crew and saw everything he needed. My dad was also an artist, so he ended up doing all the sets, the props, the costumes (he designed them and my mother sewed them). And then he happened to have a daughter the right age and a dog with the right look. And our car was in it ... it's like a family movie to me, because my dad did so much work on his own dime. A lot of the props in the house came from our house."
Tom played the cult's Master. Here he is with the family dog, in the costume he designed and the mustache he was born to rock:
Some of the creepy props in the Master's house were Tom's preexisting art:
While others, like this portrait of the Master, were made from scratch:
"This year's Christmas card? Done."
It was a colossal amount of work for Jackey's parents, but they were committed. It may have been a crazy idea, but goddammit, it was their friend's crazy idea.
"He really put a lot of effort into it. Any theater group is used to volunteering, to putting their heart and soul into something whether it works out or not. Hal picked the right people, they were all committed. No one wanted to be the one who let the project fall apart."
And hey, Hal Warren did win the bet.
Even As A Child, She Knew It Was Going To Be Terrible
It quickly became obvious to Warren's cast and crew that his movie would stink, but he made sure they stuck with it.
"You have to understand that Hal's quite the salesman. So they jumped at this opportunity. And Hal never pushed it ; he said from the beginning that he was making a B-movie. But he thought it was going to open the doors for future film products, so everyone stuck it out hoping it would lead to something better."
The only one who managed to move on to bigger and better things was that poncho.
"Even I knew. I remembering saying my lines, and I knew I was too quiet because I was a shy kid. And then I'd say timidly, 'Should I do it again?' 'No, we're just going to move on. It will be great! We'll fix it in the lab.' Hal said that a lot -- 'We'll fix it in the lab.' And I remember thinking, 'Wow! Movie-making must be magic, because I don't know how he's going to fix all this!'"
For example, you can't focus a camera in post.
The primitive special effects failed to fool Jackey:
"When they killed the poodle, they got a toy. They tore open its belly and poured a bunch of stage blood on its stuffing, but it looked pink. They figured that with the low lighting it would be creepy, but it didn't work at all. I remember them making a special point of showing me that it was a toy, that they weren't killing the poodle. And I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, 'Yeah, like I'd ever believe that's real.'"
Here's Jackey with the real poodle.
Jackey quietly watched the problems pile up. Her dog, the evil Doberman, was useless.
"My dog wasn't trained at all. You can see in the movie that he always had to be chained to something. He was a sweetheart, not the personality of an evil dog. He would have taken off if he could."
The dog is supposed to be intimidating, but in the movie, it looks like he wants to run and play with whoever's being "threatened." And Jackey wasn't impressed with Warren's directing skills.
"Hal Warren wasn't the warm and fuzzy type. He wasn't unkind to me, but I felt more like a prop. He'd pick me up like a sack of potatoes and pat me on the head like a puppy. And for years, my perception of him was as a man who had no children, but I learned that he had four children from three different marriages. His wife was pregnant with his fifth child during the filming."
Warren himself played the stranded husband, and not to read too much into a movie script, but you can't help but note that he keeps ordering his family around and assuring them that everything will be fine against their quite reasonable objections that it plainly will not.
"I keep telling you, sweetie: Desperately clinging to a loaded revolver is common in rural hotels."
From the jump, the film was a disaster. There was a random, hastily-added subplot about a couple making out in a car, solely because the actress involved broke her foot. She had been hired from a local modeling agency, and there was no budget for a replacement. They couldn't even afford the planned opening credits, so the movie starts with pointless shots of empty countryside. The end credits are inflated with fake names to make the production look bigger. But nothing showed off Warren's mindset better than the title itself. Manos: The Hands Of Fate translates to Hands: The Hands Of Fate.
It Was All Fun And Games Until The Suicide
Even though Jackey knew the movie was going to suck, playing pretend with a bunch of grown-ups, some actual set pieces, and any kind of budget still sounds like a hell of a lot of fun for a seven-year-old:
"I remember feeling special, knowing that I was one of the people who knew what a movie looked like behind the scenes. Knowing the costumes were kept in our bedroom closet. Knowing we kept all the lunches in the little '50s fridge in the kitchen."
