All posts by Pete Trbovich

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, , ,

PLOT: A milquetoast suburban couple find themselves dead and haunting their own house; when new tenants they can’t stand redecorate the place and prove themselves immune to haunting, they hire a “bio-exorcist.”

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The premise, following a couple of ghosts protagonists along their misadventures in the afterlife, is a good enough foundation, but could have been a ho-hum fantasy in different hands. It took this all-star crew to come up with a desert world populated by sand snakes, a brothel in model train scale, a dinner party becoming a Harry Belafonte singalong, and a million and one creepy/hilarious dead folk to round it up to an eye-popping experience. It’s the happiest movie about death ever made!

COMMENTS: Tim Burton has certainly provoked his share of discussion on our site. Had 366 Weird Movies been around when he started his career, he doubtless would have been keen to make our list. Don’t let him kid for you a minute: Tim Burton knows exactly what weird is. He has Danny Elfman around, he knows about Forbidden Zone. There’s no excuse. He also knows what money is, and the siren song of the almighty buck has proven a stronger lure than prestige as a true artiste and auteur of midnight movies. Hence has he ever aimed his output straight for the suburban outlet mall, right between Hallmark and Hot Topic, making sure he can be equally merchandised in both. It’s clear that his artistic muse struggles to insert weirdness into everything he does, but if the weirdness factor cuts into the box office factor, he’s not about to take a chance on leaving a single empty seat in that theater on opening weekend. He still sobs himself to sleep at night over the lost Happy Meal deal. His saving grace is that he got off a few riskier shots in his wild years before Hollywood tamed him.

Beetlejuice is definitely Tim Burton at his wildest. If you remove his name and the all-star crew from consideration and view Beetlejuice objectively as its own thing, it’s pretty jaw-dropping that it ever got made. It is the blackest of black comedy subjects, getting a laugh out of scenes like suicide cases showing off their slashed wrists. And how would you like to hang yourself, only to find out that in the afterlife you’re condemned to keep dangling from the same noose, which is running around on a track amid office cubicles, so you can deliver memos? And the daughter protagonist—who can see ghosts through her sheer magical goth pixie powers alone—writes her suicide note but ghosts talk her out of it because, basically, death sucks too, kid. And how about Juno, the social worker for our hapless couple, who chainsmokes and exhales through the slash in her throat, and yet the effect is so underplayed that you could blink and miss it?

I once griped about the Imagination Ceiling: writers who bring up supernatural characters with allegedly near-boundless powers, but then the writer can’t think of anything awesome enough for them to do to make it worth the while. Beetlejuice does the Imagination Ceiling right. It’s jam-packed with supernatural characters who warp reality with a thought, pulling off one crazy stunt after another. Beetlejuice, tasked with getting rid of an intruding couple, does so by turning himself into a carnival strong man mallet game topped by a malevolent merry-go-round, for no other reason than that’s the first idea that popped into his head. In the manic hour-and-a-half running time, we never get very much explained, but the fever-dream logic is internally consistent enough that it makes perfect sense for a guy to get munched by a sudden sandworm attack. Right after he got rammed in the foot by a toy car driven by an outraged hobbyist shrunken down and left for stranded in his own model town, of course.

The mortal characters would be hard pressed to match the supernatural ones, but they do a bang-up job regardless. From the impossibly prissy interior decorator turned medium to the hysterically neurotic sculptress who will eventually be held prisoner by one of her own creations, they match the dead half of the cast bonker for bonker. Nobody with more than two lines in this film is forgettable. Only now we can start talking about the cast and crew, a unique blend of quirky careers and offbeat talents. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis stand out by the magnitude of their vanilla Brad and Janet routine, lost in a different kind of Gothic funhouse. Winona Ryder plays the most Winona Rydery role of her career. Danny Elfman’s music is a haunted circus. And all I want is for Glenn Shadix to follow me around all day narrating every mundane thing I do in his dramatic purple ham voice, is that too much to ask?

Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s weirdest movie, because it ranks four out of five bowls of sugary cereal on the Saturday Morning Cartoon scale of unfettered childhood imagination.

