When Exorcist Knockoffs Go Wrong: The Manitou

Tony Curtis battles 400-year-old evil spirits in the most bizarre all-star horror film of the ‘70s, The Manitou.

In the opening scene of The Manitou, a young woman named Karen (Susan Strasberg) tells her doctor something inside the fast-growing cyst on the back of her neck seems to be shifting around, as if trying to get comfortable. To this her doctor replies, “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”

In a world that made sense, in a world in which reason was still a factor, it seems to me this would be the time to start looking for a new doctor. But that’s not the case here, where we’re dealing with a world—from an audience and character perspective alike—that makes less and less sense the deeper we look into it. The hard thing to keep in mind is that it’s a world in which the rules no longer apply, and deliberately so.

Genre fans in the ‘70s and ‘80s were swamped with Native American-themed horror films. There was Wolfen, Nightwing, Prophecy, so many others, most of them falling quite neatly into one well-established sub-subgenre or another. So we got werewolf pictures, environmental horrors, Jaws knockoffs, even giant monster movies, all with a Native American subtext. This was around the time the Native American movement was in the news quite a bit, and Native Americans remained such an alien, mysterious people to most of us (especially filmmakers) that their legends, customs, language, and rituals made for a colorful backdrop to the usual goings-on. But in terms of simple, pure weirdness, of head-scratching wonderment and jaw-dropping absurdity, none of them can touch William Girdler’s The Manitou.

Over the course of the ‘70s, Girdler had given us a handful of films like Three on a Meathook and Day of the Animals, none of them exactly “good” in the traditional sense, but all of them memorable for one reason or another. With an all-star cast and a whopping $3 million budget to play around with, he really outdid himself with what would turn out to be his final film.

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Based on the equally head-scratching novel by Graham Masterton (the same man who wrote The Hunger), The Manitou stars the inexplicable Tony Curtis as Harry, a once-respected psychic, or at least a psychic once respected by New Age bookstore owners, who now pitches Tarot cards and fake magic words to rich old ladies. When the growing cyst on his ex-girlfriend Karen’s neck turns out to be the new incarnation of an evil 400-year-old Native American spirit (it’s a really, really long story), he attempts to fight it by teaming up with a reluctant medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara, continuing Hollywood’s long tradition of hiring anyone but a Native American to play a Native American).

While there are undeniable reminders of The Exorcist at the core of The Manitou, it’s far more twisted than your typical knockoff. Trying to look at the film as a coherent whole is difficult, if only because the tone is so fluid and hard to pinpoint. It’s fast and bright and occasionally funny (sometimes intentionally so), while at turns it’s also dark, surreal, deeply disturbing, and just plain disgusting. Looking at the film straight on from beginning to end, no, it’s a bit like watching a gas explosion in a mine filled with clowns. But if you look at it instead in terms of individual scenes and images and line readings and cameos, it’s hard to forget.

At the center of it all is Harry, the San Francisco-based fake psychic with a heavy, streetwise Bronx accent. Curtis shambles through the film like his Spartacus co-star Kirk Douglas, spouting his lines with something approximating emotion, yet always hiding a smirk just below the surface, as if he can’t believe all the silly crap going on around him. To his credit, though, he does seem to be as genuinely confused by the story as his character. When a surgeon explains to Harry that Karen has what appears to be a fetus growing on her neck, Harry replies with the unavoidable question, “On huh NECK?”

For reasons unknown, and long before anyone (including the audience) knows what we’re dealing with here, the spirit of the shaman growing on Karen’s neck seems to be following Harry around San Francisco. In a scene that is both comic and disturbing, one of Harry’s more neurotic elderly clients (familiar character actress Lurene Tuttle) faints in the middle of a session, then, possessed by the shaman, stands and dances a slow, hopping dance while chanting and screaming “panna witchy salatu”—a phrase that appears repeatedly throughout the film for no good reason. While Harry is on the phone shrieking at the operator to send an ambulance, the old woman floats across the apartment, out the door, and throws herself down a flight of steps. The scene is never fully explained or much revisited, existing mostly as a set piece.

