What do you get when you mix a phony fortune teller, San Francisco, doctors, and a 400 year old Native American medicine man little person? One hell of a slow burn horror from 1978 called THE MANITOU. Based on a novel by Graham Masterton, THE MANITOU takes supernatural horror to the next level by trying to implement science but subtracting actual logic.
Starring Tony Curtis as Harry Erskine, a tarot reader, with nary an ounce of psychic ability, who is reunited with his former lover, Karen (Susan Strasberg), who is suffering from tumor growing on the back of her neck. A medical mystery, Karen’s doctors are stumped by her tumor as it is growing exponentially. Oh, and weird things start happening, the least of which being that Karen starts chanting in her sleep. After Harry has a horrific encounter with one of his regular clients chanting the same phrases before throwing herself down the stairs. Time to bring in the big guns!
Erskine enlists the help of actual spiritualists, who lead him to Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith, ROCKY, The 60’s Batman TV show), a historian having written about a similar growth becoming the reincarnation of a medicine man. Not believing any of it, Snow tries to convince them that the story is full of baloney. Or as Erskine states “Change bullshit into a fifteen syllable word and you have an idea what he had in mind.” They opt to track down a Native American shaman (Michael Ansara) to help combat the parasitic reincarnation.
Following the supernatural trend post-THE EXORCIST, THE MANITOU is a campy horror that trades in scares for an interesting, albeit ridiculous, story. It does its best to bring in a scientific explanation using medicine and alternative treatment options. As well as using a thorough research process of tracking down what is causing the growth. While this does drag the story out a little bit, they get to the action just before things could get too boring.The majority of the acting work in this is done straight, trying to keep the story as serious as possible. Had this been played for laughs, I’m sure it wouldn’t have built its quiet cult status that it has. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of the INSIDIOUS movies, just with significantly less scares.
Interestingly enough, the author of the source novel was well known for including graphic sex scenes in his work, and for the most part, the film is mostly chaste, with a short scene of the leads kissing, to cut to them sleeping next to each other covered. The most risque thing of the movie is one brief scene where Karen loses her shirt while fighting off the medicine man.
One of the most memorable pieces of the whole film is also sadly one that isn’t widely credited or advertised. The 400 year old medicine man growing on the back of Karen’s neck is played by two little people, Joe Gieb and Felix Silla. While Silla may not be a household name, characters that he has played are. He started out on in the circus in Italy, eventually making it over to the States to be part of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Show. He eventually made it on screen, most notably on The Addams Family as Cousin Itt. He also used his circus training as use for stunt work for child actors. He was Twiki in the ’79 Buck Rogers TV show, as well as numerous other roles such as being one of the Ewoks in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Silla was almost killed while doing stunt work on INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, where he was the stunt double for Short Round. After reading about Silla’s story two years ago, it amazes when I stumble upon yet again something else that I’ve loved growing up that he’s been a part of. Having him involved in THE MANITOU as the miniature shaman with mighty powers just makes me grow more fond of this wacky little movie.
THE MANITOU is unfortunately out of print on DVD but available in limited numbers on Amazon. It can be occasionally seen on TCM late night on their TCM Underground series.