Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 17, 2015

MEMORIES: Movie Maniacs

My movie fandom and my toy collecting are irrevocably intertwined. During a time when I was much younger, I can recall a day when my older sister returned from a trip to our local mall. Like every responsible goth teenager, my teen sister was obsessed with “The Crow.” In her hands that day was an action figure of Eric Draven, the movie’s hero, with a slung-on guitar, a clip-on crow, and a small frame with the film’s poster inside. Written on the base was the title of the toy line: Movie Maniacs. For years, that figure sat in my sister’s bedroom, intriguing me. Being a young nerd, I had already started collecting toys less for their playable and more for how cool they’d look on a shelf. Around the same time, my interest in horror and cult cinema was beginning to grow. In the center of the Venn Diagram between these two interests lied the Movie Maniacs toy line.

In the early nineties, the comic book shop market exploded. With it came a new interest in detailed, collectible toys. Unlike the toys that were for young kids, these action figures prioritizes detailed sculpts and accuracy over gimmicks or bright colors. Mostly, they were designed to look great in a collection, instead of being played with. Leading the vanguard was McFarlane Toys. These days, we look back on many of the characters created for Image Comics as epitomizing a time when comics emphasized edginess, crass content, and giant shoulder pads over writing. “Grimdark” is the word for it. Few characters were more indicative of that time then Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. In order to cash in on his character’s popularity, McFarlane created McFarlane Toys. The figures he produced matched that edgy attitude. Though many of those early figures look pretty goofy by modern standards, at the time they were cutting edge. The gory accessories made it clear that McFarlane Toys weren’t for kids. The detailed sculpts made each figure a tiny piece of art.

Soon, McFarlane Toys expanded outside of comic book characters. The company sought out other license and characters that appealed to the same sensibility. Lines based on Frank Miller’s “Sin City” or “The X-Files” movie quickly followed. It didn’t take long for the people inside Todd’s company to realized there was a wide crossover between comic nerds and horror nerds, especially in the grim n’ gritty nineties. There are rumors that the first series of Movie Maniacs came about because of Hollywood’s development hell. The company had acquired the toy rights to the then-upcoming “Freddy vs. Jason” movie before it went back into turn-around. Reportedly, he also planned on making a toy line of “Species 2” before realizing that movie maybe didn’t have enough marquee value on its own. It would’ve been easy to get the rights to Leatherface from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” since the character was also owned by New Line Cinema at the time. Thus Movie Maniacs, a toy line devoted to horror and cult films, was born. I have no idea if this story is true or not but it makes for a good yarn.

Movie Maniacs filled a niche that maybe people weren’t aware existed at the time. There had been toys and collectibles based on Freddy and Jason before. Yet most of them were designed to appeal to young kids, probably not the intended target audience for R-rated horror movies. Making figures of hugely popular characters but aiming the toy line at adult collectors made sound sense. There have been dozens of figures of Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface made since then. (Unsurprisingly, no toy company has revisited “Species.") Those early toys haven’t aged well, since sculpting technology has come a long way too. Movie Maniacs Series 1 looks rather comical today. But McFarlane Toys did it first.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. I don’t recall ever seeing the first wave of Movie Maniacs on shelves when they were new. I didn’t spent much time in comic shops back then. I do remember seeing Movie Maniacs Series 2, however. The second series expanded on the first, adding natural next choices like Michael Myers, Ghostface, and Chucky. There were more oddball selections, like Pumpkinhead and Norman Bates, untested licenses that probably wouldn’t get made today. It also expanded out of strict horror with the aforementioned figure of the Crow. A local game shop had the figures proudly displayed in their front window. I recall that being the first time I ever saw Norman Bates in drag, spoiling the end of “Psycho” for me. The “Child’s Play” movies traumatized me as a kid and Chucky still creeped me out at the time. So I spent a lot of time averting my eyes from shelves whenever we where in these corners of the mall. But they had my attention now. I was now acutely aware of the “Movie Maniacs” toy line.

(McFarlane itself would experiment a lot during this period, devoting whole toy lines to unlikely films like “Austin Powers,” “Little Nicky,” and “Slap Shot.” He would even make figures based on rock stars, anime shows, and “Where the Wild Things Are.”)

