The 1966 film Manos: The Hands of Fate is frequently found in DVD collections such as The Best of the Worst, and is also one of the few Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes to receive its own standalone release. It's rather notorious. The score and dialogue provide most of the cohesion for Manos, which was shot on 16mm, and the hound-wound camera only allowed for 32 seconds per shot. Thus, the dialogue – which was looped in post – and the score by Robert Smith Jr. and Russ Huddleston, are the only elements which manage to exist for more than one shot.
That said, Ship to Shore Phonograph Co. still didn't have the entirety of the score with which to work with here. Earlier this year, the original 35mm soundtrack negative for Manos was finally discovered and underwent a detailed restoration to clean up the audio. It turned out so well that they put the music up on Bandcamp, and now we have Ship to Shore releasing it on vinyl. What do we end up with?
Well, it's essentially a “movie on record” release, similar to the old Star Wars or Disney releases from the '70s. By pulling the audio from the 35mm print, you're necessarily going to end up with dialogue layered on top of the musical track – otherwise, you'd have a series of 55 second snippets of music. And frankly, the dialogue provides a bit of a throughline and breaks up what can be very repetitive minimalist jazz.
The score is a small jazz trio, playing mood music that does an excellent job of underscoring the bizarre imagery onscreen. It's discomfiting, yet still strangely catchy. Smith and Huddleston's exotica isn't out of the ordinary for a film such as this, especially when you look at Les Baxter's later work for Cry of the Banshee and The Dunwich Horror.
An Unfulfilled Desire is muffled and warbly, betraying the nearly 50 year-old source from which it comes, but other than that, there's also a small amount of hiss which permeates the entirety of the score, which ultimately only adds to the atmosphere. The other downside is that, because the audio is sourced from that print, the individual pieces are only as long as they are in the film.
In terms of the instrumental pieces, that's fine, because the dialogue strings them together in a fairly coherent manner, allowing for the record to maintain some narrative shape in place of musical cohesion. However, singer Nicki Mathis' work on Love Inside This Magic Circle is a brilliant piece of lounge singing we'd love to have in its entirety. Given how lovely Forgetting You (Love Theme from Manos: The Hands of Fate) is, one can only guess.
All in all, if you love Manos: The Hands of Fate, you'll need to get your hands on this. The essay by Tim Farrante which is included makes for some good further background, and for all of the issues with the completeness of the music, this really sounds good. If you like what Herschel Gordon Lewis did with the likes of Blood Feast, you'll also be down for some minimalist creepiness. The packaging is stellar as well, with that cover art the best interpretation of the film we've yet seen.
MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966) / COMPOSER: ROBERT SMITH JR., RUSS HUDDLESTON / LABEL: SHIP TO SHORE PHONOGRAPH CO. / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW