Monday, October 11, 2010

Tony Curtis makes THE MANITOU (1978), Shire a PROPHECY (1979)

When I was growing up in the 70s,  back in Lansdale, PA, if I used my kid's telescope out my bedroom window on a dark clear night I could see the glow from the Montgomeryville Drive-In, down the hill, the bottom of the screen partially obstructed by tall fir trees. Without access to sound or any firm idea what was happening in each film, I nonetheless--or maybe because of--was spooked, especially by THE MANITOU, a film that promised via the newspaper reviews and TV ads: demons, shamans, Indian ghosts growing on shoulders, and people getting skinned alive!

I was also riveted by the commercials, ads, and reviews for PROPHECY, starring Talia Shire and more Native Americans. The crying PSA chief (left) on the litter-strewn highway was a cultural icon of the hour; conscientious adults still threw their fast food trash out their car window and left picnic grounds awash in litter. A single tear from a single Native American almost single-handedly changed that. Combine that single tear with the amok nature angle of JAWS and it all congeals into the late 1970s horror cinema landscape. White industrialists cut corners and end up mutating the wild life via mercury poisoning, the shaman sees it all, and shakes his rattle... the monsters come, like tears in rain...

Alas, every review I read at the time about either PROPHECY or THE MANITOU said they were pretty bad, and that's what kept me waiting all this time, over 30 years, to see them. It took the death of Tony Curtis to finally get my off my ass and into the cheap seats. Man, I'm glad I waited for digital widescreen, where the full glory shines through.

In MANITOU, Curtis plays a free-spirited Love Boat-style example of one of those semi-phony 'frisco spiritualists who've been fleecing gullible lonely Nob Hill widows since the days of Samuel Spade license number 596. Older perhaps, with a weird buzz cut, Curtis sports a cool robe and a hard-won devil-may-care demeanor. In fact if he had more hair and a K-Mart Scarface loungewear ensemble, he'd dress and cavort a lot like me. In fact, we both have ex-wives with growths in their backs that are slowly forming dwarf Native American medicine men coming back from a 400 year sleep to wreak havoc on the white man's world. And we both have cool stereo systems. And we dance with a hard-won sense of existential jubilation, the way Jean Paul Belmondo dances in PIERROT LE FOU.

As the plot matures, the western doctors try and cut off his ex-wife's growth. It fights back by making the doctor cut his own wrist instead. The doctors next try to use lasers, but the laser goes Star Wars nutso -- unfortunately beheading no one. Finally Curtis sends for a cool Native American medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara, who underplays beautifully).

Now, maybe it was because my expectations were so rock bottom, but I really liked the laid-back edge of THE MANITOU. It's almost like an extended episode of Kolchak the Night Stalker. Most of all I dig the way there's remarkably little antagonism between the Native shaman and western medicinal cultures. You can tell in the above shot the suspicion and vague interest from the white doctor as he gives up the reigns of treatment to John Singing Rock. But it's a cool instance of flexibility and inter-cultural communication as western medicine must bow down and admit Native American magic knows more about the lands beyond beyond. As for the fiery climax, they'll have to work together, like Deepak Chopra, or a medicinal version of THE DEFIANT ONES. 

Giving the film some staunch method cred, Susan Strasberg (of PSYCH-OUT and THE TRIP/ daughter of Lee) plays the afflicted ex-wife, spending the bulk of the film in bed with an oxygen tube but returning in time to go topless for the finale, grinning like a maniac at the most inappropriate of times, and of course she rides the far-out visuals that PSYCH-OUT so sadly failed to deliver.

In other words, MANITOU is a low budget yet ambitious hack job that leans on Tony Curtis to carry it the way the Monogram horror films of the 1940s used to lean on Bela Lugosi. In both instances they made a good choice. Curtis plays it like an Italian working class Bob Hope in sufficiently serious CAT AND THE CANARY mode and carries the ball just as well as Darren McGavin in THE NIGHT STALKER, and that's no faint praise. 

