Tag Archives: Susan Strasberg

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.

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

CAPSULE: THE TRIP (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Salli Sachse,

PLOT: A director of commercials headed for a divorce takes LSD hoping for insight into his life; he gets it, while seeing plenty of pretty swirling colors and getting into trouble when he wanders away from his trip-sitter.

Still from The Trip (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Trip is a trendsetting lysergic journey, but it’s weirdness suffers because it takes itself too seriously, and handles itself too competently. Compare the derangement of 1968’s Skidoo, which, by casting the past-their-prime Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Carol Channing as the turned-on, comes at the acid fad from a bizarrely oblique angle.

COMMENTS: One of the vanguard films exploring (or exploiting) the LSD craze of the mid to late 1960s, The Trip was a seriously-intended and visually pioneering film from an unlikely source (B-movie impresario Roger Corman, previously best known for monster cheapies and Poe adaptations). While prior films—Movie Star, American Style or; LSD, I Hate You, Hallucination Generation, and even 1959’s The Tingler—had dealt with the effects of this remarkably cinematic drug, The Trip feels like the start of the psychedelic cycle. Despite a disclaimer pasted to the front of the first reel by the producers (“the illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous and can have fatal consequences”), the film’s tone is intended to be objective and non-judgmental. Inevitably, however, it feels very pro-drug; who wouldn’t want to have the insides of their eyelids temporarily tie-dyed while going on a fantastic interior adventure like Peter Fonda, safe in the knowledge that Bruce Dern will bring you back to Earth with a shot of Thorazine if things get too intense? True to its serious intent, the movie proposes the paradigm of LSD as a self-psychotherapeutic tool rather than LSD as an opportunity to chat with God or LSD as the ultimate party drug—though, if the film is to be believed, it can also get you laid by groovy disinhibited chicks.

Little of what happens in The Trip occurs outside of Fonda’s skull. We are quickly introduced to his character, a dude on the fringes of the establishment but hip enough to have Dennis Hopper as his connection, and within fifteen minutes he’s setting off pharmaceutical fireworks inside his cranium. The Trip settles into a rhythm of subjective hallucination montages followed by returns to normalcy as we check in on the blissed-out (or paranoid) Fonda from the perspective of a neutral observer. Fonda sees pasty-faced death figures on a beach, meets with a hallucinated guru played by Hopper inside the tinseled carnival of his mind, and makes love to Strasberg and Sachse while  projected paisleys play across their nude bodies. Fractured images assault us in speedy montages that whirl by in a psychedelic blur. The liquid light and solarization effects seem kitschy and cliched today, but they were cutting edge (though inexpensive) at the time. Fonda’s acting while straight isn’t impressive, but his stoned temperament is believable, particularly when he wanders into a laundromat and is awestruck by a Whirlpool washing machine. What psychological depth the film might have is suggested rather than achieved; we don’t know enough about Fonda to relate to his self-discovery, and there are no shocking psychological insights. In that way, The Trip seems more like a sketch or a template for what an artistically successful trip film might eventually look like. But there’s an energy and an anarchy to this pioneering effort that makes it watchable despite its flaws, and it’s Corman’s most experimental film—and one of his best.

The screenplay was by acid enthusiast and future Academy Award winner . Feeling that he could not direct the film competently otherwise, Corman (along with most of the rest of the cast, minus health-nut Bruce Dern) dropped LSD before filming. The Trip is overdue for a decent Blu-ray release, but it can still be found on an old double-sided DVD release along with Psych-Out. The disc has several featurettes and a Corman commentary, and although the picture is good, the soundtrack could be clearer. If buying the overpriced out-of-print double feature is too much of a plastic hassle, The Trip can be rented on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Corman has simply resorted to a long succession of familiar cinematic images, accompanied by weird music and sounds.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PSYCH-OUT (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Rush

FEATURING: , , , Max Julien, Adam Roarke, 

PLOT: A deaf runaway goes to Haight-Ashbury in search of her burnout brother, who has sent her a postcard reading “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.”

Still from Psych_Out (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few hallucination scenes supply a bit of weirdness, but essentially this is just an earnest pro-hippie exploitation film.

COMMENTS: I like the vintage newspaper ad copy for Psych-Out—“listen to the sound of purple!”, “they’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes… but they’ll give you love—for NOTHING!”—much better than the actual film. The movie is a 1968 rush job tossed into the market to exploit the audience’s salacious interest in the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll ethos of San Francisco’s flower children. The story of young Jenny’s search for her acid-casualty brother takes a back seat to a tour of Haight-Ashbury locales and culture. You get love beads, pot smoking, freakouts, happenings, chaste orgies, bead-stringing, bogus zen philosophy (“everything is part of everything else”) delivered by a guy in a Navajo headband, concerts at the Filmore East, the Strawberry Alarm Clock providing a fairly groovy soundtrack, and more pink and yellow paisley than you’d see in binge-watching session of “Laugh In.” Strasberg plays the wide-eyed ingenue lost in the den of friendly sin, Nicholson is musician/love interest aptly named “Stoney,” Max Julien (the future pimp of The Mack) is a drummer who hallucinates that he’s a knight, Dean Stockwell is Nicholson’s hippie conscience (he warns Stoney that success is “all just one big plastic hassle”), and Bruce Dern is the mad messiah of Haight Street. There are a few fun psychedelic scenes—one guy sees his friends as zombies and tries to cut off his own hand with a power saw, while Strasberg’s final fiery crash-and-burn STP trip is almost worth the wait—but mostly the film makes unfettered freedom and hedonism look kind of tedious, like a drug trip that starts off fun but just won’t end.

The script details are sloppy. Lots of plot points don’t make sense, like why a gang of straits is so eager to devote their time hunting down “the Seeker” when he’s no more offensive than any other street freak preacher. Strasberg’s Jenny has the most perfect diction you’ve ever heard from a deaf person. Jenny is also underage—otherwise her mother wouldn’t be able to send cops after her as a runaway—a fact whose moral implications the script ignores when throwing her in bed with various unshowered hippies. Overall, Psych-Out fails as standard entertainment, and delivers little in the way of weirdness or overt exploitation (the film has some blurry, blissed-out  suggested sex, but is nudity-free). At the time, it was a novel look at a subculture that was weird to outsiders, but today its only value is as a curiosity of hippie kitsch. It will come over either as camp or nostalgia, depending on your age. High on kaleidoscope lenses but low on plotting, this psychedelic capsule has lost most of its potency over the past five decades.

Jack Nicholson’s original script for Psych-Out was deemed too experimental, and Richard Rush had it re-written by a team of screenwriters; Nicholson kept the lead role of Stoney, which he wrote for himself. The great Lazslo Kovacs (who got his start in low-budget exploitation films like this one) oversaw the cinematography. Psych-Out was produced by clean-cut American Bandstand/New Year’s Rockin’ Eve impresario Dick Clark (!) It was re-released on Blu-ray (to better appreciate the pretty colors) in 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an above average programmer about San Francisco hippies. Thin story line – girl seeking lost brother – is sufficient as the medium for a series of incidents, including drug-induced hallucinations, all directed in excellent fashion by Richard Rush.”–Variety (contemporaneous)