This week on TCM Underground: THE MANITOU (1978)

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A bogus psychic and a Native American medicine man combat an ancient entity of unimaginable power.

THE MANITOU (1978)

Cast: Tony Curtis (Harry Erskine), Michael Ansara (John Singing Rock), Susan Strasberg (Karen Tandy), Stella Stevens (Amelia Crusoe), Jon Cedar (Dr. Jack Hughes), Ann Sothern (Mrs. Karmann), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Snow), Paul Mantee (Dr. McEvoy), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Winconis), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Herz), Felix Silla/Joe Gieb (Misquamacus). Director: William Girdler. Screenplay: William Girdler, Jon Cedar, Thomas Pope, based on the novel by Graham Masterton. Cinematography: Michel Hugo. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Color, 104 min.

Showtime: Saturday, December 13, 11:30pm PST/2:30am EST 

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Blame it on the lingering effects of last week’s immersion into roller disco cinema but this week I’m singing “Manitou” to the tune of Olivia Newton John’s chart-topping earworm “Xanadu.” Actually, what better day to be writing about William Girdler’s THE MANITOU (1978) than hump day, being one of horror cinema’s most indelible unsightly growth films and years ahead of BASKETCASE (1982) or HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989). Based on the 1976 novel by Graham Masterton, an Edinburgh-born writer of sex instructional manuals turned horror novelist, THE MANITOU finds San Francisco resident Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg, above) so concerned about the tumor growing on her back that she gets a second opinion from her former boyfriend, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a sham psychic who makes his living cousining widows and grandmas out of their savings and pensions. At first skeptical, Harry becomes a believer after all sorts of weird things begin happening (events that include, but are not limited to, a levitating Laurene Tuttle) and the lump reveals itself as the manifestation of an ancient Native American spirit named Misquamaquas. Though Harry brings in a ringer in the form of South Dakota shaman John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), who knows the being by reputation and has some idea of how to combat him, all involved soon realize that saving Karen will be, quite literally, “one hell of a problem.”

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Like a mud run for charity, THE MANITOU is good sloppy fun that leaves you feeling exhausted and good about yourself afterwards. A natural born hustler, William Girdler was always chasing the tail end of the big money, crafting the African American possession shocker ABBY (1974) to cash in on the success of THE EXORCIST (1973), GRIZZLY (1976) to ride the wave of JAWS (1975), and DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1978) to profit from the mid-70s vogue for “revenge of nature” films. Boasting Girdler’s biggest budget to date and San Francisco locations that bestowed upon the film instant production value, THE MANITOU is anchored by Tony Curtis’ fully-engaged and thoroughly sincere lead performance and enlivened elsewhere by guest appearances from the likes of Stella Stevens (made up, for some occult reason, like Joan Crawford in THE UNKNOWN), Ann Sothern, and Burgess Meredith as “the guy who wrote the book” on Native American black magic and Sausalito’s top manitou man. The daughter of legendary/controversial/respected/hated acting coach Lee Strasberg, Susan Strasberg had by this point transitioned with grace to middle age and away from her ingenue origins, settling into a run of B-horror films of which this is the jewel in the crown; she had already played prominent roles in the odd cult number THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL (1968) and the Dan Curtis-scripted/produced telefilm FRANKENSTEIN (1973) and would go on to pop up, sometimes only briefly, in such 80s fright flicks as BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), Bert I. Gordon’s THE RETURNING (1983), and SWEET 16 (1983). Playing a specialist called to consult on Strasberg’s case is Jon Cedar, a familiar face to anyone who watched TV in the 70s, who also contributed to the adaptation of THE MANITOU and served as an associate producer.

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I love just about every frame of THE MANITOU and enjoy all the performances (a happy surprise is the entrance of Paul Mantee, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS himself, as one of the befuddled Frisco medicos)  but none more than that of Michael Ansara as John Singing Rock, the movie’s exorcist/Quint. Ansara gets all the best lines (“Your God won’t help you. Nothing in your Christian world will help. Not prayers, not holy water, nor the weight of a thousand of your churches”) and his gravely voice is THE MANITOU‘s best special effect. The actor was pushing 60 when he signed on for this and brings to the role just the right mixture of spirituality and world-weariness.  Of Syrian descent, Ansara’s dark skin made him a natural for playing Hollywood exotics of every stripe, from Apache chieftain Cochise on the ABC-TV seriesBROKEN ARROW to a Klingon commander on STAR TREK.  In Gordon Douglas’ ONLY THE VALIANT (1951) – an Indian massacre movie that plays as a dry run for Douglas’ later slaughterfest CHUKA (1967) – Ansara plays one of those marauding renegades whose anarchic machinations are cloaked in horror movie tropes, right down to the shock reappearance after the audience thinks he’s dead… a trait that would pass from redskin savages to the mechanical, unkillable predators of the slasher subgenre, which was born, for all intents and purposes, this same year with the release of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978). Though it’s disappointing when John Singing Rock is shunted aside in THE MANITOU‘s final frames, as Karen rises from her hospital bed for a topless mano a mano with “the Mix-Master” (as Curtis’ character calls him), I like that the film’s leading lady gets to play a part in her own salvation (a setpiece that, though it takes place in space, seems to owe a debt less to STAR WARS than Roger Corman’s THE RAVEN). 

