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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 27

Maniac (1980)

When was the last time the horror genre was really controversial? During the early 2000s, with that whole “torture porn” moral panic? Maybe “Human Centipede?” Though that was treated by most people as a sick joke more than anything else. The seeming danger, that sense of violating a taboo, of getting a peek at something forbidden, is definitely part of what attracts fans to the horror genre. When it comes to controversial horror films, William Lustig's “Maniac” occupies a rare place. At the time, many critics were disgusted with it. The film was derided as misogynistic and ultraviolet. Now, “Maniac” is a respected classic, though still widely regarded as one of the sleaziest movies in the genre.

The streets of New York City are being stalked by a killer. His name is Frank Zito. He preys on women, killing them in a frenzied state. After murdering them, he scalps their bodies, nailing the bloodied wigs to mannequins in his apartment. Frank is haunted by memories of his abusive, prostitute mother. His murders are a way to kill his mother, over and over again. Into this disturbing world enters Anna, an attractive photographer that Frank attempts to romance. She seems charmed by him, unaware of his nighttime activities. But is there any escape for Framl, from his own madness and murderous impulse?

"Maniac" was largely inspired by giallo – Argento nearly produced and Goblin was the first choice to score – and the film fit right in with the slasher flicks that were filling theaters at the time. However, few of those films went as far into its killer's head as “Maniac.” There are frequent POV shots, usually scored by Zito's heavy, aroused breathing. Zito is often shown leering at his female victims and the mannequins he conflates with them. Along with the slums and hookers of it setting, this creates a deeply dirty, unpleasant atmosphere. As sleazy and uncomfortable as Zito's world is, there's other layer to it. Zito is controlled by impulses he doesn't understand. He rambles to his mannequins and is compelled to kill. He hates his habits and hates himself. His world is also a childish one. There's a key shot, where he hugs a teddy bear on his lap. At one point, Zito plays with a music box and a cap pistol. The killer isn't just a figure of fear. He's a fully formed character. 

Contributing to “Maniac's” fleshed out portrayal of an insane killer is Joe Spinell's performance. “Maniac” was a passion project for Spinell, as he co-write the script and also produced. Spinell largely sets the mood. He's nearly always sweaty, the camera focusing on his delirious and greasy face. He frequently stares, wide-eyed and deranged. During the murders, he groans and roars. As creepy as Spinell makes Zito, he also makes him sympathetic. Zito is pathetic, especially when crying over his dead mother or speaking to his mannequins. He is too longingly human not to be sympathetic. It's impossible to take your eyes off Spinell, as he makes Frank Zito a disturbing and unforgettable portrayal of absolute insanity.

Zito is so creepy, that it's impossible to believe a woman would ever be interested in him. Even the prostitutes seem disgusted by him. His romance with Anna is difficult to take seriously. His attempts to be charming come off as awkward. For whatever reason, she's attracted to him. (Caroline Munro might be playing it as if she's taking pity on him, though it's hard to tell.) Though it's probably the film's biggest flaw, Frank and Anna's romance does provide more insight into how he views woman. She's a fashion photographer, her apartment filled with photos of beautiful woman. Frank talks about wanting to preserve their beauty, as something that will inevitably fade, an assessment Anna disagrees with. He rather literally objectifies women, thinking of them as something to collect. If “Maniac” is critical of this outlook might be giving it too much credit but, nevertheless, the film goes a long way towards studying this attitude.

As invested as “Maniac” is in Frank and his world, it still knows how to function as an effective horror movie. Despite his disreputable roots, Lustig engineers several very intense sequences. The infamous shotgun murder goes from a slowly simmering sense of unease to a shocking explosion of gore. The scariest scene in the film is a lengthy sequence of Frank stalking a nurse through a subway. The moment goes on and on, the woman failing to board a train and then being stalked through the grungy bathroom. All the elements of suspense – the balance of knowing what's coming but being uncertain of when it'll strike – are perfectly executed. The surreal finale, of Frank being torn apart by his own mannequins, is another time when Tom Savini's vibrant gore is utilized to shocking effect. Only a few scenes, such as a jump scare involving a corpse or some ill-advised slow motion, come off as hokey.

It's easy to see why Spinell was so invested in “Maniac.” The actor's career was mostly spent in small roles as cops and Mafia tough guys. Frank Zito gave Spinell an opportunity to show off his chops, to create an absolutely convincing character.  No wonder he would try to recreate the character a few times. 1982's “The Last Horror Film” would be another team-up with Caroline Munro and was even released in some markets as “Maniac 2.” In 1986, Spinell and “Combat Shock” director Buddy Giovinazzo attempted to make an official sequel. A promo reel for “Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie,” actually a remake of obscure seventies shocker “The Psychopath,” was filmed. Sadly, Spinell died before a complete version could be made. But maybe it's just as well that “Maniac” stands alone as a singularly unnerving and uniquely sleazy cult classic. [9/10]

Willow Creek (2013)

Combining the Bigfoot and found footage subgenres seems like a logical idea. The Squatchploitation genre largely began with a mockumentary, a sister genre to the found footage film. If you believe the infamous Patterson/Gimlin footage is a hoax, it can be seen as a proto-found footage flick of its own. After all, it has shaky handheld camerawork and something bizarre being spotted in a normal location. Sadly, most of the Bigfoot found footage flicks made over the last decade weren't been very good. This is not surprising, as 90% of the found footage genre is bad and there's been, I think, two good Bigfoot movies. Occasionally, an exception appears to prove the rule. Bobcat Goldthwait, beloved stand-up turned cult movie director, would take a stab at both genres with “Willow Creek” and earn some pretty positive notices.

Jim and Kelly have been dating for a while. She's a struggling actress. He's a would-be documentary filmmaker. He's also a Bigfoot enthusiast. For his birthday, Jim talks Kelly into driving into the Six Rivers National Park. They are visiting Willow Creek, the area where the notorious Patterson/Gimlin footage was shot fifty years earlier. Jim decides to video tape their journey, interviewing people in the town and catching footage of the woods. The two encounter some odds things. A man threatens them, telling them to leave. At night, in their tent, they hear strange noises. As they draw closer to the area where the original Bigfoot film was shot, things only grow more disturbing.

The benefits of the found footage genres are many. Beyond it being super cheap to produce, the format brings with it an incredible verisimilitude. (This can be abused as well, as bad filmmakers over rely on shaky camerawork to generate thrills.)  “Willow Creek” does a pretty good job with this. Watching the couple flirt, chat, and argue on camera feels naturalistic and realistic. Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore are both likable and believable in their roles. The early scenes, of Jim interviewing locals or marveling at the kitschy local artwork, are frequently funny in a low-key way. The later scenes, once things get weird, are suitably tense, capturing a fitting sense of panic. “Willow Creek” is good probably because it stole from the best. The film, with its scenes of documentary filmmakers getting lost in the woods and being pursued by unseen forces, definitely owes a lot to “The Blair Witch Project.”

One of the things that elevates “Willow Creek” is that it's not just about Bigfoot. You see, Jim is not just a true believer. He's a hardcore Bigfoot geek, knowing all the location and having memorizes many factoids. Kelly, meanwhile, is a skeptic. She spends most of the movie dismissing her boyfriend's Bigfoot-mania. It's evident, early on, that these two do not have the most stable relationship. She wants to move to L.A., to pursue acting full time. He's vehemently against this idea. Once the two settle into their tent, Jim proposes to Kelly. She turns him down, though he takes it fairly well. Still, “Willow Creek” builds on the tension of a dissolving relationship, using that as fertile ground upon which to build its shocks.

Goldthwait is especially gifted at using the found footage format to create some chills. An earlier scene, where a random man in the woods attempts to dissuade Jim and Kelly from going further, is intense. It's all build-up for an extremely creepy sequence. Jim and Kelly are awoken in the middle of the night by noises outside their tent. They sit in the silence and darkness, listening for unusual noises. They hear something knocking on trees. Just as they're ready to dismiss this and go back to bed, they hear unearthly howls. This is followed by footsteps and finally something poking at the outside of their tent. This scene expertly captures everything that's scary about being in the woods at night, in the dark and quiet, surrounded by strange things. It's also, impressively, a single shot that runs for eighteen minutes, rooting the audience in the stillness of the scene.