PROPHECY is much better as far as photography and music, maybe even acting... but it's nowhere near the ditzy fun of MANITOUS, with its ALTERED STATES-cum-2001 hallucinations of one-eyed Godsquatches, lizard demons, STAR WARS-ish hand laser tag, a hospital room floating in outer space, Native American 'old' magic vs. medicine / machine age magic ("the typewriter has its own manitou!") all the way to decapitation and oh yes, the torn flesh of Strasberg's back (presumably) makes it looks like she's wearing a pink shower curtain liner. That's just fine with me.

PROPHECY meanwhile is too busy looking scared and preaching to remember if and when it should be scary or funny or anything else monster movies are supposed to be. Oscars are strove for in scenes involving pregnant Talia Shire listening to her EPA doctor husband express outrage at the poverty of the ghetto he visits early in the film, and then double outrage up in Vermont at the mercury leakage that's made tadpoles grow two feet long and an old medicine man go blind. So no, he doesn't want to bring a child into this fucked-up world! She hears all this while waiting to tell him the 'good' news of her pregnancy as he plays back his tape elaborating on all the horrible mutations that afflict fetuses subjected to mercury poisoned salmon, which of course they ate only the night before.This is a pretty great scene, full of unspoken dread and drama, but it drags on forever.

Supplying the Native American voice of crying-at-litter enviro-reason, Armand Assante smolders his way through a turn as the local 'Original People' chief. Rather than a real Native American he reminds us of , how you say? Ah yes. Antonio Banderas. In a good... way? Reminding us that method acting, somber mood and low key lighting reigned supreme in the 1970s, PROPHECY broods like it wants to be the method Coppola horror film of the era, reminding us even THE GODFATHER started out just another adaptation of a drugstore best seller.

So while THE MANITOU is gaudy like those great early Marvel monster comics, PROPHECY is more 70s gravitas, more the R-rated side, the GRIZZLY meets TAXI DRIVER side, the older kids side... with gloomy photography; children thrown and shattered against trees while still in their star-shaped sleeping bags; heads bitten off; some truly effective scenes of terrified humans waiting and listening in tunnels as the monster trashes the camp above, and detailed tours through the paper milling process at a factory downriver of an unseen Maine lumber camp.  However, after about the third self-righteous tantrum of our EPA doctor, and the endless caterwauling of the eventually forgotten mutant baby (not Shire's), you just want to press the button on all of humanity and get it over with.

Kind of uncertain about how to balance its interests, PROPHECY operates the way someone boring you with long-winded sermons at a bar suddenly remembers they're late for dinner and races out the door, forgetting their hat, gloves and coat and not even giving you time for rebuttal. Compared to the merry inconsistencies and everything-but-the kitchen sink Space Exorcist Rosemary Odyssey psychedelia nonchalance of THE MANITOU, PROPHECY's solemn messages about man's polluting the wilderness with his toxic runoff seems way too bleak. The monster crossing the lake scene, though, is damned awesome.

The difference between the two is like the difference between life in AA and life if you stay in the bar and wind up passed out underneath the stools. Do you want to clean up the mess of your polluted life, give the forest back to the Native Americans and ask the mountains for forgiveness? Or do you want to throw typewriters at dwarf medicine men and watch your ex-wife shoot lasers at giant space eyeballs?

I thought so.

Then again, you could do like I did, and not make a choice at all, make 'em a double (feature that is). Just remember to keep that nonjudgmental childhood telescope trained on the partially obstructed drive-in screen of bemused tolerance and low expectations. Sometimes sound, a clear view, and a full understanding of the plot can be downright detrimental.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched MANITOU last night after finishing up Masterton's awesomely fun original novel. Didn't think the film had the same energy but it did have its cheesy '70s moments--like Tony calling the Indian spirit Misquamacus "the Mix-Master"! As for PROPHECY, that kid in his sleeping bag who got smashed against a tree haunted me as a child... Wonder if it's still as disturbing?