After the impressive transfer that The Evil Dead received for Blu-ray, as well as the likes of The Prowler, The Toolbox Murders and My Bloody Valentine, it would be fair to say that Maniac looks, at first glance, to be the least rewarding. Although shot on 16mm, the original negative has apparently been lost, so this transfer has been culled from the 35mm blow-up and given a 2k scan. But the AVC encode does little to bring this grainy, drab 1.85:1 image to life. Colours are flat, contrast is only middling at best and detail is stubbornly determined to remain masked at all times. We have to remember the low-rent quality of the source, though and, quite simply, not everything scrubs up the same. Maniac doesn't reveal anything visually new, no startling revelations in the frame, nothing that is immediately attributable to the hi-def makeover. But, importantly, it doesn't take anything away either. And nor does the transfer attempt to re-vitalise the image with any bogus colour boosting, edge enhancement or DNR. No, with Bill Lustig's 30th Anniversary BD, what you see is what you get.
All of which makes it sound like this release is not exactly something you would consider upgrading to. But you would have to look a helluva a lot closer to appreciate the improvements that have been made, few as they are and as limited in scope. However, without putting too much of clinical finger on it, this 1080p incarnation does look better than any version of the film that I've seen before. But, trust me, that really isn't much at all.
There is a filming-on-the-hoof style to Lustig's film that is part fly-on-the-wall documentary and partly underground guerilla. It looks like the lowest of low budgets and if you just glance at the picture, you would swear that you were looking at an old VHS tape. And a well-worn one at that. There is no doubting that this is one of the areas that gives Maniac its skin-crawling, dirty feel, and to lose this in any way via digital tinkering would certainly have been a mistake. Thus, as grubby and as squalid as it looks, this is precisely how Maniac should appear. But it doesn't make for pretty viewing, not even when Sweet Caroline is on the screen.
Damage is still apparent. We get flecks and scratches, lines, pops and dots throughout. Detail just isn't on show. I can find nothing of note to wax lyrical over in the image's resolution. Clarity is sacrificed to a permafrost of murk and an earthy texture that genuinely does give the impression that the screen has been smeared with soil. Colour is very poorly handled and utterly bereft of even the slightest vibrancy. It never was a colourful film, though. So if the primaries now popped from the screen and the blood really shone, the transfer would be a failure. I will say that reds do brighten-up sometimes, such as Munro's clothes during the final chase in the graveyard and the spurt of blood from Frank's arm, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Skin tones are brown and sweaty, the overall aesthetic one of dust and dirt. Eyes reveal nothing of inner life. Teeth don't shine. The characters appear to move about beneath a veil of old grease and delineation is totally soft and obscure throughout. To put it quite simply, Maniac looks just like a flickering old grindhouse picture – which is precisely what it is … so I'm not going to complain about the print quality.
However, this does not excuse the woeful black levels that we see, which are insipid and lack any strength or atmospheric stability, and nor does it allow for the digital noise that can periodically clump about in the darker elements and in the background. At least we don't get that frozen grain pattern that troubled both City Of The Living Dead and Django. But Maniac does not look like it has a hi-def image. At all. So, unless you are very familiar with the film and how it has appeared on home video over the years, you may well be left aghast at what you see here … and I don't mean the carnage depicted in the movie. Soft and incredibly dreary.
At best, this can only garner a 5 out of 10 – and that is purely because it is faithful to the source. But this does look quite awful.
Blue Underground couldn't resist it, could they? 1980's Maniac usually only ever appeared with a mono track, and Dolby Stereo at best, with neither sound mix being the sort that was guaranteed to set the world alight, but this disc now comes equipped with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track that you don't need me telling you doesn't exactly make much realistic use of those extra channels. Now, once again, The Evil Dead (from Anchor Bay) comes across extremely well with its new lossless sound mix. Blue Underground's own City Of The Living Dead gains vigour and atmosphere from its extended surround mix on BD. But Maniac falls way, way below them in such terms. Of course, it is not Maniac's fault. The film just doesn't have anything that could or even needs to be boosted, split-up, separated and re-channelled. It is a simple mix that is front-saturated and the inclusion of a 7.1 makeover just smacks of false advertising to haul some punters in who will be expecting dynamic effects to sizzle across a wide soundfield, expressive ambience for the scenes on the city streets.
