The Manitou (1978)
Call it morbid fascination, but I’ve always been intrigued by directors who were cut down in their prime. The promise of more films by an up-and-comer or even an established filmmaker with many future movies lends an air of tragedy to what might've been. Michael Reeves only completed three features, including the outstanding Witchfinder General (1968, AKA The Conqueror Worm). Rainer Werner Fassbinder lived hard and left a lasting legacy but who knows what else he may have accomplished? Writer/Director William Girdler may not be receiving a gala retrospective at the Met anytime soon, but as a filmmaker firmly entrenched in the wildly diverse era of the Seventies, he left a distinctive body of work.
Starting where so many others have, i.e. horror films (Asylum of Satan/Three on a Meathook, 1972), he’d next jump on the bandwagon of the Blaxploitation movement with three films, including the infamous Abby (1974), an Exorcist knockoff whose amazing poster is adorned on the wall of my local Alamo Drafthouse. His biggest hit would come in 1976 with Grizzly, another rip-off/knockoff, this time piggybacking off the recent Jaws phenomenon. Day of the Animals (1977) belongs more in the man vs. nature genre that permeated throughout the 1970’s, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) was released just two months later. Before that was Project Kill (1976) with Leslie Nielsen, quickly forgotten. Now we come to what has been charmingly referred to as his magnum opus. As the co-writer/producer/director of The Manitou (1978), it does appear he was convinced this would be something special. After a little white lie he told to Avco Embassy Pictures about a finished script, he and his two friends pounded out a script in three days. The term “batshit crazy” is thrown around a lot these days, but it takes a special kind of warped vision to make a film like The Manitou. And believe me, there is no film quite like The Manitou.
Accompanied by a superior Lalo Schifrin score, we’re treated to an appropriately off-putting title sequence featuring (probably) Native American art animated in a rudimentary but pleasing manner. We immediately get to the meat of the story, literally, as a jarring photographic sound effect, similar to the one in the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, blasts through the subsequent silence and x-rays of Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg)’s neck are displayed. There is literally something growing on the back of her neck and damn if it doesn’t look like a fetus. But that’s crazy! ...right?
We meet sham psychic Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis, on the backend of his once successful career) as he bilks one of his many rich old ladies out of her money with phony predictions and nondescript mottos. What follows is a fantastic scene where he boogies down and tries to enjoy an ice cold beer (that looks delicious) in a fancy glass, but nay nay, because the phone rings. As a psychic, you’d think he’d have seen that coming. He meets up with Karen, his former assistant, in park while gentle music plays. An impressive dolly from below a bridge frames their conversation as she tells him about the growth and her surgery the next day. Just to be clear, the movie has been on for about 10 minutes, and from this point forward, all bets are off because we’re on a one-way trip to crazy town.
A quick one-two punch follows: First, when surgeons try to remove the growth, Karen wakes up from her anesthesia and the doctor suddenly can’t stop himself from cutting his own wrist with a scalpel. Next, a Mrs. Herz (Lurene Tuttle, whose amazing career credits include Psycho, all three Walking Tall films, and the surprisingly good The Clonus Horror) arrives to get her weekly reading from Harry only to receive the death tarot card. She immediately enters a trance-like state and says the words Karen had muttered in her sleep the night before. Hopping up and performing an oddly-familiar dance, she then floats, yes, floats, down the hallway and then goes crashing down the staircase, while Harry is unfortunately stuck in slow motion so he can’t rescue her. Curtis is actually very sweet in this scene. Sometimes you can catch big stars, particularly fallen stars like him, phoning it in on low-budget genre films, but his reaction to her death is that of genuine sadness.
Harry converses with Dr. Jack Hughes (Jon Cedar, the film’s co-writer) in a scene which would play out pretty normally except for the amusing moment when Curtis immediately accepts the doctor’s offer of a drink and they begin to seriously consider the possibility that outside forces are at play. The reason I enjoy the films of Larry Cohen is because so often the general consensus tends to be that an unnatural force is the cause of a major problem. Is there a killer baby on the loose? Yes. Is there a huge flying serpent snatching people off of buildings in New York? Yes. In other films, the hero is regarded as crazy or overreacting but turns out to be right in the end. Here, the doctor is skeptical but really does entertain the idea.
