The Manitou (1978)
After the commercial success of The Exorcist in 1973, the low budget independent horror films of Hammer and American International fell into decline. The major Hollywood studios started financing more expensive genre movies. Twentieth Century Fox scored a box office hit with The Omen in 1976 proving once again that the supernatural was financially viable. Subsequently several independent film financiers realized that they would have to invest in bigger budget projects if they wished to compete. William Girdler’s 1978 adaptation of the bestselling horror novel, The Manitou, was one such example of this.
The Manitou by Graham Masterton is an eminently enjoyable piece of pulp horror fiction despite its outrageous premise. However adapting such a book for the big screen can test an audience’s suspension of disbelief. It would appear that critics and cinema goers alike struggled with the plot of The Manitou upon its release. The story is about a 400 year old re-incarnated Indian Medicine Man called Misquamacus, who is growing in a tumour on a woman’s back. Her ex-boyfriend, a fake medium, turns to a contemporary Indian Medicine Man for help. The use of x-rays by the hospital staff cause birth defects in Misquamacus, resulting in him being born deformed.
Despite the bizarre nature of the plot, the production managed to assemble an impressive cast. Tony Curtis plays the lead role of Harry Erskine, with Michael Ansara as John Singing Rock and Susan Strasberg as Karen Tanday. There is a cameo appearance by Burgess Meredith as the anthropologist and Native American History expert Dr. Snow. The screenplay by director William Girdler and cast member John Cedar is a fairly good adaptation of the source novel, remaining true to the overall plot. The first act of the movie features some pleasant location work set in San Francisco. However once the story moves to the hospital where surgeons attempt to remove Karen Tandy’s tumour, the film becomes an entirely studio bound production for the remainder of its duration.
The Manitou is very much a movie of its time, with an extremely seventies production design. Flared trousers and shirts with infeasibly large collars abound. The plot explores the clash between modern technology and ancient supernatural forces. As a result a great deal of the hardware on display, such as the hospital computer system and surgical laser are now somewhat archaic. The soundtrack by the ubiquitous Lalo Schifrin is steeped in the musical style of the time. The infamous birth scene created by the Burman studios is suitably ghoulish. Felix Silla best known as Twikki in Buck Rogers and Joe Gieb both play Misquamacus at various points during the film. Sadly some of the optical effects at the movies climax are a little lacklustre.
The Manitou despite its clumsy racial politics is never genuinely disrespectful of Native American culture and the central characters although verging on caricature, are still likeable. If you can look beyond the far-fetched nature of the initial premise there is an entertaining movie to be found. Sadly The Manitou was met with a lukewarm reception from both critics and the public upon its release and failed to live up to box office expectations. The proposed sequel based upon Graham Masterton’s second novel was subsequently abandoned during pre-production.