In 2003, I was on a mission. I was out to buy as many copies of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” as I could find at my local Sam Goody’s (yes, those were still around) and host awesome teen parties with my friends where we would watch the hilarious old movies, laugh, and probably make pizza rolls. (I was a wild one.)
On one particular trip I grabbed the few copies that had come into stock that week and went home with my purchase, not having any idea what glorious treasure I had just snatched up. One of those movies was the MST3K version of a little film called “Manos: The Hands Of Fate.”
If you haven’t seen it, here’s a great description:
The film’s plot revolves primarily around a vacationing family who lose their way on a road trip. After a long drive in the Texas desert, the family is trapped at a lodge maintained by a polygamous pagan cult, and they attempt to escape as the cult’s members decide what to do with them. The film is infamous for its technical deficiencies, especially its significant editing and continuity flaws; its soundtrack and visuals not being synchronized; tedious pacing; abysmal acting; and several scenes that are seemingly inexplicable or disconnected from the overall plot, such as a couple making out in a car or The Master’s wives breaking out in catfights.
This 1966 movie, widely believed to be the worst movie ever created, is an absolute delight.
Obviously, MST3K banter is top notch, but “Manos” took it to a new level with the fodder the crew of the Satellite of Love was given. First of all, “Manos: The Hands Of Fate” literally translates to “Hands: The Hands Of Fate.” And it only gets better from there.
The hilariously dubbed voices. (“That’s just one guy!”)
The villain (?) Torgo and his enormous knees. (“Ahh, the haunting ‘Torgo Theme.'”)
The All-Out-Sorority-Nightie-Catfight-Brawl. (“Girls, you’re all pretty!”)
What happened to bring together this perfect storm of hysterically bad cinema? Well, life has a funny way of working out, because 13 years later I found myself with the pleasant opportunity to interview Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones, child star of “Manos” and just the person with the answer to all of my burning questions.
Jackey, who has recently released a book about her time in “Manos” and how it effected her life portraying ‘Debbie’ — as well as spearheaded a sequel! — was kind enough to speak with me over video chat and share her experience of being part of one of the worst movies of all time.
After some light pleasantries, we just got right into it.
MJ: How did you come about being in the movie?
Jackey: My dad [Tom Neyman, ‘The Master’] was in community theater, and Hal Warren [director/producer/writer, ‘Michael’] was also in community theater, so Hal picked all the cast and crew — or most of them — from this particular play. And he picked my dad for the lead, and knowing that my dad had a child and a dog, and a wife that could sew, so… Hal picked the right guy. And my dad asked if I wanted to be in it, and I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t know what that entailed. And he said “Okay, honey, we can always get another little girl.” And I was like “No! No, you don’t need to go get another little girl.”
MJ: And that’s something that’s interesting, I didn’t know your dad played The Master. I didn’t realize so many people were connected.
Jackey: Yeah, my whole family, that’s what the book is kind of based on. The fact that this is kind of a home movie to me. Everything in that film came from our house, or we had a hand in it.
MJ: A hand! Ha!
Jackey: See how I did that?
MJ: What was the general atmosphere on set?
Jackey: Well, you know we were on a very limited time frame because everybody had day jobs. It was filmed nights and weekends, and so it was pretty fast-paced as much as possible. I mean, Hal was pretty stressed out from the beginning.
I just remember him mostly marching around and barking out orders. Smoking his cigarettes, getting really exasperated. But then towards the end, of course, everybody else was exasperated too. The way that his crew dealt with that was pulling pranks and doing things to irritate him further.
MJ: Oh really? What’s an example of that?
Jackey: Well, the beer bottle in the trunk in Torgo’s room? I don’t have proof, but knowing who Bob Guidry [cinematographer] and Bernie Rosenblum were — Bernie was the Kissing Teenager, but he was also assistant cameraman and stunt coordinator — and he was also the stunt man, so Hal rolling down the hill is actually Bernie! But yeah, they most likely planted that there to test Hal’s powers of observation.
MJ: What were your thoughts at the time of shooting?
Jackey: I was just having a great time. I mean, I was just a little kid, I was six years old going on seven, and I’ve always been a very observant human — I’m an artist, and I just have a detailed kind of observation, so I was pretty much on my own. I mean, everyone was working and doing things, and I was there a lot, because if I had to be in any scene then I was going to be there for the whole shoot because my dad was my ride. I just remember really enjoying it, I had a lot of patience. I wasn’t a fidgety kid so I was happy to sit and observe and poke around and wander off.
