Retro-review: New on BluRay from the Shout Factory!

THE MANITOU (1978)

Directed by William Girdler
Written by Graham Masterton (novel), William Girdler, Jon Cedar, Thomas Pope (screenplay)
Starring Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Stella Stevens, Jon Cedar, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredeth, Paul Mantee, Jeanette Nolan, Lauren Tuttle, Hugh Corcoran and both Felix Silla & Joe Gieb as Misquamacas!

If you’re looking for oddball horror classics of the seventies, look no further than THE MANITOU, a truly weird mishmash of supernatural and body horror.

When a young woman (Susan Strasberg) develops a tumor at the base of her neck and medical doctors seem to be baffled as to how to treat it, her friend and tarot card reader Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) pairs up with a Native American medicine man named John Singing Rock (yeah, you read that right, played by Michael Ansara) to battle what appears to be an ancient demon growing under her skin. It will take a mix of modern science and ancient shamanism to conquer this evil from beyond our reality!

This film is batshit. Through and through. It begins as a body horror, where a tumor grows rapidly on the back of Strasberg and even begins moving and kicking as if it were a fetus. All attempts to remove it surgically result in disaster for the doctors. I found these moments to be the most compelling of the film as the makeup effects and the abject horror Strasberg undergoes is truly disturbing. It’s too bad this film goes off on a wild tangent and introduces Native American cosmic myth about a demon named Misquamacas, an ice entity that can freeze reality, and an all-powerful cosmic being from beyond the stars as the culprit of it all. The film goes from the truly tactile creepiness of the sentient tumor to Curtis gathering a motley crew of mystics and occultists (including Stella Stevens who appears to be wearing some kind of brown-face and an absent minded Burgess Meredeth), before settling on John Singing Rock who seems to know everything about this world and the next. The film culminates with a goofy 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque lightshow that falls short of dazzling.

Hammy acting abounds here as Curtis chews up the scenery with inappropriate sarcasm and out of place humor given the magnitude of the situation they are all in. The rest of the actors are slumming it as well, seemingly knowing how goofy the film is they are starring in. There are some truly harrowing scenes in the opening segments reminiscent of the hospital scenes in THE EXORCIST and some of the best of Cronenberg’s body horrors and there’s a birthing scene that really works. This evens out the lesser effective cosmic stuff and ultimately saves this film from being so goofy that it is unwatchable. THE MANITOU is going to be a film for fans of body horror, seventies schlock, and those who appreciate weirdo cinema such as THE DARK BACKWARD and THE TINGLER. I’m glad I finally was able to see it, but I’m not sure I’d want to undergo the cosmic nonsense again.