The Manitou came out at about the same time as David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Which is interesting since they both deal with women suffering from monstrous pregnancies.
It’s hard to say which movie is the weirder of the two. In the case of The Manitou Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) develops a strange lump on the back of her neck, which turns out to be a foetus. Which turns out to be the reincarnation of a Native American medicine man who died 400 years ago. Attempts to have the foetus surgically removed end badly, with much hospital mayhem ensuing.
Karen calls on her ex-boyfriend for help. Harry (Tony Curtis) is a fraudulent medium/fraudulent tarot reader/fraudulent clairvoyant. He’s an all-round bogus psychic, but he’s not a bad guy, he’s just trying to make a buck. And he’s quite fond of Karen, and is keen to help her out. He calls on the assistance of the woman who trained him in occult practices. Amelia (Stella Stevens) suggests that what they need is an anthropologist rather than a doctor. Dr Snow (Burgess Meredith) is certainly an anthropologist, although personally I wouldn’t entrust him with any vital anthropological emergencies. It’s probably fortunate that vital anthropological emergencies don’t arise very often. He tells Harry to find a modern-day Native American medicine man.
John Singing Rock (played by Michael Ansara who got to play lots of Native American roles although he is in fact Syrian) reluctantly agrees to do battle on Karen’s behalf. He’s not confident about the outcome, since the foetus is in fact an immensely powerful medicine man. He explains that a manitou is a kind of spirit, and that everything has a manitou. That comes in handy later on, when they need the assistance of some high-tech manitous.
John Singing Rock and Harry arrive at the hospital just as the doctors have made another foolish attempt to remove the foetus, this time with a laser. The ancient medicine man takes control of the medical laser and starts shooting up the operating theatre with it. This debacle convinces the hospital authority to let John Singing Rock and Harry take over Karen’s treatment. You might think the plot so far sounds silly, but I sure you it gets a lot sillier.
Director William Girdler was the man responsible for such cinematic classics as Three on a Meathook and Grizzly, as well as the notorious blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby. His directing style isn’t exactly subtle, but then subtlety isn’t really required in this case.
Tony Curtis has a good deal of fun with the role of Harry. He hams it up fairly outrageously, and honestly I can’t see what else he could have done. His performance works for me. Michael Ansara seems to be taking things fairy seriously, in fact so seriously that I suspect he was consciously playing the straight man and letting Curtis make the running in the acting department. They make an amusing team.
The special effects have that wonderful 1970s low-budget feel to them. They’re bizarre but they’re fun.
It’s based on a novel by Graham Masterton, and while I suspect that it all has very little to do with actual Native American folklore the manitou stuff is all very entertaining.
It’s also an interesting example of medical horror, with Karen trapped in the hospital in the hands of doctors who have no idea what they’re doing. The use of machine spirits is interesting. It really taps into lots of late 70s anxieties, from the impersonal nature of western medicine to the rise of the machine to the idea of nature striking back.
Anchor Bay’s Region 1 DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras, but looks reasonably impressive.
If you love weird over-the-top 70s horror it’s difficult not to like The Manitou.