The Manitou (1978) -**½
Once you’ve been watching these movies for a while, you come to notice certain identifying marks that allow you to spot a truly terrible flick coming a mile away. For example, if movie’s distributors come right out and compare it to a widely respected, more famous film, they may as well have festooned their product with safety-orange flags marked “BAD BAD BAD.” Assuming you encounter it in the same form I did, The Manitou fits that profile nicely. The surprisingly brief synopsis on the back of the video box calls it a movie “in the tradition of Alien,” which is pretty fucking funny when you actually think about it. Alien, after all, came out in 1979, which would make it rather difficult to produce a flick in its “tradition” a whole year earlier! But in this case, the claim is perhaps forgivable. I mean, really-- how many people do you think would go into paroxysms of anticipation over “a film in the tradition of The Manster”?
Well, okay. So maybe I would, but that’s probably about it. And The Manitou really could almost be called the American Manster. The heroine of this movie (who will have very little to do after about the first 40 minutes), a woman by the name of Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg, of The Legend of Hillbilly John and SST: Death Flight), has a rather serious problem: she has developed a growth on her left shoulder. Not cancer, mind you-- this is something worse. Her doctors can’t explain how it got there, but the X-rays clearly show a fetus inside the extremely large lump. Even worse, the fetus appears to be growing at a rate of perhaps 7mm per hour! You see what I mean about The Manitou resembling The Manster? But unfortunately for Karen, the cause of her problem is nothing so simple as the activities of an evil genius, which Dr. Jack Hughes (Jon Cedar, whose acting credits for Foxy Brown and Day of the Animals pale beside his achievement in writing this very movie), the specialist called in to deal with the case, could probably handle if only he could be convinced that mad science was afoot. No-- as we shall soon see, the trouble comes from a source rather older than modern science, mad or otherwise.
So it’s a good thing that Karen’s ex-boyfriend, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis, whose career has run the gamut from Spartacus to The Bad News Bears Go to Japan), is a mystic charlatan specializing in Tarot readings. After witnessing a couple of creepy, inexplicable events (like the time one of his clients levitates down the hall of the apartment building where he lives and works and throws herself down the stairs, all the while wheezing the same nonsense phrases that he’d heard Karen mutter in her sleep earlier), Erskine goes to see his friends the Crusoes. It was Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens, of Chained Heat) that taught Erskine to read Tarot in the first place, and even though her husband MacArthur (Hugh Corcoran, of Don’t Answer the Phone! and Caged Heat) made her promise to give up her career as a psychic, she agrees to help when Erskine comes to her with his story. By this point, Karen is confined to the hospital, and the growth on her shoulder has expanded to cover most of her back. Not only that, her misplaced fetus seems to have some kind of psychic powers of its own, because it was able to prevent Dr. Hughes from extracting it by mentally forcing the surgeon to cut into his own hand with the scalpel instead. Amelia’s strategy for dealing with the situation involves going to Karen’s place and conducting a séance, which she believes will put her in touch with the evil spirit that has been trying to grow itself a new body inside Karen’s. How does Amelia know that the fetus is the result of Karen’s mitotic processes having been hijacked by an evil spirit? Don’t ask me. But it doesn’t much matter, seeing as she’s right. In fact, the evil spirit in question turns out to be that of a long-dead Indian shaman. So, when was the last time you saw a movie in which a woman’s life was put in danger because a dead, evil medicine man was growing out of her back?
