Thursday, February 4, 2010

Movie vs. Book: The Manitou

Sometimes after a rough day, you need some candy. I’m not talking fancy Godiva chocolates. I’m talking a little package of those fake chocolate Sixlets balls from the bottom shelf of the 7-11. They aren’t the best—far from it—but they’re just little packages of junky goodness. The Manitou is like that.
There is precious little in the way of quality frights in The Manitou. Think of the basic plot—human adult is born from a woman’s back and proceeds to wreak havoc on the hospital and its surroundings. Throw in Tony Curtis (who, as it continued toward the end, was reminding me of Eddie Izzard) camping it up, and boogieing down to some funk music, and not nearly enough Burgess Meredith doing some of his trademark off-the-cuff bits, and I can’t say these filmmakers didn’t try for at least some, if not all, of the humor. The bit players (especially the clients of Curtis’ psychic tarot reader) were a kick to watch. The music was so blatantly ripped off from other popular movies that you can’t help but giggle. I haven’t read the book yet, so I’m not sure how much of the tongue-in-cheek is there from the beginning, but the director of this sure seemed to have fun.

A lot seems to have been said about the quality of special effects. I agree, they were bad even by late 70s standards. The lasers that seemed hand-drawn onto the film, the “legless” mutant medicine man who can clearly be seen kneeling down, with the feet sticking out behind him, the lava-lamp psychadelica of the cosmos floating around the hospital room as the Great Old One (yes, sure enough, I get yet ANOTHER movie referring to the Great Old One), and I can’t help but wonder just what kind of drugs were floating around in the 70s. That said, it’s hard for me to not admit its place in effects design. The last battle sequence had moments taken directly from Donald Cammell’s Performance from eight years previous, and while watching it, I do think the “birth” scene had to have partially inspired Lars von Trier while making Riget (Kingdom), where Udo Kier is born full-formed from an unsuspecting Danish woman.
There’s really not a whole lot to say about The Manitou. Yes, it is far from being great timeless cinema. But I challenge you to watch it and not have fun. Just don’t take any of it too seriously.


The Manitou was Graham Masterton’s first horror novel. With it, Masterton began a number of trends which continue in his work. I’m going to look at those.

1. Series horror. Not only does Misquamacus, the antagonist of the novel, reappear in multiple sequels but the hero Harry Erskine does him one better, reappearing in the Manitou series novels and the stand-alone novel The Djinn.

2. Humor. Masterton has a deft touch with the light humor, never making it an excessive part of the story but unafraid to let his characters recognize the lunacy in which they find themselves involved. With his choice of a charlatan spiritualist as protagonist, Masterton provided an opportunity for humor. Happily, he handles it well.

3. Reasonable absurdity. If Masterton has one area where he excels, one aspect of the horror field in which he can declare himself champion, it is this. In later novels, the monsters have been everything from haunted chairs to Nazi fire spirits trying to reach immortality through opera. The man somehow makes it work. I believe it can be traced back to this novel, where much of the book involves the fetus of an ancient medicine man growing out of a woman’s neck.

4. Unusual antagonists. While they can often be absurd (see 3., above) they are always unusual. A deserted WWII tank inhabited by actual demons. Creatures trying to invade humanity’s dreams. Even in this one, Masterton throws a curve ball. He shifts gears from native American theology to Lovecraftean mythos work; and while he plays fair with it by introducing the novel with a Lovecraftean quote referencing Misquamacus, it’s still surprising when it happens.

And overall, Masterton has a reliable quality of producing enjoyable, engaging, entertaining books. The man is one of the contemporary masters, and his first book successfully hit on most of the right notes. Its weakness lies in the ending (which was still head and shoulders above the movie version) and in the relatively haphazard construction of some of the language, which is good enough not to throw a reader out of the story but fails to drag a reader in as well as his later books.

Four stars out of five.