Cleaning the Hellhound poop after he got into the grease paint.
The fact that they had to bring their own lunches should have been another warning sign, but never mind that. It helped that Jackey and her dog were the only ones paid (everyone else was promised a share of the profits, of which there were none). Nothing makes you feel like a star like getting the biggest paycheck.
"My dog got a 50-pound bag of food, and I got a red bike with training wheels and plastic streamers. I got a lot of use out of it. I still remember my dad teaching me to ride it. And then him taking the training wheels off and me wobbling down the road."
Jackey was having a great summer. Then John Reynolds, who played the goat-hick Torgo, killed himself a month before the premiere.
Sadly, you have a better chance at finding a real photo of bigfoot than a non-Torgo photo of John.
"John Reynolds was a shy, quiet guy. A very intense person. On the set he kept himself removed from most people, he only really hung out with me, my dad, and the set photographer. I think he felt safer around me. During our downtime, we'd hang out in front of the house. I remember him sitting with me, talking with me -- he'd do magic tricks, or act silly and fall down and make me laugh. I wish I could remember what we talked about."
Jackey would later learn that John was on acid for a lot of those antics. It was an open secret on set that he was struggling -- his desire for a career in the arts didn't sit well with his Air Force colonel father, and he took it harder than the rest when he realized that Manos wasn't going to be his ticket to Hollywood. Crew members described him as a talented young actor, and while we're not saying he was going to be the next Marlon Brando, he probably deserves to be remembered for better than Torgo.
"My mom and I were driving to school on Monday morning. We heard it on the radio. My mom pulled over and burst into tears. She said, 'John's dead.' And then I remember later the adults talking about it, and that's how I learned he shot himself. It was awful. I was young, I didn't know what suicide was. That was the first time I truly learned about it as a concept."
It's also worth touching on a rather infamous urban legend around Manos: That Reynolds wore the leg braces designed to make him look like a satyr incorrectly, causing him chronic pain and a painkiller addiction that contributed to his suicide. There doesn't appear to be any evidence supporting this, and Jackey says the story is "Not true."
Though the walking does sort of merit some explanation.
Ironically, the story of Jackey's summer break spent making Manos would be a vastly more compelling film than Manos.
The Premiere Was A Complicated Con
You can question Hal Warren's directing, but you can't deny his showmanship. He was drumming up publicity from day one, signing up his on-screen wife Diane Mahree for a local beauty contest (without bothering to tell her) so he could say the movie starred a beauty queen. But it was the big premiere where he truly went all-out.
"The premiere was pretty bad. Everyone was dressed to the nines; women wore gowns and opera gloves, and men wore tuxedos. Hal got spotlights from a local car dealer to flash across the sky. And he gave some of the little street kids that lived on the border pads and pencils and made them autograph-seekers. They didn't speak any English, and none of us spoke any Spanish. It was ridiculous. And he rented one limo, and had all the cast and crew park a couple blocks away and wait in the alley. He'd come through, pick a group of us up, deposit us at the red carpet, and then do another trip. And then all the cameras, all the dignitaries of El Paso, it was a big deal."
By the last ten minutes, they should have been worried about all the people trying to get out, not in.
For Jackey, it was thrilling. She was getting ready for the premiere of her very own movie.
"I'm all excited. I have this beautiful dress my mother made ... we spent hours in the beauty parlor, it was the first time in my life we did anything like that. My dad made sure we sat in a place where we could see well, right in the center of a row. So in essence, we were truly trapped. Once the lights went down, people caught wind of what was going down quickly. They started laughing."
Everyone involved got the hell out as fast as they could. In some cases, they never even spoke again, like they had pulled off a big heist and needed to split up.
"Crap, why didn't we just make a heist movie to begin with?"
