William Girdler, 1978
Starring: Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Stella Stevens, Burgess Meredith
“My god, son, you do have one hell of a problem.”
Karen contacts her ex-boyfriend, Harry, because she is concerned about an impending surgery. Karen has a strange growth on her shoulder that is confounding her doctors and she turns to Harry for help. Though Harry is a con artist, tricking old women out of their money with Tarot card readings, Karen trusts his spiritual advice. A number of strange things begin to happen and Karen’s surgery goes wrong, resulting in one of her doctors cutting himself. The medical team becomes convinced that she has a fetus growing in her shoulder. A concerned Harry seeks help, first from a seance specialist, then an anthropologist specializing in Native American lore. He slowly learns that the lump in Karen’s shoulder is an evil medicine man attempting to reincarnate himself and unleash an ancient evil. Can Harry save Karen in time?
Based on a novel of the same name by Graham Masterton, William Girdler’s final film ranks among some of his most enjoyable and includes the same, so bad it’s good, anything goes logic. As with all of Girdler’s films, he directed this with a totally straight face and convinced his cast to do the same. With lines like “We pumped him with enough X-ray to see through Fort Knox... We’ve created a monster,” I can’t stress enough that The Manitou is absolutely delightful. There are laser beams running amok in the hospital, an ancient medicine man growing in the shoulder/neck of a woman, some blatant racism, a seance where the oil-covered head of said medicine man emerges from the table, as well as elements of The Exorcist, ‘70s sci-fi, and even Doctor Who.
This Canadian-U.S. coproduction is Girdler’s highest budget film at $3 million and looks very professional, arguably more so than his earlier films. Though the middle of the film is rather dull, there is plenty to make up for this. There are some surprisingly good performances, particularly from the great Tony Curtis (Some Like it Hot, Operation Petticoat), who even wears a wizard’s robe for half the film. The equally wonderful Michael Ansara (Star Trek, The Ten Commandments) is believable and incredibly straight faced as Native American medicine man John Singing Rock. Susan Strasberg (The Trip) is likable as the infected/impregnated Karen, though she is missing for much of the film. The great Burgess Meredith also makes a welcome appearance as an anthropologist and Native American magic specialist. His scene is one of the most delightful in the film, though it is liberally peppered with racism.
I love most of Girdler’s films, particularly Abby, Grizzly, and Day of the Animals and it would have been interesting to see how his career would have developed after The Manitou. Unfortunately he died in a helicopter crash in the jungle while scouting locations for his next film. But with The Manitou, he really gave it his all, particularly during the absolutely insane ending that must be seen to be believed. An evil midget witchdoctor rains his magical malice down upon the hospital and a naked Susan Strasberg has to fight back with laser beams. And somehow they are in space. Yes, outer space.
The effects are a very mixed bag - as I said, laser beams - but they are always enjoyable. There’s even a surprising amount of gore, including a man skinned alive, human explosions, and a decapitation, as well as an old lady who becomes possessed and throws herself down the stairs. And don’t forgot the head that comes out of a dining room table, which explodes shortly after due to a bolt of lightening.
I can’t say enough good things about Girdler or his work. The Manitou may buck logic and good taste at every turn, but it is so much fun I dare you to deny it. Highly recommended, though certainly an acquired taste, The Manitou is available on DVD. And if the movie isn’t enough, novelist Graham Masteron churned out a whole series of books that include Revenge of the Manitou, Manitou Blood, and many more.