After building his career through a series of successful B-movies, including the infamous Jaws rip-off Grizzly, the Blaxploitation quickie Sheba, Baby, and the Exorcist rip-off Abby, indie filmmaker William Girdler was hooked on Graham Masterton's 1975 novel about a vengeful medicine man, and with Day of the Animals co-star Jon Cedar, the two adapted the novel into a screenplay, which was filmed with a large cast of former Hollywood A-list actors and several character actors, including Cedar himself as the lead doctor who helps contemporary medicine man Michael Ansara (also from Girdler's Day of the Animals, and pretty convincing in Indian wig #48) banish the malevolent spirit back to his trippy netherworld.
Girdler was never a great filmmaker (ahem), and some might say he was a hack who got lucky making exploitation flicks but showed little talent for crafting genuine shocks and exploiting any true terror in any given scene which is readily apparent in The Manitou.
Long a cult favourite after its theatrical run and TV airings, Girdler's last film before he met the big helicopter in the sky (literally) finally gets a DVD release in this superb transfer from a pristine widescreen print. The San Francisco locations are quite beautiful, and Michel Hugo's cinematography is elegant, and shows off the excellent production design that actually makes the film far less garish than expected. (Heck, you even get several shots of Tony Curtis' very cool Marantz Quad system, and Cedar's massive computerized monitoring dinosaur that belongs in the Smithsonian).
Production designers Walter Scott Herndon and Nikita Knatz chose more neutral colours for the sets and props, and there's a deliberate emphasis on clean lines, complimenting the generous shots of the city's modern architecture, and wide shots of the expansive waterfront. Also boosting the film's production values is composer Lalo Schifrin another alumnus from Girdler's Day of the Animals who scored Manitou before moving on to the sorta classic Amityville Horror.
Schifrin's score, part of a flat and murky mono mix, begins with a grand harsh cue for the main titles, but towards the end of the film, it seems Girdler wanted the score to emphasize the relationship between Tarot reader Curtis and Susan Strasberg, with a mushy love theme recurring as she lies helpless in bed, and eventually endures the birth of the rumply medicine man. The birth itself is appropriately slimy and over-the-top, but gore fans will be disappointed the film lacks the viciousness of The Omen, which supported far more colourful trauma to non-believers of that film's widespread evil. A sleepy orderly loses his skin, but it lacks that Clive Barker feeling.
A frozen nurse loses her head near the film's nutty climax, which has the medicine man freezing the entire floor for no apparent reason (unless ice signals the spatial shift enforced by the rumply villain in the hospital room, where Curtis and Ansara must ultimately rescue Strasberg from inter-stellar limbo). The film's final act is also of note because it prefigured the freezing motif in Gary Sherman's idiotic Poltergeist III. Sherman had parts of the hotel smothered in ice, and used the surreal landscape to similarly infer the controlling power of an evil force, and the swathe of land the heroes must cross to save the trapped victims.
Where Manitou ultimately disappoints hopefuls in search of a good bad movie are the protracted moments of affection between Strasberg whose character waited 3 days before realizing the grapefruit on her neck wasn't biologically kosher and the corresponding montages of luv, particularly the couple's day in the city set to the film's drippy romance theme.
On the other hand, having Strasberg screaming MANI !!! with her eyes bugged out is a treat, as is Lurene Tuttle's possession early in the film, which includes her grunting through a rain dance in Curtis' kitchen before she levitates and rolls down the stairs like a leaden rag doll. You also have Stella Stevens tinted to resemble a gypsy, and a séance where Ann Southern channels the 400 year old spirit of the medicine man growing on Strasberg.
The big thing missing in Anchor Bay's release is any info on Girdler, but fans and the curious can check out the superb tribute cite in the links below, which also compares the novel with the film, and features an interview with novelist Masterton.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan