The Manitou (1978)

Rating: C+

Dir: William Girdler
Star: Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Jon Cedar

Where’s Dsvid Cronenberg when you need him? That was my first thought in regard to this 1978 horror flick – which would have been about the time he was working on The Brood, in which Samantha Eggar’s rage takes physical shape in the form of a growth on her body, which gives birth to vengeful children. Here, it’s is more supernatural and less psychological: Karen Tandy (Strasberg) develops a tumour on the back of her neck, rapidly increasing in size, which baffles the medical profession, because it appears to resemble a foetus. Her friend, fake psychic Harry Erskine (Curtis), hears her mutter a strange phrase in her sleep – one repeated by a client the next day.

An attempt to remove the growth leads the surgeon to slice open his own wrist instead. Turns out, it’s the reincarnation of the most powerful of Indian medicine men, out for vengeance on the white man. Harry enlists the help of a modern equivalent, John Singing Rock (Ansara), to try and send the evil spirit back, before it can destroy the world. It is, of course, completely ludicrous. But you can’t completely reject any film which has a birth-scene involving a blood-drenched midget, climbing out of a woman’s back, and then just sitting on the floor glaring at the witnesses menacingly. Maybe it all made more sense in Graham Masterton’s book, which certainly spawned more sequels, but any point (such that everything has a spirit except, it would appear, us whities) is largely lost in the hysterical sense of impending apocalypse.

Though the film does at least deliver – or, at least, give it the best shot a film from the pre-CGI era could mauster in a finale which, frankly, has to be seen to be believed chortled heartily at. Still, the performers go at it with the necessary straight faces, which help the proceedings avoid complete implosion, because both Erskine and Singing Rock are likeable characters, whose bemused reactions as things unfold, are likely not too far from what we’d all do. In an era when it seems almost any horror property worth two bucks has been remade, this is one which might actually benefit from some updating with 21st-century special-effects magic.