The Manitou

There are not enough ‘WTF’s in the world to adequately address this film
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
William Girdler
Starring: 
Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith
The Setup: 
Woman has an ancient Indian medicine man growing on her back.
Discussion: 

A reader wrote me a note with a number of recommendations, and this one sounded appealingly weird and yet somehow hard to imagine seriously. The only other movie I know of in which a person is growing on another person is How To Get Ahead In Advertising, which was quite funny and arch and ironic, so I couldn’t really see this presented as a serious horror story. But lo and behold, it is!

First we have reason to note that the old Avco/Embassy logo is HOT. Then we see that this is a film by William Girdler, director of Grizzly, Day of the Animals, the wonderfully-titled Three on a Meat Hook. He is pretty awful, yet the gusto with which he approaches ludicrous material has gained him admirers and a kind of perverted chachet. We also see that this stars Tony Curtis—yes, THAT Tony Curtis, of Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success—as well as Michael Ansara, of The Doll Squad and It’s Alive, and a notable episode of Star Trek, as well as Susan Strasberg [daughter of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg], Stella Stevens, Ann Sothern and Burgess Meredith! And it has music by Lalo Schifrin. We find all this out during the course of some very long, very boring credits.

First we meet Strasberg as Karen, who has a disturbing tumor-like growth on her upper back. Then we are introduced to this medium through a leisurely pan around his apartment as pastoral music plays. This is Tony Curtis as Harry, who adopts a mustache and cape to assume the guise of this supposed medium who reads the tarot and bilks old women of their fortunes. It’s a very funny scene in which we see him tryng to get one of his clients out of his office, when she CLEARLY wants to stay and chat. At last he makes up a “mystic mantra” for her to repeat, and sends her packing. He takes off his mustache and cape and reveals himself to be a blue collar dude in a wife-beater who grabs a beer and dances around his apartment to disco music while alone.

Karen calls him to reconnect—they had been together, possibly married, but it didn’t work out. Now she reaches out to him for solace as she deals with her bizarre growth, which the doctors are beginning to realize is… a FETUS. Karen and Harry rekindle the old flame, and he delivers a classic line when she says she’s troubled by the growth and he says “Is THAT what’s concerning you?” Oh, you mean something as trivial as a fetus growing like a tumor on your back, something that has never been recorded in the annals of medicine? THAT? Some people just make mountains out of molehills.

SPOILERS > > >
By now we’ve had occasion to notice that the score for this film contains a PLETHORA of musical styles. Harry and Karen get it on, which seems might be made awkward by a tumor-fetus on one’s upper back, but hey, I suppose, you know, some things aren’t deal-breakers for everyone. She then wants him to do a quick tarot reading for her—but gets some pretty dismal results twice in a row. When Karen goes into surgery to remove the bonus fetus, all the lights suddenly go wonky and the surgeon is compelled to turn the scalpel on himself. It’ll also kill Karen. Pesky little thing!

Now there’s another good scene where Harry is acting as a medium with one of his elderly clients, reading her tarot and telling her how she’ll become rich and meet a new man, when suddenly he pulls the death card and she abruptly starts wheezing and completely freaks out, then goes literally floating down the hall and gets thrown down the stairs. I love how this death is not recorded, police are never involved, and Harry just goes on with his life. Yeah, you know, once the police hear that a lady levitated down a hall and was thrown down the stairs by a vengeful spirit, well, case closed, right?

By now a few people have been uttering some ancient Indian saying, and Harry runs into an old pal, and she recommends that they have a séance. This is where we encounter Ann Sothern, who soon becomes possessed and starts moaning and chanting. There’s a neat effect in here, in which they switch out the shiny black table for one with a liquid center, and have a man’s head seem to rise up out of it. He utters a few nonsensical groans and vanishes again. They’re all sitting around essentially saying “Woah, THAT was weird,” when the door expodes and a huge wind whips through the place. This ancient Indian spirit is armed with explosives!

Harry takes Karen to meet spiritualist historian Burgess Meredith, who delivers a wonderful comic performance. He pretty much tells them that they have absolutely no hope. He suggests that perhaps they should get their own medicine man, and take on the spirit medicine-mano-a-medicine-mano. The doctors make another attempt to remove the lump, which is quite sizable by now, and commandeers an operative laser and is shooting it at the doctors! I like an ancient Indian unafraid to embrace new technologies.

Somehow Harry locates some retired medicine man, John Singing Rock, played by Ansara who is unwilling to help because—the White Man stole the Indian’s land!—but then he decides to help anyway. Turns out the spirit on Karen’s back is Lemakis, the baddest mutherfucker medicine man the world has ever known, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. John makes a circle of sand around Karen’s bed, and tells everyone they’d better not smudge it, or they’ll have a tedious sweeping job on their hands. And face certain death. Then—Lemakis is born! Out of Karen’s back! In one of the more unusual movie sequences you may ever see. He turns out to be a squat little fellow with a taciturn disposition and grumpy demeanor. Then, just when you thought the situation couldn’t get more explosive—he just sits down and does nothing? He spent all that time and effort to return to the world just to squat down in some hospital room?

