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Plot: psychotic loner terrorizes New York City with nightly killing sprees.

Amidst the deluge of cheap (and often, infuriatingly irritating) slashers it’s easy to forget that the subgenre could occasionally conjure up something halfway interesting when it traded the regressive for the psychological. Maniac is one such example. For once an absolute dearth of story actually serves to intensify the feeling of unease, filth and degeneracy. Savaged by critics upon release and the poster child of the Video Nasty panic that engulfed the United Kingdom in the early eighties; Maniac has garnered something of a bad reputation over the years for being one of the sleazier entries of the subgenre. While that may not be entirely untrue Maniac is also one of the most depressing of the form. On top of that, it manages to pack quite a punch with what is, by all means, very little. Envisioned by just one man and pretty much a labor of love for all involved Maniac is a misunderstood (and often misinterpreted) masterpiece in terror.

The man behind Maniac was beloved character actor Joe Spinell. To the average moviegoer he’ll be known for his bit parts in, among others, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) but to rabid consumers of the weird and obscure he’s known as a pillar in exploitation cinema. In the early-to-mid 1970s Spinell befriended (and mentored) a young fellow Italian-American by the name of Sylvester Stallone. His protégé had starred in everything from low-rent porn to grindhouse gunk as Death Race 2000 (1975). By the time Spinell had started pre-production on Maniac, Stallone was just two years away from making it big with Rambo: First Blood (1982) and establishing himself as the new, larger-than-life American action hero. The paths of the two men, understandably, parted. That Maniac owes its existence in no small part to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is uncontested. Just like Three On A Meathook (1972), Deranged (1974) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) before it Maniac was loosely based on the life of Ed Gein, that night ghoul of the graveyards or, as he’s better known, the Butcher of Plainfield. If you were to look at the origins of Maniac the most logical place to start would be Luigi Cozzi’s candy-colored, psychotronic exercise in excess, the delirious space peplum StarCrash (1979).

Originally Dario Argento was supposed to co-produce, his wife Daria Nicolodi was to play the lead and Goblin was contracted to provide the score. Unforeseen circumstances forced Argento to remain in Italy to complete filming on his Inferno (1980). Understandably, the agreement collapsed with Argento taking with him not only his money but, more importantly, Nicolodi and Goblin. When British producer Judd Hamilton got wind of the situation he offered to help finance the project if his then-wife Caroline Munro was cast as the lead. It made sense from a personal – and logistical standpoint. Spinell, Hamilton and Munro all had worked together on StarCrash (1979) and obviously there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the three. Caroline had worked with the British house of Hammer in the early 1970s and after her brief detour into Italian pulp the next logical destination would be America. To helm Spinell’s script producer Andrew W. Garroni recruited director William Lustig, cinematographer Robert Lindsay (both whom had experience from shooting porn), composer Jay Chattaway and special effects wizard Tom Savini. Savini had made a name for himself with George A. Romero’s Martin (1976) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) as well as Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Savini had a protégé of his own and that was the talented Rob Bottin. Maniac employed no name-stars unless Rita Montone and Carol Henry from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) qualify as such. Abigail Clayton and Sharon Mitchell came from porn. It was filmed guerrilla style in New York over 26 consecutive days on an estimated budget of $350,000. Suffice to say, there’s something to admire about the tenacity of Joe Spinell to practically will this one into existence in face of all difficulties and tribulations. Spinell and Munro would reunite for the third and last time in The Last Horror Film (1982).

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight, badly dressed, chronically unemployed forty-something Italian-American living in a claustrophobic, overstuffed dump of an apartment in New York. As a child Zito suffered abuse at the hands of his now deceased prostitute mother (Nelia Bacmeister) and in his studio he has a candlelit shrine dedicated to her memory. Strolling aimlessly through Central Park one day he’s captured by the camera of photographer Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). He musters up the courage to talk to her and the two become friends. Anna in turn introduces Frank to her model friend Rita (Abigail Clayton, as Gail Lawrence). Striking fear in the hearts of all New Yorkers are the headlines in the newspaper screaming of an unidentified maniac on the loose. What Anna and Rita don’t know is that Frank, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, succumbs to his homicidal psychosis In the throes of said psychosis he spends those silent hours on the cold, uncaring city streets indiscriminately preying upon, killing, and scalping young women of all walks of life. He brings the scalps home and dresses the store dummies in his clogged apartment in the clothes of his victims. In doing so he hopes to grieve the loss of his mother and, if possible, reform her evil ways.

With so little in the way of story it’s understandable that Maniac is - perhaps unjustly and more for the sake of both convenience and easy classification – bundled together with the slasher explosion in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). While it uses some of its conventions this first and foremost is a character study and one hell of a slowburn. This is about as far away from the formulaic slasher as you can get. And the most depressing thing is, forty years later men like Frank Zito more commonplace than ever having their own social circles and attendant cultures. Killing sprees like Zito’s have become scarily frequent, almost weekly events, bordering on the mundane. In the intervening four decades professional help for the mentally unstable, the unhinged and the certifiably insane has not materially improved (at least not in the US). It might very well be in a worse state than when Maniac first premiered. You can sort of see where Savini came from and where he was going. For starters, Maniac is custodian to a legendary head explosion that was recycled (and markedly improved upon) from Dawn of the Dead (1978). Secondly, the concluding zombie evisceration looks like a test-run for the undead make-up and bouts of bodily dismemberment that featured prominently in Day Of the Dead (1985) five years later. That Savini almost immediately distanced himself from Maniac because of the unsavory reputation it had quickly garnered speaks volumes of the efficacy of his handiwork.

Maniac grossed an impressive $10 million at the international box office and was unavoidable in chain video rental stores. It’s unfortunate that Spinell lived not long enough to see Maniac get its due reappraisal many years later and become enshrined as the American horror classic that it truly is. Only the equally chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) would come close in matching the downtrodden nihility of Maniac. William Lustig went on to direct the Maniac Cop (1988-1992) series as well as the enjoyable but futile slasher Uncle Sam (1996). In the years since he has been primarily active as a producer of (horror) cinema documentaries and took an active role in the inevitable (but entirely pointless) remake of Maniac in 2012. With a Maniac Cop remake currently in the works he’s involved as a producer with that as well.

As a producer Garroni frequently worked with director Gregory Dark keeping actresses like Shannon Whirry, Julie Strain, Monique Parent and Melissa Moore employed in mind killing direct-to-video and late night cable softcore dross and occasional low budget action. It was famously sampled by New York/Las Vegas death metal ingrates Mortician on their second, and arguably only worth checking out, 1996 “Hacked Up For Barbecue” album. Mortician might always have been irrelevant from a musical standpoint, and the fact that they have not released any new music since 2004 (going on 20 years for those keeping count) their inherent obsoletism probably at long last dawned upon the undynamic duo. Mortician might have faded into obscurity and irrelevance (if they were even relevant to begin with, which is another can of worms) yet Maniac remains as iconic and an undisputed genre classic that continues to live on in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. Joe Spinell would be proud.

Plot: the weather outside is frightful and this year Santa’s homicidal.

If one were to look at the direct forefather of the 1980s slasher the first two things that come to mind are the German krimi and the Italian giallo. Both existed parallell from each other, at times overlapped and stylistically frequently took influence from each other. Also not unimportant were the terror and suspense films produced on both sides of the Atlantic. For more than a decade prior these forms existed in Mediterranean European – and American cinema; but it woud be the double whammy of the finely-honed Halloween (1978) and the cynical Friday the 13th (1980) that truly crystallised the slasher formula as it would become known, setting in stone many of its conventions. While the dubious merits of Friday the 13th (1980) and its even more ingrate imitations is up for debate what remains uncontested is that just about every imaginable holiday – religious, folkloric or otherwise – now was fair game to be given the slasher treatment. Keeping in line with seasonal holidays Christmas was next.

