Oscar Nominee Tony Curtis Battles an Evil Boil in Bonkers ‘The Manitou’

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Scared of a Spider Bite Birthing a Thousand Spiders on Your Face? In ‘The Manitou,’ It’s Worse.

At a certain point in time, we lived in a world where we could wander into a movie playing on some random network (RIP UPN) and get sucked in with no knowledge of what it was, the behind-the-scenes stories it held, or even a whiff of IMDb trivia. It was a sad, bleak era. That is how I happened upon “The Manitou” one lazy summer Sunday. Everything about this oddball horror movie starring an aged Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg feels slightly off in the same way that a dusty old book might, when read aloud, summon an an evil spirit. With absolutely no knowledge of the plot, you can imagine my reaction when a giant boil on Strasberg’s neck gave birth to… an ancient medicine man.

“The Manitou” is an oddity of body horror and Hollywood glamour gone to seed. Curtis plays a con artist fortune-teller who is called in to help his old friend (Strasberg) before she has surgery on the lump growing on her neck. A fetus, she’s told, though even the characters don’t quite believe it. Things don’t go well during surgery — or afterward, to be honest, what with the spirit inhabiting that pulsating boil conjuring up everything from a snowstorm to an earthquake. With the help of the mystical and decidedly problematic John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), the actors somehow maintain a straight face through a winding mystery that never fails to baffle with deadpan lines like “Is that your SCIENCE talking, DOCTOR?” and “He’s going to get a person-to-person call from me… COLLECT!” The whole thing operates within some nutty internal logic that is patently absurd and oddly disturbing. (Or maybe it was just my first exposure to this exact type of body horror? Hard to say.)

As for that lack of IMDb trivia… if it had been available, knowing that the film’s director, William Girdler, died in a helicopter crash before its release would only have added to my feelings of unease. —MP

THE MANITOU, Susan Strasberg, 1978, © Avco Embassy/courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Manitou’©Avco Embassy / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Aftermath: How to Capture the Spirit of… This?

“The Manitou” is exactly as Mark described. And yet, watching the reincarnated Misquamacus slice his way out of Karen’s cheesecloth-like goiter —  the grotesque and outrageous “Fire in the Sky” meets “Malignant” mashup I knew I wanted but never thought I’d get (let alone already have waiting in the archives) — I was struck with an almost celestial sense of disbelief.

Was a whole-ass shaman, vertically challenged though he may be, seriously popping out of this woman’s neck like a culturally problematic tumor? Was this glorified tick of a possessor really going to unleash spiritual hell on a cast of mostly nondescript white guys from within a Tommy Bahama-esque circle of sandy ancestral defense? Was this hospital just going to stay an arctic tundra plagued with robotic lizards and doors that open straight into the metaphysical beyond for…ever?

Later, as a spray of red and green dots resembling those tacky LED Christmas projection lights washed over an emergency room (where Karen was turning into a demigod and shooting lasers out of her fingertips or something?), I returned to Earth. This 1978 experiment in supernatural “yes and”-ing is not especially well made and, even with more patience for misfire ideas than your average evaluator, I was tired out by John Singing Rock’s almost Dungeons and Dragons-like description of certainly incorrect native mythology. (“That’s the manitou spirit of… a fax machine! And you roll… a 19 for defense!”)

THE MANITOU, 1978, © Avco Embassy/courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Manitou’©Avco Embassy / Courtesy Everett Collection

As dubious in its authenticity as the late Syrian actor’s repeated casting as a Native American (hey, different times!), “The Manitou” seems almost too problematic to pick for parts. I’m not familiar with the book but British author Graham Masterson seems to have taken an approach to “magical Indian” tropes that was acceptable then but isn’t worth reincarnating. Still, that nurse’s frozen head bursting through shattered glass in slow-motion speaks for itself and, while I found Tony Curtis’ Anton Lavey impression grating, the elderly women he performed tarot for delighted me to no end.

This was indeed Girdler’s last work before he died at just 30 years old in a helicopter that went down over the Philippines, reportedly while he was location scouting for a new movie about drug smugglers. The writer/director was also known for 1976’s “Grizzly” about a killer bear and the earlier blaxploitation flick “Sheba, Baby” from 1975 starring Pam Grier. His swan song stands as some of his most inventive work, adrift in an almost “Power Rangers” or “Lord of the Rings” level of imagination and a deliriously ill-advised, very late ’70s aesthetic. Walking myself back through the beats I knew were coming but struggled to accept even as they emerged before my modern eyes, I have to admit: “The Manitou” grew on me. —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can rent “The Manitou” on VODIndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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