My fascination with the toys went on before I ever got up the guts to buy one. Series 3 branched out even further, with Edward Scissorhands, Snake Plissken, “Army of Darkness’” Ash, and the grotesque monsters from “The Fly” and “The Thing.” The line also expanded into large scale figures, like 18-inch versions of Myers or Freddy, and elaborate box sets, like a stylized King Kong figure. K.B. Toys was the place to get Movie Maniacs when I was younger. That store chain never took anything off the shelves, which meant the more unpopular Movie Maniacs sat in the store for years. This is the fate that befall the baffling figure of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft that was also included in Series 3. By this point, I was easing into gorier, newer horror films. I was a big fan of Cronenberg’s “The Fly” by then but my Mom still controlled my cash flow. I asked for the BrundleFly figure numerously times but she always refused to buy it for me. Years later, I would fish one out of a K.B.’s clearance bin, buying it with my own money.

By the time Movie Maniacs Series 4 came along, a lot of other companies had started to get into the business. There was the stylized, interesting “Silent Screamers,” a toy line based on silent horror films. NECA – currently the forerunner in the field – released a primitive series of “Beetlejuice” toys. The short-lived N2 Toys tried their hands at “The Matrix” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” Places like Sam Goody and Suncoast Video – itself a topic for a future Memories column – were packed with these toys. I can definitely recall seeing Series 4 of Movie Maniacs at my local Suncoast. The two Terminator figures, the T-800 and T-1000 respectively, struck my interest. So did the hugely elaborate “Jaws” box set, illustrating the scene where the shark brought down the Orca. I was a little baffled by the Blair Witch figure, a toy of a character never seen on-screen. I wasn’t yet familiar with films like “Candyman” or “Army of Darkness.” Until the day that Suncoast went out of business, they proudly displayed the 18-inch scale figures of Ash and Leatherface at their checkout desk, pieces from the shop manager’s own collection.

When Series 5 of Movie Maniacs came out, I finally had enough money, room of my own, and interest in the genre to take the plunge. The roots of my toy fandom can truly be traced back to this wave. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. The school library used to stock Electronic Gaming Monthly among its magazines, always a popular choice for the boys my age. In the back pages of one issue, there was a short report on Toy Fair, which revealed the line-up of Movie Maniacs Series 5. When I saw the figure of the Lord of Darkness from “Legend," I knew I had to have it. The line was also going to include a box set of the Alien and the Predator. The first “Alien vs. Predator” wouldn’t even come out for several more years. We’re now flooded with merchandise form these films. At the time, this was unexplored territory. Doing more Terminator figures, like the Endoskeleton and Sarah Connor, seemed logical. I admittedly didn’t have much interest in the Wishmaster or Jason X figures, especially since the latter film wasn’t even out yet. I thumbed over that page more times then I can remember, eagerly awaiting the day the toys showed up on shelves. When they were finally released, I immediately grabbed both.

(Also among the line-up was a figure cryptically listed as the Tooth Fairy. I wasn’t aware of a movie with that title or a even a horror movie about that character. That was because the movie that character belonged to hadn’t been released yet. By the time “The Tooth Fairy” came out, the title had been changed to “Darkness Falls” and the creature had been completely redesigned. The movie itself faded into obscurity very quickly. This makes McFarlane’s Tooth Fairy figure one of the oddest adult collectible ever made – a toy of a character that basically doesn’t exist from a movie that nobody remembers under that title. Needless to say, that Movie Maniac isn’t in my collection.)

By this point, I was deeply entrenched in the toy fandom. I was even buying other toy lines, like McFarlane’s Monsters, which re-imagined classic monsters through Todd’s grotesque, edgy sensibilities. Around that time, I found That website still exists but in a wildly different form. Back then, the site was strictly devoted to Movie Maniacs and similarly themed series. In its Web 1.0 form, the website was an amazing resource for fans. Something that drove my imagination was a part of the website devoted to wish lists. Writers would imagine characters they wanted to appear in the Movie Maniacs series, as well as imagining other lines devoted to other concepts. Making up a wish list for future Movie Maniacs waves was something I devoted too much time to back then. (Amazingly, a lot of those characters – like Damian from “The Omen” or Herbert West from “Re-Animator – still don’t have toys.) Years later, the site was bought by and completely revamped into a generic toy news portal, casting all that great content into the internet netherworld. What remains from the old days is the forum. I still check and post on the forum every day, though it’s long since expanded beyond its focus on toys. A lot of the old-timers are still around too. Considering I’ve been a part of the forum for over a decade at this point, I guess I’m an old-timer as well.

