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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: vampire from outer space avenges the death of her stepfather.

You gotta feel for Puerto-Rican model-turned-actress Talisa Soto. She almost made it. She was so close. She went off with a flying start as Bond girl Lupe Lamora in Licence to Kill (1989) and followed it up with in the Johnny Depp rom-com Don Juan DeMarco (1994) before spoofing herself in Spy Hard (1996). Mortal Kombat (1995) was an entertaining popcorn flick but hardly anything to legitimize an actress’ career. In 1997 Soto married actor Costas Mandylor but divorced from him in 2000. Talisa married actor Benjamin Bratt in 2002 and the two have been together since. It was the double-whammy of the absolutely cringeworthy Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) and the Lucy Liu videogame adaptation Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) that in all likelihood permanently killed any chances of Talisa’s career ever recovering. The lowest la Soto was forced to sink must have been the ill-fated comic book adaptation Vampirella. After two decades in development hell Vampirella was produced as a direct-to-video feature from Concorde Pictures by legendary exploitation pillar Roger Corman. It was directed by low-budget action/erotica specialist and frequent Fred Olen Ray collaborator Jim Wynorski who makes Albert Pyun and Andy Sidaris look like John McTiernan in comparison. In the credits it’s announced that “Vampirella will return in Death's Dark Avenger” – but that proposed sequel, thankfully, would never come to fruition.

In 1969 Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins created Vampirella for Warren Publishing. The James Warren company had already released two horror magazines with Eerie and Creepy. Warren saw the potential for Vampirella to make the leap to the big screen in the same way Jean-Claude Forest’s famous Barbarella had done. The Dino De Laurentiis adaptation of Barbarella (1968), the fumetti by Roger Vadim and starring Jane Fonda, set the multiplexes alight. At its most potent Hammer Films helmed excellent reimaginings of classic Universal monsters.

VAMPIRELLA AND THE HOUSE OF HAMMER

By the mid-1970s Hammer Films was deeply ailing. After having dominated the domestic horror landscape for a good decade and a half the company had trouble keeping up with the flavors du jour. The early seventies gave rise to a spate of erotic fantastiques from France, Spain and Italy and although the company valiantly tried to tap the market with the likes of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971), and Twins Of Evil (1971) it was hopelessly struggling to keep up with the changing times. Head of Hammer Films Michael Carreras – who was sinking a lot of funds into his Nessie, a large-scale take on the Loch Ness monster, in co-production with Toho Studios from Japan - had a thing for properties with strong female leads and ran an ad in Warren’s magazines what the public wanted to see. The answer was Vampirella. Hammer optioned the rights to the character in 1975 and pre-production began and so started the search to find Vampirella.

Hammer Films considered Caroline Munro, Valerie Leon and Barbara Leigh for the starring role

Caroline Munro was steadily on the rise with her appearances in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974). Once Munro read the screenplay she politely declined the role based upon the amount of nudity it required. Next on Carreras’ shortlist was bodacious belle Valerie Leon – famous for her turns in The Italian Job (1969) and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) - who turned down the part for the same reason as Munro did. Down on his luck to find his Vampirella Carreras took the screenplay to half Irish Cherokee Native American model-actress Barbara Leigh, who had made an impression in Sam Peckinpah's rodeo tale Junior Bonner (1972) where she starred opposite of Steve McQueen. Leigh was famous for being a one-time girlfriend of Elvis Presley. Carreras contracted Leigh for a six-picture deal. Leigh on her part was so excited for the part that she paid the "Western Costume" Couturier department for Hammer Films a reported $7,000 to make her costume and $2,000 for the boots out of her own pocket. In 1975 Carreras took Leigh and Cushing to the Famous Monsters Convention in New York City to promote Vampirella. On the convention Leigh met Forrest J. Ackerman and American International Pictures (AIP) vice-president Samuel Z. Arkoff. Ads and posters were printed and distributed. Leigh was the cover model for various issues of the Vampirella comic book. Hammer Films was serious in its commitment in bringing Vampirella to the screen. Plus, they had the support from Arkoff and AIP. The only stipulation on AIP’s end was that Vampirella had to have an American star. Leigh was American.

