When I read that Stacie had selected 1978's "The Manitou" for February's Final Girl Film Club, I could barely contain my joy. It was a helluva frightening flick when I saw it as a kid, and a blissfully campy howler when I watched it with friends on video many years later. "How would it seem now?" I heard myself mutter as I scoured the internet for a decent copy.
As it turns out, last month's barely contained joy was not premature. In fact, upon rewatching this classic, my rapture doubled, then tripled in size. Then, like an overripe pimple, it simply exploded through the confines of cautious optimism and splattered gloriously onto the metaphoric delivery-room floor of my wildest expectations.
It's just that good.
After the Avco Embassy logo (they would release "The Fog" a year later!), an appropriately (if not entirely accurately) Native craft-centric credit sequence plays, and damn, if that isn't one of the best title themes for a horror film I've heard in a long time. A quick check lists the name: Lalo Schifrin, nominated six times for an Oscar. Not too shabby at all.
The story begins inside a highrise medical complex, a clean, well-lit modern facility where two MDs are reviewing the X-rays of a young patient named Karen Tandy. She's apparently suffering from a tumor-like growth at the back of her neck; one that's growing at a rate of "7.3 mm per hour". The good doctors agree that this is an alarming speed, though when we meet Miss Tandy (Susan Strasberg) she seems remarkably calm about the situation.
In fact, she offhandedly describes regular incidences where the swelling seems to "shift, like someone trying to get comfortable in bed". Um...sure. That's one for the textbooks, anyway. Her serenity and candor (not to mention her perfectly co-coordinated peach blouse and scarf combo) are actually freaking me out a little bit here, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if she followed up with "also, once in a while I can hear a tinkling sound, like someone taking a leak" or "sometimes, I hear a ringing sound, then a click, then a muffled voice saying 'Sorry I couldn't come to the phone right now, I'm gestating. If you leave your name and number..."
Anyway, the docs aren't interested in such flights of girlish fancy, and promptly bring her down to earth by scheduling some hardcore surgery. That'll teach her.
Not surprisingly, she takes this development with nary a batted eyelash.
Clearly, she is a fembot. The scarf is a dead giveaway.
Leaving the doctors to their bafflement, and Karen to her thoughts on...anything that doesn't involve self-preservation, apparently, we swoop through a generic cityscape which could truly pass for any urban locale in America (or is this Toronto? Who knows?), we alight upon the prosaic scene of Tony Curtis fucking with the credulous mind of an extremely elderly woman. Dressed in some kind of wizard's robes and sporting an obviously false moustache, he's using Tarot cards to generate a series of oddly specific predictions. To wit: "Monday, a heavy object will fall on your foot; Tuesday, someone will cheat you at cards; Wednesday, a phonecall - probably obscene; and Thursday? Gas." The woman either has very low expectations for a)next week, or b)the art of fortune-telling, because she fills the parlour with effusive praise and presses bills into his hands. After all but shoving her out of his apartment door, Curtis removes his stick-on 'stash and heads to the hi-fi. Switching tracks from mystical mood music to the funkiest of all funky beats, he proceeds to get down.
Of course he does, he's a seventies-era swinger! Although once he removes his wizard-robe, you can see that the only thing really swinging are his far-from-Spartan man-boobs. In any event, this fifty-something Tarot-card flipping bachelor prances through his super-tidy crib over to his fridge, pours a beer into a wineglass, and sits himself down (legs crossed above the knee) to enjoy a cold one; making sure to spread a clean, starched napkin on his lap first. So not playing it gay at all, here. No siree, not our Tony Curtis. Ahem. Anyway, just as he's about to sip his Bud(!), the phone rings. When he hears it's a girl's voice, he makes a face.
Next we join Karen and Harry (Curtis' character's name is Harry Erskine) on an extended travelogue through the infuriatingly bland and identity-free city which seriously could pass for anywhere in the northern hemisphere. They take a stroll in a big park, ride on a cable car, and wander around some sort of fish mongering district catching up on old times, before finally heading back to his well-appointed domicile. After some activity which required the donning of bathrobes (maybe they each, separately, needed to shower off the fish smell) they somehow end up lying parallel to each other in front of a crackling fire. Harry hears Karen, (understandably sleepy after their platonically exhausting evening) whisper: "Pana Witchi Salatu". Hmmm. No doubt Harry thinks she's asking for his salad recipe. Or possibly something about Don Ameche. In any event, he drops her off the next day with some encouragement about staying positive, and drives away without even going into the hospital with her. Jerk.
It's the day of the surgery, and Karen's procedure is to be performed by Dr. Hughes - man of science, common sense, and steely bedside manner.
It does not go well.
The monitors go nuts as Karen opens her eyes just as the scalpel descends. Dr. Hughes delivers a spectacular incision - to his own left hand. The other medical staff are appalled and pull him backwards. It's chaos. What I love the most about this scene is the nurse sitting at her computer (a Tandy?) to the left of frame. At first she exhibits some shock and concern...