The Amazing Erskine, as Harry is known, tracks down his mentor Amelia (Stella Stevens, The Poseidon Adventure) and her husband MacArthur (Hugh Corcoran, part of the Corcoran acting clan and apparently the worst of them as his acting is distractingly bad). Like the proverbial shirtless hero breaking logs outside his cabin, Amelia refuses to take part in the mystical aspects of Karen’s condition since she’s retired. Harry is persuasive, however, and she agrees to perform a séance. Just one more time, Colonel...I mean, Harry. Recruiting Mrs. Karmann (Oscar nominee Ann Sothern), they decide to hold the séance at Karen’s fancy schmancy house.
The séance scene is pretty wild but starts deceptively quiet. They sit around a table which has a black, possibly marble center. Nothing strange about that. They evoke the spirit, any spirit, as it happens, and it just so happens that one arrives. Out of the now liquid black, a black-as-night head rises up out of the goo, possessing Mrs. Karmann. It quickly drops back down into the black pool, but before they can turn the lights on, the bay windows burst open, blasting them across the room. A bolt of lightning snaps the table in half. Finally, they get the lights on and...poof. All good. The head reminded them of the Native American (of course, they say Indian here) statues you’d see outside of a store. An Indian medicine man, as it were. The plot thickens, although not as thick as that table, which was a truly brilliant effect that I simply did not see coming.
Doing research, they come across a book about medicine men and the word ‘manitou,’ meaning immortal spirit, comes up. They decide to track down the author of the book, played by Burgess Meredith. Meredith seems to be all about ‘actor business.’ The ‘business’ I refer to is essentially something for the actor to do while acting. It could be someone playing a butcher, so they’ll cut meat while talking. Or someone is having a conversation and hold a cup of tea to fiddle with. Meredith, a true legend who received a late career resurgence thanks to Rocky, seemed to relish popping up in horror films like The Sentinel, Burnt Offerings, and Magic. The dialogue in his single scene, probably shot in one day, is a kooky mix of script and ad-lib as he can’t seem to go more than 30 seconds without fiddling or reacting to everything around him. It’s just the right amount of fuddy duddy weirdness that an author of anthropological studies would have. Two and two get put together and although they’re not certain, they surmise that an Indian medicine man is growing on Karen’s back in order to be reborn and cheat death.
Harry tries to convince Dr. Hughes into letting them bring in a shaman to help her but he’s brushed off. Casually mentioning that Karen is having the growth removed via laser treatment, he receives a frantic call. You like Star Wars? Well, this movie’s got lasers! A very powerful laser, it would seem. I wonder if other San Francisco hospitals have this kind of firepower? The medicine man clearly isn’t ready to come out yet and he commands the laser to blast anyone who comes near Karen. This is the first indication that this medicine man, likely at least 400 years old, doesn’t take too kindly to the white man or his strange instruments.
We are introduced to John Singing Rock, played by Michael Ansara, in a role he would be nominated for the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror’s equivalent of the Academy award. Ansara racked up an impressive number of credits, including several stints as the voice of Mr. Freeze on the animated Batman series. He plays John Singing Rock with the appropriate level of dignified calm and wisdom. Yes, the dialogue, regarding the white man’s theft of his land, is heavy-handed but it’s well-intentioned and he handles it like a pro. After some hemming and hawing, he agrees to help Harry in exchange for a 100,000 donation to the Indian Education Foundation...and a bit of tobacco for himself. Thanks to Ansara and Curtis’ acting chops, the scene plays out relatively seriously, but the message could have been delivered with a bit more subtlety.
Subtlety however, is a foreign word for William Girdler. We head back to the hospital and John discovers just what kind of force he’s dealing with. His shock and terror is palpable as it’s revealed that the demonic medicine man is none other than Misquamacus, the, as John puts is, “greatest medicine man of all. He turned rivers, made storms. Mountains rose at his command. No spirit ignored him. No demon denied him.” We’ll soon learn how deadly Misquamacus can be when he murders an orderly, despite being imprisoned by a circle of sand.
They discover the bloody scene just in time to witness a helluva moment, in which the reincarnated medicine man writhes under the weirdly translucent skin of Karen’s back and then breaks free. He's a diminutive fellow, with yellow and black eyes, long hair, and covered in goo. He is played by Felix Silla, whose awesome roles included Cousin Itt, that clown who whips girls in Kentucky Fried Movie, an ewok in Return of the Jedi, a dink in Spaceballs, a creature in The Brood (aka one of those no-belly button kids), and of course Twiki on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He’s immediately able to break the circle of sand, which doesn’t really come to much since he still stays where he’s at for the most part. By the way, the indication is that when he's born, Karen will die, but she only seems to be sleeping it off and occasionally acting as his communication conduit since this demon doesn’t speak English.
