Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Manitou (1978)


This misguided embarrassment is illustrative of the type of excessive and exaggerated production that emerged in the wake of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). In the late 1970’s independent producers (home and abroad) with a fraction of the money and even less know how felt their substandard shockingly written train wrecks could pass muster as long as they threw in some half convincing special effects. Whereas the Hollywood blockbusters generally possessed a consistent style and a coherent narrative, many of their lesser imitators opted for the strategy of hurling everything into the mix and hoping that somehow the spectacle would help it to stick. The result was a series of hollow, but mildly distracting, mid to low budget effects extravaganza’s. All these films did is add to a myth that is now all pervasive; that a summer blockbuster is a film totally devoid of intelligence and social value (this isn’t actually the case). The Manitou is a messy failure because it is never able to make up its mind what it actually wants to be. The narrative is pushed and pulled in a myriad of directions and the plot holes begin to build. The special effects orgasm that fills out the last twenty minutes of the film attempts to distract from these numerous weaknesses, but this type of stupidity cannot be overcome by some pretty colours and a few flashes.

The film opens in the style of a melodramatic soap opera, replete with swooning romantic music that creates nausea and revulsion. Then suddenly it decides to shift into the possession and demonic offspring mode of The Exorcist (1973) and It’s Alive (1974). But sadly without the charm or style of either film. Tony Curtis (short of a shilling!) is initially very good as Tarot reading trickster Harry Erskine, but by the end of the film he is clearly taking this junk far too seriously. Curtis becomes a major problem, because his failure to ham it up and inject humour suggests that we too should take things seriously. A séance in which a gooey head appears out a table is one of the early concessions to the horror genre - but the séance itself is incredibly daft. By the time the action has settled at a state of the art medical facility , the director William Girdler finally gets around to composing one or two moments of decent suspense.

The birth of the reincarnated medicine man for example is handled very well. However his premature arrival from the lump on Karen Tandy’s (Susan Strasberg) neck means he must spend the rest of the film a rather feeble and inadequate two foot tall. Nevertheless despite his diminutive stature this ancient and evil Indian has access to all kinds of supernatural powers, and in one hysterical moment, even manages to summon the Devil. He appears as a rather understated splash of red against a solar backdrop. By this point the film has switched into the galactic realm of Star Wars (although Starcrash (1978) might be a more appropriate comparison). The filmmakers even have the temerity to try and copy Douglas Trumbull’s awesome star gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Don’t ask me how the writers (step forward Jon Cedar, William Girdler and Thomas Pope) went from soap opera melodrama, possession, demons, embryo’s growing on necks, reincarnated Indian medicine men, to a battle of wits and power staged seemingly in an Outer Space dimension.

The film does possess some camp credentials which is something in its favour, but this is through accident rather than design. If The Manitou has any underlying message it lies in a cynical attitude to modern medicine and the experts we rely to dole out the correct treatment. The fetishism for technology and its inadequacy merely covers up the fact that for all their scientific prowess and bland theorising the experts are little more than butchers with scalpels, who in the end need to be guided by an Indian who believes in the supernatural and a con artist clairvoyant. The direction is assured but never inspirational, and as this represented a major opportunity for William Girdler, he doesn’t make the most of it. Girdler had cut his teeth with two low budget ‘revolt of nature’ flicks Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977), and with a considerably higher budget, and an array of talent, he manages to create cinematic drudgery. It is a major missed opportunity because the novel by Graham Masterton is an enjoyable and atmospheric tale. The Manitou along with Meteor (1979) and The Swarm (1976) is one of the most characteristic of the late 1970’s ’no brainer’ B movies.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. Always had the impression this film was a boner; sounds like I was right. Still, I'm on the lookout for Masterton's original novel.

  2. jervaise brooke hamster27 August 2010 at 17:02

    I just remember the scene where Susan Strasberg showed her tits. By the Way, visit "The Pauline Hickey Fan page" for dozens of naked images of one of the most incredible birds of all time.

  3. jervaise brooke hamster28 August 2010 at 23:29

    Shaun, geezer, what did you think of the astounding Miss Hickey?.

  4. Its impossible for me to hate a movie where a pygmy indian shaman shoots lasers from space, but this really is a mindless film with very little redeeming value.


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