Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

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 one of the Montgomeryville Drive-In screens, down the hill, the bottom obstructed by tall fir trees, the top by the screen's roof awning. Without access to sound or any firm idea what was happening in each film or enough details or context, I nonetheless--or maybe because of--was spooked knowing the monsters were always right outside my window... Far away for sure, but there nonetheless. I was spooked this way especially by THE MANITOU, a film that promised (via the damning newspaper reviews), an Indian medicine man dwarf growing out from a lump on a woman's back and people getting skinned alive! I couldn't imagine the series of seizures and nightmares that would afflict me to see more than the faraway corner of such a thing

I was also riveted by the commercials, ads, and reviews for PROPHECY, an eco-horror film starring Talia Shire and more Native American mysticism (sorry, in the vernacular of that less enlightened time, 'Indian medicine'). It was a time for eco-awareness and nothing said eco like the PSA chief (left) on the litter-strewn highway shedding a tear. Man, that image really worked. We stopped throwing our fast food trash out the window --most of us don't to this day. But there was still the hole in the ozone layer, so we had to stop using aerosol cans. And aluminum ripped up pelican feet so we had to stopped having pull tabs on our beer cans. Combine this dawning mainstream eco consciousness with JAWS' breakout appeal and it all congealed into a late 1970s horror cinema landscape of white industrialists cutting corners and eventually (hopefully) being devoured by the fruit of their shoddy clean-up methods. And in these two 'tail end of the cycle' efforts, the shaman sees it all, and shakes his rattle 'til it all goes away.

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 put down my telescope, get my off my ass: time had come.

In MANITOU, Curtis plays one of those semi-phony 'frisco spiritualists who've been fleecing lonely Nob Hill widows since the 20s. Curtis sports a wizard robe when on the job, though his greying buzz cut doesn't go with it. 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 slowly forming dwarf Native American medicine men roused from a 400 year sleep on their back, waking 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 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.  Next they use lasers, but the laser goes Star Wars nutso, slicing off limbs and so forth. 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 and rousing frozen hospital wing sci fi vibe of THE MANITOU. It's almost like an extended episode of Kolchak the Night Stalker with a climax at the Fortress of Solitude, that bounds past 2001, THE OMEN and even prefigures ALTERED STATES. Most of all I dig the way there's remarkably little antagonism between the Native American shaman and western medicinal culture. Suspicion turns quickly to vague interest from the white doctor as he gives up the reigns of treatment to John Singing Rock and eventually they must work together, like 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 Blair hair and EXORCIST oxygen tube but returning in time to go topless for the finale, grinning like a maniac at the most inappropriate of times while shooting lasers into the Lovecraftian Old One's eye, and of course riding some of the far-out visuals that PSYCH-OUT's STP sadly failed to deliver unto her. The spirit of the 70s shines through as Curtis is still buddies with this ex, and is working to save her, but without any of the overwrought drama that would sink this today.

In other words, MANITOU is a low budget yet ambitious balls-to-the-wall 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 taking-it-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 MANITOU, with its ALTERED STATES-cum-2001 hallucinations of one-eyed Godsquatches, lizard demons, its STAR WARS-ish hand laser tag, the 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, as that imagination of what the skinning would look like can finally get some use (i.e. as with any William Girdler film, you need to bring some detail-filling in imagination and expectation).

PROPHECY meanwhile is too busy looking scared and preaching to an imagined audience of gluttonous white capitalists 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 sanctimonious bearded EPA officer 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 (she's pregnant) 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, all but building a six foot long tadpole mutant baby monster in our imagination, but it drags on forever. Frankenheimer wants to make sure we get every last goddamned nuance (you got she ate the salmon, right?)

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 horror version of THE GODFATHER, also with Shire (Francis Ford's sister), which lest us forget 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 GRIZZLY meets TAXI DRIVER this side of DELIVERANCE, with gloomy photography, tiny children thrown against trees while still in their star-shaped sleeping bags; heads bitten off; humans waiting and listening in tunnels as the monster trashes the camp above; detailed tours through the paper milling process at a factory downriver of an unseen Maine lumber camp (entry point of the mercury). 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. Dude, we gave at the office.

Finally deciding to balance its interests, PROPHECY becomes like the windbag at the bar who senses he's going to finally have to let you talk and so he bails out the door on some hurried excuse (there's a lot of them in Al-Anon, too). Compared to the merry inconsistencies and everything-but-the kitchen sink Space Exorcist Rosemary Odyssey Superman special effects psychedelia nonchalance of THE MANITOU, PROPHECY's solemn messages about man's polluting the wilderness with his toxic runoff seems way too bleak.

The long shot way we watch with the cut off humans as the monster trudges across the lake towards them, though, is something genuinely new and strange to horror.

Despite the similarities in the end these two films are like the polarity of only choices for an alcoholic when the truth is too unbearable to ignore: go to AA and get sober or go to the bar and pass 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, 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 rather than the big picture. Sometimes sound, a full clear view, a sober adult mind 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?