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THE MANITOU‘s laser light denouement is what earns it a slot in the TCM Underground lineup and Psychotronic infamy but I think the movie is better than its reputation. The film assembles a pleasing assortment of characters, most of whom live in the comfortable gaps between authenticity and artificiality, between legend and history, between purity and compromise. Tony Curtis’ rascally Harry Erskine (a character that contrasts nicely with the actor’s turn as HOUDINI) is coded as a man of great potential and sensitivity, yet one who squanders his natural gifts on artifice and illusion; ditto the true psychic played by Stella Stevens, for whom one too many bad seances has convinced her that there’s a better living in running a nautical-themed curio and occult gift shop. Despite his prowess as a shaman, John Singing Rock is depicted as eking out a living as a subsistence farmer on government land while even Karen’s doctors, in a throwaway line early on, lament that too much of the time they should be spending healing the sick is taken up by administrative duties. Girdler and his collaborators (among them source novelist Masterton, who conceived the plot during his wife’s nervous first pregnancy, as he sought distraction in an article on indigenous American myths published in the 1955 edition of The Buffalo Bill Annual) lay a deceptively complex foundation for THE MANITOU that makes the resolution, however diluted to modern eyes by the climactic use of low tech special effects., satisfyingly complete. In the final analysis, THE MANITOU is fun, it is an aerobic, preposterous, charming balls to the wall good time, which is a claim I cannot make of many modern horror movies (I’m looking at you, INSIDIOUS and INSIDIOUS 2), which emphasis the dire and hopeless and the cruel when they should be trying to excite and beguile us. Though often pigeonholed as a point-and-shoot profiteer, William Girdler proves himself an efficient and artful director who might have gone on to bigger and better things had he not died in a helicopter crash in January 1978 (three months before THE MANITOU‘s premiere) while in preproduction in the Philippines for his next film.

Trivia: THE MANITOU‘s second assistant director was Alain Silver, perhaps better known to anyone who has read this far as the author/co-author/editor of such important genre studies as The Vampire Film, The Zombie Film, The Film Noir Encyclopedia, The Film Noir Style, The Film Noir Reader series, The Gangster Film Reader, The Horror Film Reader and What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and Films.

Beast with Five Fingers

Riding shotgun in the “overnight” slot at 1:15am PST/4:15 PST is Robert Florey’s THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946), a seminal crawling hand movie directed by the man who got Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) up and running but was pushed aside in favor of James Whale. It’s classic horror done to a classy (perhaps too classy) turn by Warner Brothers, written by Curt Siodmak, starring Peter Lorre, and with Hollywood heavy J. Carroll Naish in a rare good guy role.

9 Responses This week on TCM Underground: THE MANITOU (1978)
Posted By Bill : December 10, 2014 9:38 pm

Manitou did get caught in Star Wars’ wake during production, hence the veer into Space. Think the same happened to Krull, and The Dark (?). Good sport Curtis plugged this on The Mike Douglas Show with a very inside joke. Asked to describe the title being,”it’s an all-powerful spirit that controls all living things. Like Lew Wasserman”.

Posted By Doug : December 10, 2014 10:12 pm

This title is begging for a sequel:”Womanitou”.
Seeing Burgess Meredith listed reminded me of another great film of his from that year: “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.
As for “The Manitou”-I’m sure that the FX was weak, but possibly the studio also had trouble getting their button-down minds around how to display a ‘spiritual film’.
Monsters are easy. Villains are simple. But how do you display a spirit being? How to make a spiritual battle show up on film that doesn’t look silly?
Darth Vader showed us how-he could cup his hand and strangle someone from across the room.
“The Manitou” sounds like fun.

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 11, 2014 11:10 pm

Good old Paul Mantee went on to become a writer, including the semi-autobiographical novel BRUNO OF HOLLYWOOD.

Posted By Neville Arthur Ross : December 14, 2014 7:31 pm

I’m sorry, but I’ll take the Insidious movies over this, especially with Tony Curtis’s crap performance (at one point, he provided a perfect Ooh, Me Accent’s Slipping moment, as he forgets his accent and lapses into Brooklynese after hearing that his lady love’s got a growth in her neck-’In hah neck?’-that was noted in the book The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved.) I’ll agree with you about how great most of the older movies discussed here on this blog are (and sometimes I’ll even agree with you how better they are to certain newer ones), but not this time with this movie.

Posted By Jenni : December 15, 2014 1:34 am

I missed it! Forgot to set the dvr….hopefully TCM Underground will air it again in 2015. Hint, hint, hint!

Posted By Greg : December 17, 2014 10:04 pm

You used the word “cousining.” Is that a typo of “counseling,” or is it a real word. I wasn’t able to find a reference to it.

I saw this recently and let myself have fun with it. Stupidly watchable.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : December 20, 2014 3:20 am

This is one of those movies where the movie is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to describe as good or bad. The last half hour or so gets really crazy.

Posted By swac44 : December 23, 2014 7:57 pm

Sadly, no Manitou for us Canadians, we got the odd split-screen thriller Wicked, Wicked instead. Hopefully at some point it’ll resurface.

Posted By David F. : January 6, 2015 2:04 am

In response to the Dec.17, 2014 post by “Greg”: No, “cousining” is NOT a typo of the word “counseling”. It is a misspelling of the word “cozening” which means to deceive, win over, or induce to do something by artful coaxing and wheedling or shrewd trickery.

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