Terror Tuesday: THE MANITOU (1978)

THE MANITOU is perhaps the greatest bad movie you have never seen. It’s certainly the greatest movie about an evil Indian midget who grows out of a lady’s neck.

Last weekend I attended the Monsterpalooza convention in Burbank, which is the complete opposite of the type of convention that Devin talked about a few weeks back.  There wasn’t any cynicism or soulless cash-grabbing on display; just a ton (and I mean TON, it was at least 3x as crowded as it was last year) of folks enjoying the opportunity to look at original monster designs, see makeup tests/demonstrations, talk to celebs like Guillermo Del Toro (walking around the floor like every other fan), and, of course, buy cool shit.  I could have easily dropped a grand or two, but instead my total purchase amount came to five dollars, which I spent on a Manitou poster.

And as I ruffled through the stack of five dollar posters, it dawned on me for the first time that The Manitou is not a particularly celebrated film, ironically or not.  Most of the titles in the pile I hadn’t even heard of (the only other one that I considered buying was Amityville II: The Possession), and I confirmed it later by checking its Wikipedia page, which was fairly slim (it didn’t even have a full blown synopsis).  This is the sort of legendary “good-bad” movie that should be getting eaten up by the folks who are turning Birdemic and The Room into big draws.  In fact, the first time I saw it was at a midnight screening in Los Angeles, hosted by Shock Till You Drop’s Ryan Turek, as part of a “So Bad It’s Good” series of movies, and it wasn’t particularly well-attended.  Why aren’t more folks discovering this movie?

I think part of it might be the fact that it’s the rare batshit movie that’s also a slow-burn.  You turn on The Room or Troll II, and you know you’re dealing with truly terrible movies right off the bat.  But Manitou slowly reveals its craziness; you could pair the opening and closing scenes side by side and no one would ever guess that they were from the same movie.  So it’s sort of a disservice to say “Watch this movie, it’s so ridiculous!”, because in its first half hour or so, not a hell of a lot happens at all, let alone anything totally nuts.  If not for Tony Curtis’ ridiculous wizard robe, you might think the movie was a romantic drama of some sort.  He plays a fake psychic who enjoys scamming old ladies out of money, and his ex-lover is a woman (Susan Strasberg) who is suffering from a very strange tumor, so he wants to help her by rekindling their relationship.  So it’s one of those “As she faces death, our protagonist teaches the other protagonist to LIVE!” movies, right?

Well, no.  Shortly after this, Curtis starts another fake psychic session, only the customer suddenly goes nutso, speaking in tongues and eventually tossing herself down a flight of stairs.  Meanwhile, the doctor attempting to cut the tumor off of Strasberg’s back suddenly finds himself compelled to try to cut off his own hand instead.  It’s around this time that we learn that the tumor is not a tumor, but a fetus growing in a very incorrect spot.  Not exactly the type of stuff you see in Dying Young or whatever.

And then Burgess Meredith shows up.  Meredith is one of those guys who always seemed to be walking in from a different movie entirely, and his brief role here is no exception.  He delivers a lot of exposition, but also plays with a bunch of props, more or less dismisses the idea of trying to save the poor girl, and basically just sort of looks like Colonel Sanders playing a professor.  It’s at this point where the movie starts to take a turn into silliness, and just gets wackier and wackier as it goes.  And I love that about it!  The gradual decline into nonsense is very smartly paced; the movie just sort of lulls you into its madness, so when a naked Indian midget starts shooting laser beams around and the spirit of her the heroine fights back with what appears to be meteors made out of popcorn, it doesn’t “come out of nowhere” as you might expect – in Manitou logic, it’s merely the natural progression of the plot.

Curtis’ rather laid back performance certainly helps.  No matter how silly things may get, he continues to shuffle his way around the movie, only rarely getting animated and shouting at the various folks who may dismiss his claims about a shaman trying to become reborn through a tumor on a woman’s back.  Otherwise, he’s pretty chill, calmly walking around the hospital as everything goes to hell, taking a few seconds to react to a bloody corpse being flung at a window inches away from his face, and seriously suggesting that he try to reason with the naked Indian midget who shoots laser beams.  I also loved his wonderfully skewed sense of priority; when hiring a shaman to help them fight the evil Manitou is suggested, his immediate response is “How are we going to pay him?”

Another thing that works in its favor is that it’s very earnest.  Curtis and most of the cast members play it straight (oh, shut up, I know there’s a bad joke in there), and director William Girdler doesn’t seem to be trying to make a farce out of it.  In the minds of all involved, as far as I can tell, the inter-dimensional insanity that makes up the bulk of the film’s climax (including the Manitou’s chanting, which sounds sort of like Pearl Jam’s “Ave Davanita”) is not supposed to be funny, and the scope imagery and above average production value also helps keep it from entering obvious comic territory.  The only one who appears to be goofing off is Meredith, but that’s sort of a given with him in late 70s horror films.

Indeed, The Manitou is sort of like The Sentinel, The Legacy, The Fury, and probably other late 70s movies that seem to have been inspired by the success of The Omen and The Exorcist.  A “The” in the title is apparently a must, and being based on a book doesn’t hurt (of all the above titles, only The Legacy is an original property – though it did inspire a novelization!).  They all had supernatural plots and a lot of big names (Sentinel also boasted a turn by Mr. Meredith), and all were kind of goofy but played straight.  In fact, Girdler himself was returning to the Exorcist wannabe genre; he had helmed Abby (the one Warner Bros actually sued to keep from being distributed, and which Devin wrote about here) and then did some action flicks (including a Pam Grier vehicle) and his much more appreciated killer animal movies (Grizzly, Day Of The Animals) before coming back to the supernatural with Manitou.  Sadly, it would turn out to be his final film; he was killed in a helicopter accident shortly before Manitou’s release, while scouting locations for his next film.

The weirdest thing about Girdler is that he was actually incredibly young.  He was only 30 when he died, and had already made nine features, many of them successful.  Not only is this an incredibly prolific output for such a young guy, but his movies all star adults.  Most directors tend to make movies about folks their age or younger, but nearly all of his films focused on people who were old enough to be his father (Curtis was nearly 25 years his senior).  And they are just as accomplished on a technical level as most independent productions from the era that I’ve seen, if not more so.  It’s a real shame that he died so young; I suspect he’d still be making movies (he’d only be 63 today), not to mention appearing at screenings and on special edition DVDs of his films.

Speaking of which, the Manitou DVD is depressingly bare-bones; only the trailer is included.  And with Girdler and most of the principal actors dead, I doubt a better edition will come along, though both screenwriters (Thomas Pop and Jon Cedar) as well as original novelist Graham Masterton are still active, so maybe they can be coaxed into offering their thoughts for a Blu-ray (those popcorn meteors will look amazing in 1080P!).  But you shouldn’t let that deter you from checking it out – in a way I kind of like that it’s one of the few movies from the era that hasn’t been exhaustively covered via trivia notes and retrospective looks.  The Manitou simply IS.

In closing, I leave you with this, the final shot of the movie.  It just appears, there’s no followup (i.e. DID HE DIE?), and based on my search, it’s not a fact.  I love you, Manitou.

Brian Collins is going to get a person to person call from me… collect! And he’ll get it at Horror Movie A Day.