MJ: You kind of touched on this a second ago. Warren comes off as pretty gruff in the movie, was he like that in real life?
Jackey: From my point of view, yeah. But all the research I did shows a whole other side of him. He thought of himself as a comedian. All the parts that he did in theater were pretty much comedic parts. He started doing stand-up comedy onstage in New York when he was 16. He was quite a salesman.
And yet… there was just this piece of him that just seems kind of disconnected in a way. He was kind of a schemer. I think he was pretty gruff, to the adults and stuff, he probably came off differently. I’m sure he was more chameleon-like, I’d say. If he was trying to make a sale he’d be one person, and if he was trying to round up his actors he would be somebody else.
MJ: Are there any particularly interesting things about the movie that you remember?
Jackey: John Reynolds [Torgo], he’s the biggest mystery because he died a month before the premiere. So few people knew him. But I remember him very well because when I was there on the set and when he wasn’t working, sometimes he’d hang out with me. And he felt more like a friend than, The Wives, for instance. The Wives would fawn over me, like a little doll or something, but he treated me more like a person. I just remember him being a really sweet, gentle guy.
And then the behind-the-scenes stuff. From a little kid’s point of view, it just fascinated me that I knew where we kept our lunches, and where the costumes were hanging in the closet in the bedroom. And seeing it now, it’s just like looking at a family film. I see my great-grandmother’s quilts on the bed, and I see the trunk in Torgo’s room — it was my great-grandfather’s. All the sculptures, those were my dad’s. My dog! Our car. Me. It’s always kind of a nostalgic journey. And when I watch it, I often see something that I didn’t see before.
MJ: So what did you think when you found out about Reynolds’ drug use during the film?
Jackey: You know, it was 1966. Even though I was young, I would say that because the people that I was around, the adults mostly, were in the theater — there was quite a bit of that going around anyway. I mean, at that age I certainly wouldn’t have known was LSD was, but I wasn’t surprised because when my dad visited he [Reynolds] was often high. He spent a lot of time that way. Especially towards the end.
That wasn’t a surprise. The suicide was just a shock to everybody. I remember that, crystal clear. The moment when I found out.
He killed himself on a Sunday. My mother and I were going to school on Monday, no one had heard about it. We were listening to the radio, the news, and then they announced it on the radio. My mother just gasped, burst into tears, and pulled over. I just remember sitting there so… in shock. And uncomfortable. Not knowing what to do. Just sitting there in the car with my mother, waiting for her to be able to compose herself enough to go on.
And we did. We went on to school. She was a teacher at the same school I went to. She went to her classroom, I went to mine.
MJ: I want to make a point about this in the article, too, that until I read your Cracked interview, I was also under the impression of the urban legend that Reynold’s leg braces used in the film caused an addiction to pain pills and that was how he died. I had no idea he had shot himself. I want to clear that up, for sure.
Jackey: Oh sure! And the way I clear that up, too, is that some of the rumors say he built the leg braces. But my dad built them. And the idea that he wore them ‘wrong,’ it caused him pain? That’s not true. He wore them correctly. They were padded. They weren’t comfortable, but they weren’t painful.
And we did all the filming in eight days! So that’s a short period of time to become addicted to painkillers to that point of devastation? So… no. That’s not true.
MJ: Tell me about the premiere.
Jackey: From my point of view, it was just a glorious thing. We went to the beauty parlor, I’d never done that before. My mother made me this beautiful, gorgeous gown, she was dressed — everybody that went, it was a ’60s premiere! With opera-length gloves and beautiful gowns, and tuxedos… Hal Warren had borrowed a couple of those giant lights that scan the sky from a car dealership. He borrowed those, put them in front of the theater. He found a red carpet somewhere.
He offered tickets to everybody, state legislators, people in city government, county government. The police chief, all these people were there. Everybody was thinking this was going to be the start of bringing film to the Southwest. And that was really Hal’s objective, in the beginning. It was more than just making a movie, he wanted to be the guy who opened the Southwest to this new and exciting revenue source.
So the premiere… he built it up quite a bit.
