Saturday, August 22, 2009

In short: The Manitou (1978)

One day, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) discovers a strange growth on the back of her neck. It is growing at an inexplicable rate, much faster than Karen's doctors are able to understand. What's even more strange - the growth doesn't seem to be a tumor but a fetus.

There's nothing strange that couldn't be cut away with a scalpel, of course, but the first try at cutting the thing off ends with Karen murmuring something in Hollywood Injunese and poor Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar) cutting into his own hands.

Karen had at this point already gotten back in (very close) contact with her ex Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a professional tarot reader and wearer of fake facial hair. Harry's next tarot session with one of his elderly clients ends with the old woman murmuring the same Hollywood Injunese words, levitating along a hallway and falling to death down a flight of stairs.

While Karen lies unconscious in her hospital bed, Harry does a little research on their problem. A séance and a visit with guest star Burgess Meredith later, he is convinced that Karen is possessed by the spirit of an ancient Hollywood Injun medicine man trying to get reborn through a nice female neck.

Logically minded as he is, Harry seeks out the shaman John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) and talks the man into helping him to fight the dead medicine man. All is set up for an awesome duel of occult powers in Dr. Hughes hightech hospital.

One of the great mysteries in my career as an observer of the weird, the crappy and the outright insane has always been the question: why did people give William Girdler money? The Manitou doesn't really answer that question, but deepens it to "why did people give a director as talentless as William Girdler money to adapt a book written by as terrible a hack as Graham Masterton?".

I certainly don't know the answer to that one, grasshopper. Well, at least the film's an entertaining catastrophe, full of the sort of bullshit everyone should love.

Of course, The Manitou suffers from every problem it could possibly suffer from - there's absurdly bad acting from Strasberg, alternating bored and scenery-chewing acting from Curtis, a script in total ignorance of actual Native American culture and reality, Girdler's "let's point the camera at it and wait" style of directing, puzzling dialogue, etc.

The first hour is also more than just a little boring, but at about the hour mark something strange happens - the idiocy and the silliness turns from boring to fun, the cliched stupidity turns into creative stupidity until we are bombarded with awesome stuff like the evil ancient midget bodybuilder form the evil spirit takes and a scene in which a naked Susan Strasberg floats on a hospital bed in space and shoots laser beams at Yog-Sothoth while meteorites whoosh in the direction of the camera.

The latter is one of those pictures that will stay with me for the rest of my life, at least I hope that it will, forever being an irrefutable proof of the genius of humanity.



Anarchivist said...

I remember wanting to see this when it came out, so I eagerly ordered it from Netflix. But it was so boring, I started reading a book and forgot it was on. Now I'm thinking I should have been more patient, since I totally missed the midget! May have to give it another chance.,,

houseinrlyeh said...

Well, fastforwarding to the hour mark isn't the worst one could do.

Tower Farm said...

I agree that watching this on fast-forward is the way to go. It's got some GREAT scenes...but getting to them is a laborious process.

Great review!

Samuel Wilson said...

The whole business with the evil midget -- the pure insanity of the concept -- nearly redeems the whole film; though I concede that the early parts need a lot of redeeming. The final battle is a classic of naive surrealism and a glimpse into the mind of a madman -- which one, I'm not quite sure.

houseinrlyeh said...

The only thing that's disappointing about the evil midget is that Curtis doesn't call Los Campeones Justicieros to get rid of him.