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The Manitou

The Manitou(1978)

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The Manitou is one of those movies - like Robert Altman's Popeye - where every single creative decision was dead wrong, but where the cumulative effect of all the wrongheaded impulses and misguided errors accrue to something quite watchable. In lower-budget tiers, this sort of thing is called "so bad it's good," which isn't quite the right designation for a production as reasonably accomplished as this. Nonetheless, the psychotronic pleasures on offer here are enjoyed not despite the film's flaws so much as because of them.

Writer-director William Girdler, who perished in a tragic plane crash before the film was released, had a few years of B-movie production under his belt since blazing onto the scene in 1972 with Asylum of Satan. From such grindhouse cheapies he moved on to AIP, where he took over making Pam Grier's blaxploitation thrillers from the venerable Jack Hill. As the 1970s drew to a close, he set his sights on what he hoped would be box office gold: a film version of Graham Masterson's bestselling novel The Manitou. Girdler plunked down $50,000 for the rights, and hacked out a screenplay in just three days.

It showed.

The premise was designed to play to the Exorcist/Omen fans (a cycle fading into the sunset by 1978) and the newly emerging "body horror" trend (which in years to come would yield classics of the genre such as Alien and The Fly). Girdler knew his way around Exorcist rip-offs - his 1974 Abby was so close a clone he got himself sued by Warner Brothers for infringement. This time he had some new hooks - all of which he would grievously misuse. Think Rosemary's Baby, as written by an eight year old with a fascination for-and total ignorance of-computers.

Susan Strasberg plays a woman who seeks medical treatment for a strange tumorous growth on her neck-only to discover it is a supernatural "pregnancy" by which a 400-year old Native American medicine man is reincarnating himself. Well that's one for the textbooks! Frightened by her loss of control over her own body and distrustful of her doctors, she seeks support from a friend - a phony psychic played by Tony Curtis. He in turn enlists the aid of another medicine man, a man with genuine psychic gifts, Michael Ansera, to counter the bad magic with some good. The special effects-addled finale, with trick photography that rivals the best of 1970s Doctor Who, finds Ansera summoning forth the souls of the hospital's computer bank while a rather rubbery naked wizard crawls out of poor Strasberg's shoulder blades-producing no more blood than the average paper cut.

Not everything can be blamed on the script. Girdler saw all this as serious cinema. He compared it to "The Exorcist meets Star Wars," and likened his direction to that of Alfred Hitchcock. Composer Lalo Shifrin drapes the film with brooding atmospheric music, appropriate for a sincere psychological thriller. Michael Ansera plays his part with the utmost gravitas, as does most-but not all-of the supporting cast. Someone failed to give that memo to Tony Curtis, however, who channels the spirit of Bob Hope with his constant barrage of irreverent quips. There is no amount of suspense or ominous mood that Girdler can build up that Curtis can't undo with one lash of his mouth. Curtis appears to have been given to ad-libbing, and his many mocking Curtisisms add a kooky level of comedy to an already dangerously risible setup.

Some of the cast - especially Burgess Meredith - followed Curtis' lead and played their scenes for laughs. The odd juxtaposition of solemn scares and farcical gags produces a strange off-kilter tone quite unlike any other film. Curtis all but destroyed his screen career with this, but in a way it was almost worth it. It never really works, but it's never boring.

It's as if the movie is at war with itself. Much of it is too silly for words-but once in a while it pulls off some fabulous moments. There is a séance scene which is so good, so out of step with the rest of this crazed enterprise, that the Department of Cinema Welfare should have stepped in and removed that scene to the foster care of another, better movie.

Anchor Bay's DVD presents the film in a clean, colorful anamorphically enhanced transfer that does a great service to the film's compositions, even if the subpar effects work is betrayed by DVD's high resolution. The film is accompanied by a collection of original trailers for other bargain bin video shockers of similar appeal-a barebones release that is more than sufficient; anything more would be indulgent.

For more information about The Manitou, visit Anchor Bay. To order The Manitou, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Kalat