Coming in at the tail end of the decade’s occult fad, this movie is largely forgotten, and rightly so…
Like a mud run for charity, THE MANITOU is good sloppy fun that leaves you feeling exhausted and good about yourself afterwards. A natural born hustler, William Girdler was always chasing the tail end of the big money, crafting the African American possession shocker ABBY (1974) to cash in on the success of THE EXORCIST (1973), GRIZZLY (1976) to ride the wave of JAWS (1975), and DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1978) to profit from the mid-70s vogue for “revenge of nature” films. Boasting Girdler’s biggest budget to date and San Francisco locations that bestowed upon the film instant production value, THE MANITOU is anchored by Tony Curtis’ fully-engaged and thoroughly sincere lead performance and enlivened elsewhere by guest appearances from the likes of Stella Stevens (made up, for some occult reason, like Joan Crawford in THE UNKNOWN), Ann Sothern, and Burgess Meredith as “the guy who wrote the book” on Native American black magic and Sausalito’s top manitou man.
It is quite fun to watch Meredith, who obviously cannot believe he is in this movie, even as he is being in it, before your eyes.
One of the strangest bestsellers of this period was The Manitou, a 1976 novel by British writer Graham Masterton, the former editor of the U.K. edition of Penthouse and occasional sex manual scribe.
In a message consistent with sympathies of the time, The Manitou explores the idea of modern white man’s guilt over the ruthless treatment of Native Americans during the settling of America, an idea which also fueled some of the era’s later horror films like Prophecy (1979), Nightwing (1979) and Wolfen (1981). Here the concept is manifested literally as the titular Manitou, a powerful and malefic Indian spirit shaman germinating within the neck of San Francisco resident Karen (Susan Strasberg) as a mysterious tumor. (…)
While the cast may seem unusual now for a horror film, that’s nothing compared to this film’s director. William Girdler, a young Kentucky-born filmmaker with eight films under his belt, was brought onto this Avco Embassy production mainly on the basis of Grizzly, his wilderness Jaws imitation that turned out to be one of 1976’s most surprising hits. [ME: MOSTLY ON ACCOUNT OF THE AWESOME POSTER…]
He had followed it with the more ambitious and considerably more eccentric Day of the Animals (1977) the following year, while the rest of his filmography ranged from a Pam Grier action vehicle (Sheba, Baby, 1975), a pair of grisly drive-in shockers (Asylum of Satan  and Three on a Meathook ), and the strange Zodiac-inspired Zebra Killer (1974). By this point the most notorious film under his belt was easily Abby, a 1974 blaxploitation copy of The Exorcist from AIP that wound up being pulled due to legal threats from Warner Bros., but that hardly deterred him from following commercial trends in his later projects.
This site is devoted to Girdler’s films.
NOTE: TCM is airing 1973’s experimental split-screen feature Wicked, Wicked in Canada in this time slot.