MOVIE: The Manitou (1978)

For many years now, more than I should probably admit, I have loved horror movies.  People who know me “in real life” are always extremely surprised when they learn this bit of trivia, mostly, I think, because I seem like a pretty normal, “nice” librarian until the words, “Man, I LOVE watching cheerleaders get hacked to bits!” come tumbling out of my mouth. 

I know a lot of you guys, my regular readers, are not horror fans either — in fact, I don’t really know anybody who enjoys that genre as much as I do.  And for a long time now, I’ve wondered if maybe that meant I was some sort of weirdo.  Usually the people I meet who admit to enjoying horror flicks are men, for one thing.  Maybe this is abnormal behavior for a 34 year-old female librarian?

Thankfully, just as I was starting to think I had a problem, I stumbled across the Final Girl blog, and after reading writer Stacie Ponder’s horror movie reviews for about five minutes, I started to feel a whoooooole lot better about myself.  Not only am I not alone in my strange predilection — I’m in damn fine company to boot!

After lurking on her site for a few months, I’ve finally decided it’s time to start participating in her horror movie film club:  each month, Final Girl picks a movie and a due date,  her readers each grab a copy of the film and watch it in the privacy of their own homes, and then everybody comes back to the Internet on the same day and blogs about it.

This month’s selection?  The Manitou.  The due date.  Today, oi!  So here we go!

After watching this movie not once but TWICE in the last four weeks (I watched it right after FG recommended it, and then sort of skimmed through it again over the weekend to refresh my memory), I feel quite reasonable in declaring that The Manitou is one of the most thoroughly and ridiculously bad horror movies of all time.  I spent the entire 104 minutes by turns staring at the screen with my jaw hanging open because I couldn’t believe the sheer absurdity of I was seeing, and muttering things like, “The. . . what?  Is a. . . WHAT?!” 

I mean, if you thought Phantasm was super-fun bad-movie-ness, this one needs to go in your pile ASAP, my friends.

The Manitou is about a young woman named Karen (Susan Strassberg) who wakes up one day to find a strange lump growing on the back of her neck.  Doctors are perplexed, and the more their tests fail to figure out what’s going on, the more Karen begins to worry.  As the lump grows larger and the docs start throwing around the word “fetus,” Karen quite understandably begins to suspect they might not actually know what they’re doing.  Can’t really blame her — I suspect that if a doctor tried to tell ME I had a fetus growing on my neck, I might myself raise an eyebrow and go in search of a second opinion.

Since it’s the 70’s, of course, Karen decides the second opinion she needs is not that of another doctor, but instead that of a psychic.  So she tracks down an old friend of hers, a tarot-card reader named Harry (Curtis) who spends most of his time bilking old ladies out of their lunch money.  Before Karen gets too far into her tale of woe, though, she starts speaking in tongues, and when, the next day, one of Harry’s old ladies starts busting out with the same refrain (“Pana witchy salatu!”), he suddenly begins to suspect Karen is dealing with something a little more serious than, say, your average neck tumor.

He sends Karen back to the hospital while he calls up one of his psychic buddies, a very-70’s-looking babe named Amelia.  The two of them decide what needs to happen next is a seance, so they go to Karen’s aunt’s house and round up a gang of friends and clients to complete the circle.  During the chanting, a goopy-looking Indian dude pokes his head out of the table and it all becomes clear — they’re dealing with. . . drumroll, please . . .

Native American “black magic”!  Yeah, babe!

Thankfully, Harry happens to have a book on Native American lore handy — don’t we all? — and he soon finds a passage that seems apropos.  It describes an entity called the “Manitou,” the immortal spirit of a medicine man that can be reborn at any time or in any place after its original host is gone. 

Harry and Amy track down the author of the book, Dr. Snow (played by Burgess Meredith!), hoping he can tell them more.  At first, Snow wants nothing to do with them:

“What did he say?” Amy asks, after Harry has talked to Snow on the phone.  

“Change ‘bullshit’ to a 15-syllable word and you’ve got a sense of it,” Harry replies. 

Oddly enough, that kind of sums up how I felt about this movie, but that’s neither here nor there. . .

Eventually Snow agrees to help, and he tells them the only way they can get rid of the Manitou and save Karen is to dig up another Indian Medicine Man and send him in to duke things out, mano-a-Manitou.  Luckily, Snow says, Indians work pretty cheap — he’ll probably just want some trinkets or tobacco or something in exchange for RISKING HIS LIFE FOR YOU. 

Here, I confess to a snort of derision.

Luckily, there’s apparently some sort of handy directory for Native American Medicine Men (remember, this was before Google!), and it’s not long before Harry manages to track one down named John Singing Rock.  After first professing his adoration for herbs (I have a feeling the screenplaywright really had a thing for herbs too — the smokeable kind), John agrees to follow Harry back to the hospital and kick down with a good old fashioned black magic showdown.

From here, the movie kind of turns into The Exorcist, except with rattles instead of Bibles and what looks like melted Vaseline instead of pea soup (frankly, I preferred the soup).   In the final moments, the Manitou finally slithers out of Karen’s back, essentially looking like the love child of a menage-a-trois with a cigar store Indian, one of those creeping, spindly-limbed things from The Grudge, and the slimy green ghost with the yen for sausages from Ghostbusters.  

For the record, the “birthing” scene featured some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen, and I watch a LOT of low-budget baloney so that’s saying something.  However, the filmmakers more than made up for their lack of FX-fu when they also attempted to throw in some Real Serious Science StuffTM about how every time they x-rayed the Manitou while it was growing on Karen’s back, they damaged some of its cells, and that’s why it’s A) really cranky; and B) not fond of laser scalpels.

