**/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A+
starring Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro
screenplay by C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell
directed by William Lustig
*½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B
starring Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright, Woody Strode
screenplay by Richard Vetere
directed by William Lustig
by Walter Chaw William Lustig reduces exploitation cinema to the filthy stepchild of Sams Peckinpah and Fuller: one part animal logic, one part tabloid paranoia. He wallows in impulse, and his sensibility is 42nd Street grindhouse through and through, from kitchen-sink production values to disjointed vignette presentations to a generally lawless indulgence towards atrocity. If Lustig's pictures have achieved a kind of cult lustre, credit his ability to alternate action sequences with B-legends showcases. It would be a mistake to attribute more to Lustig's pictures than workmanlike efficiency as applied to formula prurience, though there's something to be said for knock-off garbage done with a lack of pretension--done, in fact, with a distinct, naïve childishness that doesn't quite get down there with Jess Franco or Herschell Gordon Lewis (nor up there with Mario Bava or Dario Argento), but manages a little interest despite itself now and again, probably by (who cares?) accident.
Specifically, Lustig's films are read with profit as love letters to The Deuce of pre-Giuliani Times Square--the Harem and the Empire and the Liberty and theatres like them the petri dish, their audiences the agar from which fascinating cultures sprouted up around The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Tom Savini, Pam Grier and Fred Williamson, triple-X and splatter. Lustig's own sensibilities grew in that nutrient bath, too, like some scruffy avatar from Clive Barker's classic yarn "Son of Celluloid". Beginning his career in porn, he evolved the not-so-nuts idea that it doesn't take much to identify the lowest common denominator and, once identified, not much again to exploit it for feature-length demonstration on the same yellowing screens his aesthetic flickered to half-life. Lustig, it makes total sense, decided to make the film about Travis Bickle that Travis Bickle would have made: Maniac.
Legendary in certain circles for the work of ace grue-man Savini (sort of the Jim Steinman of early splatter effects, the tools of his trade massive amounts of cheese and viscera), Maniac, stripped of its basest interest, is a prosaic, sometimes-unintentionally hilarious tale of Ron Jeremy-manqué Frank Zito (Joe Spinell), who was probably abused by his hooker mother and so murders and scalps young women, stapling their hair to a collection of mannequins he keeps in his tiny apartment. Midway through the film, he meets hot fashion photographer Anna (B-queen Caroline Munro), who apparently has a thing for sweaty, fat, ugly men in porn chains and Robert Evans rape-glasses. Lustig offers Anna to Zito as the fatted calf for a Normal Healthy Relationship to elicit pathos, I think, but if Anna has the object-choice ability of a meatbag in a porno flick, she sort of deserves what she gets. Alas, it's true, Zito's a fucking maniac (see title), and he decides that instead of settling down in a nice one-room murder-house above a strip club, he'll kill one of his would-be girlfriend's models in an extended stalking/stabbing that mainly serves to remind that a similar sequence in Strip Nude For Your Killer is better in almost every respect. Really, the only thing Maniac has going for it isn't any kind of Freudian interest, nor any potential conversation about how it indicts its audience in its violence by wishing punishment on its irrational victims, nor any real originality of concept or execution. No, what Maniac has going for it is an extraordinary shotgun-through-the-windshield gag that has Savini hissownself losing his head. It's the best exploding head until topped a year later by Cronenberg's Scanners--and if it's any consolation to Lustig, that was the only thing of real value in Scanners as well.
Indeed, time and hindsight have mellowed most of Maniac to a razor-thin slick of whatever excitement or danger it once held. It's smarter than it needs to be, but its intelligence seems to hamper its ability to feel what the Anna/Zito subplot does to the cohesion of the story. It's not that Zito's offered the carrot of normalcy, exactly, so much as that Anna looks deranged. It's a good commentary on the appeal of pornography but injures the film in a way from which it can't recover. More, compared to both contemporaneous--and uglier--pictures from the same tradition (Last House on the Left for one, I Spit on Your Grave for another) and modern iterations of the theme like Roth's Hostel diptych and the New French Abattoir of Trouble Every Day, Martyrs, and Inside, Maniac is lacking in not only money shots, but also a certain complexity that the best of this genre has always exhibited. Its chief selling point is its seediness--the unshaven, '70s-porn quality of its direction--and perhaps even the nostalgia elicited by its extraordinarily wrong poster art, which haunted my early adolescence as I pretended not to fixate on the VHS box as I browsed more acceptable titles the next shelf over. In all likelihood, elements of that "curtained backroom" video store experience have a lot to do with the longevity of and affection for titles like Maniac (and Mother's Day, and Fulci's Zombi), in fact. They were the early-eighties equivalent of the lurid pulp novels and EC Comics of yesterday's drugstore and barbershop ledge. Likewise, it's a good explanation for why Lustig's follow-up, Vigilante, is more of a cult "connoisseur"'s object for appreciation.