We didn’t know it at the time but the Movie Maniacs toy line was winding down. Series 6 was entirely devoted to the Alien and Predator franchises. At the time, that excited me since there still wasn’t much merchandise from those films. Today, I see that as the series betraying its focus. Part of the fun of Movie Maniacs was seeing what films would be inducted into the next wave. That variety is missing from the fandom today, as most toy lines are devoted to specific films or shows. Furthermore, modern toy companies will reveal figures on Twitter or Facebook months before they’re released. In the days before social media, there was no way of knowing until the Toy Fair reveal. I can remember the anticipation and excitement I would feel in the days leading up to that event, wondering if any of my wishlist picks would come true.

In time, McFarlane Toys would shift their focus to other things. Todd McFarlane would continue to focus on his pet Spawn line, which continued for a staggering 34 series. There were more new concepts, like toy lines devoted to original Clive Barker creations or a second wave of McFarlane’s Monsters devoted to an S&M version of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Yeah, it was as weird as it sounds.) Todd’s biggest hit during this time was an extensive line of toys devoted to sports athletes, which even included hockey players and NASCAR drivers. The most annoying trend was the company’s obsession with static poses. Today, even collectible toys emphasize articulation. At the time, McFarlane Toys would often sculpt figures in very specific poses that could be displayed in only one way. Look at the company’s “Matrix” line, which had Neo stuck upside down and Trinity running up a wall.

It was clear that Movie Maniacs was no longer a top priority. When Movie Maniacs Series 7 was revealed, I was intensely disappointed. There was a pretty cool figure of RoboCop, a long requested license, and another “Aliens” cast member, in the form of a Corporal Hicks that barely looked like Michael Biehn. The rest of the series was devoted to the 2003 remake of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a film I did not enjoy. Worst then that, the figures were stuck in ridiculous poses. That McFarlane would make a toy of an old man with a colostomy bag or Jessica Biel running baffled me. It still baffles me. Predictably, those toys didn’t sell well. To this day, I still wonder if McFarlane was intentionally trying to kill the line. It worked. Movie Maniacs 7 would be the ignoble end of the pioneering toy line.

Afterwards, McFarlane Toys would completely abandoned cult or horror properties. There was a half-ass attempt to prolong the Movie Maniacs brand, with a barely released "Bram Stoker's Dracula" box set. The company was in search of hits, taking unsuccessful gambles on shit like “Prince of Persia” or “Lost.” Even figures I might have otherwise been interested in, like Don Corleone from “The Godfather” or Robert Zemeckis mo-cap version of “Beowulf,” were bungled by static poses, a shrinking scale, or bizarre character choices. Eventually, Todd would find success with “Halo” and “The Walking Dead,” his current superstar license.

Eventually, other companies would emerge to fill the gap. NECA would produce a whole line devoted to the “Hellraiser” films, finally providing us with a Pinhead figure. In time, the company would make toys based on other highly requested characters, like the Tall Man, Hannibal Lector, and Regan McNeil. Other companies, like SOTA Toys, Mezco, or Amok Time would produce quality products. I don’t agree with every thing NECA does these days. The company is obsessed with exploiting pre-existing sculpts and getting every drop of blood from their popular licenses, even if it means producing bizarre or obscure variants. Yet I still routinely buy the stuff NECA makes, which is more then I can say for McFarlane Toys. I hear he’s trying Lego-style building blocks now?

Some of those classic Movie Maniacs figures have aged better then others. Todd’s sculptors could never quite nail Bruce Campbell’s likeness for example. The T-800 figure is lacking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face, for another example. However, I can’t help myself from displaying those toys. They take me back to a very specific, nostalgic time. Back when toy collecting wasn’t just fun but also an oppretunity to see brand new things. Those toys just don’t have value as something I could resell on eBay some day. They have value for the memories and feelings they invoke in me.

1 comment:

Jack Thursby said...

I still have my Snake Plisken proud displayed on top of my John Carpenter DVD collection. Movie Maniacs are pretty cheap now on ebay. Ive bought up a whole bunch more recently. It was a great line but, yeah, it really went to pot when they started focusing on stuff like the Texas Chainsaw remake.