Sunday, October 29, 2023

Of Vampire Bats and Manitous!

Nick Mancuso as the hero.
The late 1970s saw the release of two horror films based on popular novels that featured Native American protagonists: The Manitou (1978) and Nightwing (1979).

The latter movie stars Nick Mancuso as Youngman Duran, the only law enforcement officer on a tribal reservation in New Mexico. Duran is coping with a lot of stuff: his physician girlfriend is pondering a move to Texas; a energy company has acquired oil rights from a neighboring tribe; an old medicine man, who raised Duran, is dying; and something is draining the blood from cattle--and eventually tourists.

David Warner hunts bats.
Enter British scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner), who announces grimly that the bloodless victims were attacked by vampire bats. Payne has dedicated his life to tracking and killing the night-bound creatures. He now believes they are living in the local mountain caves and--brace yourself for more bad news--are carrying the bubonic plague!

Nightwing is a film filled with unrealized potential. Its strongest element is its desert setting, which typically works well in the horror genre (see Gargoyles). However, Arthur Hiller, a director best known for romances and comedies, can't capitalize on the visual splendor of the dark dunes and the isolated mountains.

Deputy Duran could have been an interesting character, but Mancuso, saddled with a lackluster script, comes across as angst-ridden and befuddled. The screenplay also tosses in heaping helpings of mysticism in the hope of making some kind of profound statement about the destruction of the environment.

David Warner lends some gravitas to Nightwing in spite of portraying an under-developed character. Sadly, the movie wastes the talents of the legendary character actor Strother Martin. He appears briefly as a supply store owner, then vanishes from the movie. That just isn't right.

Susan Strasberg as Karen.
The Manitou may be no better than Nightwing, but it sure is more fun. Susan Strasberg stars as Karen Tandy, a woman who seeks medical help when a large lump starts growing on the back of her neck. After examining her X-rays, her perplexed surgeon comments that the growth looks like a fetus! 

He's right. It turns out to be the fetus of a "manitou"...the spirit of an ancient, evil, dwarf-sized medicine man. Once Karen gives birth, she will die and the manitou will grow in power until it can destroy the human race. Karen's on-and-off-again lover Harry (Tony Curtis), a fake medium, eventually learns what's happening. He journeys to South Dakota to find a contemporary medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), to battle the formidable manitou. 

Tony Curtis as Harry.
The premise of The Manitou might have worked in Graham Masterton's novel. But seeing it on the big  screen is something else and I suspect most of the cast recognized that when they read the screenplay. Tony Curtis can't keep a straight face and the same applies to a trio of screen veterans featured in brief parts: Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith, and Stella Stevens (who appears to stifle a laugh after a séance scene). However, to their credit, the cast goes with the flow and somehow keeps The Manitou from transforming into a parody--despite having to speak mystical chants like "pana witchy salatoo" or coming face-to-face with the little manitou guy in a dark hospital room.

It helps that director William Girdler had previous experience in the horror genre, having helmed Abby (1974), Grizzly (1976), and the wacky The Day of the Animals (1977). He knows that showing less is better and keeps the blood-soaked manitou bathed in shadows after its birth. The climax, set in a hospital on emergency power as a thunderstorm rages in the background, works well in spite of the cheap special effects. Sadly, Girdler died in a helicopter crash shortly after he completed The Manitou.

You can watch The Manitou and Nightwing for free! Click here to watch Nightwing on the Creatures Features channel on Rumble (a YouTube-like streaming service). Click here to watch The Manitou on the Internet Archive


  1. Re: David Warner. Three years removed from playing essentially the same role in The Omen, I hope this time around he kept his head about him.

  2. Interesting! I've never heard of these, but I definitely want to check out Manitou!