In April of 1978, a movie was released on an unsuspecting world. It featured an Academy Award nominated actor, the daughter of Hollywood acting coach royalty, and a story based on a popular horror book from the golden age of possession fiction. Unfortunately for the movie-going public, it also features fake psychics, unrealistic romantic relationships, and a 400-year-old Indigenous American medicine man being born from a tumor on the back of a Californian woman and gets into a lightning/laser/fireball fight in a space realm with Satan by his side. That’s right, folks, we are talking about one of the weirdest, most baffling movies of all time. We are talking about The Manitou.
Just so you won’t think I’m making this up, here is the official synopsis of the film:
What surgeons thought to be a tumor growing on the neck of patient Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is actually a fetus growing at an abnormally accelerated rate. But when Karen reaches out to former lover and phony psychic Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), she discovers that she is possessed by the reincarnation of a 400-year-old Native American demon. Now with the help of a modern-day medicine man (Michael Ansara), Erskine must survive this ancient evil’s rampage of shocking violence and forever destroy the enraged beast known as The Manitou.
“.. Unfortunately for the movie-going public, it also features fake psychics, unrealistic romantic relationships, and a 400-year-old Indigenous American medicine man being born from a tumor on the back of a Californian woman and gets into a lightning/laser/fireball fight in a space realm with Satan by his side.”
As you watch this very real and very weird movie, you may be inclined to side with the victim and her former love interest, played by Susan Strasburg and Tony Curtis, respectively. You might even jump and cheer as the modern-day medicine man, John Singing Rock, battles the evil being for the life of the poor woman. You would be wrong. You see, the centuries-old shaman, Misquamacus, is the hero of the film. He might not be the prettiest of the bunch, or the most clothed, but he is there for a valid, and correct reason. Oh, what’s that? You want proof? Okay, fine. Prepare to enter the #FactsOnly Zone. Here’s three reasons why we have been watching The Manitou wrong for the past 41 years:
Tony Curtis’ Pants Are too Tight, and Other Grievances
The title says it all. Tony Curtis’ pants are way too tight in this movie. He’s got his business all tied up in a knot and on display like his corduroys are a new exhibition at the Louvre. I understand that this was the 1970’s, and a bangin’ bulge was a necessary fashion accessory, but there is no way he wasn’t hospitalized with testicular torsion after a few of these scenes. I genuinely feel bad for everyone buying the new 4k scan Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory. Sure, they will get to hear some cool interviews and commentaries, but they will also be able to count every hair, wrinkle, and mole on Tony’s genitalia. Misquamacus had the right idea. He was born from the tumor on Karen’s back and just rode it au natural the rest of the movie. Good for him. Swing low, sweet chariots, that’s what I say. Now, as for the non-moose-knuckle-related grievances, there are really only two.
The first one is the casting of Michael Ansara as the modern medicine man, John Singing Rock. Now, look, I know that this is how Hollywood has treated Native American characters for decades, and I won’t become your Woke Captain for the evening, but it’s distinctly not cool to have a non-Native American guy play an Indigenous holy man. Ansara is great in almost everything he’s ever been in, and he does this role justice, but it’s hard to not look at his red-painted face and think that maybe Misquamacus was on the right track, here. Maybe his thirst for revenge against John for helping the white man is completely justified, seeing as John is actually a man of Middle-Eastern descent pretending to be a Native American.
The other issue has to do with my favorite grumpy boxing trainer, Burgess Meredith. As delightful as he is in everything he touches, Meredith is completely wasted on the role of Dr. Snow, professor of anthropology. He was obviously paid for two days and showed up to ham himself a fun time. The role, which plays like a 10-minute Mr. Magoo cartoon, does nothing to further the story and only cements the “white guy saves the day or knows more about Native American culture than modern Native Americans do” narrative of the film. I wish they could have placed him in the hospital and had him try to help Karen through her situation instead of bumbling around his home for exposition and chuckles.
Pana Witchy Salatoo, or, How I Fell in Love with Misquamacus
Let’s take a quick look at our main characters here. Tony Curtis’ Harry Erskine is a man who pretends to be psychic for a living. He is a con artist, bilking rich old ladies out of their social security checks so that he can buy tighter pants. He dons a fake mustache, star-embroidered robe and shitty attitude to make a few bucks every week. He has no real power, only that he is a pretty good liar and (apparently) dynamite in the sack. His love, Karen, does absolutely nothing in the movie besides live with her aunt and have a fetus growing on her back. John is a stand-up dude, leaving his home in South Dakota to help this random white lady for only some tobacco and a sizeable donation to the Native American Education Fund. What brings him down is that his power is minimal, even infinitesimal, compared to the medicine Misquamacus brings to the table.