As these things go Silent Night, Deadly Night might not have been the first. It was after all preceded by notable terror films as Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), Black Christmas (1974) and Christmas Evil (1980). It was however the first to reap a whirlwind of protest and moral outrage when it arrived at the box office in 1984. For a week (or so) it outgrossed a little movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) at the box office. Concerned parents, community gatekeepers and moral arbiters assembled in a group calling itself Citizens Against Movie Madness as a way of challenging the amount of violence in filmed entertainment and declared war on the film industry. The depiction of Santa Claus as a spree killer and the now infamous Burt Kleeger movie poster had the group up in arms and select theaters were duly picketed. By the second weekend of protests numbers had drastically fallen to about 45% before the movie was unceremoniously pulled and shelved for a year. According to executive producer Dennis Whitehead the pulling came at behest of Columbia/Tri-Star who were owned by Coca Cola who in turn saw Christmas a major advertising opportunity for their soda. Art always suffers in name of the bottomline. In a delicious bit of irony Citizens Against Movie Madness collapsed almost immediately in the aftermath of their victory on Silent Night, Deadly Night as its figureheads pulled in different directions. In light of being pulled hastely Silent Night, Deadly Night nevertheless managed to spawn a healthy two direct sequels (1987-1989), two in-name only sequels (1990-1991) and the obligatory millennial remake with Silent Night (2012). Not bad for something that can hardly be considered a vital contribution to the form. That being as it may Silent Night, Deadly Night is a lot better than it perhaps has any right to be.

December 24, 1971. Making their way across Utah a young family consisting of father Jim Chapman (Geoff Hansen, as Jeff Hansen), his wife Ellie (Tara Buckman), their five-year old son Billy (Jonathan Best, as Jonathon Best) and his infant brother Ricky (Melissa Best) are en route to visit their old catatonic and slightly senile grandpa (Will Hare) in the local mental hospital. When Dr. Conway (Oscar Rowland) informs Jim and Ellie that the records need reviewing Billy is left alone with the old man. He emerges from his catatonic state and tells Billy that “Christmas is the scariest night of the year!” and that Santa brings presents to those who are good and punishes those who are “naughty”. By the time all the formalities and administration are taken care of it’s night and it’s time to head home. Meanwhile, on the other side of time a violent criminal dressed as Santa (Charles Dierkop) holds up the local general store killing the storekeeper Mr. Levitt (Eric Hart) in the process. Seeing Santa alongside the road Jim pulls the car over thinking the jolly old man is experiencing car trouble. Instead the criminal pulls his gun killing Jim, raping and killing Ellie before fleeing in the night. Understandably shook from the night’s event Billy and Ricky are put in an orphanage.

Three years pass and it’s now 1974. Still traumatized from the events of that fateful night Billy (Danny Wagner) and Ricky (Max Broadhead) are living at Saint Mary’s orphanage. There he draws the ire of Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) by drawing pictures chronicling his trauma. Only Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) seems sympathetic to his plight and that he’s haunted by nightmares of the night three years prior. Mother Superior instills in him that “naughty” behaviour should be punished and that “punishment is necessary, punishment is good”.

Another ten years pass and the orphanage has set up 18-year old Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) with a job in the warehouse of Ira's Toy Store via assistant manager Mrs. Randall (Nancy Borgenicht). His immediate superior Andy (Randy Stumpf) is chagrined that Billy’s virtuous behaviour has put him in good graces with Mr. Simms (Britt Leach) but also his co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero). As Christmas is rapidly approaching Billy gets increasingly nervous and agitated, moreso when the lights and decorations go up. When a sudden shortage in personnel results in no in-store Santa, Mr. Simms decides that Billy is the ideal candidate. After the Christmas sales the store closes for an office party. There Andy tries to rape Pamela and later that night Denise (Linnea Quigley) and her boyfriend Tommy (Leo Geter) sneak in to get their rocks off. Haunted by visions of that fateful night in 1973 and that everyone “naughty” should be punished Billy’s psychosis turns him pathologically homicidal. On the street Billy asks Cindy (Amy Styvesant, as Amy Stuyvesant) if she has been good this year not knowing she’s Denise’s sister.With vice everywhere will Sister Margaret and Captain Richards (H.E.D. Redford) be able to stop Billy’s murderous rampage before he gets his hands on Mother Superior?

