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.

Neon Maniacs (1986) review


Leilani Sarelle (Natalie), Allan Hayes (Steven), Donna Locke (Paula)

Directed by Joseph Mangine

A dozen increasingly bizarre looking serial killer monsters from another dimension emerge from inside the Golden Gate Bridge and embark on a killing spree in San Francisco. Setting their sights on the virginal Natalie, the only survivor of a night time slaughter that left all her high school friends dead, the creatures pursue Natalie and her new beau, Steven, throughout the city. Discovering that water can destroy the maniacs, Natalie, Steven and others prepare for an attack at the high school battle of the bands by the troupe of inter dimensional killers.

Frequent director of photography, Joseph Mangine directs this fitfully insane and nonsensically messy cult horror flick, loved by some and hated by others. The ambitious script by first time scriptwriter, the late Mark Patrick Carducci (he committed suicide in 1997) has a great deal of potential and is chock full of wonderful ideas, but serious production problems crippled the movie in a number of ways. Subdistributor, Steven Mackler, had the film for a year, but failed to raise the money required for the production. During this time, there were some others interested in taking the reigns for this movie. Ken Weiderhorn (SHOCK WAVES, EYES OF A STRANGER) wanted to option it for another producer, but before he could obtain the rights, Mackler wrote Carducci a check to retain the production. It took four more years before the film ever raised enough financing to begin.

Initially, there was interest in bringing the director of THE SWORD & THE SORCERER (1982), Albert Pyun on board, but he was busy working on RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985). Instead, the cinematographer of that same gritty barbarian cult favorite, Joseph Mangine, was enlisted to make his directorial debut. However, even more problems arose to plague the picture. The six week scheduled, 1.5 million movie suddenly ran into financial problems of one sort or another as well as disputes with the producer ultimately shut the film down for three months. This caused turmoil both in front of, and behind the camera. The original DP, Oliver Wood, left the film during the hiatus forcing Mangine to take over photographic duties in addition to his directing.

All of the maniacs, except for the actor playing 'The Hangman', were recast basically at the last minute. This provided a lot of nerve wracking stress and headache for not only Carducci, but the make up effects crew headed by the prolific Al Apone and Doug White. The most painfully obvious replacement is the Apeman character. The one seen during the opening assault (and again during the high school attack at the end) is played by a different actor for the bulk of the movie and this particular actor is noticeably smaller than the one seen at the outset.

The arduous task of fitting appliances for an almost entirely new cast of performers made for a harrowing and uncomfortable experience as both effects men were working on other projects in between their work on the resurrected NEON MANIACS. Originally, Rick Lazzarini (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, ALIENS) and Mark Shostrom (THE SWORD & THE SORCERER, THE BEASTMASTER) were assigned to the effects, but dropped out after disagreements with the films producers.

In going back to the potential scope of the movie, there were originally 27 maniacs in the film and the script was much bigger, but the budget just wouldn't allow for it. Apparently, judging by an old Fangoria article detailing the behind the scenes making of the picture, a number of scenes were cut, or simply removed from the script for time, or budget reasons. One scene involves the maniac called 'Decapitator', the one maniac that gets the least amount of screen time and also the only one you never see do anything aside from a couple of imposing shots. This particular maniac has twin cleavers for hands. Later in the film a character removes his hood to reveal he has no head! Another excised sequence occurs in the battle of the bands finale. The maniac called 'Axe' takes a shot at a basketball goal with a human head and one of the reptilian scavengers catches the bloody noggin.

As already mentioned, Carducci's script was very ambitious and contained a lot of potential for a true cult classic. For the title of the movie, Carducci used the title of a poem he'd written in college about the Hell's Angels. The title itself seems to have caused some confusion with viewers. In Fangoria issue 47 from 1985, Carducci says "They're new monsters", they only come out at night and they kill without reason. They are from another dimension and all they do is kill. They are assisted on their missions of death by two cyclopean midget reptile monsters called scavengers who use large hooks to drag the maniacs' victims back to their portal.

Even still, with all the problems that loomed over the production like a great storm, the movie is mostly a mess with little cohesion. Some sequences work beautifully and some of the action set pieces are exciting, but the disjointed nature of the film and lack of focus are painfully obvious resulting in a movie that is made all the more worse in that the script had an enormous amount of possibilities. It's definitely a time capsule movie in that it there is no way anyone would mistake it being made in any time period but the 1980's. The entire movie reeks of the decade from the clothes to the music. Not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on ones point of view.

Apparently the makers had high hopes for this movie becoming something of a franchise. I mean, there's a near endless stream of ideas in a dozen myriad dimension hopping fiends killing without rhyme or reason save for the sheer joy of it. When we first "see the maniacs", it's at the beginning. A fisherman finds a partially open storage room below the Golden Gate Bridge with a small cow skull jutting out. Picking up the bone, he finds a black case underneath and opening it reveals some odd tarot like cards that have the various visages of the Neon Maniacs on them. Well, it isn't difficult to figure out what happens next. The cards hidden inside the cows skull is never explained, nor is the origin of the creatures save for some brief shots that leave the impression they enter and exit our world through a portal (the scriptwriter confirms this, though).