Warner Brothers re-released Beetlejuice in a collectible Blu-ray steelbook package in 2019, giving us the excuse we needed to finally review it. It has the original trailer and the three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon series that were included on the “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray, but doesn’t come with the isolated score or soundtrack CD bonus disc from that release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of ‘what the hell?’ How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.”–Germaine Lussier, Gizmodo

QUESTIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL

Poring over past musings here, I ran across this comment under our List entry for Cube (1997): “Incidentally, I feel like the whole topic of the ontological mystery is something this site could devote an article to…” You’re right, Simon Hyslop, so this Bud’s for you!

But there’s an aven bigger rock to pick out of the trench than just the “ontological mystery.” Perhaps we should illuminate why we like weird movies, or at least get as close to solving that conundrum as we can here. It’s just gift-wrapped in the ontological mystery genre because it makes for such a dandy distillation of the concept of weirdness itself.

Mirriam-Webster defines “weird” as “of strange or extraordinary character : odd, fantastic.” This suggests that in order for something to be weird, it must be puzzling, mysterious, and perhaps even ultimately unsolvable. So many movies honored on 366 Weird Movies can be described exactly that way. The top movies on this site, by reputation and backed by reader polls, as often as not have ambiguous meaning and a baffling ending that leaves us with more questions than we started with.

Where the hell is Eraserhead set? What is really going on at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What genre does Donnie Darko even fit into? How exactly has the family in Dogtooth survived in the world this long? Why is there a secret door in an office building that leads to the inside of Being John Malkovich‘s head? No reason.

All those movies are honored, timeless classics debated by film scholars year in and year out, but the questions are still open: just as with the mysteries of Cube, and stories in the existentialist tradition going all the way back to Sartre and . Come to think of it, most movies enrolled in the List can be stretched to fit the definition of “ontological mysteries,” or at least mysteries of some kind or another. It’s the unanswered questions in these stories that captivate us.

Sure it does. But why? Why aren’t we happy with “boy meets girl and tEraserhead's ontological crisishey live happily ever after?” A lot of other people seem to be content with that. In real life, we seek answers and are never satisfied until we get them. That’s what the continuing pursuit of science is all about.

But right away you notice that real life never has a tidy ending with everything explained. There’s no real beginning or endings anywhere; every story stretches along an infinite thread in either direction.

The nature of the universe exposes us human beings as having one encumbering flaw. The fact that we defend it does not negate the fact that it is a flaw. The flaw is that humans need to understand Continue reading QUESTIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL

CAPSULE: LET MY PUPPETS COME (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Gerard Damiano

FEATURING:  Al Goldstein, , Viju Krem, Gerard Damiano

PLOT: A board room full of executives get into deep debt to a mobster named “Mr. Big,” so they decide to create a porno to earn the dough.

Still from Let My Puppets Come (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: After the shock of “puppet porn,” this movie runs out of steam really, really fast. It leaps off the platform of its premise and tumbles down the pit of mediocrity before it ever reaches for the trapeze swing to True Weirdness.

COMMENTS: A puppet porno, all mine to review? I cackled and sharpened my barbs. I prepared all my smart-ass observations: “When a puppet gets pregnant, why doesn’t the fetus fall out?” and “Technically, doesn’t all puppet sex count as a hand job?” and “How do you stay lubricated when you’re covered in felt?” Then I never got to use them, because this movie was just tragically unlucky. I don’t want to mock it, I want to treat it to an ice cream cone and pat it on the head and tell it “There there, it just wasn’t your time.” I rank “Making Puppets Edgy” right up there with “Perpetual Motion” and “Squaring The Circle” in the category of “Things That Never Work But People Never Stop Trying.” Between Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, the puppetry tag on this site alone goes on for three pages, which is two and a half pages longer than anybody needed. So of course you expect Let My Puppets Come to be a Feebles rip-off, until you find out that Puppets was, hot damn, the very first adult puppet movie! No really, wiki and weep. It even predated The Muppet Show, which debuted in September of that year. When you consider all this and view the movie in the context of 1976—Patty Hearst was on trial, Apple Computer was just founded, was still alive—Let My Puppets Come gets 100x bigger balls. Neutered ones, sadly.

