It's Oscar season, which brings to mind the tragic tale of John Reynolds. He never won any acting awards; he was quite a terrible actor, in fact. Maybe one of the worst ever. But his story teaches us about the consequences of poor design. And also why a man should not try to walk like a goat.
The story begins with the making of a bad horror film–the dreadful 1966 cult classic Manos: The Hands of Fate. It was made by a Texas fertilizer salesman, and featured a cast of first-time “actors” who seemed disoriented and confused throughout the film. The plot, such as it was, concerned a family that gets lost on the road and ends up at a desolate place inhabited by a ghoul with a fashion flair: He wears a cape that, when spread open, reveals a pair of giant painted hands (hence the title). “The Master,” as this caped character is called throughout the film, has a manservant who is extremely jittery and goes by the name of Torgo.
Manos bombed from the first showing, at an El Paso theater where locals had turned out to support a hometown product. Most everyone, including the cast, snuck out of the theater early. The director Hal Warren stayed till the bitter end, and for his trouble, he was assailed by an angry woman on the way out. And that looked to be the end for Manos.
Until three decades later, when the film was aired on the bad-movie showcase series Mystery Science Theater 3000. Overnight, it became one of MST3K’s all-time fan favorites. And a few years later, Entertainment Weekly declared Manos to be the worst movie ever. By this time, fans had created websites about the film, and graphic designers began to make funky T-shirts (click on the green iTorgo icon above to see more designs). They loved the film’s awful production values, its awkward silences, its strangely repetitive dialogue (“There is no way out of here. It’ll be dark soon. There is no way out of here…”) and even its redundant title (manos is Spanish for hands, so the title, literally, is “Hands: The Hands of Fate”). They loved The Master’s cape. But most of all, they loved Torgo.
John Reynolds, the actor who played Torgo, “convulsed his way through the film,” in the words of one critic. There is much speculation that Reynolds was on LSD throughout filming (if so, blame it on Timothy Leary, whom Reynolds supposedly met while taking a film course in Berkeley prior to Manos). Whether it was the result of hallucinogens or Reynolds’ own unique “method” approach, the actor delivered a performance that was twitchy, wild-eyed, and erratic—and therefore quite compelling, and, some might say, endearing.
Reynolds apparently took the role of Torgo very seriously. He wanted to bring added verisimilitude to a character that, according to the script, was supposed to be a satyr. And so Reynolds, with help from co-star Tom Neyman (“The Master”), set out to design a pair of special prosthetic knees that could bend forward, like a goat’s knee. All Reynolds and Neyman had to work with were wire coat hangers and foam. But like good designers, they embraced these constraints and persevered until they had created what might be called “the knees of fate.”
It is unclear whether the knees actually enabled a human leg to bend forward (is that even possible? Could even Dean Kamen pull that off?). What’s known is that the knees—which may have been worn incorrectly by Reynolds—were very bulky and extremely painful to wear. So painful in fact, that Reynolds began to take painkillers. And became addicted to them. And subsequently committed suicide, some weeks before the film’s original gala El Paso premiere.
So, on the one mano, this is a tragic story of designfail: Torgo’s knees may have had a role in Reynolds’ untimely death. But on the other mano, you could say that the knees helped to make Reynolds immortal. Because when those knees make their first appearance in the film, it is an unforgettable sight. And when Reynolds, as Torgo, does his first full-onscreen “walk” while wearing the knees, something magical happens. It is not just a walk—it is more akin to modern dance. What I’m saying is, it rocks.
The following 4-minute clip is all you really need to see from Manos (truly, for your own sake, don’t try to see more of this film). The clip begins with Torgo announcing himself to the arriving lost family, in what has been described as “the most awkward introduction ever on film.” It proceeds to some of Torgo’s more Dada-esque dialogue. Then there comes a long section in the middle when Torgo is trying to decide whether to let the family stay. Reynolds may have been attempting to turn this into an existential Hamlet moment, who knows. But it goes on way too long and the effect is that time itself seems to come to a halt at this point in the film. If you can last through this, however, you will finally get to see Torgo’s knees, and the “dance” made possible by them.
NOTE: This article relies on secondary sources and various tidbits gathered from the dark corners of the Internet,so caveat lector. Virtually all the people involved in the making of Manos have died or vanished.
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