The Manitou (1978)


(director/writer: William Girdler; screenwriter: Jon Cedar/Thomas Pope/from the book by Graham Masterson; cinematographer: Michel Hugo; editors: Bub Asman/Gene Riggurro; music: Lalo Schifrin; cast: Tony Curtis (Harry Erskine), Susan Strasberg (Karen Tandy), Jon Cedar (Dr. Jack Hughes), Stella Stevens (Amelia Crusoe), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Ernest Snow), Michael Ansara (John Singing Rock), Ann Sothern (Mrs. Karmann), Hugh Corcoran (MacArthur), Laurene Tuttle (Mrs Kurz), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs Wiscosis), Misquamacas (Joe Gieb), Misquamacus (Felix Silla); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: William Girdler; Sony Pictures; 1978)
“Visually inventive.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was the only film that low-budget rip-off director William Girdler (“Grizzly”/”Asylum of Satan”/”Abby”) ever made in his short but prolific career that was decent; it also turned out to be his last film, as he was accidently killed before the release of this picture while scouting out location shots for his next project in Manila as his helicopter hit a powerline and crashed below. This hokum horror story is based on the 1975 paperback bestseller by Graham Masterson, his debut novel, and is written by Jon Cedar and Thomas Pope. The film is derivative of The Exorcist and its possession theme; it goes heavy on shock and on an outrageous storyline, but is visually inventive. The viewer to have any appreciation must recognize its amusing tongue-in-check dynamics, put up with a lame Tony Curtis who seems to be only going through the motions (as his piss poor attitude nearly sabotages the film) and one must try not to totally dismiss the absurd story but try to play along with its unlikely premise for as long as possible. The surprise is Burgess Meredith’s outstanding cameo performance as the fusspot eccentric anthropologist who is an expert on Indian folklore, which might be reason enough for catching this film.

The title means immortal spirit, based on an Indian folklore legend that maintains that every natural object has its own manitou or dominating spirit.

The San Francisco resident Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) developed three days ago a large lump on the back of her neck that keeps growing and moving around, and in her sleep she mumbles things in an ancient Indian language. Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar), a specialist in the field, never saw anything like it as X-rays reveal the tumor to hold in it a fetus. An immediate operation is decided upon, but Karen has a bad feeling and calls upon her ex-boyfriend, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), for support; he’s a charlatan medium milking money from vulnerable old ladies with tarot readings. Harry’s tarot cards reveal that Karen is in great danger, and sure enough during the operation the scalpel is forcefully turned back on the surgeon by a powerful spirit in the room and the operation is aborted. To get further help for Karen, Harry turns to his mentor–a real medium named Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens). She holds a seance and it’s revealed through another legitimate medium (Ann Sothern) that the fetus in the tumor holds the spirit of a 400-year-old medicine man, turned evil, named Misquamacus. Through reading a book by the anthropologist Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith) and then visiting with him in his Saucilito home, they discover that Misquamacus lived in northern California with a tribe that vanished before the white men ever came to America. Snow tells them the only way to save Karen’s life is to stop the birth and that can only happen through the intervention of another Indian medicine man. Harry recruits South Dakota Indian medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to try to stop the reincarnation, but his efforts take the hospital to another dimension as Karen gives birth to a deformed (a result of the side effects from the X-rays) Misquamacus (played by two dwarfs, Felix Silla and Joe Gleb), in a scene that goes over-the-top in special effects (conceived by Dale Tate and Frank Van Der Veer, who did the same for Star Wars) and is visually a stunning light show fit for a Bill Graham rock concert. The powerfully evil spirit causes an earthquake and freezes the entire floor of the hospital where the reincarnated Indian is located, hovering above in the sky. Singing Rock confesses he doesn’t have the power to combat this evil beast, but he points out all things have manitous and that the white man’s computers have a special one that might work against such a force. But even the machines are not enough. It’s soon discovered that the only thing powerful enough to combat such an evil force is love, and Harry’s love for Karen is channeled into her and power rays emanate from Karen’s fingers that force Misquamacus to retreat backwards and be reduced to nothing. Things quickly return to normal, as love triumphs over evil, medical science, the occult and any other force in the world.

Though the film is silly, it’s nevertheless highly enjoyable as camp and the visuals are fresh and audacious. It’s a B-film that doesn’t hide what it is, which is not always good. But what this film has that no other Girdler film ever had before, was a valid claim to originality and that is because of the powerful mind-blowing visuals.


REVIEWED ON 11/16/2007 GRADE: B+