See above, re: derisive snort.

All in all, I have to say this is one of the weirdest, most mind-bogglingly awful horror movies I have ever seen in my entire life.  LOVED IT.  Definitely have to thank Final Girl for alerting me to this one, and now cannot WAIT to find out what crazy movie that girl will pick out next.  Final Girl, we need to get a beer sometime.

[Netflix me | Buy me

Genre:  Horror
Cast:  Tony Curtis, Burgess Meredith, Susan Strasberg, Jon Cedar, Paul Mantee


8 Responses to “MOVIE: The Manitou (1978)”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    speaking as a 35 year old female accountant, i find your love of horror perfectly normal. i got my love of horror when i started watching bad horror movies with my mom back in the 70s as a grade schooler (WOW, were the 70s and early 80s full of bad horror). people who enjoy romantic comedy, now that’s scary!

  2. Liz Says:

    So what am I, chopped liver?? I must confess to being a LITTLE BIT cross (:-) – really). Who was the one who dragged her husband to the theater to see “Sweeney Todd” the 2nd day after it opened (and sang songs from it at CHURCH)? Who was the one who rented “28 Days Later” AND “Dawn of the Dead” twice because she loved them? Who was the one who rented “Fido” on your recommendation, and loved it, and rented “Undead,” also on your recommendation, and found that she had already seen it? And who was the one who lamented to Alisa that her warning about “Dead Silence” had come too late, because she had already seen that one too? ME! ME, I TELL YOU! I’ve loved horror movies since I was a kid. I cried at “Bride of Frankenstein,” and wouldn’t leave the theatre during “Planet of the Apes” when my sister got scared and wanted to go home! I also thought “The Exorcist” was tame, compared to a movie I had just seen (“The Devils” with Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave). Now I ask you – how many people do you know who can recognize Sid Haig on sight (“Capt. Spaulding”)? I CAN!

    Okay, enough with the ranting and raving! I must confess that I don’t think I’ve seen “The Manitou,” although I’m not sure – it reminds me of one I did see that had Rosie Greer’s head growing on someone else’s neck! I also must confess that I’ve seen so many bad horror movies (due to my naivete in judging the rental boxes) that I do get kind of annoyed with some of them, and don’t always enjoy them just because they’re bad. I’m looking forward to “30 Days of Night” (vampires and zombies are my favorites), but I also plan to check out the “Manitou” movie, and that web site!

    P.S. Rochelle, I agree with you about scary romantic comedies!

  3. megwood Says:

    Awesome! I’m glad you guys dig horror too — I forgot you two were such big fans too!

    I should be getting “30 Days of Night” from Netflix today, actually — good timing because I’m home sick with my second cold in five weeks (crikey! shoot me now!). But I’m still three movies behind in reviews already AND struggling to get a new Boyfriend up before the month expires, so it may be several days until I get a review up for it.

    Wish you guys lived in Seattle so we could hang out and watch some of these crappy things together!!

    Haven’t seen “The Devils,” but if it kicked Exorcist’s butt, I must need to add it to my list posthaste! 🙂

  4. Bloody Mary Says:

    And I’m going to have to see Phantasm again, last time was in 7th grade and I don’t remember a thing, besides a cemetery.

    “mano-a-Manitou”?! You go, girl!

    signed, a 36 year-old secretary

  5. alisa Says:

    30 Days of Night Kicks Ass!! Really good twist on an already over sachurated genre. (that last sentence made sense right???)

    BTW, I don’t think I told you that I saw the movie “The Nines” w/Ryan Reynolds, really good movie, odd and different, but good. 🙂

  6. megwood Says:

    Hah, Alisa — I watched “30 Days of Night” last night and thought it was pretty lame! I’ll be posting my review of it in a couple of days — need to do three other movies first. Keep an eye out and be sure to comment when I get it posted with all the ways you disagree with me so we can have a nice balance o’ opinion on that one?

    Bloody Mary — thanks for mentioning “mano-a-Manitou,” because I was quite proud of myself for that one! Definitely watch Phantasm again — it is a BLAST! 🙂

  7. Liz Says:

    WARNING, WARNING! “Danger, Will Robinson?”) I read some comments about “The Devils” on IMDb, after I had blithely mentioned that it had made “The Exorcist” look tame by comparison. I was vindicated, in that evidently, the movie was very disturbing to a lot of people, but concerned because I’m not sure it’s possible to get a tape of the complete movie, because of “editing” (read “censorship”). I saw it at the movie theatre at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, so I saw the whole thing; I get the impression it’s very hard to find in its entirety now. So if you get a copy of it, and think it’s stupid, or poorly done, that’s probably why!

    I hope I don’t find “30 Days of Night” to be too tame! It sounded as if the writers/producers were really trying to create a scary story. Boy, do I hate getting misled into expecting an intelligent, well-thought-out movie, only to be presented with more “schlock!”

    I’m looking into that “Final Girl” web site, and am intrigued. I never understood that the phrase “final girl” was a legitimate reference to the last victim of a slasher/monster movie – usually a female – (see “Halloween”, “Nightmare on Elm St”, “Friday the 13th,” and many more) and has been taken quite seriously, and studied! You learn something new every day!

  8. megwood Says:

    Yeah — the title of the “Final Girl” site itself was the first thing that made intrigued me about it, because that’s a phrase that mostly only dedicated horror junkies know about! I actually disagree with her a lot on her opinions about movies (her love of “Descent” in particular sort of surprised me, because I was hellaciously disappointed by that one). But she’s still pretty entertaining!

    “30 Days of Night” isn’t just tame, it’s also boring and unoriginal! I’m working on my review right now, so should have it up tomorrow!

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