I have no memory of ever coming across Vigilante during the years it would have held the most allure for me. An entry into the era's obsession with vengeance and inner-city "drug war" spillover (thanks, Ron and Nancy!), it finds mild-mannered Eddie (Robert Forster) milling around, minding his own business when what should happen but the rupture of his family in a brutal home invasion. With the aid of a corrupt judge and sleazy representation (Spinell again, and of course), the evil thug kingpin (Willie Colon) walks, while Eddie in his outrage is sentenced to a few days in jail in contempt of court. Outrage upon outrage: Eddie's nearly made someone's girlfriend in the shower, requiring the intervention of old-timer Rake (Woody Strode, badass) and finally instilling in him the fire for vengeance that his wife's (Rutanya Alda) rape and toddler son's execution didn't quite stoke. Free, Eddie joins up with professional vigilante Nick (Fred Williamson) and engages in a campaign of plucking people off the street, beating the ever-loving shit out of them, and, why not, occasionally killing them, too.
Inaugurated behind and in front of the camera by a promotional reel-cum-prologue in which Nick talks about towers falling down and needing to become the rain that washes the scum off the streets, Vigilante is never much more than an example of how people who really want to make a movie will go to any lengths to do so. There's a certain laudable doggedness in its creation, I guess, but it coheres neither narratively nor thematically beyond the basic "Eddie's getting fucked" throughline--which, as you can imagine, is just kinda funny after a while. It's not about the emptiness of vengeance or the corruption of the American legal system. Instead, Vigilante earns its exploitation stripes by being mainly about Williamson and Forster enacting violence on goons who look like they could use a good shot to the chops. An extended footrace is a little entertaining (if completely overshadowed by the climax of Frankenheimer's French Connection II), but beyond that it's more a badge of cult cred to see Vigilante than obvious why anyone would want to on its own merits. At least it's short.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Maniac and Vigilante land on Blu-ray courtesy of Blue Underground, the great cult label Lustig himself founded. Marking its 30th anniversary, Maniac gets the two-disc treatment with a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer--struck, apparently, from the 16mm negative, albeit preserving the aspect ratio of the 35mm blowup shown in theatres--that captures the skeeziness of the source. Grain's been toned down and the image brightened, but the movie's integrity remains uncompromised; it wouldn't be mistaken for anything other than the cheap-o rip-off filmed under difficult circumstances it is. The spruced-up audio, in 7.1 DTS-HD MA and lossy DD 5.1 EX configurations, is overkill, frankly, although a couple moments of logical separation made me a bit uncomfortable. The stalking of a nurse through a subway, specifically, benefits from next-gen remixing. Meanwhile, two commentaries decorate the feature. The first, ported over from the LaserDisc release, has Lustig going over with his typical detail and sense of humour the tribulations of a picture like this and the environment into which they were introducing it. Along for the ride are Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and the late Spinell's assistant, Luke Walter. It's not exactly rollicking, but aspiring filmmakers especially are advised to check it out. Lustig returns with producer Andrew Garroni on a second yakker that ups the hilarity mainly by demonstrating that the passage of a few years (and perhaps the experience of working on the distribution side) has increased the distance and, at times, sense of irony both have for the film and for Spinell's performance. (To their credit, they're never disrespectful.) It's a commentary track by people who know that commentary tracks are only of niche interest at best.
