Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE MANITOU. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1978. Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Stella Stevens, Jon Cedar, Paul Mantee, Jeanette Nolan, Lurene Tuttle, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith. Based on the novel by Graham Masterton. Director: Willlam Girdler.

   First off, the good stuff. Hell of a cast. Good performance by Ansara in a rare good guy role on screen, nice turn by Meredith as a barmy anthropologist, Lurene Tuttle as a little old lady fatally possessed by a Native American medicine man. Some lovely shots of San Francisco. Adequate special effects for the time if nothing special. Interesting concept from the novel by Graham Masterton. No one gives a bad performance.

   The bad stuff? Almost everything else.

   The film opens with Dr. Paul Mantee calling in Surgeon Jon Cedar (who co-wrote the screenplay with director William Girdler) for a patient, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) with a peculiar problem — a tumor on her neck that appears to have the characteristics of a fetus.

   Stop laughing, she has a baby on her neck, that’s the plot, the actual plot. The whole movie turns on the fact she has a fetus on her neck, you can’t make this stuff up. They never do explain how or why, and all things considered I didn’t really want to know. Do you want to know how she got a fetus on the back of her neck? I know it was the Sexual Revolution, but still …

   Think about it. This is a big budget Hollywood movie with actual known stars, and it is about a woman with a fetus on her neck. Most of their careers were still going strong — before this.

   I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they sold that story to the studio.

    “You see there is this woman and she has a tumor, but it’s not really a tumor, it’s a fetus, but here’s the kicker, the fetus is on the back of her neck!”

   Poor Karen used to be involved with Tarot reader Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis). With surgery planned the next day she calls up Harry, who is a nice guy despite using his real powers to con little old ladies like Jeanette Nolan and Lurene Tuttle. Karen and Harry used to be a number, and they get together. Harry reads the Tarot trying to reassure her, but that doesn’t help as he can’t ‘force’ a good reading. Of course then he has sex with her, because a bad reading is one thing and he’s a guy, and every woman wants sex the night before surgery on a mysterious tumor on their neck.

   Harry is concerned about the surgery. He may be a con, but his powers are real (you haven’t lived until you see Tony in a fake mustache and a black robe with astrological symbols on it. He looks like Criswell escaped from an Ed Wood movie).

   Harry doesn’t know the half of it. As Karen is going under the knife his client Lurene Tuttle is possessed by a demon chanting some weird words and then floats down the corridor before her body is thrown down the stairs to her death.

   The surgery doesn’t go much better. When surgeon Jon Cedar tries to cut into the tumor he suddenly cuts into his own wrist instead and it takes two men to keep him from crippling himself. Then Strasberg’s vital signs go wild and she nearly dies.

   Don’t mess with the tumor.

   Curtis gets together with Cedar convinced that the tumor is somehow possessing Strasberg.

   Curtis turns to his old friend Stella Stevens (in some sort of weird dark make up that seems designed to turn her into a red haired gypsy but just looks as if she spent too long in the tanning bed) and her husband, together they run an occult shop. She’s out of the business but owes Harry one so she helps him set up a seance with medium Ann Sothern to identify the spirit possessing Strasberg.

   And something attacks during the seance, something powerful.

   Another bad idea, but then this movie is full of them.

   Meanwhile that tumor is the size of what it is, a fetus growing on the back of Strasberg’s neck.

   By now they know one thing, the thing is dangerous. When they try to remove it with a laser the machine goes wild and Strasberg directs it with her glance. It seems the light from all the X-Rays have hurt the thing and it speaks through her. Now Cedar is as convinced as Harry they are in over their head. Not only is the thing possessing her and pissed off, it is also likely deformed by the X-rays (remind me not to go to the dentist if I think I have a fetus on my neck).

   Curtis and Stevens go to barmy anthropologist Burgess Meredith who identifies the words they heard (“pawitchy salaoo”) as Native American, likely a powerful medicine man who can cause a new body to be grown on a host and leave it to die when it is born. He has done it many times before over the centuries growing more powerful each time.

   Their only hope is to find a medicine man powerful enough to battle this ancient being, though Meredith would rather let Strasberg die and talk to the medicine man after. You know scientists.

   That medicine man proves to be John Rocking Horse (Michael Ansara, and no, I’m not kidding, his name is Rocking Horse I guess John Hobby Horse was taken), who reluctantly agrees to help, but when he gets to San Francisco he discovers the being is the powerful Missmequaha — in short they are up a certain smelly creek without a paddle because Ansara is way overmatched. To make it worse Missmequaha wants revenge on the white man and modern society not to mention Native Americans who have strayed along the white man’s path.

   He’s back, he’s bad, he’s mad.

   Missmequaha is born despite Ansara’s best effort, but he is weak, his body misformed by the X-Rays. Ansara can’t defeat him, but maybe white man’s magic can, so they call on the manitou, or spirit, of the hospitals computer system, enough power for a small city, and when Ansara can’t channel it Curtis tries. He fails too, but awakens Strasberg who does channel the power sitting up in bed topless shooting rays of light from her hands (don’t knock it, it’s the best part of the film though it reminded me I would rather it was Stella Stevens) and destroys Missmequaha (or Mixmaster as Curtis calls him) in a mediocre special effects scene that probably seemed much cooler when this was made.

   Big budget horror films don’t get much stupider or more inane than this one that doesn’t even have the heart to make real use of Native American myth and legend but just uses some names and half understood stories.

   I don’t know if it was faithful to the book or not, I never could get past the second chapter of one of Masterton’s high concept (low execution) novels. If this was faithful, God help the readers.

   To give the perfect illustration of just how lame this is, it ends with a note that a Japanese boy was actually born with such a fetus on his body and it killed him. Fact, it proclaims, and I suppose we were to leave the theater with a suitable frisson instead of doubling over in laughter as I wanted to as the credits rolled.

   Manitou. I was disappointed when it didn’t turn out to be Karl May’s Winnetou’s little brother. A German western would have to be better than this lame movie. But it is bad in the way you can enjoy watching it doing your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on it. It’s the kind of movie kids used to throw popcorn at, everything going for it but not a brain brought to bear. Some movies are just painful, this one is good stupid fun.

   Rosemary was lucky. At least she didn’t have to carry the devil’s spawn on her forehead.

   A fetus on her neck? What were they smoking when they bought that idea?

   The idea of what the sequel might have been like doesn’t bear thinking about.

   I don’t even want to guess where the next fetus might have been.