Later at a séance Harry has requested, reluctant medium Stella Stevens (The Poseidon Adventure) puts out a call to any spirits who happen to be in the area. Well, who should show up but the evil shaman, whose blackened and ancient head rises from the center of the table and mutters that same phrase before blowing out the lights. It’s our first solid hint that we’re dealing with Native American mythology, clarifying the imagery of the opening credits and prompting a wild guess on Harry’s part that plunges us into the film’s second half.

(Just a quick aside here—the interesting thing about Burgess Meredith’s cameo as a spirited but absent-minded retired anthropology professor is that he seems to be lifting a great deal from a similar role played by Martin Balsam in the previous year’s The Sentinel—a film in which Meredith himself plays a demon hoping to ensnare a young woman’s soul.)

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While all this is happening, the cyst on Karen’s neck continues to grow to outlandish proportions, culminating in a scene that gave Girdler’s special effects team a chance to earn their keep and gave the censors fits. Although described in much more bloody and vivid detail in the book, when the inevitable happens and the reincarnated medicine man rips his way out of Karen’s back, it remains quite effective thanks to a combination of what is and isn’t shown. Much more troubling than the actual birth scene, however, is the shaman himself, whose name we’ve since learned is Misquamacas. Here to seek vengeance and destroy the white man’s technological world, Misquamacas, the most powerful and evil medicine man of all time, is a hairy, naked, and grotesquely deformed with a wicked, hissing laugh.

The manifest evil spirit was played by two stuntmen/actors, Felix Silla and Joe Gieb. This was Gieb’s first acting role before going on to play “Little Person” roles in any number of films and TV shows, most of them comedies. Silla, on the other hand, focused on horror and science fiction, playing otherworldly creatures in everything from Sssss, Demon Seed, and The Brood to Return of the Jedi, in which he was one of those insufferable little Ewoks. So far as I’m aware, this was the one and only time either man played a 400 year-old evil shaman.

From that point on the film only grows more surreal and confounding, climaxing with Karen and Misquamacus floating in outer space shooting laser blasts at each other out of their hands. Karen is sitting naked in her hospital bed as she does this, and the shaman seems to be standing on some kind of platform in a stationary orbit. But even though they’re in outer space, see, they’re really in a hospital room. And the hospital room is in a wing of a hospital whose interior has been frozen over with ice and snow.

The sad thing about The Manitou is that Girdler, after a series of tedious, warmed over copycat films like Grizzly, really seemed to be hitting his stride. On a technical level alone the film had a slickness to it that was absent from his earlier films. He was finally getting a handle on things like lighting and tracking shots and editing. The special effects, keeping the budget in mind, were vastly improved, and as a whole the picture felt like a much more professional effort. But then shortly after the film’s release, Girdler died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for his next film. Who knows what other kind of weirdness he had in store?

The Manitou did not go over well with critics or audiences who noted, as I do here, that it makes little sense, littered as it is with gaping plot holes and improbable leaps of logic. But watching it again I found myself asking why that should matter. As audience members we are approaching the story the same way the characters are, encountering a new and unexpected world that may make no sense to us in the terms of what we’ve come to expect. It’s an alien culture with a way of understanding the world quite different from what we’d been taught in school. As educated, highbrow viewers, we may have the option of dismissing the film and calling it incompetent, nonsensical, and stupid because we can’t make heads or tails of it, but we aren’t being confronted with a reincarnated medicine man out to destroy the world, so who the hell are we?

If you really stop to think about it, life on both a small and large scale makes very little rational sense. No, we rarely find ourselves floating naked in space trading laser blasts out of our hands with a malevolent deformed midget, but that’s beside the point. Look at any life; any historical event with cold reason, and it rarely makes any logical sense. Stuff just happens, some of it pretty damned weird and inexplicable. It’s just the way things work sometimes.

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So I guess what I’m saying here is that The Manitou is a brilliant and insightful metaphor for human life itself. Or if not that exactly, it’s still highly imaginative, entertaining, and utterly pointless.

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3.5 out of 5