Most of the cast consists of blue-collar working actors who all built extensive careers on American television. The biggest names here are French screen monument Lilyan Chauvin and beloved character actor Will Hare on one side and Linnea Quigley and Tara Buckman on the other. The former were stars in the mainstream and the latter were about to consolidate their names in the hell known as low budget exploitation. Chauvin debuted in 1950 and had an impressive six-decade career wherein she mostly played strict, matronly roles. Will Hare is the more recognizable of the two and caught his first big break with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). Other notable credits of his include Heaven Can Wait (1978), Enter the Ninja (1981) but it was probably his role as old man Peabody in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) that ensured his cinematic immortality. Quigley had worked on Graduation Day (1981) and Savage Streets (1984) and was about to break into the big time with The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988). Tara Buckman had starred in The Cannonball Run (1981) and was about to work with Greek shlockmeister Nico Mastorakis on Terminal Exposure (1987). She, like so many American actresses of the day, got mixed up in the deranged world of post-Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) softcore dross from Italian porn specialist and part-time pulp filmmaker Joe D’Amato. In that capacity she could be seen in Blue Angel Cafe (1989) and High Finance Woman (1990). Buckman’s next big break came with Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1991) from Harry Bromley Davenport.

As far as American slashers go Silent Night, Deadly Night is hardly the most outrageous, obscene or the most cynical of its kind. That isn’t to say that it isn’t plastered from front to back with blood and boobs because it most certainly is. That Quigley gets the most skin in was all but expected, even this early into her career. The American slasher was an obvious scion of the terror and suspense films from the decade before. These terror and suspense films were modeled on the German krimi and the Italian giallo that were their earliest ancestor. In doing so they boiled them down to their most lunkheaded, basest form excising their subtleties and nuances. Naturally young filmmakers took all the wrong ideas from what made these drive-in shockers appealing and pushed those to their most logical, reductionist conclusion. That didn’t stop foreign directors from filming their own American style slashers for the international market. This in turn led to some quaint and sometimes baffling genre exercises from all corners of the world. By the mid-80s the American slasher was about the only viable horror subgenre left which speaks to the direness of the situation. Look no further than the framing story to Alex Chandon’s Cradle Of Fear (2001) to see the American slasher, ugly and forever creatively bankrupt, alive and well.

Now that the floodgates were well open (in truth they had been opened some four years prior with Sean S. Cunningham’s little summer camp movie) producers were quick to embrace their most cynical, regressive and degenerate inclinations. The moral outrage and controversy surrounding Friday the 13th (1980) did not dissuade producers and directors alike and in the following years the world got the likes of New Year’s Evil (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Final Exam (1981), Bloody Birthday (1981), Honeymoon Horror (1982), Don't Open Till Christmas (1984) and A Bloody New Year (1987) or basically just about any and every excuse of a holiday or occasion to throw a bunch of beautiful people together, have them take their clothes off and kill them. Preferably in some outlandish and bloody fashion. That’s not even mentioning the international response to the American slasher which resulted its own line of deranged cult classics in form of such diverse offerings as Bloody Moon (1981), Srigala (1981), Pieces (1982), Terror and Black Lace (1985), Grave Robbers (1989) and Intensive Care (1991). Late additions such as Slaughterhouse (1987) and Cutting Class (1989) were usually memorable for all the wrong reasons or long forgotten “leave it off the resumé” titles for now A-list Hollywood superstars. Towards the end of the decade the slasher as a whole was ripe for ridiculing, something duly taken care of by the fantastic Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). William Sachs' The Incredible Melting Man (1977) had already done so a decade before, but it was far more subtle in its intentions to deconstruct and ridicule the subgenre. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) would reinvent the exhausted and exhausting subgenre for an entire new generation of fans.