Without a doubt, it is the score that gains the most from this makeover. The wah-wahs, pulses and synth-generated mysterioso find plenty of room to move about in, leading you to think that the mix has been widened quite considerably. However, it is only the score that moves throughout this space with any true sense of conviction. Dialogue actually sounds dislocated at times as though the dubbing is slightly out, although, for the most part, I had no real problems with it. Jay Chattaway's score, as I say, has moments when it comes to life with energy and power. Some of the stingers are well delivered with a reverberating impact that crackles and hums around the set-up, which does add to the mood of the more intense scenes. His quieter, more lyrical little theme has clarity and distinction, and the electronic aspects of his score shimmer and gleam appropriately. Effects can be okay, but they can also fall rather flat. The shotgun blast through the windscreen, for instance, is reasonable, but nothing more – it carries a smidgeon of power, and a slight amount of sonic echo, but nothing that floods the mix in the way that is should, given the infamy of the moment. Even the sound of the subway train roaring away from the stranded and hunted nurse lacks power and directionality. The more subtle things, like car doors, the thump of a severed arm on the floor or the occasional bodily impact lack integrity too.
Some people have already commented that the surround use is quite effective and convincing. Personally, I found little of ambient worth happening around the set-up, and what little that did occur wasn't brightened and elevated to the point where it sounded a little too bogus – not as bad as some of the old Anchor Bay sham mixes, but not terribly natural or credible either. For instance, in the scene when the nurse is being stalked through the subway, the mix gets a few elements wrong. When we see Frank Zito, way out ahead of us, push open the door to the toilets where she is hiding, it then clangs shut behind us – which, in my book, is a mixing error. Then, to exacerbate this, Frank's footsteps as he slowly moves through the toilets to find her echo starkly behind us as well, when we actually see his feet moving quietly and stealthily directly ahead of us, front and centre. It makes no audio sense whatsoever. So to say that this mix complements the film and provides incredible quality – as some have reported – is completely wrong in my opinion. It is passable and nothing more.
The disc also has a DD 5.1 EX option, which doesn't add a great deal of conviction or sound any way better than the lossless track.
Although this could have sounded far worse, Maniac didn't do much for me in the audio department, I'm afraid, and a simple stereo mix would probably have sufficed.
This 30th Anniversary Edition is spread over two discs – one the BD that houses the main feature, and the other a SD DVD.
We get two great commentary tracks. The first is a new one from William Lustig and his co-producer Andrew W. Garroni that looks back over the production and how the film has fared over the three decades since it slashed its way into infamy. He leaves no stone unturned, discussing the story, the parallels to real-life – that murder in the St. James – his relationship with Joe Spinell and his friend's performance in the film, the gore from Savini and the guerilla style of filmmaking that they had to adopt. Influences and legacies abound, and he delivers a fine, fast and frank commentary that is well worth listening to. Full of fact and trivia.
The second commentary track is from the earlier release from Anchor Bay and features Lustig again, but he is joined by Savini, his editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Joe Spinell's assistant Luke Walter. Naturally, there is a fair amount of trivia and anecdote repetition, but it is always great to hear from Savini as he regales us with fx-tales and a few titbits about blowing his own head off. Spinell comes off very again, with his tireless campaigning behind the scenes being discussed with pride and respect. Both chat-tracks are terrific and really delve into the making of Maniac and the power that it still wields. Surprisingly enough for such a grim film, both commentaries are enthusiastic and fun.
Disc One moves on with a 13-minute interview, entitled Anna And The Killer, with Caroline Munro, who must be enjoying all this hi-def attention, what with her fabulously exhaustive 70-minute super-session on the Starcrash BD! Here she discusses her involvement with Maniac, her relationship with Spinell and offers her views on how the film turned out. She can't resist giving us a little bit more of her own background and, as always, it is fine by me just to see her again. I'm not a fan of her performance in the film, but I find it extraordinary that such a delectably “English” darling could find herself slotted into such a seedy exploitationer.
There's a 12-minute interview with Tom Savini in The Death Dealer, in which he talks about his work scalping women, bayoneting them and blowing his own head off with a 12-gauge shotgun. He delivers some candid accounts about how some of this stuff went down, talks about his nose and staying in the Big Apple at the time. It is a brief, but interesting little feature, although I have seen Savini on better form than here.
Dark Notes is a great 13-minute interview with the film's score composer Jay Chattaway, who lives up to his name and delivers a fast and fun chronicle of how he came to lose his movie cherry with Maniac. We hear about his background, musical education and how approached the dark project. Again, this is brief, but it is good.
Bill Lustig then conducts the featurette Maniac Men, in which we hear from the songwriters Michael Sembelle and Dennis Matlosky about that song from Flashdance that they claim to be purely coincidental to the plot of Lustig's cult film. This is neat and lasts for around 10 minutes and is capped by a quick and vigorous rendition of the original version with its “nasty lyrics” intact.