“Willow Creek” peaks early in that moment, as there's still about ten minutes left. These later scenes aren't as scary, though the shock ending is fairly effective. (It also pays off on a missing poster we glimpsed earlier.) “Willow Creek” maintains a bit of ambiguity about its topic up to that point, though it's probably for the best that the film makes a definitive statement on whether it believes Bigfoot lives or not. Goldthwait seems to be a Bigfoot romantic, if nothing else. “Willow Creek” is a solid found footage thriller on its own but that single-shot scene really puts it up on the next level. At only seventy-nine minutes long, it's also the perfect runtime for a creepy, if not wholly original, stab at a creature feature. [8/10]

Darkstalkers: My Harry's in the Highland

“Darkstalkers” fans love to pair up Felicia and Jon Talbain. Presumably because a werewolf and a catwoman being partners, if not lovers, is too cute an image to resist. The American “Darkstalkers” cartoon finally plays this up in its eighth episode. While in Scotland, attempting to train Harry, the boy wizard is abducted by Morrigan. The succubus wants to train the teenager to use magic, something Felicia is resistant to do. Morrigan plans to use Harry to help raise an army of immortal Scottish warriors from a sunken city. Felicia teams up with Jon Talbain to rescue him.

Don't get me wrong. “My Harry's in the Highland” is as awful as any other episode of “Darkstalkers.” The animation is, typically, atrocious. This is especially notable in the extremely awkward and cheap action scenes. The climatic fight between Morrigan and Talbain is especially hokey. The changes to series lore are as baffling as always. Morrigan is now a sorceress who was imprisoned in a stone for two hundred years. We see a glimpse of Jon's past, where he witnesses a bakery explode for no discernable reason. Harry temporarily aligning himself with Morrigan is never explained, nor is he punished for this crime. This makes the bratty teen seem even more petulant than usual.

However, I do like a few writing decisions in this one. Morrigan trying to raise a skeleton army is  a cool idea that, sadly, is abandoned almost the minute it's introduced. I actually found myself liking Lee Tockar's growl-y British accent as Jon. (It's quite a departure from the voice actor best known role: The effeminate villain Frieza on “Dragon Ball Z.”) I was also surprised that Felilcia and Jon are actually depicted as having romantic feelings for each other, something even the Japanese media usually backs away from. The scene where Morrigan calmly decides to throw Harry off a cliff is funny too. Again, it's pretty bad by any normal standard but by the low, low standards of this cartoon, it's actually one of the better episodes. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Cherry Blossoms

Airing around the same time as “Forever Knight” was “Highlander: The Series,” which had the similar concept of an ageless protagonist whose modern adventures reminded him of older days. Both series inevitably touched upon an Asian-influenced episode. “Cherry Blossoms” begins with a Chinese woman, a witness against a Triad gangster, nearly escaping being assassinated. She is fearful of going to the cops or immigration. An old man, an acupuncturist named Dr. Chung, saves her. Nick soon finds the old man, who is also reluctant to help. Chung recognizes Knight from an encounter in his childhood and believes the vampire killed his mother. After the witness is rescued and the Triads defeated, the doctor and the vampire have a confrontation.

The criminal subplot in “Cherry Blossoms” is forgettable and disposable. It climaxes in a fairly silly scene where two Triad enforcers randomly attack Nick with nunchucks and a bo staff. What's interesting about “Cherry Blossoms” is Nick's connection with the old Chinese man. Apparently, Nick hoped acupuncture could be a cure for his vampirism. I like the way Nick is still paying for the consequences of his past, even if it turns out he didn't kill the old guy's mom. (I, being the monster nerd I am, also like that Chung refers to him as a jiang-shi.) Mostly, this episode will be worth seeking out because none other than James Hong plays Chung. Hong actually gives a really good performance and the climax, where he learns the truth, is an effective moment. [7/10] 

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