Before dying in a plane crash in 1978, young director William Girdler was able to complete his ninth and final movie by the age of thirty. With a bigger budget and well known performers, it would seem that Girdler might have a classic in his midst. After blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby, proto-slashing mayhem in Three on a Meathook and the Jaws inspired Grizzly, it has become clear the potential that William had to make further cult phenomenons had he not passed away abruptly. Always one for drive-in feels, the last outing about an ancient Indian spirit being born again from the rapidly growing tumor of a middle-aged lady would turn many heads by plot description alone. The Manitou, probably one of the most unique horror films made in the 70s, was and still is a sight to behold for those expecting a run-of-the-mill possession story. Absurd - t’is but a word that does not begin to express the picture here.
The doctors are stunned by what they see in the X-ray scans. Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) has a lump growing at an unexplainable rate on the upper portion of her back that almost resembles that of a fetus. But that is crazy; it simply cannot be! Cosmic, supposedly psychic friend Harry (Tony Curtis) does not have the answers either, but a night together at Harry’s soon opens the fortune teller’s eyes. Karen is talking in her sleep; chanting over and over the same words in another language. When she is awake, she cannot recall herself saying anything of the sort. Karen goes in for surgery that day but an unseen force prevents the incision of a scalpel and turns it back on the utiliser. Harry seeks the help of his friend, occult dabbler Amelia (Stella Stevens) who holds a seance that ends in supernatural awakenings. As the thing inside Karen grows, Harry comes to conclude that the fetus is actually a powerful demon and spirit summoner, the Indian Misquamacas. It becomes apparent to Harry that the only way a human can save Karen and defeat the monster is to fight fire with fire, with the help of Indian medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara). But will that be enough to stop The Manitou from spreading?
This film looks beautiful in 2.35:1 widescreen on the Anchor Bay DVD. The problem is, looks aren’t everything. As pretty as the scenery, lights and creative fantasy-themed scenes are, the whole film’s strive to be a recognizable step above the rest is overpowered by some of the cheesiest situations. What’s worse is the character interaction with one another that makes the leads Curtis and Stevens seem like script readers. They are good but nothing stands out from anybody except maybe Ansara and spastic Strasberg. In one scene with a doctor Harry and Amelia have tracked down, the actor playing the know-it-all almost appears to be doing improv. However people always have a purpose and I find that some lighter moments like the comedic card reading scenes with the two women Harry sees in the first third, stand out as some of the most talented parts, for some strange reason.
Quite silly even in some of the smallest ways. You can’t get any more stereotypical than adding an ‘Indian’ into your film and calling him “John Singing Rock”. Nor is referring to him as an Indian any better, but I have to remember, it is still the late 70s. I think of The Manitou as a guilty pleasure. Me personally, I would watch this at least once a year for the sheer hilarity of the subject matter. Based on a book (and maybe real life if the last few words are true), The Manitou’s basic premise of having a tumor turn out to be a parasitic ancient warlock is kind of a whirlwind for the brain. But if you think that it can’t get any stranger, you are greatly mistaken. For example, did you know that even typewriters and computers have a Manitou? Oh! What is a Manitou? It is a spirit. A soul. Yes, your television too can have a ‘spirit’, and it will blow your fucking mind when it turns your room into a space portal for a gigantic evil eye to shoot lasers at you!!!
But...more on that later. Let us wallow in another aspect: Tom Burman. Special effects and makeup sure help one to love and forgive the faulty almost poetic movie The Manitou. Gore is one thing, but here, though it appears, is less about being sick for most of the pieces. I think Burman’s greatest achievements here are the little moments of self mutilation, body exploding, frozen head flying, and above all my personal favorite, the rebirth version of the intimidating bloody naked midget creature Misquamacas. See, I can get away with saying midget because I am in the presence of politically incorrect The Manitou!
Back tearing is gruesome, but even Burman has nothing on the set designer or the creative mind of William Girdler himself. The battle in the hospital over Karen’s life is extremely hokey but unique by inputting more fantasy elements like the summoning of elder spirits. Honestly, at times I thought that I was playing Final Fantasy VII or something. Transparent giant lizard coming after you? Snow falling down on the surgery floor? How about a dirty spirit emerging from the table surface? Artsy and never a downer. When you watch The Manitou you will not know whether to laugh, snicker, or howl in happy hysterics, which I suppose are all the same signs pointing to one conclusion. That being, this film does not know when to stop being hilariously different. Thankfully The Manitou is a horror film first, and even though it is riddled with countless head-slapping flaws and peculiarities, the plot and the emotional change in status of Strasberg’s original personality make the movie darker and just as nerve-twitching as it is funny.
Anchor Bay's disc has clear sound and is for the most part easy on the eyes. Sadly only a TV spot and trailer adorn this witchcraft eccentricity, but I do not think any of us would expect a director’s commentary now would we? Perhaps the reason as to why releases of The Manitou often end up hiding in the corner of an operating room is because it is stuck in too much of a day dream state to appeal to a lot of horror fans. Or maybe it just doesn’t fall into the hands of those who would appreciate it, whatever is left to be appreciated. I found it a joy to sit through and follow through Harry’s round up journey for spiritual warriors, and I think that the crazy ideas have crossed the boundaries so far past the dotted line, that there will be something to enjoy for that. “Pana Witchi Salatu!” English interpretation: Rent it!