Also, after massacring Natalie's friends, they eventually come after her for reasons never explained. It couldn't be because she has seen them since these monsters can seemingly come and go in an instant and also that they are incredibly strong and fear nothing save for their Achilles heel, water. Carducci stated that the character of Natalie represents purity and that the nature of evil is destroy all that that is pure. Later in the movie, Natalie throws that purity out the window after she and Steve escape the Maniacs assault on the school gym. They hide in an office and suddenly decide to have sex whilst the creatures search the premises for her. I guess an argument could be made that if you're gonna die, why not have a little fun first.

The genre savvy script even contains a character named Paula who is a horror movie junkie. Her room is adorned with various masks and movie posters. She also makes amateur horror movies with her friends and is the first individual to learn what it takes to kill the maniacs. Visiting the area under the Golden Gate Bridge at night where she found a large number of dead pigeons, she video tapes the maniacs coming out and witnesses one of them falling into a puddle of water. His hand dissolves (but eventually grows back) and the creature spies her in the bushes. This leads to a scene a few minutes later where the monster pays a visit to Paula, but she's ready with a squirt gun and a bucket of water. The creature then falls into the bathtub and Paula turns on the shower melting the monster into a pile of goo.

There's just too many characters, too many story arcs going on at once and not enough screen time to tie it all together properly. You have the Maniacs themselves who are the centerpiece. Then there's a good chunk of time spent with Natalie and her plight. This section of the film is handled quite well and realistically showcased. However, it contrasts wildly with the otherworldy nature of everything else around the seriousness paid to Natalie and the deaths of her friends and the effects it has not only on her, but the families of those who have turned up missing. There's also an attempt to weave a police investigation into the mix as well as the aforementioned monster fan, Paula, who gets almost equal screen time with the characters of Natalie and Steve.

The Neon Maniacs make up a motley crew of twelve psychotic murderers each with their own look and choice of weapon lending the impression of a deranged version of The Village People. Archer has a nightmarish look like a creepy character you would see in a fantasy film and his weapon is a crossbow. Axe is the insane maniac who enjoys his handiwork with an axe. Both Archer and Axe get a good amount of screen time. Axe is the first of the Maniacs to be seen and he gets one of the splashier scenes in the movie. Samurai is just as his name states, a Samurai. He doesn't look at all Japanese, though, but wears the traditional Feudal Era attire. He gets a good bit of screen time as well.

Juice is the science fiction Maniac in that his body is covered in metal and he has the ability to electrocute his victims. His skills later prove to be his downfall. His character is seen only a couple of times. Punk Biker is a big bike riding Maniac who is missing his nose. He's seen during the beginning slaughter and briefly at the end in the gym massacre. Slasher is the nod towards FRIDAY THE 13TH no doubt. He's seen a couple of times and that's it. He's involved in two very important set pieces, though.

Decapitator is seen the least of all of the Maniacs. He's visible during the scene wherein Paula films the creatures coming out from under the Golden Gate Bridge and again during the battle of the bands in the high school gym. One of the creepiest of the monsters, it would have been nice to have seen more of his character. Soldier is another character that isn't seen much although you do see him a bit during the end when he machine guns down a bunch of teenagers armed with water pistols(!) Ape is one of the more prominently seen of the Maniacs as well as the most obvious in terms of being recast as already discussed above. You never really see him do much of anything anyway except pound on objects, or simply grunt and growl.

Hangman is seen a few times and what's funny about him is that he has apparently hanged at some point or other as noted from his crumpled, broken neck. Mohawk is the energetic Indian Maniac who carries with him a spear and tomahawk. Doc is the last of the twelve and you see him a couple of times. He was one sequence to shine wherein he uses some ether to subdue a guard prior to ripping his heart from his body. The actor playing Doc is Andrew Divoff whom horror fans will remember from the WISHMASTER movies among many other credits.

NEON MANIACS (1986) got a spotty theatrical release, but again, financial troubles kept it from sustaining much theatrical play and it was soon forgotten about surfacing on video not long after. Amazingly, it played for a week in the theater in the small town I live in. There was about a half dozen people in attendance. Me and a friend went to the showing. After having read about the movie in Fangoria, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed after seeing the film since some of what was described in the article wasn't in the finished production.

Then Anchor Bay released this DVD edition sans much in the way of features save for a trailer and fairly informative insert detailing some of the problems that hindered what could have been a unique horror picture. It's a difficult movie to recommend because of the unevenness and erratic nature of the movie. Cult fans with a lower level of tolerance for bad movies will no doubt find something of interest. As it stands now, you will either like it, or not like it at all. A true missed opportunity snatched from the jaws of greatness by problems out of the control of those who had passion for the material.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.
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