Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Manitou

One of the movies in this week's installment of TCM Underground is The Manitou, running overnight tonight at 2:00 AM (still 11:00 PM this evening out on the west coast).

Tony Curtis plays Harry Erskine, a psychic in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Psychics are, of course, phony, and Harry has taken the flamboyant phoniness to new levels, reminiscent of his scheming in movies like Some Like It Hot or Operation Petticoat. Things change, however, when his ex-girlfriend Karen (Susan Strasberg) comes back into his life one day. She's got a small lump on her shoulder that she's worried about. To be fair, it's perfecly normal to be worried about a lump like that since there's always the possibility of a cancerous tumor. But what Karen doesn't know is that she's really in for it with this lump.

Harry takes Karen to the hospital, where the doctors run some tests on her that give them the distinct impression that this lump resembles a fetus, which is of course preposterous since it's on her shoulder, and not in her uterus, which is where a fetus is supposed to be. Since this lump is clearly dangerous, the doctors plan to operate and remove the lump, which is an eminently sensible move. At least, it's sensible until they actually perform the operation and something physically repels the doctors from cutting into that lump. It's as though the lump has a life of its own beyond what a fetus would be.

So Harry does some research, and eventually finds out from a retired professor of Native American history (Burgess Meredith) that this lump might actually be a "manitou". Apparently, every living thing (and every non-living thing, as we'll find out in a later scene) has a spirit called a "manitou", and this one is a reincarnation of a manitou from several hundred years ago. Not only that, but if it finishes going through its gestation period (for lack of a better phrase) all hell is going to break loose, because this manitou is a particularly evil one. The only hope our poor San Franciscans have is to find a Native American medicine man who knows how to fight a manitou and defeat it.

Thankfully, there is one of those medicine men around northern California, one John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara). He doesn't really like white people because of the way they treated his ancestors, but he ultimately decides reluctantly to fight this manitou because he knows what the consequences are if nobody fights it. So he accompanies the white people back to San Francisco and the hospital, where all hell does break loose in the final climactic battle in the hospital, although it is at least localized to the hospital.

The Manitou is ludicrous even beyond the point of many movies that I've argued strain credulity to the breaking point. It's also not helped that the movie has 1970s special effects. This is a film that needed either to go the Val Lewton route and leave some of the stuff that would have required "modern" special effects to be left to the imagination and only show the things they could have done 30 years earlier, or else benefit from the CGI that was not yet available. That having been said, there's so much about The Manitou that's so unintentionally funny that the movie winds up being entertaining. Tony Curtis is way over the top; Ann Sothern in a small role gets thrown down a flight of stairs to her death; all of the scenes of the manitou fighting back, not just the final battle, are a hoot; and Susan Strasberg is given an unenviable task in that final battle, although you'll have to watch it for yourself.

The Manitou is one of those movies that did get a DVD release at some point in the past, but is now out of print, so you'll have to catch the TCM showing.

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