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John’s Horror Corner: The Manitou (1978), when The Exorcist (1973) devolves into topless laser fights against a 400-year old reincarnated evil dwarf shaman!

January 14, 2019


This is actually my second review of the film. My first review was a little more silly in tone. CLICK HERE to read it.

MY CALL: This was utterly preposterously bad… and full of B-movie awesomeness! A woman births an evil 400-year old Native American dwarf medicine man from a giant tumor and this movie is taken (somewhat) 100% seriously while following The Exorcist (1973) playbook. MOVIES LIKE Manitou: Some would say The Exorcist (1973). But in terms of pure 70s horror madness, I’d sooner suggest such zany oddities of the late 70s as The Visitor (1979), Phantasm (1979), The Brood (1979), Tourist Trap (1979) and The Sentinel (1977).

The opening credits cultivate a false sense that your in for a serious film to be delivered with a straight face. But this ludicrous movie isn’t puling any punches in its fight against good taste. In the very first scene doctors are discussing a patient’s tumor, which is growing at the impossible rate of 7.3mm per hour—at which it would reach the size of a basketball in 34 hours. When one doctor refers to checking “all the books on tumors” the other doctor says: “I wrote them.”

Seeking comfort our patient Karen (Susan Strasberg; Mazes and Monsters) calls her ex-boyfriend Harry (Tony Curtis), a psychic hack who dresses like a Harry Potter villain and dances like a fiend. When Karen goes under the knife to have the tumor removed, things start to get weird. The “tumor” possesses Karen who utters incomprehensible sorcerous hisses, the surgeon tries to cut off his own hand, a possessed old lady across town does a rain dance and levitates, and a séance reveals that our tumor represents a Manitou, the immortal spirit of a 400-year old Native American medicine man.

So, after consulting a charlatan psychic, an actual spiritual medium, and the doctor who “wrote the books on tumors” but now says the tumor is a fetus, they turn to the man “who wrote the book” on Manitous, anthropologist Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith; Rocky I-III, Twilight Zone: The Movie). Apparently, in this movie, the two men who “wrote the books on tumors” and “wrote the book on Manitous” are within reasonable driving distance. Convenient. But alas, this only brings more trivial exposition. So, when all else fails, they turn to a Native American medicine man.

This is one hell of a story arc. Normally you just briefly go from some initially doubtful source (e.g., the police, an expert in the field, a kid who witnessed something, or video surveillance equipment a la Paranormal Activity) to some sort of paranormal/supernatural expert (e.g., Poltergeist, Insidious, The Conjuring) who carries the remainder of the story. Here, the movie is as much about finding someone to help and identify the problem than it is about the problem itself—perhaps this is the reason this has been compared to The Exorcist (1973). I just hope that whatever Native American they find “wrote the book” on all things medicine man!

We learn that the Manitou becomes more powerful with each incarnation until reaching Gitche Manitou (nearly Godhood). But before he reaches such power, he gestates into Karen’s giant writhing hunchback until birthing itself like a slimy newborn foal. Between the aid of the medicine man, the birth scene and some other events, I can see the strong influence on Poltergeist II (1986).

The Manitou has a diversity of magical powers. He animates a dead guy into a zombie, he summons a lizard demon, he quakes the entire building, and he summons the Devil! The special effects are of variously bad quality, including a terrible rotoscoped lizard demon, a laughable indoor blizzard and a stupidly basic outer space set. Don’t get me started on the blob of light representing this “devil.” This stuff is bad. Really bad. But it’s really fun to watch. Oh, and the lasers…

Regarding this finale, let me just say that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a needlessly topless Susan Strassberg on a floating bed shooting colorful cartoon laser beams from her Jazz Hands at a demonic afterbirth-entrenched midget in an extradimensional outer space setting while the “light Devil” hurls meteors at her. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to combine the space sequences from Flash Gordon (1980) with the demonic possession scenes from The Exorcist (1973) and then add a dash of Saturday Night Fever (1977).

So if you want to get a little weird with your next movie night, go with The Manitou!

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