Release Date(s)1978 (April 16, 2019)
Studio(s)AVCO Embassy Pictures/Studio Canal (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
William Girdler’s The Manitou hit theaters in 1978, putting a notable stamp on the “unusual body growths and subsequent possessions” genre with a memorable, as well as a faithful, adaptation of the novel of the same name by Graham Masterson.
Karen (Susan Strasberg) admits herself to a hospital because of an unusual swelling on the back of her neck, which completely stumps doctors Hughes (Jon Cedar) and McEvoy (Paul Mantee) as to what it could be. By her side is her fortune telling former flame Harry (Tony Curtis), who is convinced that there’s more to this growth – and soon discovers it to be a Native American spirit, a Manitou, that is attempting to re-enter our world and take revenge against the invasive and destructive white men of the past. Fearing that Karen’s life is in danger, Harry seeks out the help of shaman John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), eventually battling the evil spirit before it can invade reality and kill everyone in it.
If you throw It’s Alive, The Brood, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist II: The Other Side all into a blender, out would come something like The Manitou. It’s one of the lower tier titles of its sort from that era of filmmaking, mostly because it’s never been that prevalent of a home video title and likely hasn’t been seen by many people under 30. On the other hand, it’s also a film that one can get a lot out of. While the person on your left may find it to be a compelling horror drama, the person on your right may write it off as ridiculous and laughable. For me, it’s a mix of the two, with much of the humor coming off as intentional, particularly early on with Tony Curtis’ character bogusly reading tarot cards for kindly old ladies.
The Manitou is also rated PG, but in a sense, it’s not really a horror film at all. There’s very little bloodshed, no harsh language, and hardly any nudity in it (aside from Strasberg in the finale, which was mostly shot in shadow). However, it’s the ending that’s truly memorable, going completely over the top in a Zardoz or The Visitor type of way with quick cutting, flashing lights, laser beams, explosions, and a naked woman – and all of it taking place within the open universe. It must be seen to be believed.
Scream Factory brings The Manitou to Blu-ray for the first time with text proceeding the film to let us know that "For this new 2019 transfer, the only surviving element, an interpositive, was scanned in 4K by Studio Canal. Sadly, the [original camera] negative for the film is lost." Despite being a couple of generations away, this is still a solid and organic presentation. It carries an inherent softness, some of it due to the massive use of opticals in the finale, which do not hold up at all. Grain reproduction is good, as is fine detail. The color palette is unapologetically 1970s, with plenty of beiges, browns, and greens, but also occasional splashes of red and blue. Blacks are deep with some slight crush (some of it built in by the original cinematography), while contrast and brightness levels are ideal. There’s also some mild instability and leftover damage on display, including weaker areas of the frame, which pop up in the middle of the film, as well as some mild scratches and speckling.
The audio is presented in what’s touted to be a restored version of the film’s original audio, which is included in English 2.0 DTS-HD, as well as an English mono DTS-HD alternative. In addition, there are also subtitles in English SDH for those who might need them. I personally don’t believe that there’s that much of a difference between the two tracks. There’s some slight spreading for some of the sound effects on the stereo track, but they’re incredibly subtle. Either choice warrants mostly the same result, which includes fairly narrow but clean dialogue. Lalo Schifrin’s score is given plenty of fidelity as well, and there aren’t any noticeable instances of damage or dropouts. So it’s a dated soundtrack either way, but it’s well-represented.
Extras include another informative and entertaining audio commentary from film historian and author Troy Howarth, who even discusses some of the differences between the film and its source novel; the 11-minute interview Producing William Girdler: A Conversation with Producer David Sheldon; a 28-minute interview with the original novel’s writer Graham Masterson; the original theatrical trailer; 3 TV spots; an animated image gallery containing 94 promotional shots, behind-the-scenes stills, posters, lobby cards, press kits, advertising materials, newspaper clippings, and VHS covers; and a single page of Blu-ray credits.
All in all, The Manitou is an odd but entertaining film with enough great set pieces and camp appeal to entertain many genre fans, old and new. The performances are all fine, including an appearance late in the film by Burgess Meredith, but watching Tony Curtis dance to disco music while pouring himself a beer is certainly worth price of admission. Add to that some fine extras and a decent transfer and you have yourself a winner.
– Tim Salmons