The Manitou (1978)

Director: William Girdler

Tagline: “Evil does not die… It waits to be reborn!”

Plot: Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg) has a problem.

Karen Tandy… has a neck fetus.

There probably isn’t a “right way” to tell a story about a woman who gets impregnated—in her neck—by the reborn spirit of a powerful Indian medicine man, but The Manitou does do an excellent job of demonstrating many of the wrong ways. For one, tone is important. The movie opens with two doctors discussing Karen’s condition while she sits patiently in the waiting room. It’s deadly serious, and that’s a mistake, because the situation is so clearly, palpably absurd. No one even acknowledges that absurdity, which makes it all the more unreal.



It gets worse when we meet the movie’s hero, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), the Max Bialystock of psychic con men. Harry spends his days bilking old ladies out of their savings by feeding them tarot-card readings that make them feel special, all while hiding his own real gifts in ways that don’t really ever become relevant to the plot. Harry also has a past with Karen, which is why she calls him when the stress of the whole neck-fetus situation becomes too much to bear. They have a wonderful day together, followed by the inevitable tarot reading and reveal of the Death card. That night, Harry hears Karen repeating a strange phrase in her sleep: “Pana-witchy-salatoo.” 

The phrase means something, but it’s such a ridiculous collection of syllables that the actual meaning is essentially irrelevant. Which is really the problem at The Manitou’s delightfully ridiculous heart. (Well, “heart” is a bit much. Appendix, maybe.) Karen’s first growth-removal surgery goes badly when some unseen presence forces the head surgeon to cut his own hand. Harry starts investigating non-medical causes, and a lot of information gets delivered through a variety of sources, including but not limited to Burgess Meredith as the man who wrote the book on Indian spirit forces. Michael Ansara shows up eventually as “good guy” medicine man Johnny Singing Rock, serving in the Max Von Sydow capacity as a wiser, more experienced occult figure who still may not have all the right answers:

Karen’s neck-baby continues to develop until finally it turns the skin of her back into tearable latex. Then comes the birth of Misquamacus, a figure so terrifying in Native American spirit lore that even the seemingly unflappable Johnny is given pause. Due to an earlier confrontation with a laser, Misquamacus arrives on the scene as a stunted, 3-foot-high dwarf with a rubbery (one suspects literally) face and cheap yellow contacts on his eyes. He growls and snarls and freezes the hospital floor with fake snow and plastic icicles before Harry is able to use the power of computers, modern technology, and Karen’s tastefully obscured breasts to send Misquamacus and the forces of evil back to oblivion.

Key scenes: The day of Karen’s first operation, all hell breaks loose. While Misquamacus is defending himself from unwanted scalpel exposure, Harry takes in a client, and then this happens: 

There’s a séance in Karen’s house midway through—officiated in part by Stella Stevens, a.k.a. Miss Purdy from the original 1963 The Nutty Professor—where a Native American man’s head rises up through a table covered in oil, and then something explodes outside. The whole Burgess Meredith sequence is priceless, as it seems like he keeps forgetting what movie he’s in. And while Manitou does have its slower sections, the climax is a thing of beauty to be enjoyed forever, with crummy special effects, bad lightning, a star field, an Evil One symbolized by a cataract, and Tony Curtis struggling to maintain his dignity. 

Can easily be distinguished by: Neck. Fetus.

Sign it was made in 1978: The weirdness of the main concept does a decent job of hiding the fact that this is an attempt to cash in on The Exorcist’s 1973 success. Five years after the fact is a little tardy to be trying for a rip-off, but Manitou is based on a 1975 novel by Graham Masterson, so it went a more circuitous route than, say, The Omen (1976). It might just be coincidence, but you’ve got a helpless female, a guy who doubts his own abilities calling in some backup, and medical science that’s completely incapable of understanding the problem, let alone solving it. (Although The Manitou does at least allow science to lend a helping hand in the final conflict.) Sure, this is all supposedly Native American mysticism and not anything to do with Christianity, but it’s doubtful Girdler (who also made the Jaws knock-off Grizzly) would’ve gone ahead with a project so outlandish if it there wasn’t some pre-existing framework for success. 

There’s also the color scheme, which runs the gamut from orangeish brown to brownish orange. And here’s Harry winding down after a stressful day of pretending to care about the elderly:

The film gives every indication that this is supposed to be cool. 

Timeless message: “Pana-witchy-salatoo.” (It means, “My death foretells my return.” So, um, look out for that.)

Memorable quotes: A doctor, delivering one of the more awkward expository moments in the movie: “Well, Mr. Erskine, a patient of mine is a friend of yours, and you have something to tell me concerning her condition.”

Karen, explaining why she’s worried about the surgery to remove the growth on her back that she can feel turning over occasionally: “Call it woman’s intuition…”

Johnny, on the impotency of the white man’s faith: “Your God won’t help you. Nothing in your Christian world will help. Not prayers, not holy water, not the weight of a thousand of your churches.”

And finally, the epilogue, showing how everything that just happened is completely and totally and not-kidding-around maybe sort of real: “Fact: Tokyo, Japan, 1969: A 15-year-old boy developed what is doctors thought was a tumor in his chest. The larger it grew, the more uncharacteristic it appeared. Eventually, it proved to be a human fetus.”

The Manitou is available on DVD from Anchor Bay.