Pretty much. And the little scrotum-faced dude in the room is ony the spirit’s Manitou, which is the physical manifestation or some such—I wouldn’t worry about getting too deep into it. So there’s a fun little effect where Lemakis is using his powers to open the circle of sand, and what they did is to make a thin floor, and switch out the sand with metallic filings, then used magnets to get the sand to ‘separate.’ Fun, right?

So then Lemakis sends some giant spirit iguana at them, not too impressive, then Harry goes upstairs for something, and when he comes back down, the whole hospital floor is frozen! Including a nurse who has both frozen AND turned into a mannequin. There is then an INSANE snow and wind explosion as the Manitou comes at them, including a close-up of the nurse dummy head [no, I mean DUMMY. HEAD.] getting thrown through a window. Then Harry chucks a typewriter at the thing, and this causes it to back off. I’ll task you to start thinking about why and see if you can come up with the answer by the time the climax comes.

Anyway, so Harry, John, and this other doctor I haven’t mentioned yet take off to the upper floors, where they fret over how to save Karen, which might make you ask—“But wasn’t Karen just lying thre unattended for the past fifteen minutes, giving them plenty of time to get them out of there?” No sooner have you asked when—Lemakis-induced earthquake! Here’s where you see that they are using this AMAZING special earthquake set with floors and walls all set to bump up at different angles and… boy, they went all out. It actually is impressive. Turns out this is happening because Lemakis is placing a person-to-person call to Satan, telling him he’s found an awesome new place to chill, and he should come check it out.

Then Harry looks at the big supercomputer in the doctor dude’s room and—well, we’ll soon be coming to this! They go back to Karen’s room, which is now a portal to another dimension! Or something. They open the door and it’s all the depths of space inside. SO inconvenient for housekeeping. Anyway, there’s the Manitou floating in space, calling Satan on his cell. And here comes Harry’s big plan. Now, remember when Harry threw the typewriter at the Manitou and it repelled it? Do you have an answer for why that happened? It would seem, that a typewriter represents the white man’s KNOWLEDGE SYSTEM, and this is like, so gross to the Manitou, who prefers his knowledge systems in the ancient Native American style. So the hospital’s supercomputer would then represent a super-duper knowledge system, right? And they going to throw THAT at the Manitou? No, because, you see, the MACHINE has a Manitou of its own—yeah, it does!—and they just have to nicely ask the machine Manitou to fight the real Manitou before his call to Satan is connected.

Okay, now, you may have been sent into a form of mild shock by the reality of how inane this all this. Well, now’s the time for a sedative, because all this flat-out conceptual stupidity is about to reach fruition.

John gets in the doorway to the other dimension and says—SERIOUSLY says: “Manitou of the machine! Kill Lemakis!” He actually goes on in this vein for some time. John gets zapped. Then Harry thinks he can succeed where John the medicine man can’t, just by virtue of his All-American manhood, but he gets zapped, too. Dang it all, looks like curtains for our bunch. But then—surprise!—Karen [remember her?] wakes up, and the machine Manitou decides to channel its energy [literally tendrils of electricity] through her, which she turns on Lemakis.

Now, at this point you might not think this film could possibly go even MORE into outer space—BUT YOU’D BE WRONG! Because Karen, topless, sits up in bed and makes crazy unctuous faces as she SHOOTS LASER BEAMS from her hands at the Manitou. He responds by sending flaming fireballs her way, in a loop of fireball footage that is reused several, several times, and for quite some time we have a fireball vs. laser fight! So Karen zaps the Manitou/Lemakis, but it turns out Satan heard the phone ringing, star-69ed it, and is calling back. So after some more hugger-mugger, the machine Manitou powers up Karen again and she laser-blasts Satan! Whew.

We then have an epilogue showing us that everything is peachy-keen now, and then an ending title informs us: “Fact:” this 14-year-old Japanese buy had a fetus growing on his back. Oh my God, so that must mean everything else in the movie is completely true!
< < < SPOILERS END

This was pretty much crazy fun! It starts out like a regular horror movie with a sense of humor—like all those scenes with Curtis as the charlatan psychic—then turns into this relatively bizarre horror drama, then goes OFF THE DEEP END. There was no way I could have known this movie was going to go QUITE so psycho at the end. But it was totally fun from beginning to end, and while it’s obviously total garbage and the direction is, um, not great, the whole thing retains a propulsive energy that really keep you engaged and things moving along. It’s that Girdler Gusto. If you’re used to “bad” movies and aren’t going to be turned off just because this is a little strange, I think you’ll have to admit that it’s actually quite fun and engaging in a pop way and is, all round, a winner!

Should you watch it: 

You sure should, especially if you like fun horror that shoots gleefully off the deep end.