The Manitou (1978)


There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love The Manitou, and everybody else. Me? I love The Manitou. I loooooooove The Manitou. I. Love. The. Manitou. Hell, if I ever have a child, I?m going to name it Misquamacas, after the evil Native American dwarf-shaman who crawls out of Susan Strasberg?s back in the film. Doesn?t matter if it?s a boy or a girl ? that?s how much I love The Manitou. But for theater audiences in 1978 who caught this lunatic movie, the final film of prolific but short-lived cult filmmaker William Girdler (Grizzly), the reaction was generally either derisive laughter or stunned disbelief. Critics just plain hated it. And why not? Here you had what looked like a major studio production (from mid-budget genre purveyor Avco Embassy), featuring a clutch of big-name stars and old Hollywood stalwarts, yet mixed with various hallmarks of low-budget exploitation films and innumerable, out-of-left-field oddities like the aforementioned Indian dwarf, a special effects-filled séance sequence, an out-of-control surgical laser beam, and a climactic battle in outer space between a topless woman and an evil midget! It?s a wonder that the movie hasn?t been turned into a musical yet.

Tony Curtis headlines the respectable-on-paper cast as Harry Erskine, a shyster psychic who conducts Tarot readings for lovesick, rich widows in his hip San Francisco apartment. Harry?s ex-girlfriend Karen (Susan Strasberg, a trouper here if there ever was one) has checked into the hospital because of a strange lump on the back of her neck, a lump that, when X-rayed, looks suspiciously like a sleeping fetus! When modern medical science can?t stop the growth of the thing, Harry first turns to an absent-minded professor (a hilarious cameo by Burgess Meredith), then to Native American medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara, playing in ?redface? mode, but actually giving a good performance), who determines that Karen?s lump is actually the Manitou (or reincarnated spirit) of an evil Indian sorcerer named?you-know-who. Singing Rock returns to San Francisco with Harry, and the two do battle with the evil from beyond the grave, restraining the little wizard after he is reborn, but worried that, as his strength returns, Misquamacas could become powerful enough to call down an ultimate evil spirit that would destroy the world.

If that isn?t a recipe for a great night of cinematic fun, I don?t know what is. To the filmmakers? credit, the entire scenario is played completely straight, with Strasberg and Curtis especially solid in how well they handle the sheer ridiculousness of the scenario. As if to compensate for all the craziness going on, Girdler?s direction is frequently a bit flat, but the sheer lunacy of the whole endeavor manages to propel it into the stratosphere of cult movie glory. Shot with TV movie gloss by cinematographer Michael Hugo and edited by Bub Asman (now an Oscar-winner for Letters from Iwo Jima!), the movie?s technical credits are workmanlike but not particularly memorable. Only Lalo Schifrin?s score, tinged with stereotypical ?Indian? themes, manages to make a lasting impression beyond the crazy plot and marvelous setpiece sequences, like Misquamacas?s gory birth and the transformation of the hospital floor into an ice cave. Girdler?s cast is a jaw-dropping parade of big names, and it?s a shame that Anchor Bay wasn?t able to rope any of the surviving members into providing an interview or a commentary ? there must have been some great behind-the-scenes stories. Beyond Curtis, Ansara, Meredith, and Strasberg, there?s also Poseidon Adventure star Stella Stevens as an old psychic friend of Harry?s, for some reason wearing a bizarre brown facial makeup here; Hollywood Golden Age ladies Lurene Tuttle, Jeanette Nolan, and Ann Sothern as customers of Harry?s and one of the séance participants; Robinson Crusoe on Mars star Paul Mantee, also a very familiar TV face, as one of Karen?s doctors; and little person Felix Silla ? Cousin Itt on the TV Addams Family ? even appears as Misquamacas in several of the scenes. One can only imagine the conversations at the craft service table.

Released to tape and laserdisc back in the good old days, but never in its full 2.35 aspect ratio, the new DVD from Anchor Bay looks fabulous, finally presenting the film on home video in a good edition and in its original aspect ratio. Audio and video quality are good, though typical of late-70s Avco Embassy productions (think Phantasm, The Fog, Death Ship). As mentioned, the DVD is pretty much featureless beyond the film itself, though AB has thankfully included the terrific original theatrical trailer (?The soul of black magic is waiting to be reborn!?), which presents most of the highlights of the film in one concise, little two-minute package, along with a TV spot. Nevertheless, the movie is absolutely an essential purchase for all fans of crackpot, cult, exploitation and horror cinema, and a bargain at a mere $15 retail price. So what are you waiting for? Go buy one. Or even better, buy two, and give one copy to that friend of yours who only watches Meg Ryan movies. This movie just might save them.