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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Manitou (1978) review


Susan Strasberg (Karen Tandy), Tony Curtis (Harry Erskine), Michael Ansara (John Singing Rock), Stella Stevens (Amelia Crusoe), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Snow), Jon Cedar (Dr. Hughes), Paul Mantee (Dr. McEvoy)

Directed by William Girdler

John Singing Rock: It's...Misquamacus...the greatest medicine man of all. He turned rivers, made storms...mountains rose at his spirit ignored demon denied him.

Dr. Hughes: My God...

John Singing Rock: Your God won't help you. Nothing in your Christian world will help...not prayers, not holy water...not the weight of a thousand of your churches.

Karen Tandy discovers one day that she has a bizarre growth on the back of her neck. At first believing it to be a tumor of some kind, it is soon revealed that it is actually a fetus that is growing inside the lump. With the aid of an Indian shaman, John Singing Rock, he unveils to Karen and her friend, Harry Erskine, that the fetus is actually the evil Indian medicine man, Misquamacus. Threatening to rip himself from her back, John Singing Rock engages the wicked and demonic Misquamacus in a magical duel to the death.

The ambitious and economically creative director, William Girdler helms this, his last picture before his untimely death in a freak helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next film. THE MANITOU (1978) is easily Girdler's most accomplished work. With each succeeding film, Girdler seemed to hone his craft and enjoyed doing the type of films he loved. Based on the novel by Graham Masterson, Girdler's movie is very faithful to the source novel and the script is quite good, even though it has its fair share of goofy dialog and unintentional hilarity.

As with many of Girdler's other movies, THE MANITOU is filled with big Hollywood stars. His most star studded effort, seeing the film now, it would be interesting to hear what such luminaries as Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg had to say about appearing in this peculiar horror/science fiction motion picture.

Although it's a low budget production (estimated at 3 million; the biggest Girdler had to work with up to that time), the makers manage to give the film a polish and sheen that belies its shortcomings. For 3 million, Girdler and his team deliver a lot of bang for the buck creating some wildly creative set pieces most of which occur during the final 30 minutes. Obviously STAR WARS (1977) was on the scriptwriters minds as one scene inside a hospital has a laser beam go haywire destroying an operating room and then there's the incredible finale that takes place in outer space(!) when Karen confronts Misquamacus with everything from laser blasts to meteors. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Strasberg is half naked while emitting lasers from her palms. The film is worth a viewing just for these outrageous final moments alone.

The last ten minutes is sure to get a giggle out of even the most grumpy individual. Going completely over the top, there's no way you can view the last minutes without laughing out loud. Coming totally out of left field, this incredible sequence relies on "white mans magic" to send Misquamacus back where he came. Harry Erskine gets the idea to turn on all the computers in the hospital (since according to John Singing Rock, all things have their own Manitou's even objects) to fight back against the demon. This is alluded to earlier in the film however when Karen, still possessed by the evil Indian, causes the laser beam in the operating room to go haywire as the light emanating from it scared the devilish spirit.

Of course, outside of the STAR WARS connection, the most obvious comparisons will be made with THE EXORCIST (1973). THE MANITOU (1978) follows the same template basically. Karen Tandy is discovered to have a growth on the back of her neck and strange behavior soon follows just as Regan did in the Friedkin film. Also, there's the extended sequence at the end wherein the good Indian medicine man combats the demonic Misquamacus in an attempt to save Karen's life just as Father Merrin and Father Karris did against Pazuzu who had possession of Regan's body. The one difference is that the ending of THE MANITOU is far more extravagant and outlandish.

There's another scene earlier in the film that's pretty hilarious. It involves the psychic charlatan, Harry Erksine and one of his clients, Mrs. Herz. The spirit of Misquamacus takes control of Mrs. Herzs' body while Harry reads from his Tarot cards. He ends up with the 'death' card and attempts to play it off. At this point, he begins to notice the woman is having an attack of some kind. She then begins spouting some strange dialect and exits the room and literally floats down the hallway! Harry runs after her as the woman then plummets down the long flight of stairs taking out the entire railing as she painfully bumps and rolls down to the floor below.

Tony Curtis, nominated for an Oscar for his performance alongside Sidney Poitier in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958; sort of remade in 1972 as BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA), plays the sham shaman, Harry Erskine. Curtis was the father of Jamie Lee Curtis. He appeared in starring roles in such Hollywood movies like the big budget MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD clone, THE GREAT RACE (1965), DON'T MAKE WAVES (1967) where he featured alongside of Claudia Cardinale, THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968) and YOU CAN'T WIN'EM ALL (1970) where he co-starred with Charles Bronson.

Erskine belongs to a circle of mystics including Stella Stevens (whose almost unrecognizable in her gypsy makeup). Some of these characters are mysteriously dropped once Erskine and his friends have a meeting with the kooky Dr. Snow (played by Burgess Meredith), the only "white man" who seems to know anything about Indian magic.

Michael Ansara, who had been in Girdler's DAY OF THE ANIMALS from 1977 (a lot of the actors in THE MANITOU were in Girdler's prior films) where he played another Indian character, plays it to the hilt this time out. Possessing one of the most commanding voices in Hollywood, Ansara can be easily spotted in just about any television program. One of his most memorable roles on the small screen was as the determined and vengeful Klingon, Kang, on the season three episode, 'Day of the Dove' of the original STAR TREK series. He also played the gorgeous Princess Ardala's right hand man on several episodes of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-1980). Ansara also played the villainous Colonel Diego in GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), the third entry in the popular film series.

