Deadly Doll's Choice: The Manitou (1978)
Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) hasn't been feeling well, and the reason isn't a headache isn't listening to her huckster boyfriend Harry (Tony Curtis) performing his fake swami act on an unsuspecting mark. Instead, what ails Susan is a growing lump on her back, and her doctors seem mystified when they discover the lump contains a fetus. With the doctors unable to operate, partially because their equipment turns against them when they try, it's up to Harry to try and save the woman he loves. On the advice of an archeology professor (Burgess Meredith), Harry begins to believe the growth is actually a Native American shaman using Susan's body as a vehicle for reincarnation. With Western medicine unable to help Susan, Harry seeks out his own medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael George Ansara), and the pair engage in a cosmic battle with the powerful manitou, or spirit. Their only hope to defeat the spirit, a melding of the old ways and the "White Man's magic" lurking in machines.
Boy, wow, where do you start with this one. In the first fifteen minutes of The Manitou, there is the introduction of the back fetus and Tony Curtis disco dancing around his apartment. Things get weirder from there. As everyone knows, there's two kinds of bad movies, actual terrible flicks (Gigli, the "works" of Bill Z. Bub, The Nasty Rabbit) and what I like to call classically bad films. Things like Plan 9, The Room, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and at least half of Nick Cage's resume are some examples of what I consider classical or, as some would say, enjoyable bad films. To that list, I would add The Manitou. It has everything you need to elevate a bad movie into that old familiar catechism "so bad it's good”. First, you have a plot that doesn't make really any kind of sense. Then you add in a past their prime movie star star (or lots of boobs, you need one or the other). Then you're gonna kick it up a notch with special effects that are trying, usually really hard, but missing the mark in a spectacular way. If you can blend in some kind of supernatural mumbo jumbo on top of it, then things will be all the more better for it. The Manitou has all these things in spades
I've already told you about the story, so lets not dwell too long on the tumor (Ok, it's not a tumor, it's a shaman.), the thing that really blew my mind, and send me scrambling to Amazon, was that The Manitou is based on a book by British author Graham Masterson. What's more, it's from a series of books starring Harry Erskine, the character portrayed by Tony Curtis. That bit of casting is where the "White Man magic" really gets the film going. I have no idea why Curtis, the star of classics such as Some Like It Hot and The Defiant Ones took a turn in this half cooked spin on The Exorcist woven up with the worst kind of superstitions about Native Americans. In previous years, the former movie star had been hamming it up on television (Notably with a pre-James Bond Roger Moore in The Persuaders.), but The Manitou must have appealed to him somehow beyond a mere paycheck. He gives it his all, and he is clearly relishing the moment to go over the top in a way that is sometimes Shatner-esque. Curtis is one of the best examples of a horrible film elevated completely by one actor. The same role in the hands of a William Girdler regular Leslie Nielsen would have made The Manitou fall apart.
Speaking of Girdler, whose career was tragically cut short while scouting in the Philippines for his next film, he was also giving it his all out there on the screen. After the unexpected success of Grizzly, Girdler got a bump in budget, and it's all out there on the screen for better or worse. The cosmic finale is something to behold, and any description I have attempted doesn't do justice to the slimy demon shaman battling Tony Curtis in a star field around a hospital bed. It's something that has to be seen to be believed. The rest of the cast do what they cam with what they have but, Strasberg gets to lay about when not doing a Charles Laughton impression and Michael Ansara, a Syrian immigrant, sets back the perception of Native Americans about half as much as Johnny Depp's Tonto. The foibles and faults of The Manitou should add up to a complete travesty, but instead, through some happy alignment of the stars and planets, it doesn't. Instead it remains consistently entertaining despite of and because of its faults.
That's the stuff of real classically bad film, and through the ups and downs and ins and puts of the genre film world, I'll be a happy Bugg to be able to continue swapping films with my good friend Emily. Make sure you head over there today to check out her review of a favorite film of mine, Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill! I thought it was the perfect choice for the Deadly Doll because, well, it's got scads and scads of creepy dolls in it. Isn't that reason enough?