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In the mid-1970s, paperback racks around the world were filled with paranormal shockers featuring average middle-class families dealing with intrusions of the uncanny into their humdrum lives. The most famous of these were the unholy trio of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, and Thomas Tryon's The Other, all of which were adapted into critically-praised films. Never ones to miss a trend, studio heads began snapping up book rights left and right to find the next hot property throughout the remainder of the decade, leading to adaptations of such chillers as Robert Marasco's Burnt Offerings and Fred Mustard Stewart's The Mephisto Waltz.
One of the strangest bestsellers of this period was The Manitou, a 1976 novel by British writer Graham Masterton, the former editor of the U.K. edition of Penthouse and occasional sex manual scribe. The book's success inspired four more novel-length sequels (such as Revenge of the Manitou and Blind Panic) while its protagonist, quirky spiritualist Harry Erskine, also branched off into other adventures like The Djinn.
By the time the feature film version came out in 1978, Jaws (1975) had altered the horror landscape so drastically that all-star spook shows were now being seen as outdated. Films like Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977), a graphic adaptation of the Jeffrey Konvitz book, preceded this one into theaters and was met largely with derision, but The Manitou's oddball combination of body horror and metaphysical sermonizing was unique enough to win over fans, especially younger horror buffs who were allowed to see the PG-rated film without resorting to any box office subterfuge. (That said, the film's grotesque imagery and startling final act nudity would have probably upset some parents aware of what their kids were watching.)
In a message consistent with sympathies of the time, The Manitou explores the idea of modern white man's guilt over the ruthless treatment of Native Americans during the settling of America, an idea which also fueled some of the era's later horror films like Prophecy (1979), Nightwing (1979) and Wolfen (1981). Here the concept is manifested literally as the titular Manitou, a powerful and malefic Indian spirit shaman germinating within the neck of San Francisco resident Karen (Susan Strasberg) as a mysterious tumor. The growth responds negatively to treatment attempts, and Karen asks her boyfriend, Erskine (played here by Tony Curtis), to help her find another solution to her plight. With the aid of Native American medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), they must race against the clock to stop a cataclysmic hospital takeover of the Manitou before it destroys all of them in its quest for vengeance.
As with other high-profile supernatural offerings of the time, The Manitou is stacked with familiar faces besides its trio of leads; in fact, at times it could almost pass for an Irwin Allen disaster film thanks to the presence of Stella Stevens (most famous as a doomed former hooker in The Poseidon Adventure, 1972), Burgess Meredith (who had oddly already been in Burnt Offerings and The Sentinel), Hollywood veteran Ann Sothern (finishing a brief dip into exploitation with The Killing Kind  and Crazy Mama ), frequent Red Skelton costar Lurene Tuttle (who stole her one scene in Psycho  as the sheriff's wife), and venerable character actress Jeanette Nolan, a TV stalwart whose distinctive voice is once again used here quite effectively.
While the cast may seem unusual now for a horror film, that's nothing compared to this film's director. William Girdler, a young Kentucky-born filmmaker with eight films under his belt, was brought onto this Avco Embassy production mainly on the basis of Grizzly, his wilderness Jaws imitation that turned out to be one of 1976's most surprising hits. He had followed it with the more ambitious and considerably more eccentric Day of the Animals (1977) the following year, while the rest of his filmography ranged from a Pam Grier action vehicle (Sheba, Baby, 1975), a pair of grisly drive-in shockers (Asylum of Satan  and Three on a Meathook ), and the strange Zodiac-inspired Zebra Killer (1974). By this point the most notorious film under his belt was easily Abby, a 1974 blaxploitation copy of The Exorcist from AIP that wound up being pulled due to legal threats from Warner Bros., but that hardly deterred him from following commercial trends in his later projects.
Despite its literary source, The Manitou is a Girdler project to the core, complete with plenty of idiosyncratic dialogue (mostly given to Curtis) thanks to the script penned by the director along with Thomas Pope and actor Jon Cedar, who also appears in the film as one of the physicians. Girdler's sensibilities certainly shine during the surprising climax, a cross-dimensional showdown in space with the raging Manitou facing off against laser beams and traditional Indian magic. One of the film's strongest components is its atmospheric score by prolific composer Lalo Schifrin, who had previously worked on The Day of the Animals and would spend the rest of that year with much more wholesome fare courtesy of Disney's Return to Witch Mountain and The Cat from Outer Space. Unfortunately, Girdler himself would never see this feature actually arrive on movie screens; tragically, he was killed at the age of 30 in a helicopter crash in the Philippines on January 21, 1978, three months before The Manitou opened posthumously and became his final film. However, the film's popularity has continued unabated in subsequent years as both Girdler cultists (yes, there are quite a few) and fans of bizarre cinema have continued to sing the praises of one of the strangest, most unforgettable supernatural excursions from a decade filled with cinematic excursions into the unknown.
Producer: William Girdler
Director: William Girdler
Screenplay: William Girdler, Jon Cedar, Thomas Pope (screenplay) Graham Masterton (novel)
Cinematography: Michel Hugo
Production Design: Walter Scott Herndon
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Bub Asman
Cast: Tony Curtis (Harry Erskine), Michael Ansara (John Singing Rock), Susan Strasberg (Karen Tandy), Stella Stevens (Amelia Crusoe), Jon Cedar (Dr. Jack Hughes), Ann Sothern (Mrs. Karmann), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Snow).
by Nathaniel Thompson