The plot is a loose framework wherein three (puppet) business executives doing business things receive a telegram delivering bad business news: they owe a half million bucks to a mobster, “Mr. Big,” with no way to scare up the funds. The telegram delivery boy has a swell idea: make a groovy porn flick! The group speculates on what kinds of stories they want to do, with swirly transitions to fantasies. That’s the first thing to know about this movie: it’s a loosely connected series of sketches, even down to parodies of popular TV commercials of the time (a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, released the very next year). The structure makes it sleepy, despite the very first sex scene being between a puppet woman and her puppet dog, who seals the deal by reassuring her “I have all my shots.” (Hey, you bought a ticket to a puppet porn, it’s a little late to pretend you have standards now.) We swim along through more sketches, like a massage parlor and the canonical nurse-on-patient fantasy, all the porn standards. The gents frolic off to make their movie, recruiting from an adult toy shop clerk just so we can gawk at all the kinky novelties. There’s a Diana Ross stand-in, a Pinocchio stand-in, and a rip-off of the puppet character Madame.

All these scenes amount to exactly one lame joke each. A couple of them are funny, more of them are a groan, and the rest just die before they hit the floor. There’s random songs tossed in and multiple parodies of contemporary pop culture. The puppet sex is mostly puppet blowjobs, which take the form of clumsy duels between inflexible clam-shell lips and wobbly foam willies. I lost count after the third time the “William Tell Overture” was played over a sex scene to make it “funny.” There’s also original songs, all pleasant enough, but none of them show-stoppers. You get so used to looking at foam actors that when a real live go-go stripper shimmies onto the screen, it takes you a while to work out what’s wrong with her before it dawns on you that she’s made out of meat. In making a movie about characters making a porn movie, director Gerard Damiano gets in some good therapeutic role-playing to recover from the scandals around his infamous Deep Throat (1972). This extends right to the puppet directors being thrown into puppet jail for obscenity charges.  Damiano tastefully cuts his pillow-sobbing short to allow the movie an ending, which brings out Luis de Jesus as “Mr. Big,” and then wastes him.

Let My Puppets Come is not without its tacky, corny charm, but it’s a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. I am a proud supporter of pansexual freedom, and a dirty old pervert too, so I wanted to like this movie more. The puppetry is on-point, at least. Good puppetry takes time to film, which makes it all the sadder to see it go to waste. This movie is left without an audience. It’s too silly for Vanillas to consider sexy, and doesn’t get nearly freaky enough to arouse the kinky, despite the puppet-on-human spanking scene. It isn’t funny enough to work as a comedy, doesn’t have enough songs to qualify as a musical, and isn’t even campy enough to get a cult following when the opportunity is practically handed to it. The poor thing is so ambitious that it sabotages its own mission. Had Let My Puppets Come just relaxed and been happy with what it is, it could have been a cult classic.

For the record: There’s various cuts of the film with time-spans ranging from 40-75 minutes. The full, uncut version is now available on a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which means you’ll no longer have to resort to the low-res pirated version on PornHub (which is how I originally saw it). I love my career.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for [Damiano’s] 1976 feature film Let My Puppets Come, an XXX film where the main characters are puppets…. truly one of XXX cinema’s most unique films.”–Cliff Wood, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Andy Sidaris

FEATURING: Ronn Moss, Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Cynthia Brimhall, Harold Diamond

PLOT: Several pairs of breasts, which happen to be connected to DEA agents, have an adventure with diamond smugglers and a toxic snake.

Still from Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)

WHY TIT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You got me there: this is without a doubt the most psychedelic episode of Miami Vice ever filmed. But that’s damning with faint praise on this site. We can’t put this movie on the List because it’s too tame to fend for itself and the other movies would eat it alive.

COMMENTS: I draw a distinction between what I deem to be “stupid movies” and “brainless movies.” A stupid movie thinks it’s smart, but it’s actually all drooling duh-hurp dumb. A brainless movie is dumb, knows its dumb, revels in its dumbness, and tries to have as much fun as it can anyway. I can’t hate a brainless movie too much, because at least it’s trying to entertain, in its own way. So here’s Hard Ticket To Hawaii, from the gloriously brainless, but entertaining director Andy Sidaris, making another of his movies destined for a “Girls, Guns and G-Strings” box set. Sidaris, through Cthulhu knows what Faustian bargain, managed to arrange a life for himself where he got to film in Hawaii all the time surrounded by naked Playboy models. With his wife’s help as production assistant, no less. Sidaris even does a cameo in his own movie, where he is seated at a Tiki bar and burrows his beak into the epic cleavage of yet another scantily-clad female while uttering the immortal line: “I’ll have a pair of coffee.” Settle in for a cheesy good time!

