I am not sure what to make of the film The Manitou. A Starlog article from the late 1970's describes it as a combination of The Exorcist and Star Wars, which after watching the film seems about as reticent as calling The Manitou a combination of a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich and Roofing Nails.
Sadly, I will reserve judgment of William Girdler's direction, which is more than adequate, because the guy died in a chopper crash in the Philippines before The Manitou was even released. Worse, he was only 30. Girdler's name is not wholly unknown to cineastes of 70's cinema; he made the giant monster bear Jaws knockoff "Grizzly", and the animals gone wild and eat everyone spectacular "Day of the Animals", two films that gave me enough lingering fear of the wild that I am still suspicious of my house cats.
So the direction of The Manitou is at least competent (until the last fifteen minutes), but what about the story? Well, I won't be so easy on the late Mr. Girdler for this. He bought the rights to the Graham Masterson bestseller for fifty grand — FIFTY GRAND in 1977 dollars — and whacked a script together in three days.
In case you haven't ever tried any sort of writing, three days is not a lot of time to write anything good, even a grocery list takes more than three days. And this rapid development shows in the work. But again, the script is not solely to blame for the placement of The Manitou in the Hall of Shame, the entire plot of the film is goofy and not even in a good way, and when it finally reaches its conclusion, you will be hard pressed not to be laughing hysterically at the preposterousness of what's unfolding on screen.
Oh, and Tony Curtis is the star, and he manages to give what may be the worst performance of any actor in any film at any time past, present, or future. Now Tony Curtis is still alive and still has a stunningly well rounded film and television resume, and I am assuming because he is from the generation of actors that took whatever work was offered by the studio at any time, he made this. So I am cutting him some slack. But man… You were Spartacus' pal! You costarred with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot! You were Stony Curtis on The Flintstones! WTF possessed you to play the faux mystic Harry Erskine in this caca!!!!! Tony man! Tony WHY GOD WHY!!!! Hell it was the 70's so you were probably all hopped up on amyl nitrate sniffers, Hennessey cognac, and disco. Well let me tell you man, The Manitou must have been one hell of a hangover!
And he isn't the only one cashing in for a payday here. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, star of stage, screen and television; a woman who acted with both Helen Hayes and Richard Burton – what the hell is she doing in this film with a dwarf medicine man growing out of her shoulder!
Finally, Michael Ansara, who all Horrorview Star Trek fans will recognize as Kang the Klingon in Star Trek, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and even Star Trek Voyager. He also provided the voice of Mr. Freeze in the animated Batman cartoons. Here he plays an Indian medicine man named John Singing Rock, which is a better name than John Singing Adult Contemporary or John Singing Crossover Country or even John Singing Klingon Folk Songs at a Poorly Attended Babylon 5/Space Rangers Convention.
Our exploration into the stupefyingly campy and well, stupid, begins in an oncologist’s office where Dr. Hughes (John Sedar) is studying the scans of Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) who has, within only a few days, developed a softball sized lump on her right shoulder. Strangely, the mass does not appear to be cancerous. Flummoxed, Hughes spies the poster displaying the stages of embryonic development of a human fetus and things, "my god, that thing looks like a fetus!" He is not referring only to the poster, but to the images in the Karen Tandy's lump.
We'll, since this is the 1970's, and medical science is all whiz-bang perfect, there is one other case of a fetus spontaneously generating on the back of someone somewhere else in the world. However, that host died. This does not look good for poor Karen.
Karen, I am reminding you that she is played by Lee Strasberg's daughter, takes the information that medical science cannot make heads or tails of her fetus-like lump as if she was having, oh, let's say, an ingrown toenail removed.
Man, the happy-drugs of the 70's must've been awesome.
