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.
© Shaun Anderson - 2010