During his woefully short six-year career, William Girdler made truly memorable films. A renaissance man who wrote, directed, scored, and produced, Girdler made nine films in the seventies, including the schlock classics Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook, his The Exorcist ripoff Abby, and his beasts-gone-wild movies Grizzly and Day of the Animals. His final film, released in 1978, was the strangest of them all: The Manitou.
The Manitou is the story of a young woman named Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg from Scream of Fear and Bloody Birthday) who complains to her doctor, Dr. Jack Hughes (Death Hunt’s Jon Cedar), about a tumor growing out of her shoulder. Upon examination, Dr. Hughes discovers that the tumor is actually a fetus, and it is growing at an alarming rate. When an operation to remove the growth is violently unsuccessful, Karen’s boyfriend, a two-bit psychic named Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis from The Defiant Ones and Some Like It Hot), investigates the matter himself, enlisting the help of a scholar named Professor Snow (the legendary Burgess Meredith from Magic, The Sentinel, and Burnt Offerings) who tells him that the growth is actually the Manitou, or spirit, of an Indian medicine man named Misquamacus. In order to combat the evil Manitou, Harry turns to another Native American medicine man, the good John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara from “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”). Harry only hopes that he and John can do enough to save Karen – and the world – from the demonic spirit.
There’s a weird vibe to The Manitou, and not just because it’s as obvious of a seventies movie as there is. Based on a novel by Graham Masterton (“The Hunger”), the screenplay was written by William Girdler along with Jon Cedar (who plays Dr. Hughes in the film) and Thomas Pope (The Lords of Discipline). It’s quite schizophrenic, being part ghost story, part monster movie, and part science fiction flick. The highly visual narrative skillfully walks the line between the possession hook of Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the environmental themes of Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, and the body horror of Cronenberg’s Videodrome. It’s also tonally ambiguous, containing not only elements of horror and sci-fi, but also splashes of comedy and mystery. There’s even a weird romantic angle between Harry and Karen tossed in for good measure. It may be all over the place, but The Manitou is still a surprisingly cohesive film. And an enjoyable one, too.
The antagonistic spirit in The Manitou is a lot of fun. There’s an entire mythology behind Misquamacus, which is explained naturally and organically by the academic Professor Snow and the spiritual John Singing Rock. The invincibility of the spirit is set up by the revelation that each time a Manitou is born, the more powerful it gets. It’s also revealed that everything has a Manitou, even inanimate objects, which sets up some of the funnier scenes in the movie, such as the two botched tumor-removal surgery scenes, or one of Harry’s psychic readings-gone-wrong where an old woman goes into a trance and floats – as in levitates – towards the stairs and falls down them. It sounds awful, but yes, both scenes are awesomely hilarious.
Once the titular Manitou appears, the film turns absolutely crazy. Misquamacus is a powerful little dwarf of a medicine man who controls things with his mind, leading to an insane science fiction-y ending that, visually, looks like a cross between William Castle’s 13 Ghosts and an episode of “Battlestar Galactica.” Misquamacus is played by not one, but two little people, both of whom are kind of famous. Felix Silla has played iconic roles such as Twiki in “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” an Ewok in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, and Cousin Itt on “The Addams Family,” as well as taking on bit parts in Sssssss, The Brood, and Ragewar. Joe Gieb, on the other hand, made a career out of appearing on sit-coms such as “Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “Gimme a Break!” while also playing small parts (no pun intended) in straight-to-video horror sequels like Trilogy of Terror II and Howling VI: The Freaks. Both men, along with the help of plenty of makeup and some fun camera trickery, help bring the spirit demon to life for the nutty climax of The Manitou.
Speaking of camera trickery, the photography in The Manitou is just as stylistically varied as the rest of the movie. Television cinematographer Michel Hugo (“Melrose Place,” “Dynasty”) transcends genre and covers all of the bases, depending on what each individual scene needs. For the sequences on John Singing Rock’s ranch, Hugo uses wide, sweeping shots that make the film look like a classic Hollywood western. The scenes of Harry’s psychic readings are presented in the style of a slapstick comedy. The climactic battle as well as the awesomely bad surgery scenes are pure science fiction. The craziest scene in the movie, at least cinematographically, is a séance scene that occurs about halfway through. Hugo shoots the scene bathed in a green tinged light that makes the whole thing look otherworldly in a campy way, like it belongs on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Hugo’s versatility as a cinematographer makes each scene in The Manitou look exactly right for what it is, whether it’s a standard two-person conversation or a crazy galactic laser beam shoot-out.
The music in The Manitou changes with the scenery as well. The score was composed by the legendary Lalo Schifrin (who composed the iconic themes to “Mission Impossible” and The Amityville Horror as well as the scores to cult pictures like Class of 1984 and The New Kids), and it’s as versatile as the rest of his catalog. The soundtrack goes through several thematic changes, evoking moods of suspense, happiness, fear, and love, sometimes all in the same scene. Schifrin’s score goes from the melodic chimes of a romantic love scene to a shocking Psycho-like violin stinger at the drop of a hat. Add in the completely Schifrin-esque title theme, and The Manitou’s score is full of hits.
Sadly, William Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for an upcoming film in the Philippines in early 1978, and The Manitou was released posthumously. His life and career were cut tragically short, but from first film to last, Asylum of Satan to the Manitou, his legacy remains rock solid.