Now we get to meet our hero, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) who is a San Franscisco flim-flam man and tarot card reader who eerily resembles Zero Mostel's Max Bialystok in his choice of customers. After telling one decrepit old woman her fortune, he gets a call from Karen. She wants to break the news that all is not well in "lump on my shoulder land". They spend the day seeing the sights of old San Francisco. Harry is worried though that whatever useless news the doctors gave Karen is sounding far too ephemeral to be useful. She's going in to have the lump removed tomorrow, so no big deal though, right?
Harry will read her tarot just to make sure!
Tarot always has the answer don't you know.
He draws the death card.
Oh, that can't mean anything. Let me reshuffle the deck.
Damn, hmmm… guess I didn't shuffle as well as I thought.
Harry is freaked out, not because he drew three death cards in a row, but because he doesn't believe in any of this tarot bullshit. It's a money making thing for him, he all but says it in the beginning. So when three deaths come up in a row he has no explanation. So, to make himself feel better he shags Karen. In the post Tony Curtis Love Machine afterglow Karen starts mumbling in her sleep. Only she isn't mumbling anything recognizable as English. She's saying something like "Imhotep mayonnaise geico aflack" over and over again.
Cut to Karen in the operating room with a cadre of doctors, including Hughes, getting her prepped to have the mass removed. Now it's even bigger. They put Karen under but before Dr. Hughes can cut the thing off, Karen starts with the "Imhotep mayonnaise geico aflack" stuff and Hughes can't bring the scalpel down to the mass at all.
Strange? Sure is, even stranger when he whacks at his own hand with the scalpel and sends the rest of the surgery team scrambling out of the room.
This sort of psychic buffoonery was all the rage in the 70s. Even my parents were devotees of the flim-flam pseudo-science of the time so we saw, like, every bad TV movie that featured any kind of psychic anything. Plus, they took parapsychology classes on Monday nights, which was cool because our babysitter was hot and used to let us stay up late while she smoked pot with her friends in the back yard.
I did mention that this was the 70s right?
Back at Harry's apartment of creepiness, he's seeing another of his ancient customers, Mrs. Hurz (Lurene Tuttle) who, while he is beginning to lay out the cards, appears to die. She isn't dead though and begins mumbling "aflack… aflack… aflack…" just like Karen. Then, unlike Karen, she whooshes off down the hall and throws herself (played now by Obvious Stunt Guy) down the steps into the main foyer of the apartment building.
Harry goes to meet with Dr. Hughes with information he thinks might be helpful to diagnosing and treating Karen's condition. He tells Hughes that last night Karen was whispering "Imhotep… Mayonnaise… Geico… Aflak" in her sleep last night, but didn't remember it in the morning. Worse, he tells her about his client who did the downstairs tumble after mumbling the same thing.
Hughes is less than impressed and naturally so, as he is a man of science. And in the 1970's man of science was a codeword for "unhip skeptic". What's great about this scene is Harry's little soliloquy beginning with the line:
"I think Karen's in dane-juh…" which, if you have ever listened to Tony Curtis speak sounds like a Brooklyn-born cabaret dancer impersonating a lisping mob boss.
Hughes is still not impressed even though he has a flashback to slicing his own hand with a scalpel. Since it's the 1970s Hughes offers Harry a drink from a big crystal decanter he keeps in his office next to a ginormous computer that has all the power of a pocket calculator. Dr. Hughes finally levels with Harry about what went wrong with Karen's operation. Hilariously, he then says that Karen's growth is not a tumor, but a fetus.
Harry offers his own diagnosis, and the dialogue is actually pretty good here because Harry finally divulges that he is a bullshit artist. He asks Dr. Hughes if he believes in black magic. Hughes says no and repeats the question. Harry's answer is:
"Me neithuh. I'm a selluh. Not a buyuh… I do believe that one person can dominate another one's mind. That somebody, somewhere, someone is transmitting signals to her, and that's the cause of her condition."
Now, in 1978 my parents would have immediately turned to each other and nodded because they too believed in unseen signals from unknown worlds where Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster lived with ghostly space aliens awaiting the end of the world as described by dominionist’s lunatic Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth.
