Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Manitou (1978): or, Native-American Exorcist is a Pain the Neck

The capsule review: Oscar-nominated Hollywood legend Tony Curtis and Susan "Daughter of Lee" Strasberg fight forces of ancient evil manifested as a rapidly growing tumor on Susan's neck, which turns out to be the fetus of a 400-year-old Indian Shaman. Fellow Oscar nominees Burgess Meredith and Ann Sothern also star in this final film from the director of Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook.

Do I really need to go on?

Okay, I will.

Based on the 1975 best-selling novel by Graham Masterton, 1978's The Manitou is something of a Mad Movie Miracle. How was horror/exploitation filmmaker extraordinaire William Girdler, whose other output includes the demon-possession/blaxploitation opus Abby and killer omnivore epic Grizzly, able to assemble such a cast of Hollywood heavy hitters for a mashup of The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen, with a healthy dollop of Dr. Who and Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash thrown in during the slam-bang finale? The world may never know--but that mystery should only intensify our gratitude for this film's existence.

I appreciate a slow-burn character-establishing build-up as much as the next guy, but there's also something to be said for a movie that drops the laundry and gets right down to business, and the latter is Girdler's approach here. We open on a series of x-ray photos showing a strange growth on the neck of Karen Tandy (Strasberg). Drs. Hughes (Jon Cedar) and McEnvoy (Paul Mantee) discuss the case in serious tones--apparently the "tumor" appeared only a few days previous, and has been growing at an alarming rate. The x-rays show not cancerous cells, but tissue, fluid, and even bone, flummoxing the specialists. "I've been through every chemo book," Dr. McEnvoy sighs. "I wrote the books," Dr. Hughes shoots back, "And I still don't know what the hell it is." Subscribing to the "When in Doubt, Cut It Out" philosophy, Hughes schedules an emergency WTF-ectomy.

Not comforted by her doctor's vague reassurances and in despair at her shocking lack of back-story, Karen looks up former flame Harry Erskine (Curtis), a tarot-reading charlatan who wears a wizard robe and fake pornstache to bilk wealthy old widows of their hard-won inheritances. Ever the trouper, Curtis really throws himself into the performance, wringing all the eccentricity he can out of his new-agey pronouncements, and every drop of comedy possible out of his post-work disco dancing to his reel-to-reel hi-fi. Words really cannot due justice to the beauty of his performance here.

Get down, Tony!

After a long stroll through the streets of San Francisco ends with the former lovers in bathrobes back at Harry's apartment (I can only hope the lost love-scene footage, like Curtis's famously ambiguous scenes in Spartacus, will someday resurface and be restored for the NC-17 special edition), Harry hears Kathy mumbling a strange phrase in her sleep. No, it's not "No more wet celery and flying helmet!"; rather it's "Pana Witchi Salatu," a Native American phrase we later learn means "My death foretells my return!" When an elderly client of Harry's starts chanting the same phrase the next day, then levitates down the hallway and tosses herself energetically down the stairs to her death (breaking every bannister support on the way down), the mendacious mystic starts to wonder what his bulbous-naped booty call might have gotten him into.

Back at the hospital, Dr. Hughs tries to remove the lump, which he now admits "you could almost describe as a fetus!", but Karen goes all Regan MacNeill on his ass, causing him to cut his own wrist with the scalpel and forcing the cancellation of the procedure. Taking the (running) bull by the neck, Harry summons some friends for an honest-to-goodness seance (Sothern and Stella Stevens, who apparently taught Erskine all he knows), which summons a cigar-store Indian head out of the table's surface before ending in spinning chandeliers and French-door explosions, just as cinematic seances almost always do. Clues thus gained lead them to a book about Native American folklore containing the story of a medicine man who reincarnated himself through a lump on a young squaw's forearm. Could the same squamous squidginess be afoot in the City?

When I hold a seance, I usually hope to get a little head under the table.

This leads Curtis to the author of the book Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith in an endearlingly absent-minded, doddering turn, and an even more endearing Colonel Sanders beard), who translates Karen's sweet nothings for them and confirms that they're dealing with a powerful ancient medicine man, whose soul or "manitou" never dies but is constantly reborn, growing in power each time. As to how to stop it, Dr. Snow basically tells them they're fucked--unless they can find a real live medicine man to help them undo that bad magic.

"I crap bigger than you!"

A quick flight to South Dakota and Curtis is talking to John Singing Rock (a frankly excellent Michael Ansara, who delivers some astoundingly silly lines with such dignity and conviction you nearly forget to laugh). Initially unwilling to help "Mr. White Man" due to the whole genocide/land-stealing thing, John relents when Curtis admits he wouldn't help the Indian if their positions were reversed. His price: $100,000 for the Indian Education Foundation, and a couple of plugs of tobacco. Oh, John Singing Rock, you are so wise and colorful and not at all cliched!

