The Manipulator (1971) Mickey Rooney Puts on a (Horror) Show

If you’re like me, you often find yourself up entirely too late at night watching some black and white film on TCM often without so much of a want to see the film than a refusal to give into the sweet embrace of sleep. The first thing that proves is that you are a person of distinction and refined tastes. The second thing it suggests is that somewhere along the line you probably ran into one of the sixteen ultra-wholesome films Mickey Rooney made as the character Andy Hardy. I know I've seen one or two, maybe more, but always in a bleary eyed state where all I seem to recall is that Rooney’s Hardy always seemed to be getting kids together for a show. I seriously can’t be sure if this is a real detail or something my half slumbering mind has constructed, but it always makes me wonder when kids stopped putting on shows. Then I recall that I’m from the first generation of home video gamers, and that solves that. The reason I bring all of this up is because in today’s film Mickey’s character is putting on the littlest big show on Earth, and he’s being pretty terrifying while doing it. While I knew Rooney had appeared in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker, I had never seen the beloved actor let out his inner maniac in quite this same way. Join me as I take a look at The Manipulator, and reconsider your idea of one of American’s legendary actors.

B.J. Lang (Rooney) was once a makeup man in Hollywood, but he was put out to pasture. Now living in an abandoned warehouse full of props, lighting set equipment, costumes, and more mannequins than a Kim Cattrell convention. After an opening monolog, we learn that B.J. is keeping a young woman he calls Carlotta (Luana Anders) captive and strapped to an old fashioned wheelchair. Presumably, for some time, he has made her run lines and rehearse, but now it has become time to film his opus, an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac in which Lang stars, directs, edits, wrote, and shot. Naturally, all of this is happening in Lang’s head. Hallucinogenic sequences that alternate between slow motion and double speed abound along with and Argento or Bava level of colored lights decorating the scene. As the cat and mouse game between the pair reaches a fevered pitch, B.J. and Carlotta both journey deep into madness but only one of them can emerge.

The first thing to note about The Manipulator is that for the bulk of the film there are only two actors, Rooney and Anders. A third actor, Keenan Wynn, plays a small, but pivotal, role in the third act of the film despite his screen time being less than three minutes. So that makes the film a two hander at its core, but the bulk of the heavy lifting was done by Rooney. Rooney carries the film on his shoulders, despite a soundtrack sounding like Brian Eno and Throbbing Gristle had a mentally disturbed, freaked out baby, long rambling monologs, and a world where only colored light exists. He impresses like the acting powerhouse he was and still is. See him in anything now and tell me that he doesn't still hit the mark at 92 years old. In a career filled with franchise fame, lovable roles, and check cashing projects, I really feel like this is one where Mickey was trying to prove himself as an actor who still had it, and he overcomes a lot to get the job done.

Anders for her part has an interesting career as well. One of her first roles was in Easy Rider, but she also did a two part arc on The Andy Griffith Show as Barney Fife’s crush in Raleigh. While the camera clearly loves Mickey, Anders provides the proper amount of empathy, terror, and pathos that the role required. I also would like to note that while the focus of the film seems to be the deformed lover de Bergerac, that her character, Carlotta, shares the same name with the obsession of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. The Manipulator is trying to work on a number of levels, and the manipulation that the film is trying to achieve doesn't only apply to the onscreen action. I believe though visuals, character work, and unsettling cinematography the director was trying to manipulate the audience as well.

Speaking of the director, why don’t I take some time and speak about the director. This was the only occasion Yabo Yablonsky took on directing duties, but you may be familiar with a number of the films he wrote including Jack Palance’s Portrait of a Hitman, the Joe Lewis kung fu film Jaguar Lives!, and the Sly Stallone/ Michael Caine politically driven soccer film Victory directed by John Huston. While I was watching The Manipulator, I kept thinking to myself that it seemed very much like it could be staged as a play. Well, it turns out I was a little right. While I can’t find if The Manipulator started life as a stage production, but Yablonsky’s background before he started writing scripts (of which this was his first to be developed was this film) was as a playwright. He clearly had a vision with what he wanted to achieve with The Manipulator, and it almost feels like he was experimenting with how to bring an intimate stage situation into film and use the best of both elements.

Despite all the praise I have placed on the performances, style, and explorative narrative, The Manipulator is a deeply flawed piece of film. Even with only two characters it manages to be confusing, and for all of Yablonsky’s experimenting, the film comes off like Jodorowsky turned down from 10 to 2. For all the moments of real tension The Manipulator engenders, the action will go double speed and Rooney starts dancing for no reason and spoils the entire tone. What I couldn't shake the whole time I was watching the film was that Rooney’s character was still Andy Hardy. After years of trying to get the kids to put on a show, everyone else had actually grown up and got married and moved away. Hardy, with his captive actress, was ready for his seventeenth film, and was going to get it by any means necessary. This, in and of itself, almost makes this an excellent film, but as it stands, The Manipulator is too weakly rambling to recommend other than the morbidly curious looking to witness "Andy Hardy’s Horrorshow".

Bugg Rating
I couldn't find a trailer, but here is a pretty long cut from the film showing off what I would call the Marilyn sequence. Watch and prepare to maybe laugh and maybe be completely creeped out. It's kind of a toss up.  


  1. i've never heard of this one! creepy. will have to check it out.

  2. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 15, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    I want to bugger Luana Anders (as the bird was in 1956 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).


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