In the 1970’s, prolific director William Girdler carved himself a niche in the horror exploitation market with such films as Three on a Meathook (1973), Abby (1974), Grizzly (1976), and Day of the Animals (1977).
He was often heavily inspired by recent blockbusters, with Abby sometimes referred to as “The Black Exorcist”, while Grizzly was infamously dubbed “Jaws with Claws”.
Adapted from Graham Masterton’s novel of the same name, The Manitou marks something of a departure. Set in San Francisco and weaving together Native American mysticism and European occultism, it cashed in on the New Age movement prevalent at the time.
A young woman named Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) has developed a lump on the base of her neck. Studying X-rays of it, her doctor, Jack Hughes (John Cedar), notes that the tumor shares many of the characteristics of a fetus. He does not tell her this. Concerned, she contacts her old lover, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a playboy who makes a living as a tarot reading charlatan.
The two instantly reconnect and spend the night before Karen’s scheduled operation together. While Karen sleeps, Harry hears her whispering a strange phrase in an unknown tongue. When he asks her the next day, she has no recollection of it.
As Dr. Hughes is about to perform the surgery, Karen seemingly awakes from anesthesia and repeats the mystic phrase. Hughes cuts himself with the scalpel, and the operation is cancelled. At the precise same moment, an elderly woman at one of Harry’s readings seemingly becomes possessed, speaking the same phrase as Karen before throwing herself down a flight of stairs.
Suspecting that Karen’s life is in danger, Harry seeks the help of his old mentor, Amelia (Stella Stevens), who suggests a séance to contact the entity occupying Karen. During the séance, the face of an Indian materializes amidst the participants.
Harry and Amelia then consult Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), an expert on Indian folklore, who cites a case similar to Karen’s, where a fully grown medicine man supposedly emerged from a swelling on a girl’s arm, killing her in the process.
He dismisses the case as pure legend, but is able to identify the language that Karen spoke in her sleep as one belonging to a tribe that died out in the fifteen hundreds. He translates the phrase as “my death foretells my return,” and suggests that Harry enlist the aid of a living medicine man.
Meanwhile, an attempt to operate on Karen with a laser proves disastrous – the laser fires at the hospital staff, and Karen, dominated by a will other than her own, warns Dr. Hughes that the thing growing on her back will not let the doctors touch it. It is in pain because of the light, she says. Hughes speculates that the developing fetus on Karen’s back has been damaged by the X-rays.
Harry is rejected by five medicine men before meeting John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), who is reluctant, but finally agrees to help in exchange for a donation of 100,000 dollars to the Indian Educational Foundation...and some tobacco.
Dr. Hughes grudgingly allows Harry to bring John Singing Rock into the hospital, and the medicine man promptly gets to work, creating a magic circle of powder around Karen’s bed. His presence alerts the being that Karen is host to, and speaking through her, it identifies itself as Misquamacus – the greatest medicine man there ever was, according to John Singing Rock.
From within Karen, the unborn medicine man invokes the Spirit of the Body, killing an orderly in Karen’s room by stripping him of his skin. Misquamacus, twisted and deformed, then emerges from Karen’s back, but remains contained by the magic circle.
Misquamacus proceeds to animate the dead orderly, and, while John Singing Rock deals with this threat, he summons another demon, a lizard which maims Dr. Hughes’ hand. Harry and Hughes flee the floor to seek medical attention, while John Singing Rock stays to do battle with the ancient medicine man.
Returning to the floor, Harry finds it covered in ice – and the nurse on the floor frozen solid. He also discovers that Misquamacus has broken through the magic circle in Karen’s room, where an injured John Singing Rock admits defeat. As the two try to leave the floor, Misquamacus attacks them with mighty gusts of wind. Harry throws a typewriter at him, which explodes, causing Misquamacus to retreat.
Back at Dr. Hughes’ office, a violent tremor signals that Misquamacus has called the most powerful demon of all, the Great Old One. Inspired by the success earlier with the typewriter, Harry wonders if the manitous of the machines can be called to fight Misquamacus and asks Hughes to turn on all the computers in the hospital at once.
He does so, but is killed by a powerful electric discharge from his console. John Singing Rock tries to call the manitous of the machines, but they will not come – they are white man’s medicine.
Desperate to save Karen, Harry challenges Misquamacus himself. Just then, Karen wakes up, empowered by the manitous of the machines. Channeling their power, she destroys Misquamacus with a single blast of energy from her palms.
The Great Old One retaliates with a swarm of fireballs, but Karen fires more particle beams. The duel ends with Karen victorious as the cosmic demon expires in a brilliant explosion.
Karen and Harry are reunited, but John Singing Rock warns that while the body of Misquamacus was destroyed, his spirit lives on to be reborn.
The horrifying miracle of life...the perversion of joyful expectations into something frightening was a popular theme in 70’s horror movies, with such diverse examples as It’s Alive (1974), The Omen (1976), Embryo (1976), Demon Seed (1977), The Brood (1979), and even Alien (1979).
The Manitou is truly unlike any of them. Karen’s “baby” is a 400 hundred year old medicine man with the ability to call upon the spirits, or manitous, of all things in existence, which means that he can do practically anything.
This, of course, is an excuse for an over-the-top special effects show. Any commentary on Western civilization encroaching on the Native American way of life is skimmed over briskly as Girdler takes us from one preposterous set piece to the next. In that regard, the movie is utterly fun, and thankfully, the cast, led by Tony Curtis, is game and colorful.
If one were to try to read a message into the narrative, it is noteworthy that Dr. Hughes states: “We’ve created a monster”.
Misquamacus is merely going through his progression of reincarnations, and it is the white man’s interference (via X-rays and attempted surgery) that pushes him into a corner. Quite notably, though, his ancient Indian magic is no match for the white man’s medicine (i.e. technology), channeled through the medium of Karen (who gets to have the final word on her own body, after all – some feminism there, perhaps?)
“Evil does not die...It waits to be reborn”, the tagline warns, implying that the conflict is not over at the end of the movie. A few other things remain unresolved. For instance, will Karen have a big, gnarly scar on her back where Misquamacus broke through? And does she get to keep her awesome newfound power?
The Manitou was to be William Girdler’s final film, and it is perhaps his wildest. And that is to its credit. If I were to recommend another film like it, I would not know quite where to start. With Grizzly, Girdler obviously tried to adapt the Jaws template to a bear, and however endearing the result was, he did not quite do for bears what Spielberg did for sharks.
Free from the restraints of being based on another director’s hit, The Manitou allowed Girdler to find a more personal voice, and one can only wonder might have been had his career not tragically been cut short. He died in a helicopter crash in 1978.
Contributing writer Kim Bruun Dreyer is a native of Denmark who has gobbled up scary movies from an early age. His studies at Aalborg University left him with a heightened appreciation of the genre, both for its entertainment value and cultural significance. Kim enjoys applying himself to everything from art and crafts to music and soccer - and his love of all things scary is sure to generate a few horror fans of its own (you'd be surprised how well Cujo works as a campfire tale!). He also dabbles a bit in amateur theatre - Shakespeare, you know.