My dude Misquamacus is hurt by the medical experiments done on Karen when the doctors are trying to find out how there’s a baby on her back. They X-Ray the shit out of him and try to shoot him with lasers, which deforms his face and stunts his growth. Because of this, he has been hurt, weakened, and brought into the world too early. Even with these handicaps, Misquamacus still beats down on everyone around him. Here’s what he is able to accomplish, even before he is born into the world:
- Possesses a rich old lady, making her scream “Pana Witchy Salatoo” (which apparently translates to “My Death Foretells My Return” which is officially HEAVY METAL and what I will be putting on my tombstone) and float down a hallway. He then throws her down a flight of stair that apparently has balusters made of paper.
- Impregnates Karen from hundreds of years in the past. On her back.
- Is able to grow at an alarmingly fast rate. Apparently 7mm per hour!
- Stops doctors from removing him from her back by forcing the “Manitou”, or spirit, of the scalpel top cut the doctor’s wrist.
- Appear during a séance and blow the room up with a mighty lightning storm.
- Turns the laser-removal instrument on the doctors by, again, forcing its Manitou to shoot wildly about the room.
Sounds pretty badass, right? Well, here’s what he can do after he is born into the world:
- He throws a hospital orderly around the room, with his mind, smashing the dude’s face to smithereens and coating the room in blood.
- Remove said orderly’s skin from his body without taking off his clothes. Pretty dope.
- Summon the Manitou of a giant lizard god, who crawl across the room and bites one doctor’s hand pretty hard.
- Turn the entire floor of the hospital into a frozen hellscape.
- Make the hospital floor shake and jiggle like it’s me backin’ that azz up at a Juvenile concert.
- Turn the hospital room into an illusion of the cosmos, complete with lasers and psychedelic orbs.
- Summon the ‘Great Old One”, or Satan himself to fight alongside him against the white man’s medicine.
You see what I’m saying? Of all the main characters in the film, Misquamacus is the only one with any true power. He has died and been reborn several times already, and this next one would place him on the same spiritual level as the highest Manitou there is. He would become a god among mortals, in other words. This would give him the ability to accomplish his final goal, which is the complete annihilation of the world we know. Which brings me to my final point:
Misquamacus is Completely Justified
The last time Misquamacus was alive, over 400 years ago, white Europeans had not yet felt the need to completely dominated his home continent. Imagine, for a moment, you are all set to be reborn into the world and you notice a lot of pale faces around you. They are poking you, prodding you, zapping you with bright light and killing your cells before you’re even born. You start to take a mental inventory of your possessed white lady and you learn that your people had been the victims of one of the most disgusting acts ever committed in history. White men rode into your town, killing, raping, or enslaving every person you hold dear. They drive you from your ancestral home, stealing your land and everything that goes along with it. Don’t worry though, my dude, you will get to walk hundreds of miles to an arid patch of land in the middle of nowhere. You’re welcome.
“Imagine the rage you would feel if little green men came and murdered your children or stole your home away because they felt like their god was telling them to do so.”
Imagine yourself in his shoes. Imagine the rage you would feel if little green men came and murdered your children or stole your home away because they felt like their god was telling them to do so. A little girl once bit my son in daycare, and I almost punched her in the face. She was 8 months old, so I can only imagine the wellspring of pain I would unleash upon the world if anyone dared to hurt him. I would summon Satan, as well, and release a nuclear blast of anger all over those little green men. Misquamacus was only reacting the way every single one of us would in the face of the genocide of his people and the complete destruction of his culture.
So, before you pass judgement on him, think about what you would do if you were in his shoes. What is the life of a pretty hot blonde lady, a dude whose pant are too tight, and an imposter in redface when compared to what we actually deserve? When you watch this movie (and please do, it’s silly as hell, but it will genuinely have your skin crawling a few times), think about Misquamacus and the three things I talked about in this article, and see if you aren’t cheering for him by the time the space laser show starts.
I hope that you will look past the questionable things that Misquamacus did in his quest for justice and realize that his actions and motives were just. You can pre-order The Manitou on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory HERE. It is set to be released April 16th of this year, so give it a watch and issue your verdict on Twitter @NOFSpodcast or in our Facebook Fiend Club. While you’re at it, bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street so you can keep up with the hottest horror news, reviews and retrospectives the internet has to offer.