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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Mannikin (1977)

(Directed by Don Thompson, 1977, 28 minutes, 16mm, color)

Robert Bloch's story "The Mannikin" first appeared in Weird Tales (April, 1937)

I came across this horror short when trying to track it down for a library patron. The Mannikin is a true rarity, one I had yet to discover in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's 16mm film collection (thanks go to avid cineastes Bob Wagner and Teresa Duggan for alerting me to it!). Based on a short story by Robert Bloch (Psycho) that originally appeared in the April 1937 issue of pulp mag Weird Tales, the half-hour film starred Ronee Blakley (not long after her Oscar-nominated turn in Robert Altman's Nashville) and Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey).

Keir Dullea in "The Mannikin"

Its provenance is hard to determine. Internet Movie DataBase user reviewer Capkronos (capkronos00@hotmail.com) asserts that it was originally broadcast in February of 1977 as part of a short-lived six-episode Canadian television series called Classics Dark and Dangerous. "The Mannikin" was later incorporated as one of the three stories (along with Alvin Rakoff's "Mrs. Amworth" and Robert Fuest's "The Island") in the 1988 film anthology Three Dangerous Ladies. (Horror film veteran Robert Fuest's name will be familiar to fans of The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again; he also directed several episodes of the Linda Thorn-era The Avengers TV show.)

IMDB's description of Classics Dark and Dangerous calls it "Three unrelated horror shorts from 1975 UK horror anthology series...edited together into one horror film anthology with three segments. Each story features a woman who willingly or unwillingly spreads evil...In 'The Mannikin,' Simone, a young singer on the rise, starts having strange back pain. Soon, a bizarre growth forms on her back, Terrified, she finds out that it's not a disease per se, but a satanic curse tied to her late estranged mother and her servant and that a horrible demonic creature called the 'mannikin' is being reborn through her back."

Capkronos's detailed IMDB review ("Having a Satanic mama can be a real pain in the neck," posted August 19, 2014) adds:

Singer/musician Simone Maglore (Ronee Blakley) arrives back at her childhood home just in time to see her elderly mother die...and she couldn't care less! Simone doesn't shed a single tear, claims she doesn't want any of her mother's belongings, tells the strange housekeeper Miss Smith (Pol Pelletier) she never wants to see her again and also announces that she won't be attending her own mother's funeral. Why so bitter? Well, as a child, Simone was subjected to so much strange, scary and possibly Satanic activity - including being forced to participate in seances - that she was removed from the home and raised by someone else. Now as an adult, she'd just like to put her past behind her and concentrate on her budding music career. 
Soon after leaving her mother's home, strange things begin happening to Simone. She hears her mother's voice calling her name, starts suffering from disorienting dizzy spells and comes down with an excruciating pain in her back. Family physician Dr. Paul Carstairs (Cec Linder) can't find a thing wrong with her, so he refers her to pickle-eating psychiatrist Dr. David Priestly (Keir Dullea). His diagnosis? Psychosomatic pain caused by guilt. Of course, that's not what's "really" wrong with her. Instead, she's been cursed by her mother and Miss Davis and must now give birth to a little demonic minion called a "mannikin," which will be born out of huge growth that emerges on her back.
If you've ever read the 1975 novel "The Manitou" or seen the 1978 film version from director William Girdler, you'll know just from the plot synopsis that these two stories are strikingly similar...For his novel, Masterson added a bunch of Indian mythology to the works to explain the growth, but otherwise it's essentially the same basic idea.

I count myself among those "privileged" few who in 1978 had the misfortune to see Tony Curtis collect his paycheck in exploitation director William Girdler (Abby, Grizzly, Asylum of Satan)'s The Manitou at the old Timonium Drive-In Theater. It was based on the hit debut horror novel by Graham Masterton, who went to write over 30 books. For Girdler, it was his cinematic swan song; he was killed in a helicopter crash in January 1978 while scouting locations for his next film. The Manitou was released after his death.

Tony Curtis played a con-artist medium who tries to help his ex-girlfriend Susan Strasberg from giving a spinal birth to Misquamacus, an evil 400-year-old Indian medicine man. He succeeded because of his love for her. It turns out love hath charms to sooth the savage...um...savage! I have forever since referred to my lower back aches as "Manitou" birthings! (Doctors have no idea what I'm talking about.)

Baby Got Back! Susan Strasberg in "The Manitou"

I never read Bloch, but reviewer Capkronos says many changes were made from his source story, including a sex change: his protagonist was an outcast named "Simon Maglore." And the film adaptation's brief running time (28 minutes) "ensures this whole thing is poorly under-developed. Simone's possession and demeanor change happen so abruptly we never have a chance to get immersed in the story."

Capkronos wonders what attracted Ronee Blakley to the project, having been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar just two years prior for her performance as fictional country singing star Barbara Jean in Nashville (1975):"...it's odd seeing her in a low-budget and somewhat schlocky flick like this."

She suggests Blakley was keen to promote her song "Need a New Sun Rising," which is heard three times in the film. Blakley's song also ended up on the soundtrack for Bob Dylan's "four-hour flop" Renaldo and Clara (1978) the following year, as shown below:

Blakley would go on to do two more horror films, appearing as "Marge Thompson" in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and as "Sally" in A Return to Salem's Lot (1987). She also appeared in an episode of the TV series Tales from the Dark Side (1985).

So there you have it! Unless you can track down a VHS copy of Three Dangerous Ladies, the only other way to see "The Mannikin" is to get a projector and rent EPFL's 16mm film print.

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