Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Manitou (1978)

          The supernatural horror flick The Manitou is about as gonzo as mainstream cinema gets. Featuring a demented concept taken to ridiculous extremes, this mesmerizing misfire combines demonic possession, Native American mythology, parallel dimensions, reproductive horror, sentient machinery, and probably a dozen other tropes of genre cinema, all wrapped up in a tasty package decorated with stilted acting, inane dialogue, and histrionic storytelling. There might be an interesting notion or two buried amid the melodramatic muck, but the beauty of something as strange as The Manitou is that redeeming values are beside the point; the movie’s spectacular awfulness offers a special kind of entertainment value.
          When the movie begins, Karen (Susan Strasberg) seeks medical help for a strange tumor growing out of her upper back. Physicians are astounded to discover that the tumor is actually a fetus. This revelation understandably concerns Karen’s on-again/off-again boyfriend, fake psychic Harry (Tony Curtis), who investigates Karen’s condition when medical science fails to provide an explanation. Eventually, Harry and a real psychic (Stella Stevens) dig up loopy scientist Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), who opines that the growth is a “manitou,” the reborn spirit of a Native American shaman.
          Told that one needs a shaman to fight a shaman, Harry treks to the Southwest and recruits John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to serve as a kind of exorcist. John Singing Rock says he can’t battle the Manitou until the creature leaves Susan’s body, and the manitou’s birth scene is one of the most insane moments in all of ’70s cinema: A miniature muscleman crawls out of a giant sack attached to Strasberg’s spine and then plops onto the floor of a hospital room, panting like a placenta-drenched pervert. Soon, this child-sized monstrosity is lurking inside a force field created by John Singing Rock, plotting some sort of supernatural takeover (and breathing heavily some more). To quote a hackneyed line,” John Singing Rock says at one point, “This is powerful medicine.” You said it, friend!
          As directed and co-written by genre-cinema stalwart William Girdler (Grizzly), The Manitou is arresting simply because of how far it goes down the bad-cinema rabbit hole. Plus, to be charitable, some of the film’s images are genuinely unsettling: There’s a great bit during a séance, for instance, when a human head rises up through a tabletop as if the tabletop were an oil slick rather than solid wood.
          The acting is, of course, terrible, because no one can be expected to do much with this material, but Curtis has a few entertainingly bitchy line readings even as he trudges through various declarations of the obvious. Syrian-born Ansara, who had a long career as a voice actor in addition to his onscreen work, makes the fatal mistake of playing his role straight, so his wooden performance offers an amusing counterpoint to Curtis’ desperate hamminess. The movie’s high point, relatively speaking, is the trippy finale, which features (and I’m not kidding) a naked Strasberg shooting laser beams of channeled machine energy at the muscled little person as they float in a star field, battling for the final fate of the universe. Powerful medicine, indeed.

The Manitou: FREAKY


Will Errickson said...

The original novel, by Graham Masterton, is a wonderfully outrageous work of pulp horror:

Kevin Mac said...

Agreed, I read the book after the film and found it to be very much in the wheelhouse of a more modern Lovecraft. The American Indian Demon mythology was genuinely scary to a white-eyes like me. There was a sequel as well, with more Manitou's, and demons, introduced. As far as the movie, there was a lot for a kind in puberty to like!

I remember seeing it as a kid at a Saturn Awards screening, driven there by my older brother. He quipped "they should do a sequel where a ballerina is possessed by Misquamacas(sp). They could call it "The Mani-tu-tu..."

BillyWitchDoctor said...

Unfortunately Masterton's other stuff is pretty much garbage; like many "respectable" authors out there, he likes to pretend that any culture outside his own is inherently savage, and the plots are often unintentional camp. The worst I was able to still finish, Tengu, ends with two men, rendered super-powered and nigh-invulnerable by Japanese torture rituals (!??) fight each other as they make their way through hails of police bullets and into the reactor of a nuclear plant. Which results in a meltdown. Even as 14-year-old I knew that was idiotic.

Rumor has it that The Manitou originally had a different ending that was shot down by Masterson's publisher; Harry Erskine actually TALKS Misquamacus down, bringing him out to the hospital windows and pointing out how much the outside world has changed. Misquamacus realizes his desire for revenge is pointless, and relents--only to promptly collapse, dying shortly thereafter despite the surviving hospital staff's best efforts to save him. Turns out Karen Tandy has an STD which Misquamacus picked up from her; a minor inconvenience to her, but lethal to his compromised and unvaccinated immune system.

That ending would have worked well for, say, William Friedkin, while "naked lady shooting computer-spirit energy blasts in space" is definitely more William Girdler's level. Admittedly, to this very day when I find myself frustrated I will occasionally scream (to myself) "UNITRAAAAAK!! My god, UNITRAAAAAK!!" and wish for a computer to fry the source of my ire.