A couple weeks back I went to Best Buy. I still do this, but just from time to time. Generally if I go it’s on Tuesdays, and I know what I want – I’m more likely to go to Amoeba here in Los Angeles because I write reviews of DVD’s and such, so I’m often trading stuff in. Recently Best Buy had some exclusive Blu’s of Out of Sight and The Long Kiss Goodnight and I stopped in to get them. I don’t know why I still re-purchase movies. Maybe habit. It’s weird watching myself build a Blu-ray collection as so much of what I buy replaces standard definition titles, but because I write about it, I feel it’s worth collecting. And I still like the tangible.
I bought those two, but also William Lustig’s film Maniac. It was a little less than $20, and I had been eyeing it for a while. It’s a two disc set. Well, that’s not really a selling point to me these days, but I’ll get to that. The price was more the selling point, and then the absurdity of owning fucking Maniac on Blu-ray.
I had first heard about the film around the age of eight. My brother was two years older, and a number of my friends fit a similar pattern of close grouping (I think it makes it easier for parents), but there were always the neighborhood kids who had the much older brothers. And while we were moonwalking (or – to be more accurate – trying to), and enjoying the basics of pop culture (I, for one, thought Huey Lewis was cool), the older kids were the ones who were listening to heavy metal (rap really wasn’t on a lot of Portland’s FM stations it seems – or at least in my life – until Run DMC changed everything) and they were the ones renting R rated horror films. I don’t know why they liked telling us the plots of these films, but they did, and so you’d get second hand impressions of terrible shit.
As a kid it was both endlessly fascinating, and nightmare material. I could see fragments in my imagination of the thing. Maniac was one of those films, and I know this because the killer’s need to scalp was burned into my brain. Another is the film with the meat-hook, but that’s a little more obvious. Later on, other friends would talk about a finger in the French fries, or other ghoulish episodes from movies I was either too afraid or not allowed to watch. Friends would dare me to rent Faces of Death. I’ve still never seen it.
I think I was drawn to hearing about this, but generally – and we weren’t particularly well off at the time – these older kids turned me off. It was a lot of posture and anger, and generally their families were fucked up. Also their rooms – as I would understand later – would often stink of weed. It’s weird to not know what something is at the time, but then have that moment later in life when you get it. What’s also weird is now that I’m in LA, most of the marijuana is medicinal, or at least medicinal quality. I don’t know weed that well, but there seems to be a difference in odor from the stuff that was around back then and in my college experiences. Or maybe that smell I separate through some form of nostalgia.
The other part of this was the video covers. And, brother, Maniac’s cover was nightmare inducing. We didn’t get a Betamax until around 1984, and going to the video store was always some kind of treat. They too had distinctive odors. There was one – I want to say – up around NW 23rd and Burnside where my grade school friends and sometimes my father would rent. There was another in downtown Portland – I want to say off of Glisan – that we went to as well because they had Beta. I would go look around at the new videos, and my father would go to the back to rent porn. But the boxes always made a strong impression, and something as goofy as the cover and back for Psychos in Love was enough to scar. When I finally saw the film it could never live up to what I imagined as it’s mostly a comedy. And then there was the weird feverish anticipation of seeing anything from the adult section. As a kid, I just wanted to watch anything funny, and my parents found no harm in me watching – say – Cheech and Chong. Horror was not my scene. I mention the locations because all these places are gone now. Partly because of Beta’s death, but mostly because the mom and pop stores didn’t weather the chain stores.
I wasn’t a horror guy in high school, I had a laserdisc player, and I was watching anything I could that was widescreen. It wasn’t until college and with the help of the nearby video stores that I made a concerted effort to watch the classics, be they Universal monster films or the Friday the 13th series. Living on campus the local $2 rentals (and Monday dollar older titles)meant I could breeze through a film or two a night. In Eugene, there were two places that were walking distance (one right behind campus), and then there was another a little further away that had laserdiscs. That though was a bike ride, and I didn’t have a car until my junior year in college. But I would sometimes bike when I had a bike, and I would sometimes bum rides. But there were few days where I wasn’t renting, and toward the end I had a friend at one store who would give me unlimited rentals if I made copies of films on laserdisc for him. Fair trade.
