“It’s Misquamacus. The greatest medicine man of all. He turned rivers, made storms. Mountains rose at his command. No spirit ignored him. No demon denied him.”
In 1976, British horror author Graham Masterson had his first novel published. That novel was The Manitou. The novel would be fairly well received and Masterson would go on to write five sequels and a short story- the last sequel novel so far published in 2015 –and have lead character Harry Erskine appear in other works not directly tied to the Manitou series. The series would have a number of references to the works of H.P. Lovecraft written into them from the very start, and Masterson would write more than story outside of his Manitou works that were openly built on Lovecraft’s works.
It’s perhaps this- on top of his ability to write stories that play well to the reader –that not only hooked readers, but also what hooked producer, director, and screenwriter William Girdler so fast and so thoroughly that he put up his own money to secure the rights for the book as soon as he read it. Girdler was in pre-production on the film within three months of securing the rights and had the filming wrapped in seven months. The result was 1978’s often overlooked and massively underrated The Manitou.
In the then present day, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) finds an odd growth on the back or her neck. After it begins to grow beyond simple skin irritation or blemish sizes, she decides to seek medical attention for it. The doctors think it might be cancerous and take a number of X-rays (among other tests) to try to better ascertain what they’re dealing with. The film actually starts with this process already underway. Much to their surprise, they see a fetus in the tumor- alive and growing. The problems get worse from there. The thing in the tumor is hurt by the X-rays and views them as an attack. It begins to react and retaliate in ways that are paranormal (mystical) in nature.
But even before this happens, Karen ends up enlisting the help of an old flame, Harry Erskine. Harry (Tony Curtis) is a psychic and expert on the paranormal, but he’s initially presented as more of a con artist than a full-on psychic. We see him reading tarot cards and giving fortunes to various elderly women, telling them what they most want to hear, and playing the part more than being a psychic of any legitimacy. However, we do see moments where he comes off as the real deal here and there as the movie progresses, but whether that’s his ability we’re seeing or simply warnings from whatever is growing in Karen is left up to the viewer to decide.
As things start to get worse- everything from Karen speaking a strange language in her sleep to a horrific “accident” involving Karen’s surgery -he starts to realize that he’s in over his head with the matter. This is hammered home for him when he learns via threat from the thing growing in/on Karen that this is an ancient medicine man using her to regrow himself and return to the world of the living for less than pleasant reasons. The process will kill her and trap her soul. He seeks out help in the form of a renowned local medicine man. He gets turned down and seeks another. He gets turned down a lot. Finally, he finds himself turning to John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) where he’s initially less than politely told to bugger off.
John Singing Rock: Evoke the powers of other spirits.
Harry Erskine: Well, how… how would I do that?
John Singing Rock: Well, Mountain is good. Try Wind. That’s one of my favorites. Tell them John Singing Rock sent you.
Harry Erskine: Why won’t you help me?
John Singing Rock: Mr. Erskine, you see this valley? From where we stand, there’s over a half-million acres of land. Some of the richest farmland in the world. Two hundred years ago, my ancestors owned all of this land. Now it’s under title to the Missouri Holding Company. I don’t want your pleas for help, Mr. White Man! I don’t need your money!
Eventually, Singing Rock decides to help Erskine. However, he soon regrets promising to help out when he discovers the name of the ancient medicine man using Karen to regrow himself. He reveals his name as Misquamacus, and Singing Rock turns pale white when he hears the name. Misquamacus was legendary in his power, and his abilities as he reemerges into the land of the living this time would be greater still than his previous incarnation’s powers.
The name Misquamacus is actually a nod to H.P Lovecraft. Misquamacus appeared in The Lurker at the Threshold, a 1945 novel by August William Derleth based on unfinished H.P Lovecraft short stories. Published by Arkham House, the book was credited to both Derlith and Lovecraft. I mention it because the film’s ties to the larger Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos are rarely mentioned in discussions about it, and that’s odd not only because of the direct lifting of a Lovecraftian character but because the climax of the film enters into something like an Old Ones’ world.
Singing Rock tells the others the situation is grim. Misquamacus was not only the most powerful of his kind and already planning revenge on the white civilization for what they did in centuries past, but now he’s angry. The X-rays hurt him. They stunted his growth and deformed him, and now he’s ready to unleash hell beyond even his original intentions. Singing rock tells the others that their only hope is to use the spirits in every object around them and hope they can pull together enough power to stop Misquamacus while he’s still hurt.
The movie takes its time building to the revelations and the climax, but once they reach the final act of the film they speed through it in an enjoyably goofy series of scenes that lead to a final confrontation that looks like it was pulled from a fever dream version of a Star Wars film. At least in the final battle between good and evil, you feel like you’re looking at a 1970s version of a lower budgeted Guillermo del Toro directed scene.
The Manitou was the film that could have changed William Girdler’s career for the better. Prior to The Manitou, he had been the director (and in some cases the screenwriter) for such films as Three on a Meathook, Asylum of Satan, The Get-Man, Abby, ‘Sheba, Baby’, Project: Kill, Grizzly, and Day of the Animals. Some of those films were well enough received when they were released and some of them became cult favorites as the years went by, but The Manitou had a look and style (and budget) to it that showed Girdler was fully coming into his own as a filmmaker and had the potential to be a major producer/director in the 1980s.
Sadly, no one will ever know where his career would go after The Manitou. Before The Manitou was released in theaters, Girdler died in a helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next film.
The Manitou was an amazing piece of filmmaking for its time. It’s bat guano to the nth degree, but it’s an amazing and enjoyable film. It’s long been out of print, but, as of a few days ago, The Manitou has been re-released on Blu-Ray from Scream Factory. If you don’t already own one of the out of print DVDs, now’s your chance. Go get it.
For your listening pleasure, I dug deep into the internet and pulled out an episode of Decades of Horror the 1970s from 2015. In the 10th episode of the now long-running podcast, Doc Rotten and Bill Mulligan join the Black Saint, the late Santos Ellin Jr., to talk about Santos’s favorite film. Give it a listen. They cover a lot more ground than I did here with regards to the film, and you’ll find the love Santos had for the film infectious.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Nerdy Minds Magazine, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.