"I don't recall seeing Hal Warren after that. Everyone got out of there. The man who played the sheriff was a lawyer, and very well-respected. He was friends with the real sheriff -- he got him to loan us the police uniforms and car. His son remembers going into the theater and getting an honorary police badge from the sheriff, and then wondering why his dad was grabbing him and rushing him out before the lights went up at the end. We escaped as quickly as possible. I don't think anyone went to the after party. My dad wanted to forget about it. It was embarrassing."
Thankfully, everyone respectfully "forgot" about the film, like how you never bring up your friend's Kris Kross phase. "The entertainment writer for El Paso culture wrote so many glowing reviews of my dad. And she didn't write anything about Manos. She was so kind. And that happened a lot. I think a lot didn't get written because people were embarrassed for us. The cultural community was tight-knit, so for the most part, they let us live it down."
For the most part.
Jackey wasn't thinking about any of that at the time, though. All she knew is that she was pissed, because her film debut had been ruined.
"The only thing I noticed was waiting so expectantly to see myself on screen, and then my character's mouth opened and this horrid voice came out. I was appalled, I was humiliated, I was stunned. No one told me they were dubbing the voices."
Jackey was right when she worried that she was speaking too quietly. Hal hired a voice actress to re-dub every woman in the movie. That's what "fixing it in the lab" meant.
A Terrible Movie And Its Legacy Helped Heal A Relationship
Manos faded into obscurity for decades, but Jackey's always held onto the memories. She had a lonely childhood, describing herself as a weird kid who had trouble making friends. And Reynolds' suicide was a precursor to the suicidal feelings that both Jackey and her father would struggle with (not because of Manos; just because of, you know, life). Their relationship was strained, but Manos' popularity has been something they can bond over.
"What makes Manos so significant is that it's one of those bright, shining moments you hold onto. Because after that, things got so dark for so long. That was always something my dad and I did together, and no one could take that away. There's been a lot of family issues through the years. And the resurgence of Manos, having people give us opportunities to come together, has created healing that I never imagined could happen. I let go of so many things, and here we are in a whole new place, and I can honestly say that's it because of Manos. It's weird, but true."
There are stranger ways to bond with a family member ... None that we can think of, but they probably exist.
Jackey quietly kept those memories in the back of her mind until her dad called her one day.
"I looked for a bit in college and then gave up. And then another 10 years go by, and all of a sudden my dad calls me out of the blue and says, 'You'll never believe what I just saw on television.' It was insane. He's a Mystery Science Theater fan, so he called me after he watched it."
So Jackey phoned Comedy Central.
"Hello? May I speak with Tom Servo, please?"
"I said, 'You just played this movie, and I've been looking for it my whole life, because my family was all part of it. Is there any chance I can get a copy of it?' He asks what the name of it is, I tell him, and then there's this long, long pause. I thought he hung up or got disconnected, my heart was beating. And then he goes, 'Oh my God. Are you Debbie?' So that was the first time I had any inclination that anyone else on the planet knew anything about this film."
"You sound ... different."
They were happy to send her a copy. That was in 1993, and it slowly snowballed from there. Manos got a DVD release, then a carefully restored Blu-Ray funded by a 48,000-dollar Kickstarter campaign. There have been theatrical adaptations, a rock opera, a puppet musical, a video game, and a documentary. A tongue-in-cheek sequel is in the works. There's loads of fan art. It's been referenced in How I Met Your Mother and Elementary. Jackey's been blogging about Manos since 2012, she has a book coming out, and she's had a ton of fun doing interviews and going to conventions. Her dad's been involved in the fandom, as well.
"If you can't be the best, make the best of being the worst. My dad gets a kick out of it too. And if you could see my dad on stage, he was very good. But that film ... when he and I did a commentary, he hadn't seen it in years, not since he saw it on MST. And he goes, 'Oh God, this is awful.'"
That's part of why Jackey's so active in the fandom. Because almost 50 years later, it's still a great way to hang out with her dad.
"Everybody smile and say 'The End?'"
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