As well as a whole bunch of trailers, TV and radio spots, some harder than others, we get to see the truly fabulous treat of the 8-minute promo for Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2. Although the film never did get made, this is sequence is as fabulously dark and depraved as you could wish for. Spinell takes the starring role as the kid's TV entertainer, the clown-like Mr. Robbie, a man whose cynical world-view has been bolstered and magnified by the press-cuttings of atrocities that he collects and adorns his dressing-table with, and the letters that he receives from anguished and abused children seemingly begging him to come to their rescue. We see Spinell's character meeting with his agent, or boss, in a restaurant and bar, and getting drunk. Pestered by hangers-on and then staying behind after-hours, Mr. Robbie then gets invited back into the kitchen by the chef, with the promise of smoking a joint. The chef, an obnoxious, hard-faced swine suddenly reveals that he may, indeed, be the child-beater whose son has written been writing letters to him for help. Falling into a vengeful wrath that elbows his drunken state aside, Mr. Robbie thrusts the hapless cook's face into a pan of boiling water, really messing him up with some horrible skin-bloating, scorched makeup, before then plunging a carving knife deep into his eye! It is certainly nasty with the gore FX lingered on. Mr. Robbie then leaves the establishment with a new purpose in mind, the Maniac of this particular story obviously intending to become a sort of avenging angel for the downtrodden and the persecuted. Spinell, it should be said, gives another great performance and it is a shame that the film never actually got produced. Even though financing was assured, the actor suddenly died in 1989 under circumstances that are still disputed.
Disc One also contains a rather naff little Easter Egg that allows us to hear director William Friedkin sing the praises of Maniac. There's no video to the snippet and we can clearly hear laughter going on. But Friedkin was a close personal friend of Spinell's so we can take his fervent adoration for the film with perhaps a little pinch of salt.
Disc Two goes into the film's notoriety and supplies some simply amazing things that fans of the film and of the whole genre will really get a kick out of. But first of all, it pays marvellous respect to the star of the film and someone who was even touted as being Horror's Next Big Thing, in the fifty-minute documentary The Joe Spinell Story.
With lots of footage of the man on the streets of his home town, and down in LA (“Too hot!”), fantastic interviews with his sister, actors such as Robert (Alligator/Vigilante) Forster, Richard Lynch from The Sword And The Sorcerer, Invasion USA and The Ninth Configuration, Frank Pesce, Jason Miller from The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration and Caroline Munro, as well his friends and associates, including Luke Walter from the earlier commentary, William Kennedy (who wrote and directed Joe's last film, The Undertaker) and, of course, Bill Lustig, this is a brilliant epitaph for a celebrity who was something of an unsung hero to many people both inside the industry and fans of it. We see his paintings and we hear of his poetry and his singing, as Miller makes clear, we discover that Spinell was a true renaissance man. Look at that early picture of him – he looks like Johnny Depp! What is wonderful to hear is that he hung around with Nigel Davenport for a while – somehow, as much as I try, I just can't see these two together (they both appeared in the Stallone terrorist thriller, Nighthawks) – but that would have made for a great pair of raconteurs. There is even awesome footage of him, as a guest of Steven Spielberg, watching alongside the filmmaker, as well as Frank Pesce, as they await to hear Jaws get called out in the Oscar Nominations. It doesn't even get a nod, but Spinell, who was supposed to have been in the classic shark film, gives this idiotic decision some distinctive stick! This is priceless stuff, folks. We hear lots and lots of great stories about him, including the crazy tale of his porn-star wife and the wonderful relationship he had with his mother (who played his ma in The Last Horror Film too), and how he got so much residual money from The Godfather! But the man with such a love of life and such a gregarious, stereotype-shattering attitude is dealt with in broad strokes during the first half of the piece, and then, in the second, we get hear about Maniac, his addictions and problems and the lead-up to his untimely death. This side of things, as inevitable as it turned out to be, is really sad to hear about. Spinell was a true one-off – avant-garde, larger than life and twice as ugly – but he was a stand-up guy who fell irrevocably off the rails and ultimately chased death. Most remarkable, of course, as we are discussing Maniac primarily, is the irony of his own mental decline and apparent death-wish after his mother passed away. Like Frank Zito, he would never recover from that loss. The climax of this smart and engrossing documentary from David Gregory is actually quite moving.
Under the banner of Maniac Publicity, we have a plethora of features that deal with how the film was marketed back in 1981 with TV and radio interviews with Lustig, Spinell and Munro going into great detail about the violence, the moralistic angle and the justification for such a turgid and troubling story. There are Q & A sessions and snippets from Cannes, even a rather pretentious segment from ones news programme that purports to deliver a new ratings system specifically for “Bad Movies” in the Barf Bag Review, with Maniac and Blood Beach (love that film, by the way!) being lined up for a vicious slating by the sanctimonious hag. Incidentally, there is a 3-minute interview that this hag has with Caroline Munro about Maniac on their news programme, but this is obviously before she and her cronies have seen the film.
