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?
Butthese 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.
Take that with a grain of salt. It was also predicted that, in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, the Democratic Party would wither and die. It hasn't, despite its innate mediocrity. If any form of civilized conservatism is going to survive the current climate, I predict that its chances of success will be proportionate to the degree by which its proponents condemn and distance themselves from the corrupt and inept reign of the Bush/Cheney/Rove neo-con machine.
Here's Jimi tearing up Bobby's All Along the Watchtower at the Isle of Wight in 1970:
If you caught last night's BSG cliffhanger season finale, you now have nine months not to go insane. Best of luck! You'll probably need to take up some intense hobbies, like reading every Ronald Moore profile you can find. Or you can analyze maddeningly vague and symbolic song lyrics:
There must be some kind of way out of here Said the joker to the thief There's too much confusion I can't get no relief Businessman they drink my wine Plow men dig my earth None will level on the line Nobody of it is worth Hey hey
No reason to get excited The thief he kindly spoke There are many here among us Who feel that life is but a joke but uh But you and I we've been through that And this is not our fate So let us not talk falsely now The hour's getting late Hey
All along the watchtower Princes kept the view While all the women came and went Bare-foot servants too, but huh Outside in the cold distance A wild cat did growl Two riders were approachin' And the wind began to howl Hey Oh All along the watchtower Hear you sing around the watch Gotta beware gotta beware I will Yeah Ooh baby All along the watchtower
So sad to learn that Cletus Anderson died last week. He built the incredible costume design program at Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught from 1968-2003, and worked on countless theater and film productions. Along with his wife, Barbara, Cletus authored the definitive textbook on costume design titled, aptly, Costume Design.
Chris Lawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a touching profile in today's edition where you can learn more about this amazing man and see samples of his work.
I was struck by this quote from Emmy Award-winning designer John Shaffner, a CMU alum:
"Cletus seemed to have a designer protege in every regional theater and every city. ... but what is really incredible is that many writers, actors and directors were touched by him. He made a difference in everybody's life, the Holly Hunters, everyone who had to come up to the costume shop or walk across the stage, he was able to send them on the right path."
That is so true. I was lucky enough to have Cletus for a class called Designing for Playwrights, an overview of theatrical costume and set design. We were a handful of overworked, sleep-deprived and malnourished writers who couldn't design or draw to save our lives. Cletus was patient and encouraging because he wanted us to understand what designers do so we could better collaborate with them on future projects. He taught us not to create impossible sets and unwieldy costume changes, but he also showed us how almost any shortcoming or obstacle can become an opportunity in the hands of someone with creative spark. He made sure we knew the names and legacies of influential costume, set and lighting designers. Cletus was a smart and friendly guy and we learned a lot from him.
Cletus was also the production designer for several George Romero movies. Here's where I really connected with him. I loved asking Cletus about these experiences and, though I'd never peg him as a fan of the genre, he loved talking about them. Sometimes my fellow classmates would get visibly frustrated at these digressions but damn it, I'm a bona fide horror film geek sitting next to the guy who'd designed some of the genre's more memorable films of the 1980s. There were days when Cletus and I just couldn't shut up about them.
I got the scoop on Stephen King and all those creepy cockroaches from Creepshow (1981). According to Cletus, King was a great team player who'd dive in and do rewrites on the spot to save the production some money. Remember that final segment, with E.G. Marshall fighting an army of cockroaches that invades his sanctum? The original design had this anti-social character locked away in an ornate world of antiques, plush furniture and expensive rugs. The problem: this low-budget indy couldn't afford anything like that.
Cletus, along with King and Romero, hammered out a low-cost alternative: make the character a germophobe living in a sterile steel-and-tile environment. This was not only cheaper to do, but far more effective aesthetically. When the nasty black and brown bugs skittered over these shiny white surfaces, the audience shared the main character's revulsion.
Some of those vile hissing cockroaches escaped the set, but it's an urban myth that they went on to infest Pittsburgh. According to Cletus, who worked with the bug wrangler, they're just not designed for the climate and certainly died that winter.
Cletus also designed the fuzzy mold-sprouting overalls that King wears as backwoods hick Jordy Verrill in the movie. When I reported that a classmate had found these overalls hanging in the costume warehouse, Cletus was greatly amused (they've since vanished, and no, I had nothing to do with that). If you watch carefully, you can catch a glimpse of Cletus and Barbara as extras during the segment where Fritz Weaver daydreams about killing his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) at an academic party.
Cletus told me a lot about Romero's Day of the Dead, including the day he was almost rendered dead by an alligator on the set. Once he invited me to his office to see grand production sketches for Day that sadly were discarded when the film's budget was slashed just before shooting began. He enjoyed working on all of these low-budget movies, but I sensed that Day of the Dead was a regrettable experience because so many of his amazing designs never saw the light of day. In fact, the money was so miniscule that the story was downsized and relocated to a huge cave just outside of Pittsburgh.
Another day, Cletus told me some of the things that went wrong with Romero's adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Half, from the off-set craziness of some of the actors to the budget and post-production woes that plagued the project. It's a wonder this film was ever completed, let alone released.
On my invitation, Cletus and Barbara were kind enough to attend my thesis play, The Planet on 158th Street, which mixes 1940s New York with a Buck Rogers-style space opera. We raided one of the few resources available to us: the immense CMU warehouse holding costumes from decades of productions. While watching the show, Barbara and Cletus nodded and whispered to each other as they recognized costumes from past shows. After the curtain, Cletus walked up to me and grinned and gave me a big hug. He didn't say anything, just let me know that he was happy for me and happy he'd seen the show. That was plenty.
My anecdotal recollection of Cletus is horribly inadequate. I know there was so much more to this man, and I wish I'd known him better. My thoughts are with his family, and I know that many CMU alums -- those who studied under Cletus and knew him better as both mentor and friend -- are deeply grieving right now. It's a testament to Barbara and Cletus that many of their former students are out there doing amazing, amazing work in theater and film design. And that so many others -- actors, directors, and writers -- are carrying lessons they too learned under his tutelage.
That's the legacy Cletus wanted, and one he certainly made happen.
There is no doubt that most of the dullness of our movies is concocted in advance in the so-called heads of the so-called scriptwriters. Not only the dullness: They also perpetuate the standard film constructions, dialogues, plots. They follow closely their textbooks of “good” screenwriting. Shoot all scriptwriters, and we may yet have a rebirth of American cinema.
Over the next four years, the Writers Co-Op will generate at least 18 scripts from writers who will risk their usually high upfront salaries for the reward of receiving first-dollar gross, the right to participate as producers and a guarantee they will not be rewritten without their consultation and approval. The scribes will also have a say in the decisionmaking process from development all the way to post-production.
Program is the brainchild of Wells, Nick Kazan and Tom Schulman. While it seems like a dream for scribes, the venture was also enticing to Warners.
The writers will cut their upfront fees by as much as 90% for a first draft and potentially up to two sets of revisions. Scripters will receive their full standard fees and production bonuses for films that get made.