Things just keep getting weirder when Misquamacus makes his orderly victim a straight-up zombie. Fortunately, it’s a Romero zombie so John takes it down pretty easily. An Indian demon is summoned, taking the form of a superimposed “Lizard of the Trees,” or a big fucking lizard that bites the ever-loving fuck out of the doctor’s hand. By the way, they don’t call the cops because apparently everything has a manitou, so the guns the police would wield could turn on them. Very inconvenient. They rush the doctor back to his office.
Curtis returns to the operating floor only to find that it’s now a winter wonderland. Everything has frozen including the poor nurse because of another demon called “The Star Beast.” Before they can escape to warmer environs, Misquamacus blasts through a door, blowing them off their feet and sending the nurse’s head through a window for good measure. Tony Curtis tries to teach him not to mess with a tough guy from Brooklyn, but he’s quickly shot back again. He does, however, lug a huge electric typewriter at him, which unexpectedly immobilizes Misquamacus. Back in the office, there’s a massive earthquake, which turns out to be Misquamacus summoning The Great Old One, some kind of all-powerful being. I get a strong Cthulhu vibe here. Harry’s last-ditch effort is to try and use the hospital’s powerful computer system’s manitou since it appears Misquamacus doesn’t care for modern technology, which, according to him, is white guy stuff.
Girdler's relatively lavish budget of 3 million dollars comes in very handy for one of the greatest and most insane final battle’s in film history. I realize that’s a bold statement, but it refuses to be anything less than jaw-dropping. Harry and John return to Karen’s room but only find a doorway. Inside, they are somehow in interstellar space. I mean, seriously. Misquamacus is just floating and so is the bed, with Karen in it, surrounded by a star field. For 1978, aside from a few rough chroma key shots, it’s actually not too shabby. It’s delightfully bizarre and dripping with cheese, but it works. The computer system is turned up to eleven as The Great Old One, represented by an ominous color-changing giant eye, starts to take shape. At first, the electricity of the machine’s manitou has no effect, but suddenly, the power transfer to Karen. She pops up out of bed, topless for no discernible reason, and an epic fire fight with lasers and fireballs ensues. Of course, he’s defeated and poor Dr. Hughes is obliterated along with the hospital’s computer. Hope nobody was on life support.
John leaves, but not before warning Harry that Misquamacus’ body was destroyed, but his spirit lives on, setting up a possible sequel that never happened. In the film’s final mindfuck, a title card pops up over the lovingly photographed San Francisco: Fact: Tokyo, Japan, 1969: A 15-year-old boy developed what doctors thought was a tumor in his chest. The larger it grew, the more uncharacteristic it appeared. Eventually, it proved to be a human fetus. Whether or not this is true doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these words conclude a true marvel of utter lunacy. Sure, the 1970’s may be the greatest era of filmmaking since the Golden Age and we can talk until we’re blue in the face about The French Connection, The Godfather, Star Wars, The Exorcist, blah blah blah, but that decade also produced this magnificent madness.
There’s a healthy dose of religious skepticism here that's very refreshing. John Singing Rock seems to be respectful of the white man’s religion but still regards it as useless against the sorcery of Misquamacus. Some gentle ribbing of Native American mysticism is also on display as well for the great and downright catchy mantra of Misquamacus: Pana-witchy-salatoo (“My death foretells my return”).
This is an absurd film, directed with efficiency and acted with genuine commitment to the outrageous material. Girdler was only thirty when his helicopter crashed while scouting locations for his tenth film, to be titled The Overlords and reportedly a Star Wars-inspired rip-off. I realize it sounds condescending to keep mentioning the phrase “rip-off,” but Girdler lent his own unique talents to these projects and often elevated them beyond their mere existence as cash grabs. Watching The Manitou, one feels the love for cinema which Girdler clearly had and devotion to his beloved Louisville, KY, where many of his films were shot. It shows the connection to his roots which he never forgot. His dream was to make it in the movie business. Although cut short, he did just what he set out to do.