I said, everything has a manitou. Not
only trees but man-made things as well.
Now, the police will come with guns.
Their guns have manitous.
Misquamacus will turn the guns against the police and kill them with
their own weapons!”
That little monologue is quoted verbatim from The Manitou and it gives you a good
idea of its oddball appeal. It puts forth tantalizingly bizarre ideas in a
deadpan manner, playing them so straight the whole enterprise veers into camp.
It’s one of those films that could have only been made in the 1970’s.
The wacked-out storyline was adapted from a hit
paperback novel by Graham Masterton and begins with Karen Tandy (Susan
Strasberg) noticing a fast-growing tumor on her neck. Before doctors try an
operation, she calls on her ex, a con-man psychic named Harry Erskine (Tony
Curtis) to confess her fears. The operation fails due to some otherworldly
interference and Harry turns to the occult world to find answers.
Harry discovers the tumor is the physical manifestation
of Misquamacus, an ancient Indian medicine man trying to re-enter the physical
world. Harry enlists the help of a modern-day medicine man, one John Singing
Rock (Michael Ansara), to take on the evil spirit. It all culminates in a
surreal battle between science and mysticism, complete with all the psychedelic
opticals and makeup effects that can be shoehorned into a modest budget.
If that plot summary has your mind reeling, that’s only
the beginning of the schizoid experience that is The Manitou. The plot deals in some rather unconventional plot
hooks – like basing itself around American Indian concepts of religion and the
idea that all things living and inanimate have spirits – yet these concepts are
delivered via some clunky t.v.-style plotting and exposition. The film is full
of disturbing sights and creepy setpieces but each of these moments is
counterbalanced with moments of forced sitcom-style humor and unintentional
campiness. By the end, it leaps headlong into bizarro-land with an ending that can’t
be described… it can only be experienced in slack-jawed awe.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t always as compelling as it
is strange. This problem stems mainly from the staid, pseudo-Hollywood approach
that director William Girdler takes. This b-movie vet had learned a lot about
making a movie look professional by this point and puts it all to good use here
– The Manitou was filmed on a budget
of $3 million and easily looks like it cost two or three times that amount.
However, Girdler had some problems figuring out how to
smoothly construct and adapt a novel into a film and that makes the middle act
of The Manitou uneven and pokey in
its pacing. He also allows the running time to become padded because he feels
the need to squeeze every cent out of his resources: for instance, there’s a
gratuitous romantic montage obviously designed to show off the film’s San
Still, the movie’s dizzying and totally unself-conscious
sense of eccentricity can be charming if the viewer is in the right mood. It
also benefits from an excellent cast. Tony Curtis and Michael Ansara both
deliver surprisingly good performances given the circumstances: neither
condescends to the material, with Curtis gamely adding plenty of old-Hollywood
charm and Ansara playing it straight in the manner of a true character-actor
Manitou also has a supporting cast to die for: among the guest
stars are Stella Stevens (in a weird gypsy wig and tan makeup), Ann Sothern and
a hammy Burgess Meredith. The combination of familiar faces, schlocky plotting
and slick production values gives the film the feel of a vintage Irwin Allen
project gone occult-crazy.
Sadly, this was Girdler’s last film as he died in a
helicopter crash before The Manitou
was released. It was a tragedy for b-movie fans because Girdler was truly one
of a kind (check out Grizzly or Day Of The Animals for further proof).
One can only dream of the outlandish sights and sounds he might have unleashed
had he been given the time to keep going.
That said, we’ll always have the final reel of The Manitou: it unleashes pop-occult mysticism in a way that earns
a place in exploitation film history.
Blu-Ray Notes: The Manitou is long out of print on DVD but was recently reissued on blu-ray by Scream Factory. It’s got a new, 4K-remaster-derived transfer that does well by the film’s distinctive late-’70s look. Extras include new interviews with Masterton and producer David Sheldon as well as a commentary track from Troy Howarth.