If you can't make it to tonight's screening of The Manitou (courtesy the So Bad It's Good Film Festival at the Vista Theater in Los Feliz), you can at least add this amazingly bad movie to your Netflix cue. Anchor Bay has finally released it on DVD.
Sure, bad movies can be fun, but what makes this one special?
You simply haven't lived until you've seen a topless chick shoot laser bolts out of her hands at a deformed Indian midget while floating beneath a giant eyeball in outer space.
The Manitou is based on Graham Masterton's best-selling debut horror novel from the 1970s. I read this book back in the day -- devoured is more like it. This was back when Stephen King was writing very slowly, maybe one book per year, and I was desperate for any horror fiction to fill those gaps. In The Manitou, I found a compelling, visceral and extremely outrageous yarn about demonic possession with a Native American twist.
In swingin' San Francisco, a woman named Karen enters a hospital to have a nasty tumor on her neck removed. But surprise, it's not a tumor! X-rays reveal a rapidly growing fetus through which the soul of an ancient evil Indian medicine man -- sporting the friendly monicker of Misquamacus -- will be reborn. Say what?
But these x-rays have deformed the fetus. D'oh! Whatever emerges is guaranteed to be ghastly, misshapen and very pissed off, which means it's gonna summon lots of evil Indian demons to wreak havoc on the white man's world. Can Karen's ex-boyfriend -- a smart-ass charlatan spiritualist -- and a modern-day medicine man save her soul?
The Manitou unfurls with the headlong narrative thrust of the best pulp fiction. Masterton finds a terrific first-person voice in his acerbic hero, Harry Erskine, that deftly balances the rising horrors with a welcome sense of humor. And true to his pulp influences, Masterton smartly ends every chapter on a thrilling cliffhanger. I swear, this seventh grader turned those pages so quickly it singed the corners. Now, I know, I know, I know this book's cheesy and exploitative and not a great horror novel by any means. Nevertheless, it hit me at just the right time and became one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.
The resulting 1978 film adapation, by the late shlock-meister William Girdler, was a shattering disappointment. I stayed up late one night to watch it air on a local channel (its theatrical release was understandably short-lived). I remember the pit of my stomach growing cold as I realized how badly they'd botched one of my favorite stories.
The film does sport some genuinely creepy and inventive moments. There's a spooky seance where an Indian spirit rises from a solid oak table. I learned from a special effects magazine they simply filmed a statue rising from a pool of oil, but damn, it works better than any CGI crap you've seen lately. And the birth scene of Misquamacus ripping out of Karen's back is suitably grisly, especially the greasy plop as the twisted demonic dwarf slides to the floor.
And although Susan Strasberg never gets to use her Method acting to achieve much beyond the above facial expression, there are some good performances. Michael Ansara projects a nice no-bullshit heroism as medicine man John Singing Rock, and Burgess Meredith has a woefully tiny but spirited cameo as the Mentor Who Kinda But Not Really Explains It All.
Stella Stevens, in a 70s curl wig and spray-on tan, has a small role as a hippie gypsy. Not much for her to do, but at least she looks hot, in a fake gypsy kinda way. In this bitchy 2005 interview, Stevens dismisses the project as "preposterous" -- which is why I'm surprised she's gonna appear at the screening to introduce the film!
Those are the film's few good points. Girdler's film gets almost everything else horribly wrong. Some of the blame goes to the script, which never pegs the chilling, pulp-driven tone of the novel. And while a few special effects carry their weight, many of them -- a ridiculous rubber lizard suit, the absurd Star Wars-flavored climax -- are known to induce spasms of uncontrollable wincing among audiences.
But the biggest thing wrong with The Manitou, and the source of much laughter, is Tony Curtis.
Tony friggin' Curtis. I mean, just look at him here:
As Harry Erskine, he's wearing uncomfortably tight pants, firing off awkward disco moves and, like your creepy alcoholic uncle trying desperately to seem hip and cool, seems to be continually surprised that nobody else will join him.
That flat Bronx accent doesn't help. When told that Karen's tumor harbors a fetus, he squints and exclaims: "On huh nack?"
Hamming isn't an accurate description of Curtis' over-the-top, amusing-only-to-himself performance. It's so deadly gawd-awful you begin to wonder what's fueling it. Unbridled ego? A "screw it" attitude sometimes found in big stars slumming their way through low-budget flicks? From what I know of Curtis' troubled past, I'd wager that, were the camera to pan a few more inches to either side, it would uncover a car-sized mound of cocaine stamped with the fresh imprint of Curtis' puffy, grinning face.
It's taken many years for me to realize that while The Manitou is not a good film, it is hugely enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.
The late great John Huston said we shouldn't remake the good movies, just the bad ones. Before we remake any more classic horror films, why doesn't someone take a shot at The Manitou? I still believe there's a killer movie to be fashioned from this visceral story. Poor Girdler, who died in a helicopter accident shortly after finishing it, just wasn't the guy to pull it off.
Ed Wood (who once rented office space just above the Vista Theater) would've loved this film. If you're in the right frame of mind, so will you.