The 70’s truly were a decade of cinematic freedom. During that time, it seems like almost any script could get the green-light, regardless of how bizarre and inane they were. More surprising is that a lot of these films somehow managed to score a name cast. In today’s market, you won’t ever see Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe in a film like Snakes on a Plane, but in the 70’s you could see Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain, Peter O’Toole in Caligula, and Jack Palance in The Shape of Things to Come. So it’s not much of a surprise to see Tony Curtis and Burgess Meredith in a film about an Indian Medicine Man growing out of a woman’s back. No, I’m not high…that’s exactly what The Manitou is about.
Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) hasn’t been having a good week. What started out as a small lump on the back of her neck has very quickly been growing in size for 3 days. If that wasn’t bad enough, she claims that it feels like it’s sometimes “shifting”, almost as if it was trying to get comfortable. When she finally decides to head to the hospital to have it looked at, the doctors, including one whose specialty is tumors, have no explanation for it. As impossible as it is, X-Ray’s of the lump show something that looks eerily like a fetus inside of it. The doctors decide to keep this to themselves however to avoid a media frenzy, and tell Karen all should be well and begin preparing for surgery.
The night before her surgery she re-connects with her ex Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), who is working as a phony psychic. During the night, Harry hears Karen chanting odd phrases in her sleep, but thinks nothing of it. The next day, Karen goes in for surgery, and as the doctor attempts to cut into the lump, Karen’s eyes snap open and the doctor loses control over the scalpel and ends up cutting himself. Meanwhile, Harry is doing a tarot reading for one his clients, who suddenly goes into a seizure-like trance and throws herself down a flight of stairs, all the while chanting the same phrase Karen was the night before. Harry, now quite freaked out, heads to the hospital to find out how Karen’s surgery went, and finds out about the complications. Harry believes this is no mere coincidence, and seeks out one of his old psychic friends, Amelia (Stella Stevens), to find out what she thinks is going on.
Amelia believes a séance may answer some of their questions, and it certainly does when they call a malevolent spirit forth that looks a lot like an Indian. Amelia recommends they get in contact with a professor named Dr. Snow (Meredith Burgess), who wrote a number of books on Indian folklore. Dr. Snow seems to be quite a scatterbrain, but eventually recalls an old tale about a young girl who had a similar rapidly-growing lump on her arm. The story goes that the lump grew to such a size that it killed her, and afterwards a reborn Indian Medicine Man emerged from the large growth. If this tale is indeed true, the only way to possibly put a stop to the Medicine Man being reborn is for another Indian Medicine Man to send it back to where it came from. But getting one to agree to do that will be quite a difficult task. And will the doctors at the hospital even allow them to try it?
Sounds pretty damn crazy, right? Well, it definitely is, but only to a certain extent. The main problem with the film is that it takes far too long to get to the stuff you really want to see. Sure, there’s a pretty effective séance scene to mix things up, but for most of the opening hour of the film, the film lulls along at a leisurely pace. For a film such as this, I honestly didn’t need all of the investigative elements that Harry and his friends go through to find out exactly what’s going on. I suppose it does give things more credibility, but it comes at the expense of entertainment. A film about a man growing out of the back of a woman doesn’t need all this damn exposition!
Hang in there though, because your patience will be justly rewarded. The final act of The Manitou is a complete blast. Once the Indian Medicine Man (who by now we’ve found out is named Misquamacas, who Harry likes to call “The Mix-Master”!) emerges from his cocoon of flesh, as an evil-looking midget no-less, shit gets cooking! You’ll be treated to some absolutely ridiculous-looking super-imposed shots of Indian “Gods” that Misquamacas summons to wreak havoc on the hospital and those that are trying to stop him. This pretty much boils down to a dude wearing a lizard costume, stalking around menacingly on all-fours. He also uses another of these Gods to freeze the entire hospital floor this is taking place on, making it look like a poor-man’s Fortress of Solitude, and uses some mind-control tactics on a hospital orderly, making him rip off his skin and then steals his soul. But the best is yet to come.
The finale of The Manitou really needs to be seen to be believed. It’s certainly one of the most random endings to a film I’ve ever encountered. Like I said, it needs to be seen to truly appreciate it, but for those really anal about spoilers, skip this paragraph. Harry hatches a plan to crank up all the juice on the hospital’s computers at once to try and fight Misquamacas by directing all of that energy towards him. When they return to the hospital room Misquamacas has been confined thanks to a magical seal, the entire room has been sucked into some space vortex, and there’s some bizarre astral mass of color floating in the room that Misquamacas has summoned, and it’s apparently the most evil of the evil. For some reason, all of this energy from the hospital’s computers is attracted to Karen, and it makes her into a powerful being that is able to shoot laser beams out of her hands. Apparently, the FX guys had a massive hard-on for Star Wars, which came out the previous year, as this certainly looks like a low-rent version of the space battles from that film. The green-screen effect is pure comedy, with Karen sitting on her hospital bed, floating in space. All of the FX money was used on this effect I’m guessing, because this astral mass just sort of floats there while Karen unloads her lasers and fireballs into it. It’s far from terrifying, but it damn sure adds to the insanity and absurdity of the finale. This is an ending you won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
Apparently not only the entire crew of this film was high, but so was the MPAA when they rated it. It came as a huge surprise to me when I saw the PG rating at the end of the film. Let’s put aside the fact that there’s an evil Indian midget ripping his way out of a woman’s back, a blood-spattered hospital room, and a guy covered in blood from having his skin ripped off. During the ending sequence I just mentioned, Karen is actually topless for the entire scene, and you can clearly see boobage in a couple shots. I can only imagine some parents being quite pissed if they took their children to see this. It’s pretty interesting that this was allowed in a PG-rated film, yet 25 years later when Janet Jackson’s boob popped out on national television, people acted as if it was a sign of the apocalypse. I thought the world was supposed to progress, not regress?
On the technical side of things, the practical effects are for the most part very nicely done, and William Girdler certainly knows how to frame a shot. Acting-wise, you really can’t complain. In fact, the serious tone and excellent delivery from all of the actors among all of this absurdity only helps to make the film even more amusing. Some of the dialogue is a hoot as well, with Tony Curtis getting the award for having the best line in the film. Near the end of the film, when no tactics used against Misquamacas seem to be working, the Indian Medicine Man that Harry hired muses that the highest Indian God, Gichi Manitou, could be the only one that could stop things, yet there’s no way to contact him. Harry quips back with: “Oh yeah? Well he’s gonna get a personal call from me…collect!”
Make no mistake; The Manitou is far from a great film. But it is great fun, as long as you make it long enough to get to the good stuff. With hilarious dialogue, laughable effects, and a truly unique-yet-wacky story, it’s the perfect Midnight Movie to go along with some drinks and friends. It will at the very least teach you to look for any lumps on someone that starts mumbling “Pana Wichi Salatu!”
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