Demonic possession has been a staple of horror films for decades, with such notable entries ranging from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in the 70s, to the latest James Wan’s Conjuring film, but the movie we will be looking at today takes a step in a very different direction with its possession story, a rather interesting and often weird direction. Where most possession stories revolve around Christianity as the central theme, William Girdler’s The Manitou, based on the Graham Masterson novel of the same name, takes a step in a different direction by making the threat come from Native American folklore.
In 1974, William Girdler released the Blacksploitation film Abby, a blatant cash-in on Friedkin’s The Exorcist — so blatant that it resulted in Warner Brothers suing American International and Girdler not making a dime — which makes his decision to tackle another “possession” movie if not bold, at least a bit strange. This story tells the tale of a woman discovering a large growth forming on the back of her neck, her going to the local hospital to seek some much needed medical advice, and before you can say “It’s not a tumor,” she learns that the abnormal growth on her neck is actually a fetus. Seriously, I’m not kidding.
One has to admit this is a pretty out-there premise, and seeing doctors calmly discussing a “neck fetus” is pretty bizarre and outright laughable — which is what makes this film so entertaining — and Girdler was clearly trying to avoid making a standard horror film, which would explain the casting of Tony Curtis as a psychic charlatan.
The poor woman with the neck fetus is Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg), and to get a “second opinion,” she visits her ex-boyfriend Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a phony psychic who makes his money by conning rich little old ladies with fake tarot card readings, and after a night of sexual delight together with Karen — which I have to say is a strange thing to do the night before a large “tumor” is going to be surgically removed from the back of your neck — Harry starts to wonder if something actually supernatural is going on here. You see, while sleeping next to Karen he hears her mutter the strange phrase “Pana Wichie Salatou” over and over again, which is eventually revealed to be a Native American dialect, and then later that day, one of Harry’s elderly clients starts spouting that very same phrase before floating down the hall and throwing herself fatally down the stairs. Needless to say, this raises Harry’s concern level a tad.
Harry confronts hospital administrator Dr. Jack Hughes (Jon Cedar) with his suspicion that Karen is in danger from some unknown supernatural force, and his wild claims are somewhat backed up by the fact that when tumor expert Dr. McEvoy (Paul Mantee) tries to remove the “tumor,” something forces his own hand to turn the scalpel on himself. Later they try to remove this unsightly lump with a laser only to have the medical staff chased out of the operating room when the laser goes rogue, blasting everything in sight. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this scene of medical carnage later inspired Sam Raimi when he came up with the similar scene for his first Spider-Man 2, where Doctor Octopus’s mechanical arms went crazy in the operating room. So with science not being able to solve his girlfriend’s ever increasing problem, what with the neck fetus doubling in size every day, Harry goes to consult an old friend and actual psychic, Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens), which leads them to hold a séance that finally reveals the force of evil they are up against: the spirit of Misquamacus, a powerful Native American Medicine Man.
Note: In the book Misquamacus, the powerful Medicine Man had committed suicide 300 years ago so that he could be reborn in the future to wreak havoc on the White Man for killing his people. Him being a somewhat sympathetic character is pretty much jettisoned in the movie in favour of going with full-on evil.
As knowledge is the best armor, our group of heroes then visit Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), an eccentric anthropologist who explains to them how Misquamacus strives for immortality by sending his “Manitou” down through the ages until he can be reborn again, and that Karen was just in the wrong place at the right time. Unfortunately, Dr. Snow is not interested in helping the poor woman, explaining that if he went on record stating that an ancient Native American spirit was possessing a modern American woman, it would hurt his academic credibility — which, to be fair, it probably would — so Harry and company are forced to seek out a modern Medicine Man for aid. This brings them to the doorstep of John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), who at first turns them down, but eventually takes the job after adding the stipulation that Harry pays $100,000 dollars to the Indian Educational Foundation and some tobacco for himself.
When Harry and John Singing Rock arrive at the hospital, things go quickly from bad to worse, even though John hastily applies a protective circle around Karen’s hospital bed — though to me it looks more like a half-circle rather than a full one as it just goes from one side of the bed to the other, ending at the wall on each side — and the evil spirit of Misquamacus doesn’t seem all that hampered by it. One orderly, who was left alone to watch over Karen, is brutally skinned alive, and a second orderly, also left to watch Karen, is attacked by the resurrected corpse of the first orderly. I’m not sure what the pay was back in the day for orderlies, but it clearly wasn’t enough. That both of the orderlies were somehow capable of falling asleep in a room containing this evil looking thing is simply amazing, but especially egregious in the case of the second orderly who fell asleep after the previous “guard” had already been horribly murdered. That Harry and John are able to convince Dr. Jack Hughes to keep the authorities out of this affair — even after multiple murders, an earthquake, and the surgical ward being turned into a frozen hellscape — is beyond belief.
Our heroes eventually deduce that the only way to combat Misquamacus is by evoking “White Man’s Manitou” as Singing Rock failed to make a dent when calling forth the Manitou’s of Wind, Earth, and Fire, so it’s up to Harry Erskine to carry the ball across the finish line by channeling the Manitou of the hospital’s high-tech computers. Director William Girdler described his film as a blending of The Exorcist with Star Wars, and the final act of The Manitou does kind of conjure up images of Star Wars, if a naked woman in a hospital bed shooting lasers at ancient gods is something you’d consider reminiscent of George Lucas’s space fantasy.
To say that Girdler’s The Manitou is a little batshit crazy would be a vast understatement, as not only does it not follow the conventions of most horror films — with the delightful Tony Curtis providing constant light comic moments and the final showdown has poor Susan Strasberg orchestrating a laser light show that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin concert — but then the film will actually throw in some actually effective creepy moments (the old lady floating down the hall gives me chills every time I see it), which makes this a true horror film by anyone’s standards. A film that truly has to be seen to be believed.
Note: The cast Girdler assembled was well above what the film’s low budget deserved (most of the male cast members admitted to taking the job to help with alimony payments), all adding up to what one has to admit is an entertaining little horror flick.
The only real negative thing I can say about The Manitou is that Susan Strasberg’s character is more of a prop than an actual three dimensional character, which to be fair was also a failure in the book, and she spends most of the movie lying in bed with this large lump on her back with not much else to do, and while everyone else is running around investigating this supernatural mystery, she’s almost forgotten. Well, that is until the end of the film when she literally bares all to channel the Manitou of the White Man to combat Misquamacus. It’s a rather thankless role, and could have used some serious rewrites, but when you consider that Girdler, along with screenwriters Jon Cedar and Thomas Pope, knocked the script out in just three days, it’s not all that surprising that some elements got a little short shrift. That all said, I can’t recommend The Manitou enough, it’s a must-see movie, and not because it is some great cinematic achievement, it certainly isn’t, but because it is a load of fun and will leave you shaking your head in disbelief all while laughing at the same time.
The Manitou (1978)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
The bizarre and goofy nature of The Manitou all goes towards making a film that is hard to categorize. It’s goofy and cheesy, with some of the comedy working at times while awkwardly failing at others, but it’s also a film that once seen will never be forgotten.