Of particular interest would be the Paul Wunder Radio Interview with Lustig, Spinell and Munro, lasting for 19 mins, the Grindhouse Q & A with Lustig (22 mins) from much more recent times (you will learn a lot about of, erm, more risqué stuff about the production in this section), and William Lustig on Movie Madness (a substantial 47 mins of phone-in interrogation). Oh, and a Stills Gallery. All good stuff.
Moving on, we find yet more gold dust from this halcyon period of the splatter that matters under the banner of Maniac Controversy.
Here, we get news report reactions to the film upon its debut from all over the States. Quite honestly, folks, this is emotive and exciting to watch. It really is like being back in the early 80's and undergoing that Video Nasty purge all over again. Some of this footage is staggeringly vociferous – pickets, shrinks, cops, journos and film critics all lining up to take pot-shots at Maniac mainly, but with Dressed To Kill and Friday The 13th Part 2 getting a look-in as well. Some of the coverage is quite extensive, too, with follow-up reports and straw-polls and interviews with people who have seen it, people who have no intention of ever seeing it or ever letting anyone else see it, and cinema managers who are showing the film. We even see some cinemas going the extra mile and putting footage from the film on a continuous loop playing on screens outside the theatre to entice punters in! There are reports and bulletins from Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia and from the in-depth Newsbeat programme. Maddest of all is seeing porn channel honcho Al Goldstein ranting about how sex is cut, censored and outlawed whilst graphic death and mutilation is allowed. It is a fair point, to be honest – and he does it in a spectacular fashion.
And then, to round things off, we get to read a comprehensive selection of angry critical responses to the film culled from printed reviews, the vehemence of some actually beggaring belief. Best of all, though, the lengthy letter that Lustig received from the censors of the Philippines stating quite categorically, in almost endless itemised vitriol, just why they would not be permitting Maniac to play in their cinemas … full stop.
I can't praise this selection of bonus features enough. If you are a fan of the film, then you will be in Maniacal Nirvana … but if you have any interest in how controversial genre products are treated and just easy it is to whip up virtual hysteria out of nothing, then you find much to savour here.
There's nothing here to embrace what Blu-ray can do … but I'm still awarding this outstanding collection the full 10 out of 10.
One of the most vilified films ever made gets fine treatment from its creators in a lavish 2-disc 30th Anniversary set from Blue Underground. The procession of such horror and gore gems heading into the realms of hi-definition is almost unstoppable, and fans really should be rubbing their hands with bloody glee. Viewed today Maniac still cuts a grimy and squalid dash of depravity, but the passing years have rendered much of its shock value rather weak and uninspired. The gore, surprisingly enough, can now feel quite tame, with only a couple of the murders actually carrying any weight. Lustig certainly got better as a director, as the pulverising Vigilante and the fun Maniac Cop show, and Maniac can feel like a bit of slog at times. But Joe Spinell totally nails the part of a psychologically damaged monster at the mercy of his own haunted past and urges that he cannot control. It is truthfully cited that this was the performance of his career, but whilst he delivers much to admire as the deranged Frank Zito, you can't help wishing that he was best-remembered for something else. Caroline Munro, as gorgeous as she is and as much as I would happily sit and watch her just drink coffee or paint her nails for a couple of hours, is incredibly bad in this, and so clearly doesn't belong. But Maniac is not at all the train-wreck that many critics would have you believe. It is an important accusation of a time, a place and a mentality that allowed such things to happen with monotonous regularity. It was the first film to directly tap into the mind of the killer, and have us identify with him – and not just see him as a character-less, soulless animal. But there is still a great little frisson of dread that accompanies the film. It still slightly wrong and dirty and damaging to be watching it. And, hey, that's great!
People expecting the film to have been polished-up with similar results as The Evil Dead will be sorely disappointed – if Maniac ever gleamed then it would be a botched transfer. The film is dark, grainy and extremely rough-looking, very horribly in-keeping with the snapshot inside a psychopathic mind aesthetic that Lustig's guerilla-style film totally evokes. The video transfer does not look good, I'm afraid. But I sincerely doubt that we will ever see Maniac look any better than this, anyway. The lossless audio has been getting praises elsewhere, but I found it unconvincing and unexciting.
But the extra features, cumulatively speaking, are amongst the best that I have ever seen gathered for a horror film, let alone for one that has courted as much controversy as this one. Okay, so we don't actually get too much of a making-of, but just look at all the good stuff that Lustig and co have dug up. Commentaries, a fabulous retrospective on Joe Spinell, and the sheer luxury of all that news material culled from the film's release. Man, this takes you back to the good old days of banned videos and illicit importing. It is absolutely great (!) to feel yourself getting fired-up over all those moral guardians once again. Hats off to Bill Lustig and Blue Underground for amassing the sort of package that truly earns the tag of a 30th Anniversary Edition.
The film is better than many make out and its cult status can only be reinforced with such a loving package as this.
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