“As 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 Francisco locations.
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 pro.
The 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.