I did mention that there were ample good drugs around in the late 1970's right?
Dr. Hughes and Harry go off to Karen's room to ask her if she knows anything about the weird words she was speaking. She immediately goes into "Strasberg Acting Mode" and begins to scream.
This means something; therefore, Harry goes to the only people who can shed any light on this at all. Gypsies, McArthur (Hugh Corcoran) and Amelia (Stella Stevens).
Okay, they aren't really Gypsies, more like new-agey hippies who dress like homosexual pirates and sell new-agey crap to affluent suburban morons. They figure the best way to get to the bottom of all this mystery is to have a séance with a mystic in the place where Karen lives.
Enter Mrs. Karmann (Ann Southern). Now, séance scenes were a staple in 70's supernatural cinema and they are always just as goofy as they probably were in the heyday of such mystical nonsense in the early part of the century.
Though, due to improvements in special effects we no longer have mystics who use string to pull rocking chairs or draw cheese cloth from their noses and claim it's "ectoplasm".
Here we get Mrs. Karmann repeating the magic words that Karen's been uttering until a black and oily head rises from the center of the séance table and mumbles at them.
The scene is confusing because they don't really get any information from this. When the séance ends and Harry gets up to turn on the lights a huge wind blows them all, even 80+ year old Ann Southern, into the floor and lightning blasts the table in half.
Gee, you think that might be a warning or something?
Harry starts to put these dissimilar pieces together, tumors + tarot cards + strange languages + Mrs. Herz = ?
In the interim, and off screen, Dr. Hughes tells Harry that if they try to remove the fetus from her shoulder, Karen will die.
McArthur, using I don't know, Tobin's Spirit Guide or some other book, stumbles on the description of ancient Medicine Men and their eerily coincidental characteristics. This scene would be repeated once a week on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Harry Erskine = Xander
Amelia = Tara
McArthur = Willow (with tremendous 1970's facial hair)
Of course, we haven't met the 1970's incarnation of Giles yet.
Oh wait, cut to the Scoobies meeting with Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith). He wrote the book that McArthur is reading from. Dr. Snow is the equivalent of Giles. You know, old guy with one foot in the grave and the other in the spirit world who lives almost solely to dispense otherwise useless information.
He reveals the name of the ancient medicine man responsible for all this buffoonery, Misquamacus, and suggests that the person who could best help Karen would be a living medicine man.
Harry goes off to find one. Cut to his meeting with John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara taking the role of Buffy Summers). We learn through exposition here that Harry has been to five different medicine men already and they have all turned him down. But, John Singing Rock is willing to work provided Harry makes a donation of 100,000 dollars to a reservation school and pays his room and board.
Hooray, now we get speed along to the finale of this goofiness.
Back at the hospital, Dr. Hughes has a new plan to remove the mass from Karen's back. He will use a high-intensity laser to cook the damn thing off. The good part about this is it's automated and controlled by a "com-pu-ter" so nothing can possibly go wrong.
Luckily Harry and John arrive just in time for Dr. Hughes to laugh at his spiritual mumbo-jumbo and explain in detail how his laser will work. And as any film fan of the 1970's knows, medical lasers are always these massive Death Star type gizmos that fire a green beam from way the hell across the room at just the right height to decapitate any clumsy surgeon or nurse who zigs rather than zags.
Well, Misquamacus isn't ready to be born yet and seizes control of the laser from the com-pu-ter and uses it to shoot at all of the other medical equipment and staff in the operating room.
So much for modern medical science.
Dr. Hughes is completely freaked out by this whole chain of events and begins listening in earnest to Harry and John. We've learned so far that an ancient medicine man's spirit is known as a Manitou, hence the name of this stupid movie, and that a Manitou cannot be destroyed, only displaced. Sort of like how mystics try to reconcile fairy tales of the ether with actual science to give themselves an air of legitimacy.
Ok, where was I?
