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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Bonkers Cult Film ‘The Manitou’ is One of the Most Bizarre Battles Between Good and Evil

In a genre where the imagination runs wild, and anything goes, some horror movies are so far out there that they immediately beg the question of whether they’re even real. Let alone how they got made. Take 1978’s cult film The Manitou, which sees a psychic’s girlfriend hospitalized for a rapidly growing tumor on her back. That lump is the eponymous reincarnation of a 400-year-old demonic Native American spirit. As in, the poor woman has a person forming inside the tumor on her back. It’s a possession film at its core but taken from an approach rooted in mysticism that sets the stage for one of the most bizarre battles between good and evil.

Based on a 1976 novel by Graham Masterson, which became the first in a seven-novel series, The Manitou draws from The Exorcist. The book even references it a few times. Director William Girdler (Grizzly) picked up the novel at an airport and immediately set about getting it adapted- the script Girdler wrote with Thomas Pope and Jon Cedar reportedly took only three days to complete. Whether due to rights issues or that Girdler previously directed Exorcist copy cat Abby, he left all mentions of The Exorcist out of his script. Even still, the influences are clear as day.

Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is a medical mystery. The lump in her back is growing at a disconcerting rate, and it even moves on its own. Doctors then suspect the tumor contains a fetus. Like The Exorcist’s Regan MacNeil, Karen is subjected to a lengthy series of often uncomfortable medical tests. She turns to he ex, fortune teller Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), realizing his spiritualism might offer more answers than science. As the thing in her back gets more powerful and medical professionals are hurt in the process, Harry seeks out Native American shaman, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), for aid.

While the synopsis reads like one of the most off the rails plots in horror, the film takes its time getting to the madness. Aside from the tumor with a mind of its own, of course. The love between Karen and Harry is rekindled enough to retain emotional investment long after Karen’s bed-ridden and mostly absent in her own story as the Manitou possesses her. Harry takes center stage as he seeks out all forms of psychics and fortune tellers in his quest to save Karen. Curtis, whose massive stardom had waned after the ‘60s, brings a lightheartedness to a film mostly played straight.

The larger the Manitou named Misquamacas gets, the more powerful. The more powerful, the more outlandish. A tundra invades the hospital, a lizard spirit appears, and Misquamacas eventually erupts from Karen’s back to wreak bloody havoc.

Like The Exorcist, faith is tested as the evil seems far too great for our protagonists. Unlike The ExorcistThe Manitou decides to leave reality behind for its climax. Completely. There are still two men facing down evil incarnate lurking within and around a woman in a sickbed, but divine intervention here comes in the form of a psychedelic laser battle. That’s me underselling the madness of the spectacle. If only more possession-based horror would boldly take such massive leaps. Before the credits roll, Girdler doubles down on the insanity with an epilogue card that insists this tale is based on a true story, by way of a 1969 Tokyo story in which a teen’s tumor contained a fetus.

Everything about this movie is of its time; there’s no way this type of film could get greenlit today. Not the asteroid and laser light show of the climax, not the way it approaches Native American mysticism, not the medical science, or the rather chill way the entire hospital takes Misquamacas’s violent devastation. All with a recognizable cast. It’s a cult film anomaly, and that’s a compliment.

The only real disappointment is that it’s the last film we ever got by Girdler; he died in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting for locations on his next movie, just before the release of The Manitou. If you’ve seen Abby or The Manitou, it stings a little to think what other absurd genre gems Girdler could have delivered. The film didn’t make much of a splash upon release in 1978. But now it reads like one of the most bonkers riffs on The Exorcist to ever exist.


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