DIRECTED BY: William Girdler
FEATURING: Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Burgess Meredith
PLOT: Karen has a problem: there’s a zit on her back which is growing into a tumor that is the manifestation of a 400-year old native American medicine man, which will require the help of psychics, computers, and another medicine man to deal with.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The late Blu-ray release caused a missed connection with the List, now closed. Otherwise, this movie combines the raving premise, bonkers execution, and deadpan seriousness that defines the finest of our so-bad-its-weird curations. The cacophony of an exploding typewriter, an indoor blizzard, a licorice spirit melting out of a table, and a frozen head crashing through a window ensures that everyone will have a favorite indelible scene.
COMMENTS: Today is a very special episode of Pete’s Punishing Picture Show, not the least of which because it touches on one of my favorite perversions side hobbies: collecting bad ripoffs of The Exorcist (1973). From Bollywood to Italian giallo, Exorcist rip-offs form their own genre; you can trace the demon shock wave of 1973 rippling through cinematic history around the world. The Manitou hides behind North American native hoodoo instead of Catholic demonology, but it can’t fool us; it follows the exact same structure act-for-act. Its chief innovation is that by late third act, it gets bored with retrodding Exorcist ground and opts to mix in some Star Wars instead, generously garnished with psychedelic space gloop from 2001: A Space Odyssey for good measure.
Wasting no time in trifling details like character development, The Manitou starts at a hospital as a doctor tries to explain the strange growth on the back of a patient’s neck. The patient is Karen (Susan Strasberg), whose estranged ex-boyfriend Harry (Tony Curtis) is a phony psychic making a living as a freelance Tarot card reader for wealthy widows. Just to nail a pin on how phony he is, he wears a Cookie-Crisp-blue wizard robe and a fake mustache that he peels off and pastes on a pillar en route to his tumbler of scotch at the end of a hard day’s work as a flim-flam artist. But when Karen consults him about her lump problem, he is confronted with real-life black magic, since all attempts to treat the lump with conventional medicine lead to everything going haywire. Harry makes the rounds of his not-fake psychic friends for a séance here and a consultation with a professor of native American studies (a well-cast Burgess Meredith) there, and eventually is led to the conclusion that the lump on Karen’s neck is a reincarnated 400-year old native American medicine man, who is possessing Karen as a parasitic host on his way to being reborn.
The evil influence of the Lump even drives a random client of Harry’s to levitate out of her chair and fly downstairs, killing her, a homicide never to be brought up again. Out of his league when confronted by reincarnated witch doctors, Harry has to drive out to a reservation to recruit John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), a gruff medicine man who is also the most offensive racial stereotype in film since Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Chinaman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The whole movie drowns in Disneyfied Injun-Joe buckskin clichés, as Singing Rock executes heap big pow-wow mojo (it involves rattling little leather drums a lot) to contain “Misquamacus,” the name of Karen’s manitou. Misquamacus devoted himself to the dark side of the medicine force, so his coming back is a bad thing. But come back he does, ripping a hole out of Karen’s back as he is birthed into a midget character resembling a slightly chewed cinnamon gummy bear. Misquamacus and Singing Rock spend the rest of the movie in a no-holds-barred Injun magic fight, turning the hospital into a frozen ice cavern straight off the planet Hoth and freezing cheerful nurses into meat popsicles, manifesting lizard spirits, and eventually transforming Karen’s hospital room into an outer space dimension with her bed flying in the middle of it. But Singing Rock marshals the forces of the hospital’s DEC-era computers (“White Man magic!,” he explains) to help in the battle.
As Singing Rock dispenses his medicine-man-wisdom-of-the-day about how the White Man pisses off nature spirits—shame on us!—we soberly realize the consequences of our faithless high-tech lifestyle. Actually, no, not a stinking minute of this movie makes sense, with none of it explained except via Tonto-logic. Nevertheless, it is done with strident deadpan seriousness all the way through; everybody involved seems smugly sure they’d have another Exorcist on their hands. While exteriors are gorgeously shot in San Francisco, the interior sets carries this studio-bound film into made-for-TV funk, feeling like the nuttiest episode of General Hospital ever made. The numerous special effects don’t date themselves to a minute past 1978, giving every “hadouken” laser blast in the medicine-magic battle a distinct early “Doctor Who” flavor. Insult to injury, Tony Curtis has never been so badly miscast. His streetwise Manhattan borough delivery demolishes every line he speaks. The Manitou is one of those movies where nothing works, and yet the entire 104-minute running time is hilarious entertainment that will never bore you for a second. It could be one of the greatest specimens of unintentional camp ever made. Just be sure if you get a zit on your neck, treat it with some Clearasil and take care of it the easy way.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The plot can easily be summarized, but first this announcement: If you happen to be drinking hot coffee at the present moment, please set your cup aside, because elements of the scenario might cause you to begin shaking with helpless laughter and you could spill the coffee on your rug, dog, cat, mate or newspaper.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, contemporaneous