Monday, May 18, 2015

MANIAC: NYC's Grindhouse King


Would you just LOOK at that poster art?!  If ever there was a Horror movie poster that accurately described to the viewer exactly what they were in for, it's this one!  Genre favorites Joe Spinell and William Lustig came together to leave a very unique (and very bloody) mark on Horror movies with this 1980 shocker.

I'd first heard about Maniac sometime in the early to mid 90s as I was diving head long into Dawn of the Dead and everything Tom Savini!  I clearly recall a review of Elite's special edition laserdisc in an issue of Fangoria and found myself wondering aloud "how did I miss this one?!"  I quickly found a copy of Anchor Bay's VHS port of that special edition (you know the release...the one with the white box) and immediately fell in love with the lurid tale of Frank Zito:  super for a low-rent apartment building by day and Night Stalker by, er, night. 

If you know Joe Spinell's story, you know how close he famously was with Sylvester Stallone -- hence his appearence in the first two Rocky films.  Bill Lustig has often stated that Maniac was "Spinell's Rocky" in that it was the actor's pet project, much in the same way of his famous friend.  Spinell researched newspaper articles and clippings about real-life killers to come up with a composite that would eventually be the script for this film. 

The story follows Frank Zito as he deals with some severe mother issues and, much like the shark in Jaws, hunts and kills innocent women on the streets of New York City, circa 1979/1980. On the surface, this could have been just another exploitative piece of garbage; a guy hacking up women just because.  But no...because of the heart that Spinell and Lustig poured into this one while shooting it guerilla-style . . . it's got something more to it. 

I imagine this is probably what it looked like while Spinell was writing!
 One of my favorite elements to Maniac is its portrayal of New York's seedier side in its locations; Old New York, if you will . . .  a place that I can never visit thanks to "flippin' Giuliani".  Even though it wasn't exactly the safest place to be, I'd love to spend just a few hours on 42nd Street sometime in the early 80s, checking out all the Grindhouse movie theaters (the Horror ones of course). 
Forget going back to the future, give me Old New York any time!
 The other standout here is, of course, Tom Savini's incredible special effects work.  Here, Savini found himself the equivalent to a Michael Jordan Three-peat:  Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, and Maniac!  The guy was simply on fire and quickly earning the many fan and press-appointed titles bestowed upon him throughout the 80s. 
Here, Savini sees George Romero's first draft for Day of the Dead!
One thing that has always made me sort of scratch my head about Maniac though is the budding romance that occurs during the picture's second half between Spinell's Frank ZIto and Caroline Munro's Anna D'Antoni.  A guy who could be Ron Jeremy's stunt double meets (and woos) a beautiful fashion photographer who was probably once a model herself.  Not only does the physical attraction seem odd, but the way that Frank sleezes his way into Anna's life . . . the creepo factor is definitely at an 11! 
Caroline Munro:  Maybe I should take him to the zoo?
Let's go back to that poster art shall we?
 THIS is how they used to make posters for Horror movies back in the day kiddos!  You won't find any of that "floating heads staring back at you" or "generic font for the title" BS on this classic poster!  No sir...this is straight-up and in your face about what this film is all about.  In fact, it's art like this that really makes me yearn for the old days of having actual art on a poster instead a Photoshopped collage combined with the other two tropes I mentioned. 
When it comes to Maniac, it's also worth mentioning the 2012 remake helmed by Franck Khalfoun (of High Tension fame) and starring Elijah Wood in the titular role.  While it transplants the action from seedy New York to the brighter lights and bigger city of Los Angeles, on paper, this combination may sound silly...but it actually works.  There are some really great nods to the original (including a great shot replicating the classic poster image) and the film's first-person POV style amps up the grizzly factor.  Surprisingly, it's a worthy successor to Lustig's original!
Even though the days of seeing (and making) films as brutal and filthy as the original Maniac may be long gone, we still have countless VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and bluray releases (and the odd midnight screening in your local theater if you're lucky! to pour over.  Not just a typical "slasher" film, this is one that gets up under your skin and leaves a stain that stays with you forever!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Blind Dead: Some of the Coolest Zombies Ever

Seriously...would you LOOK at these dudes?
If you're into zombie movies, chances are that you've seen these guys before.  If not, you're about to read up on a cool little film series that you probably haven't heard of...

Between 1971 and 1975, Spanish director Amando de Ossorio wrote and directed four creepy little films featuring some of the most original zombies ever put on film.  Of course, I'm referring to the titular Blind Dead (or Knights Templar) featured in Tombs of the Blind Dead, Return of the Evil Dead (aka:  Return of the Blind Dead), The Ghost Galleon (aka: Horror of the Zombies), and Night of the Seagulls (aka:  Night of the Death Cult)

In 1998, I first discovered the original film, Tombs and the first sequel, Return via Anchor Bay's long OOP double feature release.  The original film is presented in its native Spanish language with English subtitles, while the sequel is dubbed into English. While I haven't watched this disc in forever, I can't recall whether the films as presented are uncut.  The disc itself has had mixed reviews over the years, as it the image quality is a bit weak and the lack of extras -- though the inclusion of Return of the Evil Dead could be considered an extra right?) turned a lot of fans off.  However, at the time, this was the only way to see these films in the digital age!  If you're a completist, search out this disc.

