The Manitou (1978)

Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) goes to the hospital worried about a tumor that has suddenly appeared on her back and grown to tremendous size within just a few days.  After taking X-rays, Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar) decides to operate, both because of the increase in size and because it looks like a fetus is growing on her neck.

Karen contacts her sometime boyfriend, a fortune teller named Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), with her concerns as well.  When she stays over at his apartment the day before her surgery she starts repeating words in an unknown language.  From there, things go awry: Dr. Hughes finds himself to slice his own wrist with the scalpel during surgery, and an elderly client of Erskine's starts repeating the same words before levitating and throwing herself down the stairs.

Erskine contacts a former associate named Amelia (Stella Stevens) and they hold a seance in Karen's apartment.  This leads to the discovery that what they are dealing with is a very angry Native American medicine man who is attempting to reincarnate, a fact confirmed when they contact Native American lore expert Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), who in turn informs him that the only way to save Karen is to find a living medicine man to fight the spirit.

After some coaxing, Erskine enlists the aid of John Singing Rock (John Ansara) and convinces Hughes to go down this route.  The spirit it turns out is a 400-year-old medicine man named Misquamacas (Felix Silla), considered the most powerful medicine man ever to exist.  He is not too happy with the their attempts to get rid of him, and now not only do they have to save Karen, but the rest of the world from the demons that Misquamacas is summoning.

When I saw the opening credits and the cast it was apparent that I suddenly stumbled on a movie that someone in Hollywood had put some effort behind.  Most of what I watch is quite different, with the Hollywood aspect only coming in when it comes to grinding out more sequels for profit.  That said, the San Francisco locations are well-done, and there are some good special effects for the time (the head coming out of the table being the best of them, although Susan Strasberg topless and shooting lasers from her hands is the most interesting).  There are also some awful effects (a severed head that is obviously from a mannequin, Misquamacas being a dwarf with makeup) that pull you right from the movie and have you laughing hysterically.

What will also have you laughing is much of the plot.  The idea that all Native Americans share the same philosophies, religions, stories, etc. is ridiculous, and was ridiculous even in the 1970s.  I also found it funny when Dr. Snow says there are only a couple of medicine men, and that they had to go to South Dakota to find them - completely ignoring Arizona and, in fact, California itself.  Also, I love how Snow is able to translate a language that was never written down and died out before Europeans ever made it to California.

And, yes, even though I usually think liberals get their hackles up too much when it comes to silly movies and such, I do find it a bit disturbing that the only thing that can destroy Indian black magic is white man's magic, mainly the spirits that exist in our machines.  I don't know if the author of the book really meant it to come across as having elements of cultural superiority, but it sure does seem like it in the film.  If they would have left it at "new spirits" instead of "white spirits," it wouldn't be as questionable.  From what I understand the author originally wanted a venereal disease to be the ultimate victor, which would have been much more interesting.

Still, it is a watchable movie, especially because of the general ridiculousness of the plot, the overacting and, once again, topless laser fights.

The Manitou (1978)
Time: 104 minutes
Starring: Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, John Ansara, Felix Silla
Director: William Girdler


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