And then thinks better of it, and hunches back over her workstation, trying to distance herself from the medical crisis erupting all around her.
Well played, wise, shy little nurse. That's exactly what my reaction would be too.
Back at "work", Harry is busy in his apartment grafting his latest doddering mark - Mrs. Herz. By the way, the next few minutes here are comedy gold, with each actor playing it as broadly as possible, milking these characters for all they're worth. Harry gives the old girl a fairly good forecast, and then turns over the last card.
Mrs. Herz wastes no time in Linda Blairing up a storm, in her sweet, lavender-scented way. "Pana!" she bellows. "Witchi!" "Salatu!" Harry, profoundly alarmed, flaps helplessly around the apartment, at one point threatening her with an ambulance. She won't be calmed, and flies from the apartment. Floats, actually - all the way down the corridor, to the top of a stairwell. Slow-mo Harry is no match for bad mojo, though, and her bewigged stunt double crashes calamitously down the stairs, taking out every spindle along the way. Harry is horrified and holds her lifeless, broken body to his chest while the sound of the approaching ambulance wails in the distance... Actually Curtis is rather moving in this little moment here, but we're given no time to mourn poor Mrs. Herz, for at the hospital...
Karen is not doing well. Harry tries unsuccessfully to convince Dr. Hughes that some kind of supernatural force is at work, but Doc's not buying any of his hippie jive. And frankly? At this point, you can't blame him for being skeptical. Surely his hand-slicing adventure was the result of some kind of...malfunctioning scalpel.
In any case, Harry realizes it's up to him to get help for Karen, so he visits another old "flame" by the name of Amelia Crusoe. The woman is a bona-fide gypsy, hence the dark locks on Stella Stevens here. Her kerchief is also a bit of a clue. Obviously, this is the moment in the script that most mirrors "The Exorcist", and it's actually not too derivative. Sure, they're basically trading a Roman collar for a kerchief, but it's so ham and cheese it works. Besides, pretty soon Harry trades in the kerchief for a real chief, so...
Seance scene. This creeped me out for years, especially the way Ann Sothern gives Mercedes McCambridge a run for her money with the sotto groaning and demonic histrionics.
Ann Southern, by the way (wonderfully cast here as Karen's dotty aunt), was the voice of the car in "My Mother the Car". So she was a natural choice to appear in a movie dealing with machines and spirits. She pioneered the machine manitou role! Where was I? Ah yes, after the tar-black head of an ancient Indian spirit makes his theatre-in-the round debut, the shocked seancees gather to confabulate.
The best part of this exchange is Southern's pronunciation of the word 'saloon'. The woman is obviously having fun. And, clearly drunk.
A Yeti-like minor character chimes in with his doubts on the subject.
"Yeah, but a wooden Indian with...magic powers?"
Shut up, beast-boy; I enjoyed Creepshow 2. Some aerial shots of a big bridge - New York? Man, this is bugging me. So ok, our kids are all over the dusty book research, as is dictated by all known paranormal movie conventions, and I'll skip all of this (including Burgess Meredith's nice little walk-on as a doubting anthropologist) except for this bizarre shot of a too-large fish in a too-small tank seemingly trying to commit suicide by fern...
~Hit refresh to see the animations here and further down, as for some reason that saloon audio clip stops the buggers in their tracks~
Critics would probably call this some kind of aquatic analogy for the desperately wrongheaded, misguided, ill-directed folly that is "The Manitou", but since I'm no sneering nabob, let's push on, shall we? The good Dr. Hughes has unwisely authorized the use of what looks like Reagan's missile defense system to remove Karen's tumor.
Seriously not a good idea. And talk about one mother of a surgical laser! I mean, unless you're having the planet Alderaan removed, we're looking at major overkill. Karen is not happy, either.
That mess she just made won't be helping her premiums any.
Desperate, Harry goes looking for a Medicine Man. Luckily he finds one in the very next scene: a tall drink of firewater named John Singing Rock who is thoughtfully tending an herb garden. Of course he is. I wonder if, in a parallel universe where this was a gangster movie, this character would be tending an olive garden and delivering his lines with an orange wedge in his mouth. Of course he would. Anyway, after some clunky culture-clashing, John agrees to help Harry in exchange for some tobacco and a cheque made out to a child-friendly Native charity for $100 000. Since Karen's aunt will be footing the bill, Harry deals.
Back in the city of absolutely no discernable landmarks (actually, let me warn you, the ding ding of the cable cars in this movie is so ubiquitous, you'll swear you're watching The Bells of St. Mary's. Or the Hunchback of Notre Dame.), Harry and John clash with the hospital administrators. Dr. Hughes, in a shocking dramatic turnaround, proves skeptical. When they visit Karen's room (speaking of hunchbacks), she's full-blown possessed, and introduces herself as "Misquamacus", a 400 year-old supershamen bent on...well, he's just really bent. John blabs awhile about sealing the spirit in a circle of protective herbs while he readies his arsenal of tatty-looking talismans for the exorcism proper, but what he ends up laying down is actually no more than a semi-circle of herbs, on account of the hospital bed being against the wall. This doesn't figure into the plot later on, it just irritates me.
