It was a balmy summer evening in 1978 when a friend and I embarked on a solid night at the movies. We were determined to see three movies — two new horror pictures, Damien: Omen II and The Manitou, followed by a midnight showing of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It should go without saying that the last was the best of the lot, while the first was merely big-budgeted mediocrity, apparently designed to embarrass aging stars. That middle title — The Manitou — on the other hand, was one for inclusion in the annals of distinctively…peculiar cinema. We had no idea what the hell a “manitou” was or what this was about, but it was being promoted as a horror film so it became a, “Well, why not?” item. Boy, was that ever an excellent decision.
The film was the last work of horror exploitation director William Girdler (he was killed in a helicopter accident before this was released) and was probably best known for the blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off, Abby (1974). (And it’s more famous for getting Girdler sued by Warner Bros. for stealing from The Exorcist than anything else.) The very odd thing is that The Manitou is almost certainly the classiest and best made movie in Girdler’s filmography — a sobering consideration indeed. He was quoted at the time saying that The Manitou “was something that was never done before.” This I can believe. It is also recorded that he wrote the script in three days. Again, that’s wholly believable. Further consideration might have stopped him from continuing. Or maybe not—the man did make Abby after all.
So anyway, we settled in to watch whatever this was and in no time at all it starts in with this yarn about an impossibly fast-growing tumor on Susan Strasberg’s back, which she claims feels like it’s moving around. The next thing you know, the doctors are in deep discussion about this strange growth — with an embryo growth chart prominently on display in the background. My friend and I exchanged glances of disbelief, certain that this couldn’t be the premise. Then the doctors take us over for a better look at the chart and how it, “Looks a hell of a lot like what’s in those X-rays.” Well, much to the annoyance of the woman in front of us, we burst out laughing. Little did we know at that point that this wasn’t the worst — or best — of it.
After this, we were only mildly shocked to see 53-year-old Tony Curtis as a swinging bachelor leading man and phony spiritualist. It was something of a relief to find that his ‘70s porn mustache was a stick-on affectation to presumably impress his elderly lady clientele. (He’s sort of the Max Bialystock of the table tapping world.) Turns out that Strasberg is his ex-girlfriend and she turns to him for some kind of comfort about her impending surgery, thereby working him into the plot — especially when she starts saying stuff like, “Pana witchi salatu” in her sleep. This proves to be such a catchy phrase that soon one of Curtis’ elderly clients (Lurene Turrle) is saying it — before floating down the hallway and plummeting to her death. And this happens just after an attempt to remove Strasberg’s tumor at the hospital resulted in the doctor carving into his own hand instead. Clearly, something is amiss.
Well, a seance (with Ann Sothern in her heavy Kabuki makeup phase) and some investigations later, it turns out that Strasberg’s back is about to give “birth” to a 400-year-old American Indian medicine man named Misquamacus. After that, the movie gets really silly. You see, all those X-rays have deformed the evil fetus, so he’s only about four feet tall (and played part of the time by Felix Silla — Cousin It from The Addams Family TV show). He’s also slimy and extremely peevish. The upshot is a battle between Misquamacus and a modern medicine man (Michael Ansara) and…well, let’s just say it all lives up to everything that’s gone before and contains great lines like, “The machines’ manitous are focusing their power through Karen!” Well, of course, they are. What else would you expect?
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Maintou Thursday, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.