Director: William Girdler
Anchor Bay Entertainment

By the time he had reached the tender age of 30, Kentucky-born William Girdler had directed nine films (in a six-year period!), all of the exploitation/drive-in variety. A helicopter accident took the life of 30-year-old Girdler in 1978, the year his final and most expensive-looking (in terms of cast and special effects) effort, THE MANITOU, was released by Avco Embassy. Although THE MANITOU is not his best film, it’s unconventional and ambitious enough to attest that he probably would have gone on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, the life of this young talent was cut off way too short.

In San Francisco, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) has a strange, irritating growth on the back of her neck, much to the bewilderment of two specialist doctors (Jon Cedar and Paul Mantee) who conclude it’s some sort of “fetus.” Before going into the hospital to be operated on, Karen looks up old flame Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a charlatan tarot card reader who caters to rich old ladies. During their rekindled romance, Harry believes the tumor is nothing to worry about until he hears Karen utter something in a strange language in her sleep. One of his clients (Lurene Tuttle) later says the same mysterious passage right before floating on air and falling to her death down a flight of stairs. These strange occurrences, the fact that Karen seems possessed and the doctors’ continued bafflement leads Harry to seek the help of another fortune teller, Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens) and her husband (Hugh Corcoran), and together they perform a revealing (and turbulent) séance. As Karen’s growth gets larger, an old anthropologist (Burgess Meredith) is called upon, and he believes the neck lump is a 400 year old Indian Spirit out for revenge. Next to enter the picture is an authentic Indian witch doctor named John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), at first hesitant to help a paleface woman, but then convinced to come to the city to perform a ceremonial exorcism on Karen.

Based on a Scottish author Graham Masterton’s best-selling book, THE MANITOU’s script was reportedly written in three days by Girdler, co-star Cedar and Tom Pope, and the rather preposterous narrative doesn’t display any doubt of this. The film employs a plethora of then-common science fiction and horror film devices, evoking everything from THE EXORCIST (exorcism and possession) to STAR WARS (shooting laser beams and asteroids in a glimpse at an outer space-like other dimension), natural disasters (small earthquakes and a snow storm in a hospital ward), and even the colored lighting and stormy destruction in the séance sequence could have been inspired by SUSPIRIA. Though seemingly played completely straight, even for a fantastic film, it’s hard to accept such dialog as Ansara’s witch doctor claiming “a machine has its own Manitou” when considering turning the hospital’s computers against the demon at large in a desperate attempt to defeat it. When the Manitou (dubbed “Misquamacas”) pops out of Strasberg’s back, he’s played by “little people” actors Joe Gieb and Felix Silla (“Cousin It” on “The Addams Family”) in respectable (and quite horrifying) make-up by Thomas R. Burman, who worked on several AIP films prior to this.

Like his prior two productions, GRIZZLY and DAY OF THE ANIMALS, Girdler maintained the tradition of “all star” horror with a familiar cast. As Harry Erskine, Hollywood legend Tony Curtis is first seen entertaining elderly clients in his bachelor pad, greeting them in a ridiculously fake moustache and wizard’s robe decorated in zodiac signs. Initially, it seems like his role is played for laughs until he becomes dedicated to helping his old girlfriend, and it’s actually a very good performance. He also has good chemistry with Ansara, and their unlikely teaming is reminiscent of Darren McGavin and William Smith (also playing an Indian medicine man) in “The Energy Eater” episode of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” Most of the other “star” names are cameos. Burgess Meredith has a bit as a kooky author, Stella Stevens (made to look like a gypsy with brown hair and dark skin makeup) disappears after the first half, Jeanette Nolan is one of Harry’s elderly clients and Ann Southern is seen very briefly during the séance scene. “Celebrity Skin” devotees will want to take note that the lovely Strasberg is shown topless during the special effects-laden climax! And to think this was a PG-rated film!

Anchor Bay Entertainment premieres THE MANITOU on DVD in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Obviously going back to the original negative for the transfer, the image looks sharp with crisp detail, and no blemishes or artifacting in sight. Colors are stable throughout but look slightly muted in several of the beginning scenes. The mono audio features clear dialogue, and Lalo Schifrin’s score comes through very nicely.

The only extras on the disc are the original Avco Embassy theatrical trailer and a 30-second TV spot (a reproduction of the one-sheet poster is also included inside the case). THE MANITOU may be silly and not nearly as scary as it was 30 years, but it still has some jolts of campy excitement and is a must for William Girdler completists and fans of 1970s all-star horror epics. (George R. Reis)