The Manitou Review

The Manitou should be great fun. A film in which an ancient medicine man grows on the shoulder of Susan Strasberg to the bafflement of the medical community, how could it fail to be anything other than entertaining? Indeed, we also have Tony Curtis, some laser beam peril and a cod-mystical finale, yet sadly it all fails. For this is a film from the hands of William Girdler, a man who may have a minor following, but then most would agree that the likes of Grizzly and Day of the Animals are not the greatest efforts to have graced the big screen. Just like those, The Manitou is a muddled, awkward effort and, just like those, it suffers from some fundamental problems.

Primarily, The Manitou which fails in making its audience take it seriously. Instead of any kind of “real world” setting, we instead get a touristic glance at San Francisco (shots of the Golden Gate Bridge never being too far away), Curtis giving an awfully tongue-in-cheek turn (how can you take a film in which be attempts a few disco moves be approached with any kind of faith) and one of the sappiest openings ever. More importantly, however, there’s no feel for the worlds which it is supposedly documenting, namely that of the occult and the Native American. Indeed, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that Girdler was simply chucking these elements together with an eye on the box office (The Exorcist meets A Man Called Horse perhaps). Of course, what makes this all the more disheartening is the manner in which he chucks in a quick paean to the Native American way of life whilst failing to notice that his representation could possibly be construed as borderline racist.

That said, much of the blame for The Manitou’s failure must also be apportioned to Curtis. As already noted, he adopts a tongue-in-cheek approach to the role, but this shouldn’t necessarily stop him from being convincing. Indeed, even as a sham mystic he seems fake and considering that he must shoulder much of the film (no pun intended) once Strasberg reaches a hospital bed, it makes the film a struggle to get through. Of course, what this forces us to do is to treat The Manitou in a much lighter fashion, yet this only proves partially successful. Certainly, the odd piece of dialogue or dated special effect may raise the odd smirk, but on the whole everything is too familiar to enjoyed in this manner. In fact, only Burgess Meredith, in a delightful cameo, is able to tread the correct line. Dapper and twisty whiskered, he too is less than serious in his outlook, yet there’s a clear sense of fun to his performance and, more importantly, he convinces (in which respect he can be said to reminiscent of the best performers in various sixties and seventies horror flicks; consider Michael Gough in Konga or Christopher Lee as he got ever more immersed in the genre), something sadly lacking pretty much everywhere else.

What we’re left with then is a film which ignores all the possibilities of its setup (any investment in the horrors of childbirth connotations are remote to say the least) and as such has only its rubbery, SFX-laden finale to be remembered by. As should be expected by this point, we have no investment whatsoever in these shenanigans, but then they are perhaps outré enough to hold the attention. Sadly, there could have been so much more.

The Disc

Another of Momentum’s extras-less horror titles released in time for Halloween, The Manitou does at least come with a decent presentation. We get the film in its correct aspect ratio (2.35:1) and anamorphically transferred to boot, plus a Dolby mono soundtrack (here spread between the front two channels). In both cases the presentation is fine, neither suffers from any noticeable damage and both remain clean. That said, the sound mix isn't all that great, with Lalo Schifrin’s score seemingly given priority over everything else, but then this is most likely to have been inherent in the original soundtrack. (The Manitou was one of the first films to recieve a Dolby Stereo mix, though these only accompanied 70mm showings. It is likely we are getting the downgraded mono mix used on 35mm prints here, a fact which may also explain certain elements seem louder/quieter than others.) Likewise, the image may appear a little soft focus, yet it likely that these were director of photography Michael Hugo’s intentions. As such, anyone who picks up The Manitou on this disc is likely to be getting it as good as should be expected.

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