Andrew reviews the silly and weird horror movie The Manitou.
Being the avid consumer of the offbeat, weird, psychedelic and often surreal movies that I am, I got googly eyed the moment I first heard of this forgotten 1978 horror flick The Manitou. Starring Susan Strasberg as a woman with a strange tumor growing on her neck that turns out to be a human fetus, Tony Curtis as a quack psychic fortune teller and Michael Ansara as a Native American shaman, this goofball attempt at exploiting xenophobic fears of Native American medicine men as a tale of supernatural horror promised to be one of the strangest and most ridiculous movies to come out of the late 1970s post-The Exorcist era. To my disappointment it doesn't quite reach the nonsensical and irrational heights of, say, The Visitor or The Apple, mostly amounting to an average Joe horror flick until the very end when it gleefully jumps the rails. That said, I still urge people to see this wacky thing for themselves which in all fairness makes an equally batty companion piece to John Boorman's still utterly insane Exorcist II: The Heretic. Rarely have special effects sequences depicting a spiritual battle across dimensions of space and time amounted to such unintentional hilarity. It's a bit of a slog getting to the finish line but once The Manitou arrives there it delivers on every ounce of wackiness I had hoped for. If only it sustained such madness for all two hours of this otherwise forgettable tripe.
Shot in 2.35:1 widescreen which only elevates the shoddy mixture of paper mache icicles adorning the film's hospital setting, phony blue screen matting and a dwarf Indian medicine man with supernatural powers that looks as ridiculous as some of wrestling's corniest characters, The Manitou is technically competent when it isn't trying to show us images of the occult. Tony Curtis does his best trying to play the role that eventually won Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award for her work on Ghost, a film which more or less treads similar territory but with far more effective results. The great Lalo Schifrin's dated horror soundtrack serves as a reminder as to why William Friedkin so vehemently rejected his score for The Exorcist, deflating all potential scares with bombastic high notes. The subject of Strasberg's frightened woman with an eerie tumor on her neck leaves ample room for some Cronenbergian body horror which never materializes, particular when the demonic medicine man dwarf from eons ago breaks free from the tarpaulin looking back. Second to Curtis in terms of overqualified casting for this obvious B movie is Burgess Meredith as a doctor with a hunch on how to solve this inter-dimensional dilemma. Without spoiling anything as to the film's truly absurdist finale, all I can say is that the intergalactic battles in Kinji Fukusaku's cheap ripoff of Star Wars, Message from Space, look professional by comparison to the blue screen warfare seen here.
Fans of demonic possession horror or the macabre are inclined to skip this silly and unfrightening nuthouse but those like me who get a kick out of misguided science fiction horror amounting to bizarre high camp will get something out of it. As I said, it's pretty average for the most part and doesn't really break free of the straightjacket until the final scenes and this is one of the few times where, if you don't care about the story or not, fast forwarding to the last thirty minutes of The Manitou might not be such a bad idea. Michael Ansara and Tony Curtis try their damndest to imbue this with a sense of seriousness and open doors of intrigue regarding shamanism, although after having seen one of the best examples of exploring that topic with The Wailing, I'm confident in calling The Manitou one of the worst. What could have been a gross out horror movie with an unnerving premise upon execution is one of the most nonsensical, ridiculous and corny thrillers which produces more laughs than screams. No it doesn't quite reach the locust invasion of Exorcist II: The Heretic which maintained a consistently crazy narrative but it comes pretty close with a finale that needs to be seen to be believed.
- Andrew Kotwicki