Five new featurettes add to the geek jubilation. "Anna and the Killer" (13 mins., HD) interviews a still fetching Munro, who reminisces about working with Spinell here and on Starcrash as well as her life in exploitation cinema and, best, her feelings upon seeing Maniac for the first time. "The Death Dealer" (12 mins., HD) probes the typically creepy/funny Savini about the infamous head-splatter sequence and the scalping scene, which I remember trying to recreate after reading one of Savini's early movie-magic articles collected in something I got from the library when I was a kid. Neat. Composer Jay Chattaway discusses the score in "Dark Notes" (12 mins., HD) in a way I found a bit prosaic but which may hold interest for aspiring no-budget horror-film composers. "Maniac Men: Interview with Songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky" (11 mins., HD) offers a pretty humorous take on the urban legend that sprang up after Flashdance that the song "Maniac" was in some way informed by Spinell's turn. A tossed-together version of the tune with new, Lustig-inspired lyrics causes one to fantasize about how much better Flashdance might be if it were, in fact, inspired by Maniac. Rounding out Disc One: seven trailers (SD, all, except for the U.S. "soft" trailer); nine TV spots (3 mins., SD); four radio spots (3 mins.); and a "Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 Promo Reel" (7 mins., HD), a compilation of scenes shot with Spinell reprising his character in hopes of securing funds for a never-completed sequel.
The centrepiece of the second platter, a DVD, is the previously-available "The Joe Spinell Story" (50 mins.). Filmmaker David Gregory gives Spinell the full "This is Your Life" treatment via interviews with a wide array of the man's friends, family, co-workers, admirers, and critics. It charts his rise and fall and treats him with a fascinating respect and insight that will cause me to search the margins of Coppola's and Friedkin's works in hopes of spotting him--and others like him. In Spinell's story, there's partial explanation for the John Cazales of the world. "Paul Wunder Radio Interview" (19 mins.) is an interesting defense mounted by Lustig, Spinell, and Munro on said program that tries to place Maniac in the context of its time and genre and, in so doing, to justify its violence. "William Lustig on ‘'Movie Madness'" (47 mins.) finds the raconteur taking phone calls on the late, great program. "Joe Spinell at Cannes" (1 min.) is a piffle, though the actor's appearance on "The Joe Franklin Show" (13 mins.) is a nice bit of fashion history. (Munro does the same (3 mins.) to limited returns.) "Barf Bag Review Policy" (2 mins.) sees someone named Katie Kelly doing something novel that's not really worth going much into because Joe Bob Briggs did it first and best. Lustig fields questions from a screening audience in "Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A" (22 mins.). Having been on a few of these panels and hosted others, it made my pants itch. "Maniac Publicity" is a standard stills gallery of that awesome giallo art. "Maniac Controversy" collects 14 minutes of local-news clips making mountains out of Maniac's cultural molehills while "Newsbeat" segments shoot "Violent Movies" (13 mins.) and "Movie Violence" (8 mins.) across the prow. In "Midnight Blue" excerpts, Al Goldstein does his best Bosley Crowther whilst foaming at the mouth against "Violent Movies" (4 mins.) before he "Mutilates His Love Doll" (3 mins.)--mostly highlighting what we know already about television pundits and the guardians of our morality. An amusing "Gallery of Outrage" contains negative pull-quotes you could easily cut-and-paste onto the Next Horrible Thing (like A Serbian Film, for instance). That's a lot, but that's it.
Shot in comparative luxury on 35mm in anamorphic Panavision, Vigilante docks on the format in a lovely 2.35:1, 1080p transfer again reportedly sourced from the original negative. Colour reproduction is phenomenal, blacks are inky without adversely affecting shadow detail, and there's a tactile quality to the image that never lets up. It looks a lot like how I had hoped The French Connection would look on Blu-ray, come to think of it: obviously of a time and a sensibility, but clean without anything like digital artifacting (or flat-out revisionism) to muddy the stew. The DTS-HD 7.1 MA track is similarly impressive, layering in deep bass that had my fillings vibrating through another Chattaway score. Background atmospherics--particularly in bar and prison interiors--genuinely impress. Lustig and Garroni reunite for a commentary that demonstrates good humour, energy, and conviction in their recollections of the shoot, the problems inherent in making a film like this on location, and the cast (especially Strode). A second yakker, of an older vintage, reteams Lustig, Forster, Williamson, and Frank Pesce and has a lot more trainspotting and dead air but is worth a listen because Forster and Williamson are in the room. Seven trailers, four TV spots, the aforementioned promotional reel/prologue (4 mins.), and an extended stills gallery (4 mins.) set to Chattaway's music round out the disc. Originally published: April 13, 2011.