Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

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.  away as they may be, the lurid drive-in ads in the daily paper (above the comics and puzzles) were coming to life right down the hill. This left me continually spooked all through the 70s, but I especially remember being especially so spooked by the ads for 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... really I couldn't.

I was also riveted by the commercials, ads, and reviews for PROPHECY, a year later, an eco-horror film starring Talia Shire and with even more Native American mysticism. 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 and everything! 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. Few of us even remember when these things were around now. 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 and head down the hill, so to speak. Here I am!

In MANITOU, Curtis plays one of those semi-phony 'frisco spiritualists who've been fleecing lonely Nob Hill widows since the 20s. Though he wears a wizard robe when 'consulting' in his tricked-out apartment, his alleged mystical air is undone by a greying buzzcut. That aside, he moves and acts a lot like I do now. We both entertain older ladies in our flats and seldom leave to put on 'outdoor' attire. We're both on good accord with our ex-wives--his has a slowly forming dwarf Native American medicine men roused from a 400 year sleep on her back, waking to wreak havoc on the white man's world (and mine has an Argentine socialist education); we both have cool stereo systems and we dance with a hard-won sense of existential jubilation the way Jean Paul Belmondo does in Pierrot le Fou. Now you know something about me. Now, madame, let me tell you something about... you.

As the plot matures, the western doctors try and cut off Curtis's ex-wife's shamanic 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 halving valuable laser equipment. 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. In its touch all-bases round of influence-tag, it bounds past 2001, THE OMEN and even prefigures ALTERED STATES and I especially like that there is remarkably little antagonism between the Native American shaman and western medicinal culture. Usually half the film is spent with boring subplots of medical injunctions and the AMA throwing up its hands. Here, 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 even work together, like a medicinal version of THE DEFIANT ONES. 


Giving the film some staunch method cred, Susan Strasberg 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 while shooting laser beams at the cosmic cyclops, or something, and of course riding some of the far-out visuals that Srasberg's big STP trip in PSYCH-OUT sadly failed to deliver. The spirit of the 70s shines, through, as Curtis and Strasberg lack any of the overwrought drama that would sink an amicable divorce like theirs 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 taking-it-serious-but-not-inordinately-so 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.



The following year's PROPHECY (directed by John Frankenheimer!) 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 visuals, Godsquatches, lizard demons, lasers, and Native American 'old' magic vs. machine age magic ("the typewriter has its own manitou!"), MANITOU is a blast, and, not to worry - 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. I've already imagined far worse, all through the 70s. (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 until almost 1/3 of the way into the film. Until then, Oscars are strove for in scenes involving pregnant Talia Shire listening to her sanctimonious bearded EPA mouthpiece of a 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 right now, honey!

She hears all this while waiting to tell him the 'good' news (she's pregnant) as he plays back his dictation elaborating on all the horrible mutations that afflict fetuses subjected to mercury poisoned salmon, which of course they ate only the night before. The scene unspools slowly enough that we don't need to be told what she's thinking about her baby's chromosomes. This is a pretty great scene, full of unspoken dread and drama, all but building a six foot-long tadpole mutant baby human monster in our imagination, but it still 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 everything-but-the kitchen sink Space Exorcist Odyssey-ish whizzbangery of THE MANITOU, PROPHECY's solemn messages about man's polluting the wilderness with his toxic runoff seems punitively bleak. One crying Native American by the highway was enough to seriously change America's garbage-tossing habit, but some bearded leftie guilt-tripping his wife for forty minutes is enough to change it back. Nobody goes to a monster movie for a glum environmentalist harangue.

That said- there's a few good things afoot in the PROPHECY: thee sustained wide shots of the monster trudging inexorably across the lake towards the cut-off survivors adds 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 with agog wonder as 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 the complete picture 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?

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