The exorcism isn't much of anything but a series of interludes in which John Singing Rock (he summons rock, but sadly never sings rock, which seems like a tragic oversight given the awesome cinematic potential of a heavy-metal showdown) calls upon various spirits such as eagle and mountain to do his bidding. His manitou-mojo is dodgy at best compared to mighty Misquamacus, and the pair are forced to retreat frequently to the visitor's lounge. Just as things are getting quiet-
Misquamacus has used a "body manitou" to kill the orderly, stripping away his skin. The tortured flesh of Karen's back ripples and bulges, Harry watches in horror as the malformed abomination aborts itself.
There is a horrifyingly moist splat as the demonic dwarf pulls free and hits the tiles of the hospital room. Slowly, the thing crawls towards the men who seek to imprison it, and after raising himself up onto his knobby little knees, Misquamacus begins to chant defiantly.
After some juicy corpse reanimation and a bit of dinosaur summoning
which claims doubting Dr. Hughes' other hand, the homicidal half-pint breaks free of his herbal confinement and begins spoiling for a fight. Harry helps Dr. Hughes onto the elevator and down to a floor where his mutilated hand can be tended to. He returns alone, and is greeted by a scene right out of Doctor Zhivago.
All is ensconced in ice. A friendly nurse is frozen forever in an unflattering pose at her station. John Singing Rock is sitting prone in Karen's room, in shock after receiving a faceful of surgical instruments. On the way back to the elevator, our heroes are caught as Misquamacus springs his ambush! An ice demon!
Hey, short-round's bottom looks a bit protracted, doesn't it? Imagine if there were some other evil Manitou growing there? Oh the delicious irony! Actually, no, that's not what happens. His ass is just weird. But then! Harry has Had Enough, and hurls an unplugged portable typewriter at the bulge-butted little beggar. Unexpected explosion! The typewriter's manitou (yes, just go with it) has surprised and wounded the midget medicine man. Oh, and the frozen nurse got decapitated in the assault, too, but I forgot to take a screencap. This should get the point across, though.
Another trip in the elevator to get some help for John's face reveals the true inspiration for the Mortal Kombat character "Nightwolf":
No, actually they just convince Dr. Hughes to turn on all the electronic equipment in the building so that John can channel their manitous and destroy "the Mixmaster" as Harry is by now wont to call him. Taking the lift upstairs for one last shot at exorseismic glory, the duo dodge diabolic pink laser beams as they come abreast of ground zero. They are amazed to discover Karen's hospital room has no walls, ceiling or floor - only a dizzying starfield with the cackling homunculus hovering triumphantly over all. Distantly flanking him is a pulsing purple acid trip we are told is the "Great Old One", a serious muckety-muck in the demonic pecking order. Well, sparks literally fly as the modern equipment is charged...but because it is "white man's magic" John is unable to use it. I'm actually not sure what sort of herbs they expect us to construct our EKG machines and CAT scanners from, but clearly we screwed up somewhere. In any case, the energy is crackling, but undirectable, and Misquamacus just floats around and laughs like a motherfucker.
But! Don't you dare blink, for Dr. Hughes suddenly meets an explosive end as the power comes surging out of the sundry reel-to-reels and impressive banks of beeping set dressing!
But where is the energy going? Who will channel the awesome power of the White Man? Why, a white woman of course! Karen and her remarkably resilient hair rise from the hospital bed into a kneeling position, her gown falling fetchingly from her shoulders. Misquamacus ceases his cackling and stares...
Stares at the power growing in his miraculously resurrected former host's hands. Wait, hands? Or...
Boobs! Her gown has fallen all the way down and her boobs are primed and loaded! Also: Asteroids! Asteroids are flinging themselves at John and Harry! And more lasers! It's laser Loggins, people. Manitou has become Xanadu! Anyway, she nails him but good, and then likewise sends his cohort, the Great Old One, tottering off to that cosmic porch in the sky to bitch about the prices of prescription drugs and whatnot.
And then the room returns to normal (except for the odd bloody corpse) and she whispers "Harry?". Ahh.
The next day, Harry walks John out to his waiting cab. They talk about reincarnation and things, just to leave a door open for any number of sequels, and then Harry fishes into his pocket for something. It's John's tobacco. John takes it, appreciating the thoughtful gesture and waves. His cab pulls away. Harry smiles and waves back. Suddenly I realize that the promised hundred-grand cheque was never delivered. The White Men will never stop ripping those people off, will we?
Travelogue credits: Hmm, hey! Is that the Transamerica Pyramid? But...isn't that in San Fransisco? Aw, heck, I've stopped worrying about it. Hope you enjoyed the review (whew, that was a long one), now I'm off to learn the secret Indian name of my dryer's manitou. I'd really like to get some of my odd socks back.