At the hospital things have gone from worse to WTF, as Dr. Hughes ill-advisedly tries to remove the fetus using a high-tech laser scalpel that looks like it's on loan from a Pink Panther film. Unfortunately, as John Singing Rock informs them too late, all things have manitous--rocks, trees, even machinery, like the LASER--and a powerful medicine man can call upon these non-human souls to do his bidding. What does that mean in layman's terms? It means the operating room turns into the opening scene from Star Wars, with the powerful laser scalpel blasting lights, burning trails in the wall, and maybe even killing a couple of people, all while Karen stands in the corner laughing. Hang on, folks, it gets better.

That's a precise surgical instrument, people.

Once John gets Karen to himself, he becomes a Native-American Father Merrin and questions the demon inside her, learning the intruder is Misquamacus, the most powerful, eeevil medicine man who ever lived, a man who in his 3rd or 4th incarnation could move mountains and send pebbles up the asses of his enemies on a whim. One glimmer of hope is the fact that modern technology seems to bother the 400-year old medicine man--the x-rays cause him pain (Dr. Hughes helpfully explains that every time they take an x-ray, some cells die, and in a fetus this could cause all manner of deformity).

Where the movie goes from there is so awesomely, amazingly MAD it can only be detailed in bullet-list form:

  • The x-rays have indeed interfered with Misquamacus's medicine, as he emerges from his birth-sack on Karen's back (in an effectively icky sequence) as a long-haired, wooden-faced dwarf!
"FEELINGS! Whoa-whoa-whoa, FEELINGS!"

  • Misquamacus summons "the manitou of the Flesh" to strip the skin from one orderly's body, later resurrecting him as a red-painted zombie to terrorize the rest of the staff. Later he summons the Manitou of Cold to turn the entire hospital floor into an icy wasteland, complete with Star Trek-level papier-mache icicles. A flash-frozen nurse gets shattered in the battle, her head snapping off and flying through a window!
  • Misquamacus summons "The Great Old One," the Native-American Lucifer, to do battle with his foes; TGOO takes the form of a double-exposure of a man in a lizard mascot suit, who bites off Dr. Hughes' hand!
  • John and Harry convince Dr. Hughes to focus all the hospital's high-tech computers (complete with flashing jewel-lights and reel-to-reel data stores) in one energy surge, hoping the machine manitous will help them send the medicine man back to where he came from. Unfortunately the surge causes Dr. Hughes to explode like a meat-filled firecracker!
"I'm as surprised as you are, folks."
  • The final battle takes place in a Dr. Who starfield, wherein Harry's love for Karen channels the machine manitous to her aid, leading to a Starcrash laser battle for her soul! Seriously.
For all Girdler's low-budget pedigree, he actually makes a fairly well-crafted film here, at least on the technical level. Interesting low- and high-angle shots, a non-stationary camera (frequent but not distracting uses of tracks and zooms), and some striking visual compositions go a long way toward keeping the viewer's interest, which is good, since certain sections of the movie admittedly tend to drag. The sets and settings are all lovely, and the shots of San Francisco simply gorgeous. Girdler had come a long way from Asylum of Satan--unfortunately the director died in a tragic helicopter accident before he could see his best film on the big screen.

But story-wise, there's no two ways about it, friends and parishioners--The Manitou is a megadose of movie madness from one end to the other. Watching Tony Curtis and the other talented actors struggle with the cheesy dialogue ("Harry, you don't call [supreme deity] Gichi Manitou!" "Oh yeah? Well he's going to ge a person-to-person call from me. COLLECT!") and the challenge of taking it all seriously gave me no end of joy, and the slam-bang finale just piled on the nuttiness until my cup was overflowing onto my lap tray. I don't know if the wild plot is entirely faithful to Masterton's novel, or if Girdler added his own amazing flourishes of insanity, but this is definitely one of the MADDEST stories I've seen in a while, and it never failed to entertain.

Susan Strasberg in Barbarella 2: 20 Years Later

Dwarf sorcerors, laser battles, shameless Exorcist rip-offs and has-to-be-made-up American Indian folklore, plus Tony Curtis in a wizard robe...really, you couldn't ask for more. In short, The Manitou is highly recommended, and garners an easy 3 Thumbs from your ever-lovin' Vicar.

Also recommended: the excellent and exhaustive website WilliamGirdler.com, where webmistress Patty Breen has compiled with loving care the definitive retrospective of Mr. Girdler's career and work. Don't ask why--just go and enjoy a fan's-eye-view of Girdler cinema. Tell her the Vicar sent you!

A few more images from The Manitou (1978):

Attempted Nape

"Hello, is this my agent? Maury, you are so fucking fired."

"Forget the tarot cards. Come fiddle with my planchette, IYKWIM."

Tony Curtis in Parasite

He represents the Fuck You Up League



Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, this is a towering achievement -- your review as well as the film -- that could only be enhanced by the restoration of the Curtis-Strasberg love scene, preferably not with Anthony Hopkins doing Strasberg's voice. Though I shouldn't sell the great man short. The evil shaman is my favorite evil dwarf in movies since the pygmies in the original Tarzan the Ape Man. There's just something charmingly horrendous about him and an appealingly appalling naivete to Girdler's presentation of him that lifts The Manitou into the realm of the truly fantastic -- for good or ill.

Anonymous said...

Oh I am so glad someone else knows of this movie! I remember my mom even had the book (or books, I believe there was a sequel)! Even now whenever one of us gets some kind of skin bump we always say to each other, "Hope it's not a Manitou!"

db said...

As ususal, excellent post -- a definite classic of WTF cinema given the attention it deserves. I remember seeing the commercials for this when I was a little kid so often that my brother and I would occasionally say "The MANITOU!" for no good reason just to crack each other up. I didn't actually see it until high school, when I found a VHS copy at the back of one of those video rental places run out of some guy's basement and it totally lived up to my expectations -- Girdler is a great example of a director who takes what he needs and runs with it as far as he can go without caring whether or not it makes any sense, so long as it gets a reaction (imagine someone trying to make a movie like The Zebra Killer today), and as a shitstorm of hallucinatory gibberish it's totally effective -- I always get the feeling Girdler made exactly the kind of movie he wanted to make, and given the chance he wouldn't change anything. I now find myself saying "You're going to play king of the mountain with that mixmaaster?" for no good reason, and any film I quote from on a regular basis is a good film in my book. Which reminds me, my associate Damon Packard did a very odd expanded version of Grizzly which is worth a look if the original wasn't confusing enough for you.

dfordoom said...

If the movie is half as entertaining as your review I want to see it right now.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel Wilson--Since Misquamacus is your fave evil dwarf, it may interest you to know he was portrayed by Felix Silla, veteran of Little People film roles from Under the Rainbow to Return of the Jedi, but most famous for his 17-episode run on The Addams Family as Cousin Itt!

@Nicole--I would kind of like to read Masterton's novel now, just to see if it's as wild as the film version. Also, you've got me wondering whether there's a chapter on manitous in the dermatology textbooks. If not, there clearly should be!

@db--I haven't seen Zebra Killer, but the 3 movies I have seen from Girdler's filmography have definitely interested me in his outsider-exploitation work. You can spend a lot of time learning about him on Patty Breen's excellent site linked above, and it's fascinating stuff to folks of a certain stripe--which is to say, the kind of folks who frequent this blog. I'll have to check out GRIZZLY and possibly your friend's expanded version (which I'm so glad exists, even if I'm unfamiliar with its source of inspiration. Viva la Weird!).

@dfordoom--thanks! And if you do check out THE MANITOU (I got my viewing thru Netflix) I can almost guarantee you will be entertained!

Karswell said...

Told ya.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Karswell--you were 100% correct, as always. Do you ever get tired of being right all the time? :D

Jay Clarke said...

Great work as always. Just wanted to let you know I nominated you for a "Fantastically Frightening Award". Check it out here,


Al Bruno III said...

As always great stuff, even if I stopped watching movies I would still enjoy reading your work!

I know there was a sequel to THE MANITOU novel written but I doubt they could ever make a sequel film...

Mark Hodgson, said...

I saw this in the cinema (been saying that a lot recently) and the audience was delighted with the mad finale. Laughter, but in a good way. I was looking forwards to many more films from Mr Girdler, but it was not to be...

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Jay--Thanks for the award! I think I'll get that one tattooed on my back! :)

@Al Bruno III--You say the sweetest things! Flattery will get you everywhere! ;) As to the novels, I think I'm definitely going to have to track down a copy of both now. After I read the novelization of THE FUNHOUSE that I've got on my shelf, that is...

@Mark--thanks for the comment! I'm glad the audience appreciated the wackiness of the ending; as the Duke and I like to say, if a movie brings you joy in whatever form, it's a good movie. Girdler really did seem to be hitting his own unique stride, and it's a tragedy he didn't get to do more.

Karswell said...

>Do you ever get tired of being right all the time?

I just calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Cyberschizoid said...

A fabulously insane movie - I remember reading about it in a movie magazine when I was a kid; I think it was Starlog.

I so wanted to see this film, and years later I got to see it on VHS, and I wasn't disappointed!

A great blog - fangs for the memories!!!

Emily said...

Brilliance. I sometimes think there truly must be some higher power designing the universe, for how else could such glory as a movie like this be delivered unto my Netflix Instant Queue?

Anonymous said...

I bet that nurse gave good head, hehe!

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