Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is upset to find a bizarre growth emerging from the back of her neck one day. She wisely decides to get it looked at and is completely perplexed when the two doctors who examine her deduce that the growth is actually a fetus. The doctors decide to operate, and Karen, in need of a little reassurance after such a diagnosis, calls up her ex-boyfriend, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis). Harry makes his living as a Tarot Card reader, taking advantage of senior citizens and scamming them with fake readings. At any rate, the two of them attempt to rekindle the spark that they once had and before you know it, they're an item again.
Harry isn't quite sure that the doctors were right with their conclusion and he reassures Karen that the growth is nothing to worry about. His skepticism subsides, however, when one night while the two of them are asleep in bed Karen wakes him up by talking aloud in a foreign language of some sort. To make matters worse, the next day one of the old women that Harry reads for mutters the same strange phrase to him and then proceeds to float down the hall and then topple down the stairs to her demise.
Harry starts to figure that, yes, something is definitely wrong with Karen after all and after her operation proves to be a failure he calls in some help from a legitimate psychic named Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens) and her husband, MacArthur (Hugh Corcoran). The three of them hold a séance and eventually, with the help of an anthropologist named Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), figure out that the growth on Karen's neck isn't a fetus but is actually the spirit of an ancient Native American Indian. The group agrees that they should call in an expert and so they bring in John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), a Shaman, who finally agrees to perform an exorcism on poor, confused Karen. It leads up to one of the most insane conclusions this reviewer has had the pleasure of seeing.
Director William Girdler made only nine films before a helicopter he was traveling in hit some live power lines and killed him at the age of thirty, but his filmography remains popular with horror movie buffs and cult film enthusiasts as it boasts such titles as Asylum Of Satan, Day Of The Animals, Grizzly, Abby and Sheba, Baby - an interesting mix of blaxsploitation, nature run amok and horror. The Manitou, which would be his swansong, isn't his best movie but it is a really interesting one. Mixing elements of The Exorcist and Star Wars (two very unlikely bedfellows indeed), it's a bit on the gimmicky side but it's also quite an entertaining film even if it is completely all over the place. If you've ever lamented the fact that there aren't more movies about demons, lasers, Indians, a cute topless female lead and Tony Curtis then this is the movie for you.
Quirky as quirky can be, the movie does benefit from an interesting cast with Curtis and Ansara doing a fine job with the material. Stella Stevens and Burgess Meredith add some class to the supporting parts and Girdler makes the most of their screen time. The effects are hit and miss – some of the earlier ones aren't so successful but the finale is pretty effective – and the lighting is bizarre throughout. The middle of the film tends to drag a little bit but otherwise The Manitou is a considerably more interesting movie than it's completely goofy premise should allow it to be. Not a masterpiece by any stretch but definitely a movie that fans of odd seventies horror should certainly enjoy.
The Manitou debuts on Region One DVD in a surprisingly nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that was taken from the original negative. Aside from a little grain here and there and the odd speck on the picture, things look clean and clear from start to finish. Black levels are strong and consistent and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts. Edge enhancement is a non-issue and there's very little shimmering or aliasing to complain about. Color reproduction is a little weak in spots in that things are a bit on the flat side but that's likely an issue with the original elements rather than the transfer itself.
The film is presented in its original English language in a clean Dolby Digital Mono mix with no alternate language dubs, subtitles or closed captions of any kind. For an older movie, the track sounds fine. A few spots are a little flat but other than that there's little to complain about here. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the levels are properly balanced. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the score sounds quite nice here.
In terms of supplements, there's not much here but Anchor Bay has supplied The Manitou's original theatrical trailer as well as a vintage television spot. Some trailers for other Anchor Bay DVD releases, menus and chapter stops round out the supplements. The keepcase contains an insert with the film's original one sheet reproduced on one side and the chapter listing laid out on the other.
One of William Girdler's most ambitious and unusually quirky movies, The Manitou looks and sounds quite good on Anchor Bay's DVD. The lack of extra features is a disappointment but otherwise this release is a strong one. Consider this disc recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.