This post was originally published November 24, 2012
A long, long time ago.....in those fabled years when Saturday Night Live was funny, cars were constructed from steel and collars were so wide, the one on the right had a different zip code than the one on the left, I saw an amazing double feature at the Star-Vue Drive-In in a sleepy little mid-West town; The Manitou and Phantasm.
Time has gone on to treat Phantasm very well, and deservedly so. However, it was the first feature I saw that night which has not always gotten the respect it has so richly earned - William Girdler's The Manitou.
The film, released in 1978, is based on the 1976 novel The Manitou by Graham Masterson. The picture was written and directed by one of the hardest working men in film for several years in the 1970s; William Girdler. The Manitou was, tragically, Girdler's last film as he died scouting locations in the Philippines shortly before the film's release.
Looking back at Girdler's body of work it should be painfully apparent what a loss his death has been
I could go on for some time about Girdler – If I should ever win the lottery I think I'd write a book about him. Please take the time to pick up and enjoy some of his work.
The Manitou, set in late 70s San Francisco, follows Tony Curtis as wanna be medium Harry Erskine (I suggest he is a wanna be because I don't feel it is ever established – I believe on purpose – whether Harry even fully believes in the occult, as he says late in the film, “I'm a buyer, not a seller.”). An old flame of Harry's, Karen Tandy (Susan Strassberg), has an unusual growth on her neck at the base of her skull, and it is increasing in size very quickly. Concern for her rekindles their relationship, and after the first attempt to remove the growth ends with the surgeon harming himself, Harry undertakes a mission to determine what is, in fact, growing on Karen's neck.
In Harry's search for answers he consults an old friend, Ameilia Crusoe, played by a very tan Stella Stevens. It is during a séance at which a spirit makes an appearance that Harry begins to understand they are dealing with other-worldly forces. In Harry's search for answers he encounters anthropologist Dr. Snow, played to sheer perfection by Burgess Meredith, who suggests it may be an ancient medicine man attempting to be reborn (although he suggests all stories of such things are just folk-lore).
By Act Three, Harry has convinced South Dakotan medicine man, John Singing Rock, to help defeat the ever growing Manitou and save Karen Tandy's life. As a kid I remember being blown away by the conclusion of the film – watching it again after 34 years, the ending, and the film as a whole, is amazing both as a work of cinema, and a time capsule in to the decade of the 70's – a time when innocence and harsh reality began their collision course.
William Girdler Website
IMDB Link to The Manitou