Just don’t suffer too much trying to keep track of the plot, because heaven forbid that’s what you should concentrate on. There are these DEA agents named Donna and Taryn, stationed in Hawaii for some undefined purpose, who accidentally intercept diamond smugglers. The smugglers were inept enough to try to transport their precious cargo via remote-control helicopter though, and land it right in front of the agents, so whose fault is that? Before examining the find, the gals opt to hop in the Jacuzzi because “I always do my best thinking there.” Yes, trained law officials always handle evidence while wet and topless. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, a wooden crate loaded with a live, giant, hazardous snake was boarded on their plane. It manages to break out of its box and is now slithering all over the island. This is bad news, because the warehouse owner in charge of snakes gets on the phone to warn them that the snake has been exposed to toxins, so it’s now too dangerous to have around because it’s a giant, hazardous toxic snake.

At least, I think it’s meant to be a snake, and everybody calls it one. You could literally sculpt a more convincing prop out of Play-Doh using only one color, but we have to settle for what we can get here. The snake apparently eats the half of the script that would have made sense, so the movie runs out of plot and settles for running around doing random stuff. The girls are joined by both male and female agents doing vaguely detective-ish, action-ish stuff, in between boffing on the beach like randy alley cats. The smugglers come after the agents, intent on getting their diamonds back and willing to torture them for the gratuitous thrill of it. Confrontations between smugglers and agents take the shape of a skater-punk toting a blow-up sex doll attacking agents who blow him and the doll away with a bazooka—separately, just to be sure the doll is neutralized as well. Or, people getting their throat slit by the blade of a killer Frisbee, much like the kind Oddjob from Goldfinger would have played with on his day off. Just when you think too hard about the plot or the action sequences, tops come off and boobies jiggle. All of our hopes are pinned upon Team Titty to bring the B-list smuggling gang and the toxic snake to justice.

Honestly, what do you expect for 1987? Look, there was a dog running around selling people beer, and everybody loved him. It’s a good thing Hard Nipple Ticket To Hawaii is so busy mashing mushmelons in your face, because otherwise you’d notice that the story, dialogue, and acting are all in the range between Ed Wood and the late-night softcore movies that earned a certain cable channel the nickname “Skinemax.” There’s even Jerry-Warren-type scene-to-scene continuity errors, like a trunk two guys carry out to a jeep and leave in the parking lot, then next scene there’s clearly no trunk in the jeep. However, this movie is quality brainless entertainment for cheese-lovers everywhere. To this movie’s credit, they don’t skimp with stock footage. When they fly a plane around Hawaii, by Jove, you get original footage of a plane and Hawaii. That cocaine money within the budget isn’t going to launder itself, you know. This is a lousy movie to see alone, but becomes exponentially better the more drunk friends you add to the experience. The ruder and cruder the better.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s some bizarre stuff in this film. The guy on the skateboard, his love doll, and a bazooka, for example. (‘He must be smokin some heavy doobies!’ says one of our heroes. Is he referring to the writers?)”–Bill Gordon, The Worst Movies Ever Made

CAPSULE: KEOMA (1976)

AKA Django’s Great Return; The Violent Breed

DIRECTED BY: Enzo G. Castellari

FEATURING: , Donald O’Brien, William Berger, Olga Karlatos

PLOT: A half-breed gunslinger returns to his home town after serving in the Civil War to find it overrun by an outlaw gang.

Still from Keoma (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you remove the infamous soundtrack, this movie is a candidate for a standard, artful, but pretty ordinary spaghetti Western. Grim as Hades’ gruel and dark as midnight, yes, but not weird. The soundtrack, moreover, qualifies less as weird and more as a hate crime against eardrums.