Now from the actors, they all had a pretty good idea it wasn’t going to be very good. But nobody had really seen anything so they didn’t know exactly how bad it was going to be. So everybody was kind of nervous.
Oh, for one thing, Hal rented one limo. Because of the budget. So he had all the cast and crew show up and we waited in the alley behind the Cortez Hotel and the limo would come — I still remember this! All of us standing there in our beautiful clothes in this dark alley, and the limo would come and a group would get in, the limo would go around the block and drop them off in front of the theater, and they’d go in — then he’d go around and come back.
And I remember, I was seven, thinking “Am I the only one who realizes this is the same car and driver?” I mean, I thought it was ridiculous!
The other thing I noticed was the “autograph hounds” that Hal had hired. They were little street urchin kids who sell gum and wash your windshields in traffic when you’re on the border of Mexico — none of these kids, I’m sure, had ever stepped foot inside a theater. All the cast and crew is white, and they’re there with their little pencils — he didn’t even give them pens! He gave them little pencils and pads of paper.
So we all go in and my dad chose for us to sit about fifth row center, so we could see… then quickly realized his mistake when the lights went down. After the eight minute driving scene, people are chuckling and whispering. We were trapped. We had to stay.
From my point of view, I wasn’t really noticing the angst or discomfort. I was just so full of excitement and anticipation of seeing myself onscreen.
I remember sitting there expectantly and my character opens her mouth onscreen and this… weird voice comes out of my mouth. And I just burst into tears. I don’t even remember a whole lot of the movie after that, because I was so… humiliated and embarrassed for myself. Because nobody told the kid that the voices were being dubbed.
Throughout the whole filming, I would think I didn’t say something loud enough, and Hal would say “It’s fine, you did fine!” Well, it was because it didn’t matter. It was shot silent.
MJ: That’s pretty young to go through an experience like that, too. That level of humiliation. So what was life like after the premiere?
Jackey: Well, you know the reason “Manos” sticks with me so much is that we saw the premiere and then we never saw it again. Everybody scattered, everybody wanted to forget about it and never talk about it again. It wasn’t something we talked about in the family. It was just something that I held onto. But as time went on, you know, my parents were already having difficulties in their marriage. My father was battling lifelong severe depression, he was suicidal. I became aware of it about, nine years old. He’d had multiple suicide attempts. So I went through a very very dark period.
I just adored my dad. I couldn’t imagine being here without him. So “Manos” became the shining time of my life. My childhood. And all this stuff now, it’s something my dad and I get to do together.
MJ: The film fell into obscurity until MST3K found it and did an episode. What happened then?
Jackey: Wow, well, I’d been looking for it most of my life. You know, after high school. There was no internet or anything like that, so it was a matter of looking in phone books and making phone calls. And I just had no luck. So I gave up.
And then I got married and I moved to Northern California. My dad was living in Oregon in 1993 and he called me one day out of the blue and he just said “You’ll never believe what I just saw on television!”
He was a “Mystery Science Theater” fan. He liked watching it on Saturdays and he was watching it that day, taking a nap, sort of dozing off and then he heard the music. The Torgo music! And then he saw himself on the screen and was just amazed.
And since then, wow. It’s just taken off. A coloring book, there’s a rock opera in Chicago — “Manos: Hands Of Felt”… the restoration, there’s a game on iPhone! I’ve met the coolest people though this whole thing.
MJ: What’s your favorite line from “Manos?”
Jackey: Oh, that’s easy! “Whatever it is you’re not doin’, go don’t do it somewhere else!”
MJ: What’s on your plate for 2016?
Jackey: Crypticon, that’s the end of May, Memorial Day Weekend. And “Manos Returns,” [the sequel] it’s just me, Tonija Atomic [director] and Rachel Jackson of “Manos: The Hands Of Felt” [assistant director] spearheading this. Which is really exciting to me, because our goal is to have the film actually premiere on the 50th anniversary of the original “Manos,” which is this November. So we have a huge job!
It’s a huge year and it just keeps building up.
MJ: Anything else you’d like to share with fans?
The book, of course. It’s on Amazon. Which is exciting! And the movie. November 15th, we’re moving along. We’re doing great with it. We had a successful Kickstarter and people have been overwhelmingly positive. So I’m just excited! It’s a busy year and I have no idea what’s next after this. That’s enough, right?