William Girdler Sr. remains one of Hollywood history's most prolific and unappreciated B-Movie directors, even long after his death in the late 70s. He's probably best known for his Grizzly, a bleak but very effective Jaws knockoff, the mediocre Day of the Animals and the Tony Curtis supernatural extravaganza The Manitou. William Girdler contributions to the film industry spanned six years and included nine movies. A tragic helicopter crash ended his life at the age of 30. While all of Girdler's movies are memorable for all the wrong reasons, they range in quality from hypnotically mediocre to fabulously ham-handed on an Edward D. Wood scale.
The Manitou became William Girdler’s last film and swan song. It has all the typical traits that defined him as a filmmaker; a simple and gimmicky plot, usually a recycled twist on a recent horror hit of the time (in this case The Exorcist), corny comedy, crazy camera work and campy acting.
The plot for The Manitou involves con artist and tarot card mystic Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) who tries to save his girlfriend Karen (Susan Strasberg) from a tumor containing the fetus of a 400-year-old Evil Indian Medicine Man. When all traditional methods fail and when numerous possession signs such as flying old ladies indicate there may be a need for more unorthodox remedies he enlists the help of a mystic friend, Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens), an anthropologist (Burgess Meredith) and finally John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) a modern Indian Medicine man.
The film is based on Graham Masterton's debut novel published in 1975. The script is comically cheesy throughout but fortunately most of the cast delivers their lines with the utmost sincerity. That is with the exception of Tony Curtis. The role of Harry Erskin needed to be played by someone with a self-deprecatory sense of humor and you would think that Mr. Curtis would have been the perfect choice. Unfortunately much of the blame for The Manitou’s failure can be attributed to Mr. Curtis misguided and unconvincing tongue in cheek performance. His disco dancing and “Guard well the pips” scene at the beginning of the film are embarrassing failed attempts at comedy and his performance just goes worst from there. On the other hand Burgess Meredith has a splendid cameo as an eccentric anthropologist, also played for laughs yet there’s a clear sense of fun to his performance and, more importantly, he is very convincing. Susan Strasberg has nothing to work with except looking sickly and posessed, while Michael Ansara is solemn and effective as John Singing Rock.
As a movie The Manitou ignores all the horror possibilities of its setup. Instead of focusing on the clinical claustrophobia and darkness of its setting the movie takes a comic tongue in cheek approach that prevents us from taking it seriously enough to make it really scary. On the whole The Manitou is a muddled, awkward effort that suffers from a lack of strong center. The film seems to fluctuate between the possession hijinx and suspense of the Exorcist, to over the top special effects sequences and tongue in cheek comedy. It’s not hard to assume that Girdler was simply throwing these elements together with an eye on the box office and see how it all turned out. Even with these flaws the film is thoroughly entertaining and a hoot to watch.
The cinematography and lighting is effective and the special effects are convincing for its day, with the exception of the cheesy Star Wars-like finale.
Some of the highlights of the film include the genuinely creepy sequence involving the Indian Manitou busting out of Strasberg’s neck, a spectacular séance in which a demon head pops out of a wooden table, a laser on the loose surgical scene; and another sequence involving a little old lady that levitates on a hallway then plunging to her death down the stairs.
There are also some truly ridiculous scenes such as when a superimposed lizard demon bites the hand of a doctor (an obvious man in lizard costume); a scene in which Harry intimidates the Manitou by tossing a typewriter; and of course there’s that finale, and I mean “Oh what a finale”. As another fellow critic put it “You simply haven’t lived a full life unless you’ve watched a naked chick shoot cartoon laser beams at an Indian midget.”