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.