So Bad They're Brilliant: The Manitou

So Bad They're Brilliant: The Manitou

Jan 25, 2011

Utterly bananas in ways almost impossible to imagine, the supernatural possession horror flick The Manitou delivers bizarre, flamboyant, batshit crazy badness. Clearly concocted as a magnum opus, this trashy triumph – “A Film by William Girdler," that Grizzly guy, no less – whirls into la-land courtesy of the must-see-to-be-believed performance of Tony Curtis.

Playing a fake medium who swindles rich, lonely matrons ("Touch the cards!," he croons, "Let them feel you and know you!"), Curtis head-pops to disco music and flounces around his San Francisco bachelor pad wearing more eyeliner than Elvis and sporting a flowing robe he probably snagged in a midnight raid on Elizabeth Taylor's old Boom! wardrobe. Curtis is so out there, apparently no one on the set had the heart or the cojones to remind him that he wasn't still playing cross-dressing "Josephine" in Some Like It Hot.

"Harry's the name and tarot's the game," he quips, eyes flashing, at ex-girlfriend Susan Strasberg (daughter of Method Acting maestro Lee Strasberg, a long way down from Picnic and Stage Struck) who tracks him down to share her worries about a fast-growing, tumor on the back of her neck. After a loopy date montage (featuring dialogue drivel along the lines of "I've missed you, Harry! I really have!"), Strasberg murmurs to Curtis in post-coital bliss, "Pana witchy salatu!," which, even to us, sounds like freaking weird pillow talk.

It's up to Dr. Jon Cedar (who shares screenwriting credit) to inform Curtis straight-faced that Strasberg isn't growing a garden variety tumor but the fetus of a massively powerful 400-year-old Indian medicine man. "On her neck?" Curtis cries in pure Bronx-ese, a moment topped when the actor (who often seems to have trouble recalling his lines), drops this semi-improvised jewel: "I feel that somebody, something, someone is transmitting signals to her and these signals are causing Karen's condition." Cedar fires back: "Well, don't look at me." And if you're looking for a translation of what Curtis just pulled out his posterior, don't look at us.

Meanwhile, with the wildly overacting Strasberg screaming "Mana!" at the drop of a hat and her neck fetus grown to the size of a balance ball, it's clear that The Manitou is bound for pedal to the metal lunacy once Curtis' tiny, elderly tarot client Lurene Tuttle starts dancing like an Indian, babbling "Mana! Mana!," levitating down a hallway and swan-diving down a staircase, thanks to the efforts of a burly, totally unconvincing stunt double.

Hang on to your popcorn for a séance scene involving Curtis' fellow mystics Ann Sothern, Stella Stevens (in gypsy drag!), green lights, a wind machine and the head of an Indian emerging out of a dining table like Brando surfacing out of the smoky ooze in Apocalypse Now. Adding to the mirth is a mugging, scenery-swallowing cameo by Burgess Meredith as a dithery anthropologist who somehow speaks an extinct, unrecorded, 400-year-old language and helpfully translates Strasberg's witchy-whatchamacallit mantra as: "My death prefigures my rebirth."

There's also Michael Ansara as an Indian named John Singing Rock who is willing to shake magic feathers, rattles and various other Indian shaman stuff – let alone put up with line-flubs from Curtis -- just for a hit of white man's tobacco. When Ansara hands Curtis an herbal talisman necklace and tells him it's for "protection," Curtis says, "Oh, I thought it was seasoning."

But no amount of goofiness can possibly can prepare the unsuspecting for the moment when the yards of latex thrown onto Strasberg's back finally disgorge the all-mighty ancient fetus Misquamacus, (whom Curtis dubs "Mixmaster"). Played by a naked little person with mismatched eyes, the little monster seems virtually unstoppable as he summons a lizard man-monster to savage Jon Cedar, freezes an entire hospital wing and skins alive an orderly.

But not to worry. Curtis sends the little offender howling merely by throwing a typewriter at him just the way psychopathic Cliff Robertson hurled a typewriter at monstrous Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves. The movie's climatic, WTF? face-off should have you rolling with laughter as Curtis harnesses the hospital's entire electrical system, which surges through Strasberg and sends her hurling into the sky on her hospital bed, topless, to do aerial battle with Misquamacus, a confrontation mostly consisting of flashing light effects and Strasberg narrowing her eyes and aiming her hocus-pocus fingers at the beastie. Of Misquamacus, Curtis laments, "I'm kind of disappointed…I wish I had a chance to talk to him." Full-blown '70s dementia as enjoyably whacked-out as The Manitou is worth waiting 400 years for.

Categories: Features
Tags: The Manitou
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