Right, Karen is back in her room now and moaning. John Singing Rock lays a circle of sand around the bed to bind the spirit and begins a ritual to banish the spirit and save Karen. This doesn't work though as Misquamacus grows to "full" size out of Karen's shoulder. This is actually a pretty cool scene as he rises out of Karen's back. Enjoy it; rewind it even, because this is where the good special effects end and The Powers of Matthew Star type effects begin.
Because Misquamacus was drawn out of his birth early he is not fully formed, or so John Signing Rock tells us. Misquamacus is played by two different little people slathered in gore. Misquamacus starts using his psychic energy to play havoc with the room. Harry throws a typewriter at the guy and he vanishes temporarily. He is still supposed to be bound by the circle but manages to escape anyway.
Back in Hughes' office, John Singing Rock explains that the reason Misquamacus was scared off by the typewriter, and I am not making this up, is because the spirit of the machine, the Manitou of the typewriter, frightened him. This also explains why the laser caused so much chaos, not because Misquamacus knew it was going to cut him off Karen's back, but because the spirit of the laser frightened him.
Harry puts two and two together and says that the hospital is full of machines and that if they could harness their collective Manitou then they could have enough power to beat Misquamacus back into the spirit world.
Yeah, I'll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor. This all culminates with Misquamacus turning the floor where Karen's room is into a gateway between the spirit world and our world. Accomplishing this visual change are the new set pieces, some fog, and some blinky lights from Karen's room.
Dr. Hughes turns on all the computers in the hospital as Harry and John Singing rock walk down the hall towards Karen's room.
Now the stage for the final confrontation is set. Misquamacus is trapped near Karen's bed. As John Singing Rock and Harry enter, the room changes to the vastness of outer space.
John Singing Rock begins his battle with Misquamacus in which he stands across the room and yells at him as Dr. Hughes flips switches to keep the computers all powered up. But, Misquamacus' Manitou is so strong he overcomes the electrically charged John Singing Rock and shorts out the computers. The short circuit also blows Dr. Hughes to smithereens.
John Singing Rock is thrown back and cries out that the machine's Manitou won't come! (sounds like an Erectrical Dysfunction, har-dee-har-har). Harry yells at Misquamacus but it's fruitless, and sounds almost like he had no idea what the hell he was supposed to say and made up some dialogue.
Now Karen awakens and takes up the battle because the machine's Manitou have focused their power on her.
Why this strange chain of events?
Because, as John Singing Rock says, "because of your love they're coming through her!"
Laser beams are exchanged between Misquamacus and the machine-fortified Karen, until the Manitou is dissipated and Karen returns to normal.
The special effects in this sequence are almost on par with a classic Star Trek episode, when it is not clumsily stealing visuals from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I cannot imagine anyone in the theater watching this and not staring, slack jawed as the awfulness spools out. As we were watching this last ten minute clumsy space battle between bedridden Karen (starring as The Doomsday Machine) and Misquamacus (starring as Abraham Lincoln) the ability to reference virtually every classic Star Trek episode ever made was not only easy, it was fun! Still, audiences in 1978 must have been baffled at the bizarre climax to this film because it so blatantly tries to capture the epic space battle denouement of Star Wars only with one and a half people playing all the space ships.
The film ends, mercifully. John Singing Rock goes home, Harry takes Karen out of the hospital. No one asks what happened to Dr. Hughes.
End movie. Worship at the foot of your home entertainment center, collect its Manitou, and use it to fry your annoying neighbors.
While the cast of this was good, and well, well, well above the material, the movie is sub par on almost every other level. From the insanely silly script to special effects that border on "the worst special effects ever made" to music that sounds like a disused score from a failed TV detective show. It's just bad at every level.
Still, I'd rather sit through a marathon of Xanadu, Winnie the Pooh, The Man with One Red Shoe, That Thing You Do, Clue, and Scooby Doo 1 and 2, than spend another sitting with The Manitou.
And you should too.