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The Manitou


‘…sets up one strange scene after another to deliver a battered package of horror goods…’

The US bicentennial celebrations in 1976 seemed to awaken a few thoughts about the Native American indigenous people, and inspired the use of that specific culture as the background for William Gridler’s horror film. Establishing his eccentric bona fides early with Tony Curtis as a disco-dancing fake spiritualist, Gridler sets up one strange scene after another to deliver a battered package of horror goods.

Adapted from Graham Masterton’s novel, The Manitou is set in San Francisco, and re-hashes a number of scenes familiar from The Omen and The Exorcist, but the Native American concepts are interesting enough to create a unique flavour. Harry Erskine (Curtis) is a con-man, but develops some kind of faith when his girlfriend Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) develops a huge lump/hump/thing on the back of her neck. Medical science steps back in amazement when scans reveal a centuries old Indian medicine man growing inside, and attempts to use scalpels and lazers to remove the unwanted growth lead to predictably nasty demises. Even Erskine’s paying customers take to levitating and flinging themselves down his stairs, and things jump up a notch when The Manitou finally arrives and moves the game to another dimension. All Curtis can do is chuck an electric typewriter at the strange entity, known as Misquamacus, a word that Curtis’s Brooklyn drawl regularly mis-pronounces as Mixmaster.

Being stuck in traffic behind a large yellow agricultural machine labelled Manitou reminded me to take another look at this opus; you might come to scoff, but the film is held together not by Curtis and his eccentric light-comedy stylings, but by Michael Ansara as the shamanic guide John Singing Rock. Chiding Erskine for the damage that has been done to his people over history, this Native American character not only talks the talk when it comes to the occult, he walks the walk. Even when Karen’s hospital turns into an ice-cave, her hospital room becomes a portal to another dimension, and Karen herself starts firing lightning bolts from her fingertips, John Singing Rock keeps his head and keeps things on track to deliver a satisfying fire-ball flinging finale.

The Manitou is fondly remembered by those who saw it in ’78, and the camp value has only increased over the years. The trailer below covers most of the salient points; Burgess Meredith has a ‘special appearance’ as an occult expert, but really, there’s no space for another eccentric turn in a film chock full of them, with resonant ideas ravaged from Native American traditions then poorly integrated into the silliest of Hollywood idea soups. And yet, over the decades, there’s something about the Manitou which has stuck with me, a Manitou for All Seasons perhaps. This film is hard to find, but a glimpse of the trailer below should tell you all you need to know about this rich, gamey cinematic one-off.


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  1. I saw this when I was in grade school on Showtime back in the late 70s. The old lady floating down the hall scene scared the living shit out of me. Yet, I was a little horror movie nerd and loved it despite that. I guess I was a weird kid because I kind of liked the rush from being scared by a movie. Real life scares were a different story.

    • Yes, the old flaoty woman was a good moment, and seems to have echoes in Haunting of Hill House. Nice to hear I’m not the only one who got a thrill from this movie!

  2. “What does a white man want with Indian magic?” 🤠

    There is a real-life tumor that actually grows a face and teeth, etc; it might need some ironing . . . fraggle are you up for the job? Mr. Bookstooge won’t touch it. I thought parts of this looked funny, in an entertainment sense. The star room at the end of the trailer is what makes this film work ( yes, I haven’t watched the movie yet and I already know 🤣 )

  3. An oddity at the time – even by Tony Curtis standards – but the Native American angle was fascinating at the time and interest in that area has grown with time. I might even be tempted to check it out again.

  4. Horror=Nope for this guy. Not even funny horror.

    And “things” growing on peoples’ necks is gross enough in text that I can’t imagine actually looking at it.

  5. Interesting how Native American horror seemed to become a bit of a horror fad at this time. Wolfen, The Prophecy, and Nightwing all came out around the same time as this. But none of these movies were big hits and that angle never became established.

    • I’m working on a review of Audrey Rose, from 77 and dealing with re-incarnation and Hindu-ism. .My theory is that horror films were turned into a number of different belief systems, as a way of dealing with what was something of a spiritual crisis at the time. This one seems to have done quite a bit more business than I’d thought….

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