I don’t think I watched Maniac until I found it on Laserdisc at Movie Madness (where I would later work, and is thankfully still around). Laserdiscs were defined by The Criterion Collection, and the work they did like get Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader to record a commentary track for Taxi Driver. But then there were the Elite guys. They put a special edition of Night of the Living Dead, and it was the first time that film looked awesome on home video. The disc was a smash (for Laserdiscs) and led to Elite being the company for cult films. Such meant there were great special editions of The Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, Dawn of the Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil Dead with commentaries. But also looked after were – strangely –the films of William Lustig. Lustig is a big preservationist, and he was one of the guys who made Anchor Bay the DVD titans of horror for a while until Anchor Bay became what it is now. Lustig’s now handling Blue Underground, which explains why both Maniac and Vigilante are on Blu. But his love for Italian horror is one of the best reasons why Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci’s best works are available in such clean transfers stateside. To say little of what his company has done for Joe D’Amato.
The feeling of watching Maniac can be summed up by looking at Joe Spinell’s sweaty post-orgasmic face after each kill – it’s a film that makes you queasy, and feels rot-gut. Covered in pock marks and heavy lidded, Joe Spinell made a career out of playing thugs and hoods (as in The Godfather and Rocky), but like all actors wanted to do meatier parts, and the only place he’d get above fifth billing were exploitation films. The man worked with Coppola, Scorsese, Freidkin, Demme, Raeflson and Milius – he seemed loved – but he also trafficked in low budget sleaze.
Watching it the first time, the main sensation I had got from Maniac was that wave of realization that the film somehow played a seminal role in my life without ever having seen it. The second was just a sense that this was one of the grimiest films I had ever seen. Shot in 16mm with effects by Tom Savini, it didn’t have the artfulness of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its documentary approach. No, this had a stronger “family home movie” quality that was even harder to shake. It also has a blunt inelegance that is nearly suffocating. If you’re with a character who’s not Spinell, the likelihood of them being killed by his character Frank Zito is about 99%. And so maybe you could call them cat and mouse games, but the end product is going to be Savini’s handiwork. But where there’s a certain audacity and beauty to the violence in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and some camp fun (literally?) to Savini’s kills in the Friday the 13th films (that he worked on), here you’re just watching people be murdered, and it’s painful.
But I’ve seen films that traffic in gore before, and though I can’t recommend the movie per se, there’s a real quality that Lustig captures. It’s not one that I particularly enjoy, but I’ve seen enough of these sorts of films done incompetently to deny that the film doesn’t have an odd power – even if it gets into trouble trying to stretch the film into a narrative (Zito gets involved with a fashion shoot and has dinner with Caroline Munro’s photographer character – stiff that seems beyond the character). The film works on its own terms, and is absolutely effective, but it makes you feel dirty – which is saying something.
When the film hit DVD, Anchor Bay put it out in a tin with new supplements and a second disc – I think I got it through Buy.com, who tended to deliver all Tuesday titles (if ordered early enough) on the Saturday before. I bought it then – at the time I was buying a lot of their tins sight unseen, like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie – because I was excited about the format and what they were doing. I made my then-girlfriend sit through it, and it worked its mad-dog magic. We both latched on the film’s “musical number” because the lyrics are something like “going to the show now.” But it also sounds like “going to the shower” or any number of variations. After DVD’s and their packaging lost their luster I sold the film – partly because the packaging never caught on, but also I figured I’d never want to watch it again. And now I own the Blu-ray.
I put the film on this Sunday with the house to myself. The new transfer is so clean and perfect, and after about four minutes I was good. When the laserdisc came out I watched all the supplements, and I did so for the DVD, but at this point, I don’t care anymore about what people have to say about the movie, and frankly I’m not really interested in commentaries for most films unless I know they’re going to be somewhat interesting. Contractual obligation and bad memories have ruined it, and even something like a reunion show where a bunch of the cast get together often turn into watching parties, and it’s rarely useful to be honest about your working relationships with other performers and behind the scenes people. I’m sure all the supplements on it are excellent and the doc is great, but if I keep the film (and I’m not sure that I will) it’ll be more out of nostalgia than ever wanting to pore through it.
Will future generations be terrified by a poster image they stumbled across on Netflix or the internet? I can only relate to my primal terror. As we watch rental stores close up and go away across the country, how children consume media will change, though I’m sure all new formats offer the possibility of browsing. As a film fan I know this: instant access makes it that much easier to watch a number of films heretofore hard to get a hold of without a video store like Movie Madness. But without those looming video covers, and without the specialness that comes from a real special edition release, I don’t know if people will stumble across films like Maniac. Perhaps in that sense the general availability will drive people to greatness (which to be fair, this isn’t) just as it will drive some to Major League II. I have no idea what the future brings with this, but it’s weird to have a twinge of regret watching video stores close around my neighborhood, stores that I don’t support. Just as I find it hard to stop buying movies, even though I can see how this too shall pass.