One of the best scenes in the movie concerns the first meeting between Harry and John Singing Rock. Not only does it explain just what a Manitou is and what it will take to fight one, but the script also contains some subtle themes of racism between the Indians and Whites. The dialog between the two is detailed below...

John: Well, what you're dealing with is the Manitou, or spirit of a great medicine man...possibly in his fourth or fifth reincarnation.

Harry: Is that bad?

John: For you, yes. Each time a Manitou lives...he gains in strength. By the eighth reincarnation, he can join Gitchy Manitou as a permanent spirit. Until then, the more lives lived...the more powerful.

Harry: Well, do you stop it?

John: You don't. You don't hold it, you don't slow it down. each Manitou has its own momentum. All you can do is divert the spell and send it back from whence it came. But, that would take lots of power to force a Manitou to make a 180 degree turn. With so powerful a medicine man you might have to wait until he leaves the woman's body.

Harry: That would kill her!

John: It would kill her body...but her spirit would live in the medicine man.

Harry: The spirit would live...great.

John: There's only one thing I know that might stop him.

Harry: What's that?

John: Evoke the power of other spirits.

Harry: How would I do that?

John: A mountain is good...try wind. It's one of my favorites. Tell them John Singing Rock sent you.

Harry: Why won't you help me?!

John: Mr. see this valley? From where we stand, there's over a half million acres of land. Some of the richest farm land in the world. 200 hundred years ago my ancestors owned all of this it's under title to the Missouri Holding Company. I don't want your pleas for help Mr. White Man. I don't need your money!

This piece of added subtext also rears its head during the crazy denouement. In it, it becomes apparent that John's powers are no match for Misquamacus, yet it is soon discovered that modern devices such as machines and computers (which also have their own Manitou's) are enough to stop him. Even John states at one point that the spirits won't help because it's "white man's magic". During the "Everything but the kitchen sink" conclusion, there's also a bit of gore thrown into the mix. There's a hospital orderly who has his skin removed (not shown), a decapitation of a nurse and a man who explodes when he gets caught in the crossfire of the machine Manitou's.

Dale Tate and Frank Van Der Veer were the photographic optical effects supervisors. Van Der Veer had a nice career working on some big movies including KING KONG (1976), STAR WARS (1977), CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Tom Burman had a hand in the make up effects. Some of his credits include THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981) and HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982). On another note, Charles Kissinger, who had played one of the leads in Girdler's Ed Gein inspired, THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) has a small role as a hospital attendant.

THE MANITOU (1978) is the last and best of one of cinemas finest then up and coming young filmmakers. His films may be classified as 'B' movies by the mainstream cognoscenti, but they had an energy and creative drive about them through the performances of the main participants and the ingenuity conceived by the director and his crew that dispels many of Hollywood's soulless big budget extravaganzas. Girdler was a talent taken far too soon and no doubt had he lived, the cinema of horror, science fiction and fantasy would be an even better place to enjoy your popcorn inside that darkened theater.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.


Samuel Wilson said...

The Manitou is a wonderful bit of straightfaced absurdity with a naively surreal climax. There's just something about an evil cosmic-powered Indian dwarf that defies rational criticism. You're right to admire it.

venoms5 said...

I must admit when I first saw it, I wasn't all that crazy about it. But upon watching it the second and third time, it really grew on me. However, the ending never ceases to give me the giggles.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I was speechless after the first viewing, then more speechless after the second. Crazy, crazy flick, I enjoy it for daring to exist

venoms5 said...

Your comment brought a smile to my face, Carl. We definitely need another William Girdler in the horror genre right now.

TheReverendDoom said...

I agree this did not grab me the first time around but the 2nd time I was hooked. Michael Ansara is perfectly cast in it.

venoms5 said...

Ansara is one of my favorite character actors, Rev. He's an awesome presence. I think my first exposure to him was his role as Kang, the Klingon Captain in the season three episode, 'Day of the Dove' on the original Star Trek.

TheReverendDoom said...

I had just seen him in the 3rd Magnificent Seven movie as well. This is definitely his movie to shine and he does.

venoms5 said...

Yeah, as Colonel Diego. Great movie. I liked it much better than part two. Ansara also played an Indian in DAY OF THE ANIMALS which I think you've also seen, right, Rev?

TheReverendDoom said...

Yes I enjoyed Day Of the Animals a lot. Michael is great in it but Leslie Nielsen steals the show in that one.

venoms5 said...

Oh, you are so right there, Rev! It would have been ace had Nielsen parodied that role in one of his Zucker Brothers comedies. That would have been cool.

TheReverendDoom said...

That would have been great - even throw in him taking on a bear in one of the Naked Gun movies.

I loved his constant goading of Chris George by calling him "hot shot" classic.

Maynard Morrissey said...

This movie is so unbelievably silly, it's incredible :-)

venoms5 said...

This one gets "better" with each viewing, Maynard, at least in my eyes. Unbelievable is a good description. It's something special. A shame about Girdler.

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