Let me tell you about a guy named William Girder. Never heard of him? Born in Kentucky in 1947, he launched his career in Hollywood in 1972 with the release of a never-seen horror movie called ASYLUM OF SATAN. There followed other directorial efforts, some of which you may have heard of, if not actually seen: THREE ON A MEATHOOK, ABBY, GRIZZLY, PROJECT: KILL, DAY OF THE ANIMALS… he made a total of nine films in six years, before dying in a helicopter accident in the Philippines while scouting locations for a tenth movie. Nine films in six years, and all before he reached the age of 35. Not too shabby a legacy.
And it wasn’t even as if the films were all that bad. Okay, some of them were. But they stayed with you longer than they had any right to do.
His last film might be his best: THE MANITOU (1978), based on the novel of the same name by Graham Masterton. Certainly it was Girder’s most successful, and like his other more successful efforts, it rode on the coattails of bigger films (ABBY was a rip-off – sorry, homage – of THE EXORCIST, GRIZZLY copied JAWS). No wait, I take that back. I’m not quite sure what bigger film’s coattails THE MANITOU might be riding on. THE MANITOU seems to stand on its own two goofy feet, and really is nothing like anything you would have seen before.
Set in San Francisco, THE MANITOU opens with some X-Ray footage, and expositional talk between two doctors about their patient, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg). There’s a lump growing between her shoulder blades, growing faster than a boner on a teenager seeing his hot new stepmom. And most creepily of all, Karen believes there’s something moving around inside there – paging Doctor Cronenberg!
Desperate for some human sympathy, Karen turns to her ex-husband, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis! Hi, Tony!), who works as a fake medium, complete with false moustache and blue wizard’s robes, tricking old ladies out of their pensions with assurances that, yes, they’ll win at next week’s bridge game and won’t get eaten by their cats when they die. Harry offers her comfort, and they eventually spend the night together – though at one point Harry wakes up to hear Karen murmur the words, “Pana Wichi Salatou”, which I suppose is better than “There is no Dana here, only Zool” or “Your mother cooks socks in Hell”. It doesn’t help that every time he tries to read her fortune with tarot cards, he keeps bringing up the Death card (of course, everyone knows that card’s not meant to be taken literally, but I suppose until they make a Tarot deck with a You’re Fucked card, it’ll have to do.
The lump on her neck is beginning to resemble a foetus. And strangely enough, no one decides to go bug-eyed and exclaim, “There’s a f**king foetus on your neck, girl! Have you been reading the Kama Sutra or the Necronomicon?” but her physician, Dr Jack Hughes (Jon Cedar), decides to operate – except that some unseen force makes him cut his own hand with his scalpel. Harry then begins to suspect a supernatural element to it all, when a client of his (Ann Sothern) has a seizure, says the same words as Karen did in her sleep, does a stereotypical Indian war dance around Harry’s apartment, and then floats out the door – I shit you not! – down the hall, turns into a stuntman and flings herself down the stairs to her death. It’s all played with utter sombreness.
Harry never believed in the supernatural (“I’m a seller, not a buyer”, he explains at one point), but he goes back to Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens), the woman who taught him everything, and during a seance, they deduce that it’s Indian magic at work. A visit to doddering anthropologist Dr Snow (Burgess Meredith! Wah Wah Wah!) further adds that it sounds like the spirit of a 400 year old Indian medicine man is trying to be born into the modern era through Karen. Why her? As Dr Snow opines, “She just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time…”.
Harry returns to explain all this to an incredulous Dr Hughes, who has to finally throw up his hands in surrender when a second attempt to remove the foetus results in the laser machine in the operating theatre going berserk and attacking everyone. Harry heads out to find an Indian medicine man to fight the squatter in his ex-wife’s skin. Somehow he finds John Singing Rock (Syrian-born actor Michael Ansara, better known for playing the Klingon Kang on Star Trek, so I suppose that’s the closest you’ll come to getting an actual Native American in a movie from the Seventies). Singing Rock has no love for the White Man, but he decides to help them anyway.
Though he starts to have second thoughts when he learns the spirit is Mesquamacus, who was the baddest mofo in legend, who made rivers boil and mountains crumble and forests shit their pants…
Segueway: I joked above about how bad casting was for Native Americans up to that point, implying that things had changed. Then I remembered Johnny Depp playing Tonto in THE LONE RANGER. Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.
THE MANITOU is at its goofiest, and therefore most entertaining, when its taking itself so seriously. There are moments where actual thought was given to what might be happening here, such as the fact that all those X-rays done on the neck foetus stunted its growth, so it emerges as a metre-high dwarf with stunted limbs. Which makes sense on paper, but on film still looks like Kenny Baker in a rubbery Neanderthal suit waiting for George Lucas to call him in for the STAR WARS gig.
The effects are mostly cheap and laughable. The one effective sequence was during the seance, when an Indian head rises up through the tabletop, and though its basically a physical head being elevated from a pool of oil, it still works. but the rest? A lizard god is so obviously a man in a lizard suit that the Sleestaks watching this are still pissing themselves with laughter. Mesquamacus covers the entire floor of the hospital in fake snow and ice. A victim whose meant to have been skinned is covered in red paint like a Ragu Bukkake.
And the climax? Well, it’s a wonder to behold: you see, Manitous are said to be spirits inhabiting everything, from rocks to trees to man-made objects like scalpels and even typewriters and computers, and powerful medicine men can command these spirits to do their bidding, such as when Mesquamacus made Dr Hughes’ scalpel cut himself. Unable to get the manitou of the natural world to help him fight Mesquamacus, Singing Rock tries to enlist the help of modern devices. they won’t listen to him.
But they will listen to Karen (is that just slightly racist, or very? I can’t tell at this point), as her hospital room turns into a starfield, and she sits up and gets into a topless magic duel with Mesquamacus, shooting popcorn meteors and laser beams at each other. Her boobs are tastefully shadowed, but you can tell she’s doing it topless, and you have to wonder at what Tony Award-winning Strasberg was thinking when she was filming. You know, apart from the obvious, “I’m not excited about this, it’s just cold in here”.
Speaking of racism (and sexism, while we’re at it), THE MANITOU is definitely a product of its time. There’s an attempt to show the Native American side of things, with Ansara giving a speech to Curtis about how all the land they see around them used to be owned by his tribe before valuable resources were discovered on it and it was taken away, like so much other land had been, and why the hell should he help with the White Man’s problems, or even want to stop Mesquamacus from coming back and kicking the White Man’s world in the cojones? But then you get all the other tropes like the stoic Indian mystic and Heap Big Magic talk that cancels it. And though Strasberg’s character is at the centre of all that’s going on, she spends most of her time asleep or possessed, having no agency to fight back until the very end.
But then, we still get a magic duel. Featuring boobies.
Did we get any of that with any of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies?
Nope. Didn’t think so.
Director: William Girder
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy