The Manitou (Home Video Review)

Starring Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara

Directed by William Girdler

Distributed by Scream Factory


One of the great unknowns in genre filmmaking is what writer/director William Girdler would have created had he not perished in a helicopter crash while on a tech scout in the Philippines. Tragically dead at the ripe age of 30, Girdler never even got to see his last film, The Manitou (1978) premiere – and that’s a damn shame because it’s a killer slice of seventies cinema. Based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Graham Masterton and ably led by Tony Curtis, who is positively committed to his role and the dialogue that comes with it, The Manitou is one of only a handful of horror films that utilizes Native American magic and mysticism as a gateway to otherworldly terrors. The initial body horror eventually metastasizes into something both cosmic and arcane, with the fate of mankind quite literally resting on a single woman’s shoulder. There is plenty of camp factor to be found but the commitment by the creatives both in front of and behind the camera to sell the material with grave importance elevates this ‘70s schlock.

Karen (Susan Strasberg) visits a local hospital to have doctors examine a small growth just above her shoulder blade, thinking it to be a tumor at worst. After a series of X-rays and consultations doctors are stunned by the outcome: her “tumor” is actually a rapidly-developing fetus – and it appears to have some omniscient presence. Attempts to surgically remove the embryo are met with magic; an unseen force preventing anyone from cutting it out. Before falling into a coma Karen contacts her boyfriend, Harry (Tony Curtis), a slippery soothsayer who excels in fraud over actual fortunetelling. He is… reluctant to assist but after a few salient spiritual visits – including one helluva spooky séance – Harry reconsiders and throws his all into solving Karen’s mystery. But this white man can’t battle Native American magic on his own, so John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), another shaman, is brought into the fold. Even then, can their combined forces hope to win against Misquamacus, the most powerful Native American shaman who lived?

The film offers up a bit of misdirection early on, when it seems Karen will be the focus. She quickly slips into a catatonic state, though, leaving the heavy lifting to be handled by Curtis’ character which at the onset seems too slippery and narcissistic to be of any use. Turns out he is resilient and resolute in his determination to cure Karen’s condition. He’s a man who knows nothing about what he is up against – and although his sleuthing uncovers plenty of useful information he never obtains some magic tome to end Karen’s suffering smoothly. Even once he turns to John Singing Rock, a man who knows exactly what Harry is up against, it takes a herculean effort just to face Misquamacus. Curtis is asked to deliver loads of cheesy dialogue and his ability to sell the material without so much as a tongue poking into his cheek provides all the gravitas needed.

Without revealing any key moments, I can only say the film starts off with an unexpected direction – focusing on Curtis’ character as the lead – and it only continues down that same atypical path. I’m a big fan of unseen moments in films, like Father Merrin’s death in The Exorcist (1973) or how Hannibal Lecter obtained that pen in The Silence of the Lambs (1990), and there are a couple of great bits when the audience is able to experience the shock of an unexpected scene with a characters. The FX work is relatively minimal but the rebirth of Misquamacus scene is not only incredibly visceral but the direction and lighting really give it a magical quality. Girdler throws caution to the wind for the Big Showdown against Misquamacus, making use of wild optical and practical effects in a multi-dimensional battle that ends with a character erupting in one helluva satisfying moment. The Manitou is a patently ‘70s horror picture in many of the best ways and it has obtained a small cult status for good reason.

The 2.35:1 1080p transfer comes from a new 4K scan of an interpositive, as the original negative is thought lost. The aesthetic is ‘70s through and through, from the soft edges of anamorphic lenses to the thick soupy film grain actively moving throughout the film. Colors are natural, if maybe a touch muted. Detail is often unremarkable but closeups yield better results. Compression issues affect some of the blackest scenes. Honestly, though, this is about as clean as I need my ‘70s horror to look and given the lack of access to the negative this is probably the best this film could look.

English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 2.0 mono tracks are provided, though to my ears I couldn’t hear a huge variance. The stereo track worked nicely, with only minor hissing on some bits of dialogue. Lalo Schifrin’s score is big and eerie, lending the film an ominous tone. The only problem I heard was a conversation held in a stairwell late in the picture, with the voices sounding very echo-heavy and thin. Otherwise this is a solid track. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

Special Features:

  • BRAND NEW 4K REMASTER OF THE FILM
  • NEW Restored Stereo Soundtrack
  • NEW interview with author Graham Masterson
  • NEW Producing Girdler – an interview with executive producer David Sheldon
  • NEW Audio Commentary with film historian Troy Howarth
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Still Gallery
  • Optional English subtitles for the main feature
The Manitou (1978)
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2.5 (2 votes)

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