A visit to an anthropologist by the name of Snow (Burgess Meredith, of all people) brings to light the astonishing information that the shaman in question belonged to a Pacific Northwest tribe that died out 400 years before the white man arrived on the West Coast. Dr. Snow knows this because he speaks the extinct tribe’s language, and is able to translate the phrase that Karen keeps mumbling when she’s asleep or unconscious-- it means “My death prefigures my rebirth.” (Okay, so if this tribe no longer existed when Western civilization reached California, how is it possible that Dr. Snow speaks their language?!?! It’s not as though any of the Indians of North America had writing in pre-contact times, and even if they had, that still wouldn’t necessarily allow us to speak in their tongues. The world is full of scholars of the ancient Middle East who can read Akkadian cuneiform, but there isn’t a person alive who can actually speak Babylonian.) In a stretch of dialogue that would have made Al Adamson’s heart swell with pride, this anthropologist spends the first half of his conversation with Erskine and the Crusoes protesting that the stories he related in his book on Native American magic (the text that led them to seek Snow out in the first place) are merely legends, then turns around and spends the second half of the conversation warning them about how fantastically powerful Indian magic is! Snow’s opinion is that Karen’s only chance to get rid of her body’s unwanted tenant (and save, thereby, her life) is to get a medicine man of her own to drive the evil shaman out. Of course, that’s a pretty tall order, seeing as there are apparently only a few practicing medicine men left in the country, and all of them operate out of South Dakota. (What?!)
So Erskine goes to South Dakota, where after much wrangling, he secures the assistance of John Singing Rock (played by the Syrian-descended Michael Ansara-- what is this, a Day of the Animals cast reunion or something?-- on the theory that all brown people look alike), who names as his price a $100,000 donation to the Indian Education Fund (to be paid by Karen’s rich aunt, or some such thing) and two pouches of pipe tobacco. I don’t see how, but Erskine actually manages to sell Dr. Hughes on the idea that John Singing Rock will be able to succeed where modern medicine failed (twice, by the way-- the second time, the evil shaman nearly blew up half the hospital by taking control of the surgical laser that Hughes had tried to use on him), and the South Dakota shaman gets to work almost immediately. First, he draws a circle around Karen’s bed with colored sand (I’m no expert on Indian magic, but as we are dealing with spirits-- Manitous-- here, don’t you think stopping the “circle” at the wall behind the bed constitutes an unacceptable degree of corner-cutting?), then waves some sticks around the room while invoking the spirits of mountains and rivers and trees and stuff. The principal result of all this is that we finally learn the identity of the evil shaman. His name is Misquamacus, and apparently he was the greatest medicine man who ever lived. That can’t be good news.
But it’s no fun to have John Singing Rock spend all his time waving twigs at a lump on Karen’s back, and fortunately the filmmakers realize this. Thus, they have Misquamacus extricate himself from Karen in short order. (Yes, I realize that this would supposedly prove fatal to Karen, but never you mind that-- nobody involved in making The Manitou did!) This brings us to what may be the best thing about this movie: Misquamacus is a seriously deformed midget, apparently because of the hit he took from Dr. Hughes’s X-ray machine when he was just a fetus. The rest of the film will consist of John Singing Rock and Misquamacus playing a full-contact version of Magic: The Gathering against each other, with the evil shaman consistently coming out ahead. But our heroes have a hidden advantage (apart from the convenient fact that they’re the good guys), in that man-made things apparently have Manitous as well, making them potentially useful weapons in the duel of the medicine men. Remember, Misquamacus died at least 400 years before there were such things as computers, typewriters, and the machine that goes “ping,” and the Manitous of Honky Science may not have a whole lot of respect for traditional Indian magic. What follows is simply beyond belief.
God, 70’s movies are great! The Manitou isn’t quite as much fun as you might expect from such an outrageous premise (it tends to drag), but come on! A 400-year-old Indian medicine man grows out of a woman’s back, and can be defeated only by invoking the Manitous of high-tech medical gadgetry?! What could possibly make a person think of such a thing? And midget villains are always a plus, to say nothing of midget villains whose only dialogue consists of moviedom’s favorite bogus “Indian” chant. You know-- the one that goes, “Hey-yo-hey-hey-Hey-yo-hey-yo-hey-hey.” Of course, let us not forget the demons that Misquamcus summons to do his dirty work-- the transparent lizard is a hoot, and the Great Old One, whose presence transforms Karen’s hospital room into outer space, is even better. Throw in a dollop of fine, 70’s-vintage white eco-guilt, and you’ve got a pretty decent way to waste an hour and 40 minutes.