Manitou begins with an extremely interesting and gruesome idea: A woman named Karen (Susan Strasberg) is admitted to a hospital with a strange growth on her neck. Turns out it’s not an ordinary tumor, there’s something alive in there. Whatever it is, it seems able to exert its will and cause all kind of mayhem to anyone who seeks to try and remove it. Enter Karen’s ex-boyfriend, Harry (Tony Cutis), a fake psychic who encounters enough weirdness that he seeks the help of a Native American medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara). John reveals that the thing growing in Karen’s neck is a Manitou, an ancient medicine man back from death and wanting revenge.
If after reading the synopsis above, you picture the film climaxing with a topless woman shooting meteors out of her hands at a dwarf, then congratulations you are probably as looney as Manitou.
Just exactly how far off the rails can a film go and still be watchable? Manitou is remarkable in that it sets up its premise and follows it to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences. What makes Manitou really work as a cult oddity is the fact that it is such a gradual ride to crazy town. The opening is somber and strange. The body horror of Karen’s situation is effective… and then Tony Curtis shows up in a wizard’s robe and you might get the inkling that something is up. By the time Burgess Meredith appears to explain the plot and more importantly chew up the scenery, we are well on the way to instantly freezing hospital floors, negotiations with an evil little man growing out of a former lover, and an ending set in the astral plane that I can only assume was heavily influenced by peyote and Star Wars (1977).
There is nothing to show that Manitou’s production was anything less than a serious effort. Burgess Meredith aside, everyone plays their parts straight, even Harry who is a bit of a smart-ass, but never at the expense of the horror. The Native American elements are handled with about as much respect as you could hope for in a horror film, although John Singing Rock’s oh-so wise ancient sayings are still pretty cringe inducing.
The effects fall short, but I think a film made today would struggle with an astral battle between two spirits and try and keep it from looking ridiculous. In 1978 and on not a lot of money, this far exceeded the grasp of even director, William Girdler, who had some experience doing more with less when directing films like Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977).
Manitou is a great deal of fun to behold as it slowly and surely loses its mind. The pacing is deliberate, gradually rising in tempo in almost perfect time to the increasingly ridiculous situation. It’s sad that this was William Girdler’s last film before he died in a helicopter accident, the fact that he reigned this mess of a story into something not only watchable but enjoyable, is a tribute to his skill. Thanks to him, Manitou lives on as one of great cult films of late 1970’s.