Tuesday, April 9, 2019

THE MANITOU (1978) (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)

THE MANITOU  (1978) 

Label: Scream Factory
Region Code: A
Rating: PG
Duration: 85 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono, DTSA-HD MA 2.0 Stereo with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: William Girdler
Cast: Tony Curtis, Michael Ansara, Susan Strasberg, Stella Stevens, Burgess Meredith, Jon Cedar, Ann Sothern

When Karen (Susan Strasberg, Scream of Fear) discovers a lump growing on the back of her neck she seeks the advice of a doctor who suggests it's a tumor and that she have it removed surgically, keeping from her that the tumor seems to resemble a fetus and is abnormally fast-growing. Karen worries about the procedure and seeks advice of her former lover, Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis, The Mummy Lives), a con-man, mystic who makes his money milking wealthy old ladies of their fortunes, who assures her it's only routine.

One night while sleeping next to her Harry overhears Karen uttering a foreign phrase in  her sleep, which a few days later one of his paying customers begins to repeat before levitating and throwing herself violently down a flight stairs to her death! Realizing something is definitely wrong he arranges a seance for Karen with spiritualist friends in the days leading up to the surgery. The seance revealing the presence of an ancient native american shaman named Misquamacus, who reveals himself during the hokey wind-blown seance. This image of his face emerging from a table scared me stiff as a kid watching this on TV, it doesn't hold up especially well but the scene is still pretty darn charming. 

Harry consults an anthropologist Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith, The Sentinel) who confirms that Misquamacus was a medicine man who is capable of re-birthing himself, having done it once before, and apparently looking to do so again via that fast-growing tumor on Karen's neck. Realizing the imminent threat the shaman poses Harry enlists the help of a modern medicine man by way of John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara, It's Alive).

I saw this on TV when I was in kindergarten and I thought it was absolutely thrilling, and frightening, at the time. The film is a little bit hokey watching it now but the nostalgia is strong within me for it so it was still a blast to watch. Tony Curtis and the con man who dabble in mysticism is great fun, while Susan Strasburg who seems to be the star coming into the film falls to side a bit with the film falling on the shoulders of Curtis and Ansara, both of whom careen into over-the-top mode for the film delirious finale which features some truly bad laser-light show special effects that's aiming for a 2001: A Space Odyssey level of eye-candy but only landing on a 60's era Star Trek level of camp. 

That said there are some cool special effects  and make-up here from Tom Burman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) inlcuding the pint-sized shaman who emerges from Karen's back in a way that sort of recalls Cronenberg's The Brood (1979). The latex skin effects don't quite hold up but the sinewy sculpted body and face pieces worn by actor Felix Silla (Spaceballs) are pretty cool-looking still, there;s a scene of him wriggling across the floor that sort of brought to mind that hideous crawling creature scene from Poltergeist III: The Other Side (1986).   

Director William Girdler made some fun exploitation films all through the 70's, from Three on a Meat Hook (1972), Abby (1974), to the blaxploitation entry Sheba Baby (1975), plus a pair of fun nature gone wrong drive-in films with Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977), all very entertaining films, but The Manitou was a bigger sort of film for him, it may be a bit silly and the director overstepped his limitations to a degree, but this 70's oddity certainly seemed to hint at a career that was on the rise. Sadly he died in helicopter crash while scouting locations for his next film, and his career ended with this slice of 70's strangeness. 

Audio/Video: The Manitou (1978) arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a new 4K scan of the only surviving film elements licensed from StudioCanal- an interpositive - presented in the original widescreen scope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Film grain can be a bit heavy at times but considering this is not coming from the original camera negative - which is apparently lost, I found the clarity and depth perfectly acceptable. Other imperfections include dirt and debris in the optical FX scenes, plus there's an softness inherent to some of the cinematography, and poor contrast that renders certain scenes less crisp than others, in addition to some anemic blacks - but all things considered this is a good looking presentation. 

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 2.0, offering both mono and a restored 2.0 stereo presentations with optional English subtitles. Mono sounds fine, limited in range and but crisp, with the "restored" stereo track having some decent use of stereo separation, but also showing some age related issue, but both offer intelligible dialogue throughout. The score from Lalo Schiffrin (The Amityville Horror) is really solid and sounds terrific in the mix. 

While not a branded as Collector's Edition Scream Factory release of The Manitou does offer some cool extras, beginning with an audio commentary from the always solid Troy Howarth who does a bang-up job discussing William Girdler's career and comparing the film to the source novel.  

There's also an 11-min interview with producer David Sheldon who speaks about his own early career and partnership with Director William Girdler, touching on Three On A Meat Hook, the controversy around the "black exorcist" film Abby, Sheba Baby with Pam Grier and Grizzly, including the unfinished sequel which he teases he might be finishing at some point. He also briefly discusses the dissolution of their partnership and the helicopter crash that killed Girdler. 

Author Graham Masterson who wrote the source novel discusses his own career, early forays into writing horror stories after seeing Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, his stint working at Penthouse, writing the novel and it's inspirations, and being approached by Girlder to adapt his story to film.

Special Features on the disc are buttoned-up with TV spots, a theatrical trailer and an image gallery of stills, publicity images, movie poser and press kits.   

The single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork featuring the theatrical movie poster on the a-side and what looks to be the French movie poster on the reverse. The disc features an excerpt of the U.S. theatrical artwork. 

Special Features: 
- NEW interview with author Graham Masterson (28 min) 
- NEW Producing Girdler – an interview with executive producer David Sheldon (11 min) HD
- NEW Audio Commentary with film historian Troy Howarth
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) 
- TV Spots (2 min) 
- Still Gallery (7 min)

The Manitou finally arrives on Blu-ray, the A/V may not be a thing of velvety HD splendor but considering the elements available it's still a release worthy of celebration. Director William Girdler was only making movies for six short years before he was tragically killed, but in that short he left behind an entertaining body of work, packing in eight films, and this is one of his strangest and most out there creations, it's not perfection but it is awesome.