Awfully Good: The Manitou

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

The Manitou (1978)

Director: William Girdler
Stars: Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara

A woman discovers she has an ancient Indian man growing on her neck. Hilarity ensues!

Every movie requires multiple levels of approval. A studio commissions a script. Actors and crew are hired. Investors agree to pay for it. And after a period of time and thought, someone finally greenlights it into production. That’s what’s most amazing about THE MANITOU. So many people—possessing what you would have to assume is at least basic intelligence—thought a horror movie about a woman giving birth to a 400 year old Native American man out of her neck was a good idea.

Until GRAVITY, THE MANITOU had my vote for most realistic space film.

There’s really not much more to it than that. This is the movie where a lady’s tumor turns out to be the physical reincarnation of evil and she becomes possessed by a powerful Indian shaman. It’s like THE EXORCIST meets cancer. The concept of a “Manitou,” or a spirit that resides in all living and non-living things, is a real Native American belief. However, as much as this film would like to pretend it’s based in fact, pretty much all of it is hilarious, possibly offensive malarkey. God only knows why veteran actor Tony Curtis agreed to star in this mess. I bet it has something to do with a mortgage payment on his vacation home.


They never explain exactly how or why the mean Indian man chose poor Karen Tandy’s neck to invade. It’s hinted that he was still sore at the White Man for taking his land and simply chose the nearest light-skinned person to inhabit; however, I like to pretend that Karen accidentally wore a turtleneck that was made out of an old Indian graveyard. Whatever the reason, when the movie opens, the victim has a quick-growing lump on her neck that moves on its own. Doctors soon discover it’s a fetus, but when they attempt to surgically remove it, a possessed Karen psychically turns their scalpels and lasers against themselves. Meanwhile, Tony Curtis—a fake psychic and former co-worker/lover of Karen’s—begins experiencing equally odd phenomenon, like one of his old clients floating in mid-air, speaking in tongues, and throwing herself down the stairs in what is probably the funniest elderly staircase incident outside of GREMLINS.

Burgess Meredith has never been sexier.

Curtis and his other psychic friends hold a séance, during which an old Native American man emerges from the dining room table. Since shit has thus gotten real, they consult an anthropology expert (a cameo by ROCKY star and Twilight Zone staple Burgess Meredith), who doesn’t believe them despite having written a book about old Native American men growing out of people’s bodies. (Even when he translates the creepy Indian phrase they keep hearing as “My death foretells my return” he still thinks they’re full of it.) He suggests they consult an actual medicine man. Curtis questions whether or not they can afford one and Meredith replies—in the first of many racist stereotypes to come—”Oh, he’s an Indian. He’ll do it for free because all they care about is honor and stuff!” Curtis then goes to the nearest Indian reservation and meets John Singing Rock, who immediately demands $100,000 to help him out.

Disney’s FROZEN was weird. Very weird.

It is here that THE MANITOU goes from amusingly silly to drug-induced nightmare silly. John Singing Rock goes to the hospital with Curtis and they witness Karen give “birth.” It’s a hilariously cheap sequence as the actor playing the evil spirit breaks through the thin layer of latex that in no way looks like human skin. Eventually the demon (named Misquamacas) fully emerges and falls to the floor as…a naked little person covered in slime and crappy makeup. It’s as anticlimactic as you can imagine. John Singing Rock draws a Magic Indian Circle around the hospital bed so Misquamacas cannot escape, and for the next few minutes the actors hilariously just hang out in the hospital room trying to ignore the tiny nude elephant in the room.

Who knew “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” was meant to be taken literally?

But of course he does eventually escape and the final half hour of THE MANITOU consists of everyone being terrorized by a Native American midget that looks like a miniature Tommy Wiseau. Misquamacas kills a couple orderlies and even summons a lizard spirit, which is obviously just a guy in a really bad suit. John Singing Rock (played by an actor who’s actually from Syria) continues to utilize his only weapon—the ability to tap two sticks together—while the doctor still refuses to believe in Indian magic despite everything he witnessed so far.

Why pay for special effects when you can just draw directly on the film!

Around this time, Tony Curtis learns that everything has its own Manitou spirit, including electronics. So he turns on all the computers and medical equipment in the hospital, hoping that their Manitou will fight Misquamacas’ Manitou. He and John Singing Rock return to the hospital room which is now greenscreen outer space. (Don’t ask.) Rock calls forth the technological spirits to attack the demon, but because machines are “white man’s medicine” it doesn’t work. Tony Curtis enters the room and all the Manitou immediately enter Karen. (“Because of your love, they’re going through her!”) She wakes up out of bed (topless!) and shoots lasers out of her hands to kill Misquamacas. And then the Devil himself shows up with lasers and asteroirds, but they’re no match for the power of love!

With evil defeated and everything back to normal, the film ends with a title card that says a Japanese guy once had a fetus grow out of his chest so this is totally a true story, you guys!

Stupid things people had to say with a straight face.

Stair falls, demon birth, lizard attack and more. BONUS: Tony Curtis gets funky! (NSFW)

Susan Strasberg briefly goes topless, while the demonic little person is always naked.

Got a little Indian in you? Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Tony Curtis has a mustache
  • Someone says “Pana-witchy-salatoo”
  • Karen randomly screams
  • John Singing Rock taps sticks together
  • The demon looks like Tommy Wiseau
  • Something racist happens

Double shot if:

  • An old lady descends a staircase

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.


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