So you’re a piss-poor psychic operating out of your bachelor pad, conning old women out of their fixed incomes, when you learn that your old flame has an immortal Native American medicine man reincarnating himself in her neck and that this ancient being reborn has the power to bring about the end of the world as we know it.
Fuck. I hate it when that happens.
Surely The Manitou had you the moment you read part about the Native American medicine man growing inside of a woman’s neck. If not, you should know that the movie also features a heroic duo consisting of a badass Indian chief and a bloated Tony Curtis, an elderly woman violently careening down a flight of stairs and a sticky dwarf that summons a Lovecraftian monstrosity to do battle with a topless sorcerer-woman whose corpse has just been reanimated by the lifeforces of modern machinery. If you’re not sold by that, well, you’re something of a lost cause.
What’s most fascinating about The Manitou is that, despite its reputation as a great bad movie, it’s not a bad movie at all. Hokey, over the top, often cheap and filled with actors who either don’t want to be there, have no idea how to portray human emotion or are just camping it up to see how much they can get away with, sure, but not bad in the traditional sense of the word. Director William Girdler fills the film with a downright bizarre energy, an infectious combination of spooky and the silly that feels like its asking you to laugh with it, often out of sheer disbelief on your part, rather than at it.
Whether or not that was Girdler’s intention will probably be forever unknown (at least to my research-phobic self) because the young B-horror director of similarly serious-wacky movies like Grizzly and Day of the Animals pulled a Vic Morrow and got himself killed in a helicopter crash shortly after finishing The Manitou. Considering the surprising scope of this film — a slow burning first half explodes into cosmic, dimension-hopping, body-exploding magical-dueling insanity in the second hour — Girdler only could have gotten bigger and better and stranger. If he had lived, surely he would have found the way the top The Manitou. The very thought of this makes my head pound.
There is plenty to savor in The Manitou, from Burgess Meredith’s hilarious cameo as a confused expert on Native American lore to a surgical laser possessed by evil spirts and running amuck, and those that dismiss it as simply being so-bad-that-it’s-good aren’t looking close enough. The performances are, for the most part, surprisingly straight faced. Although his part was obviously written for a much younger man, Curtis injects the protagonist with a goofy gravitas that matches the film’s tone perfectly and Michael Ansara’s Indian exorcist is played without a single wink at the audience, making his constant battle with an evil dwarf all the more amusing. There is a wonderful earnestness to the whole film’s tone, a total lack of self-awareness that heightens just how batshit crazy everything really is. This movie feels like it was made up on the spot by a group of horror fanatics sitting around of roaring campfire, trying to one-up each other constantly, working their way up from simple body horror to magical battles in outer space.
Which proves one thing: modern horror filmmakers need to have more conversations around campfires. Preferably on indian reservations.
If movies could literally bring the house down, the Alamo Drafthouse would be a pile of rubble and I’d be buried alive following the screening of The Manitou. Incredulousness is normally not an audible emotion, but during this screening, I learned what a couple hundred people all simultaneously confused sounded like. The film had two big applause moments (the old woman taking a dive down the stairs seemingly won the night), but there was a great audience reaction every five minutes or so, usually in the form of baffled laughter. No one knew what to make of The Manitou, but no one really cared because the film did a sufficient job of kicking their asses.