This disc is worth searching for...
After falling in love with the Blind Dead, I next collected the other two sequels via VHS copies from conventions over the next several years, which were more than fine for me as far as I was concerned. 

Your basic "official" bootleg release.
Not too long after picking up those VHS copies, however, I came across one of those multi-movie sets called Horror Rises From The Grave.  This is your basic bootleg release of films perceived to be in public domain (or not...the companies usually don't care either way) and in poor presentations usually just VHS transfers.  Included in this set is Zombie Flesh Eaters -- which is NOT to be confused with Lucio Fulci's Zombie.  In this case, it's a VHS transfer of The Ghost Galleon/Horror of the Zombies.  Also included in this set are a letterboxed version of House By The Cemetery (reportedly lifted from one of Anchor Bay's original releases) and two other cheaply released pictures. 

Finally, in 2005, Blue Underground announced an incredible boxset that would include all four Blind Dead films in their original, uncut forms.  Extras included trailers, photo galleries, alternate footage, a book, and even a bonus disc focusing on Amando de Ossario!

THIS is how you do a box set!
Included in this awesome set -- inside a tiny, friggin' coffin no less! -- is the following:
  • Tombs of the Blind Dead
    • 97 minute Original Spanish version
    • 82 minute US Theatrical Edit (dubbed)
  • Return of the Evil Dead
    • 91 minute Original Spanish version
    • 87 minute US Theatrical Edit (dubbed)
  • The Ghost Galleon
    • Original 90 minute Spanish version
  • Night of the Seagulls
    • Original 88 minute Spanish version
  • Amando de Ossorio:  Director (bonus disc)
  • The Last Templar (2001 documentary)
When it was first released, this set was pretty expensive and I've seen it vary in price on the secondary market.  The films themselves were released individually around the same time, However, I recently saw that Blue Underground released another set of them together....

...not sure of the extras included, though I'm sure it's just the movie discs and nothing new.  This looks to be more affordable than the coffin, so if you're looking for them, give this set a try!

Now, with all that out of the way, let's get into each a film a bit, shall we?

Tombs of the Blind Dead introduces the Knights Templar who, in the 13th century, practiced some black magic and witchcraft...human sacrifice, etc.  They were condemned, executed and had crows peck the eyes out of their rotting corpses.  Flash-forward to modern day Portugal and a group of travelers stumble into the Templars' resting place -- a creepy and rotting old graveyard.  Naturally, this brings the Templars back from the dead to seek out their new victims.  The coolest and most original element is that they're obviously blind, so they hear their prey...even the faint sound of a pounding heartbeat will bring the Templars out!  Another standout feature in this film -- and in all of the films actually -- is that they ride their horses in slow-motion!  To be honest, when the slow-mo is combined with the echoed sounds of their horses' hooves, it's creepy as Hell!

Also worth noting is the look of the Templars themselves . . . rotting robes, hollowed out skeletal faces with cool facial hair, and creepy skeletal hands reaching out like the arms of a T-Rex!  Why hasn't a toy company like NECA released at least one action figure based on these guys yet?!

While not necessarily a direct sequl, Return of the Evil Dead focuses on a small village celebrating the 500th anniversary of the defeat of the Templars.  Of course, the celebration is cut short when a handful of Templars show up and completely massacre the village!  While this first sequel reuses quite a bit of footage from Tombs, it's still a great film and worthy sequel, adding in elements of Night of the Living Dead even!

In The Ghost Galleon, a boat full of models disappears in the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle -- actually the appearance of the titular Ghost Galleon, which happens to be carrying buried treasure as well as travel coffins for the Templars!  Back on the mainland, associates of the missing models form a search party and soon find themselves aboard the Ghost Galleon, where they inadvertantly wake up the Templars.  This sequel is probably the cheapest-looking of the series, displaying some painful special effects such as toy boats floating in a bath tub!  However, the Blind Dead themselves are in fine form here and do not disappoint!

Finally, in Night of the Seagulls, the Templars become local legends of sorts to a coastal fishing village.  Every seven years, they return for seven nights to re-enact their human sacrificial rituals.  In return for their safety, a small cult of Blind Dead worshippers kidnap nubile, young ladies to offer up as sacrifices -- which the Templars happily accept of course!

Even if you might be turned off by having to read subtitles, I cannot recommend these movies enough!  Yes, they might be a little slow in spots, but when they finally deliver the goods, they do so in spades! 

