Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Final Girl Film Club - The Manitou

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Evil does not die, it waits to be reborn in 1978's The Manitou.

After years of coming across short references to The Manitou, I was finally able to see the movie when it was released on DVD in 2007. Upon my first viewing, I was totally blown away by it. While it's not a movie I would ever call good, it proved to be so crazy and absurd that it was immensely entertaining to me. I found it to be hilarious, even though its content is largely delivered with a straight face by director William Girdler (Grizzly). That viewing ensured that The Manitou would be a film I'd never forget.

I had been to several 24 hour and all-nighter horror marathons by the time I saw The Manitou, and I sometimes daydream of hosting my own version of those marathons and make up lists of what movies I'd like to show at it. With that first viewing, The Manitou secured its place in my dream marathon lineup.

My thought was that The Manitou should be scheduled to show sometime around the early morning hours of a marathon, by which time the sleep-deprived members of the audience would already be delirious, their mental state enhancing the effectiveness of the movie's insanity. I don't partake in perception-altering substances, but if you hang around a convention or a marathon enough, odds are you're at some point going to be in the presence of someone who reeks of the reefer they've been toking. Those in the audience who are both sleep-deprived and stoned on weed may be the ones who would get the most out of watching The Manitou.

Susan Strasberg stars as Karen Tandy, a woman who wakes up one morning to find that she has a tumor growing on the back of her neck/her upper back. The tumor increases size at an unbelievably fast rate, differences can be noted hourly. Sometimes it even feels like something is moving inside of it. She seeks medical attention and the specialists are baffled as to what it is. All they can do is schedule a surgery to have it removed.

To calm her nerves and take her mind off of things, Karen reconnects with a former boyfriend, charlatan tarot card reader Harry Erskine, played by Tony Curtis with some comedic flair, especially in a scene where he relaxes after a session of bilking an old woman out of some cash by taking off his fake mustache and sticking it on the wall, drinking some beer out of a wine glass, and grooving to some funky tunes.

As time goes on, doctors come to the impossible conclusion that what's growing on Karen's back is not a tumor but in fact seems to be a fetus. Very strange, supernatural events begin to occur around her. Every attempt to remove the growth from her back goes horribly wrong - either the surgeon is uncontrollably driven to slice into his own hand with his scalpel rather than into Karen's skin, or the optical lazer goes haywire and starts blasting all over the room.

While the medical community tries to deal with Karen's problem, Harry uses a phrase he heard her speaking in her sleep to go searching down supernatural avenues for a way to help her. The unearthly power affecting things around Karen even reaches out to Harry's apartment, putting an elderly client into a trance and then tossing her down a flight of stairs. And this movie isn't satisfied with simple rolling an old woman down some steps. No, she smashes through all the wooden railing supports on the way down, too.

A séance with hippie-types and a consultation with an expert in Native American folklore played by Burgess Meredith, who also leans toward the comedic with his performance, leads Harry to the discovery that what's growing on Karen is the manitou, the immortal spirit, of a supremely powerful Native American medicine man named Misquamacus who first lived four hundred years ago. Karen will die, and a full grown Misquamacus will emerge from the lump on her back... Unless Harry can find a way to stop him. And to do that, he decides to "fight fire with fire". He hires his own Native American medicine man, Syrian actor Michael Ansara as John Singing Rock.

Singing Rock goes to battle with Misquamacus. If he wins, Karen lives. If he loses, Karen will be the lucky one... she'll die first. It will be much worse for the people who have to face Misquamacus's wrath.

Misquamacus is eventually born, although his fetus absorbed so many x-rays that it stunted his growth, leaving him to be reincarnated as a little person. Two different actors wore the Misquamacus makeup: 3'11" Felix Silla, and Joe Gieb, who stands just over 4 feet tall. This iteration of Misquamacus may be short in stature, but his magic is still quite powerful.

The ancient medicine man wreaks a whole lot of havoc; he turns a person inside out, re-animates a corpse, calls upon a ghostly man-in-suit demon lizard, freezes an entire floor of the hospital, causes a massive earthquake, even tries to bring the Great Old One Satan himself into our world...

Unfortunately, Misquamacus finds himself at the dawn of the computer age this time around. Every object has a spirit, and his greatest weakness turns out to be the spirits of computers. If Misquamacus thought he had it rough in 1978, he'd really be screwed if he tried to come back now.

Somehow, all of this builds up to a lazer battle between Satan and a nude Susan Strasberg in outer space.

Yes, The Manitou is a glorious film to behold, a completely ridiculous helping of '70s supernatural horror that I highly recommend all fans of the genre seek out and experience for themselves. I've had a lot of fun watching this movie at home over the years, and I still hope to someday watch it on a big screen with an audience that gets as much enjoyment out of its nonsense as I do.

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1 comment:

  1. I also love this movie - which I think I first saw in a CBS movie of the week premiere slot. William Girdler died in a helicopter accident scouting locations for his next movie - they stuck a blurb box about it into the Starlog article on this movie - so I guess he passed before it was even released. Truly sad - as he was a unique genre filmmaker for sure. Great review, Cody!