COMMENTS: What chance does a Western have on this site? In the category of weird Westerns, there is El Topo, and the buck pretty much stops there. Nobody else need bother applying. It scored #10 on March Movie Madness out of the whole 366 List. Sure there’s a few more weird Westerns on the List, but by and large, Westerns are the most conservative, vanilla genre out there. I know some fans will be ready to thrash me for saying so, but I hate this genre. It’s BORING! The same horses, the same guns, the same hats, the same saloon fight. Show me an establishing shot of an old ghost town with a tumbleweed blowing by and I’m yawning already. El Topo is my favorite Western, Blazing Saddles my second-favorite, and every other one is tied for last place, spaghetti Westerns included. Yes, I will grant, there are many well-done Westerns—don’t think I don’t appreciate them—but I can only stare at the same paint on the same wall for so long, even if Picasso painted it. Even worse is another Django (1966) knock-off (albeit starring the original Django). During the copycat Western period, all cowboys were Django, the way all Mexican Luchador wrestlers are Santo.

So, in the boring, boring west, Keoma (Franco Nero) comes home from the Civil War to find his home town overrun by outlaws. Team Bad Guy–cackling evildoers of the Snidely Whiplash variety—is led by Caldwell (Donald O’Brien), who doesn’t tie screaming damsels to train tracks but might as well, since he solves a plague epidemic by hunting the victims down like dogs. Worse yet, Keoma’s half-brothers despise him because he’s a half-breed Indian and have thrown in their lot with Caldwell. Keoma’s only allies are his father and a few town stragglers, so together Team Good Guy is going to solve this with lots of fighting, featuring saloon punch-outs and gunfighter duels at the O.K. Corral. Notice how this plot flies right through your brain without hanging onto any details? Horses are ridden, oats are eaten, honky tonk pianos are played, poker cards are dealt. The most original element is an old crone who observes Keoma’s progress and advises him from time to time.

Let’s talk about the dead, stinking elephant in the room: The Worst Soundtrack EVER! Keoma has the bad luck to be famous mainly for its cursed music. It’s as bad as every review says it is, and worse. The female vocals sound like Tiny Tim doing a falsetto after inhaling helium, and then the male accompaniment comes in sounding like what everybody swears to God is Arnold Schwarzenegger with a head cold. But wait, there’s more! The music sings the entire narration, an invisible Greek chorus punctuating every major scene in operatic detail. And not only that, the music is not at all Western, but sounds more like an amateur Renaissance Fair ballad. This takes what should have been the grand finale of the spaghetti Western genre and turns it into excruciating torture to sit through. Nails on a chalkboard, a cat-fight on acid, your ears will throw up. You want so badly to appreciate the dramatic moments but the manic chipmunk with croaking frog accompaniment just WILL NOT SHUT UP.

Notwithstanding this one crippling handicap, Keoma is hailed by many as a spaghetti Western classic. Even the most rabid genre fans will admit it’s derivative, but this came out in the twilight years of Prego horse operas, so it’s unavoidable. Director Castellari at least keeps the camerawork interesting, peeking at the action through barrel knotholes and from between the spokes of wagon wheels. Reportedly, the script was written on the fly while filming, which is impressive because lines of dialogue hint at spirituality and a Zen view of the world, and snippets have Shakespearian aspirations. But sadly, Westerns have been so spammed in cinema that even the Taoist ones are a dime a dozen.

The defining feature of Keoma, music aside, is grimness. This film takes place in a world that’s just a big sack of crap for everybody, where they’re all damned souls struggling to kill each other in the most sadistic ways possible on the shores of Hell. Which, even if you love Westerns, makes it hard to give a damn about anybody here. The only thing you care about after it’s over is sticking your head in the microwave on high to see if that purges the soundtrack from your memory.

Arrow Video released a deluxe special edition Blu-ray in 2019, newly restored and with a host of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Aside from the peculiar mismatching of Nero and his role, the movie’s almost random collection of elements gives it an appealing recklessness and energy that sells it. The main drawback is the music…”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Mark Polish, Dianna Agron, Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha

PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission,  falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.

Still from Against the Clock (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.

COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.

If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.

Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my Continue reading CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MANITOU (1978)

DIRECTED BY: William Girdler

FEATURING: Tony Curtis, , Michael Ansara,

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 it.

Still from The Manitou (1978)

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