It's Just A Dream....a review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Looking back at the early entries in the Nightmare series, one might argue that Wes Craven's original was comparable to, say, Metallica's Kill 'Em All record in that it was the rough, unpolished blueprint for an entire new genre. Although groundbreaking, it was still considered underground and independent -- certainly anything but mainstream. Those who were fans knew it by word of mouth and spread the gospel to their friends alike.

So, by this rationale, Nightmare 2 would be the equivalent to the Ride the Lightning record; a follow-up that was certainly up to the challenge of not only being in the same league as its predecessor, but also possessing the intent of trying to surpass it in some way. Obviously the first Nightmare sequel had its fans and naysayers alike for various reasons (believe it or not, there are folks who abandonded Metallica after the first record), however it still brought the series that much closer to the mainstream and, in doing so, set events in motion for Freddy Krueger to become a household name.

This notion, of course, leads to the inevitable comparison of Nightmare 3 to the Master of Puppets record; easily at the top of the indie scene, breaking sales records, growing in popularity, and bringing the mainstream closer to the series and Freddy as a whole . . . all from just outside the fences of not quite being a household name. 
Released in 1987, Nightmare 3 begins my favorite story arc in the entire series -- the last of the Elm Street children -- while also continuing the continuity of the original film by bringing back Nancy Thompson and her father Donald.  Speaking of continuity, this is one of the aspects that I've always felt set the Nightmare series apart from its biggest contemporary, Friday the 13th.  Throughout the entire Dream Trilogy started by Nightmare 3, close attention to detail is paid to the characters who come in and out of each film.  There's also, of course, the haunted version of 1428 Elm Street that makes its first appearance in this sequel, continuing through the remainder of the series (of course, with little continuity on the interiors of the house, but that's another matter in and of itself).

Also worth noting this time around is the return of series creator Wes Craven, receiving story and screen-writing credit along with Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell, among others.

This time around, the last of the Elm Street children have been institutionalized after their parents deem their attempts to stay awake as some sort of suicidal group psychosis.  Naturally, the adults in the film don't believe the kids and aren't phased in the least that they were all dreaming of the same boogeyman long before they met eachother. 

Freddy returns to the screen, once again, chasing the film's heroine Kristen Parker (played by Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette in her first role) without skipping a beat from the mixed reviews of Nightmare 2 two years earlier.  After a particularly rough nightmare, Kristen is admitted to the institution where the rest of our story takes place.  Once there, of course, she's introduced to the rest of the Elm Street children and, with the help of Freddy's greatest foe Nancy Thompson (with Heather Langenkamp returning once again to give Freddy the ol' one-two), they all become the titular Dream Warriors.

Speaking of the kids, there's short-fused Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), mute Joey (Rodney Eastman), aspiring TV starlet Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), puppet maker Phillip (Bradley Gregg), wizard in training Will Stanton (Ira Heiden), and of course, everyone's favorite badgirl, Taryn White (Jennifer Rubin).  Also along for the ride as skeptical adults are Craig Wasson, Priscilla Pointer, and a young Laurence Fishburne.

As Freddy invades the dreams of and stalks the Dream Warriors, this is where the series really came into itself and became known for its outlandish special effects sequences!  Everything from a phalic-looking giant Freddy snake to a TV that kills, and even a tribute to Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation is thrown at the viewer!

In the special effects department, you've got Kevin Yager returning for the make-up duties (creating what is pretty much the definitive look for Freddy) and pioneers like Mark Shostrom, Greg Cannom, and Screaming Mad George contributing to some of the outlandish special effects sequences.  Some of the standout sequences include the aforementioned Freddy Snake and killer TV set, along with a character having his veins and ligaments ripped out as Freddy controls him like a marionette!

Going back to, what I consider the definitive Freddy look, this was actually the very first time I'd seen Freddy, so this one is special.  However, there's also a plethora of promotional photos for Nightmare 3 that were used on merchandise, posters, packaging, everything from the time of the film's release right up to the present day.  My favorite image, of course, is the promo poster that I've talked about on here's just simple, effective, and so damn cool! 

Most Nightmare fans consider this to be the best of the sequels and I can't say that I disagree!  It's got some of the most memorable sequences and one-liners (that are still effective, cruel, and not completely corny like some of the later sequels), a great cast of likable characters to root for, and it perfectly sets up the next film in its final reel.  Along with the new characters to root for, Nightmare 3 also sees the return of Nancy and her father from the original film; when it comes to Horror heroines, Heather Langenkamp is easily right at home next to Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis or Friday the 13th's Adrienne King.

All in all, Nightmare 3 is a roller coaster ride of a sequel . . . it brings back familiar characters, expands on a story that we think we all know (adding the depth of the Bastard Son of 100 Maniacs), and leaves the door open for yet another sequel!