Caroline Munro as Vampirella, a role she declined on ground of her aversion to nudity

Carreras tasked Jimmy Sangster with writing an outline with input from John Starr and Lew Davidson. Chris Wicking was commissioned to produce the screenplay and allegedly was to be a zany mix of horror, comedy and science fiction involving the mythical Bermuda Triangle, a subject of great speculation and human interest at the time. Directing would be either John Hough and Gordon Hessler with location shooting in both London and Vienna and with an all-star cast including Peter Cushing, Gene Kelly and Sir John Gielgud. The Wicking treatment was forwarded to the Bermuda Department of Tourism for approval with location shooting on the island to commence in the summer of 1976. A lead story in the Bermuda Sun led to widespread protests from tourism-related businesses and church groups who feared that the association with Vampirella would be to the detriment of the reputation of the island and its business community. According to James Warren, Hammer failed to pay for Leigh’s screentest and for use of the character. Carreras relayed that Warren would not give up merchandising rights and allegedly stormed off the studio lot at Bray. American International Pictures never committed to the project and the agreement went sour. In 1978, after two years of fervent campaigning and marketing, Hammer Films was unable to secure the funds and the deal collapsed, along with Barbara Leigh’s nascent career. Warren Publishing went bankrupt in 1983 and with them the rights to Vampirella were up for the taking.

VAMPIRELLA AND THE BOYS FROM POLYGRAM

Barbara Leigh as Vampirella on the Famous Monsters Convention in New York, 1975

In the eighties the rights to Vampirella came in possession of the dynamic duo Peter Guber and Jon Peters from PolyGram. Guber started at Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1965 and during his tenure the company released The Way We Were (1973), Shampoo (1975), Tommy (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976) before he made his exit in 1975. As an independent producer Guber released The Deep (1977) and the seven time Academy Award nominated Midnight Express (1978). In 1979 Guber formed PolyGram's motion picture and television division as well as the Guber-Peters Company (GPC) along with producer Jon Peters, a one-time hairdresser in California and a paramour of Barbra Streisand. The two managed to produce a string of bigger and smaller hits, despite having no hands-on filmmaking experience whatsoever to speak of. In 1989 Guber became CEO for Sony Pictures Entertainment. As the head of Columbia Pictures Guber and Peters left parent company Sony with a massive $3.2 billion in debt.

VAMPI, ROGER CORMAN AND JIM WYNORSKI

Understandably the rights to Vampirella expired and eventually came they into the hands of another famous duo, exploitation kings Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski. When Corman set to producing Vampirella with his Concorde-New Horizons Pictures in association with Sunset Films International he only had a brief 6 month period before the rights were to expire. Jim Wynorski was chosen to direct and he brought in Vampirella aficionado Gary Gerani to write the screenplay. According to Barbara Leigh Wynorski wanted to cast singer/dancer Paula Abdul in the role and Wynorski had since come out and said that he would have liked Andy Sidaris muse Julie Strain but the studio insisted on Talisa Soto. Soto had just appeared in Mortal Kombat (1995), a medium-budget supernatural take on the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (1973). In his voluminous body of work Wynorski would later confess that he should have declined on making Vampirella.

The production was fraught with problems to say in the very least. Vampirella suffered everything from wage strikes, union problems in Las Vegas, theft, accidents and studio interference to a sweltering 112 degree heat and the wrong choice for lead. To spare expenses the production reused footage from Corman’s Not of This Earth (1995). That Vampirella was destined for failure in the light of the troubled production was all but certain. Then there’s also the fact that Soto barely can act and doesn’t have the right body type for the part. Vampirella is Amazonesque and curvaceous. Talisa Soto on the other hand is… sort of mousy. This Vampirella simply isn’t near sexy enough than Vampirella ought to be. Soto doesn’t get to wear the famous skimpy red slingshot bikini, mostly out of practical considerations. If only Julie Strain, Samantha Phillips, Tai Collins or Shae Marks were given the chance to be Vampirella in her signature costume.

In the far-flung future the planet Drakulon is inhabited by a highly advanced society of pacifist vampires who have renounced the olden hematic hunting ways. They feed their sanguinary needs from the rivers and streams that are virtually identical to blood. An underground sect of wayward vampires led by hardened criminal Vlad (Roger Daltrey) is hellbent on restoring the ancient ways of predatory feeding. The Council has captured Vlad and is preparing to hand down sentence on the cultleader. Before they can do so three of Vlad’s partners - Demos (Brian Bloom), Sallah (Corinna Harney), and Traxx (Tom Deters) – come bursting into the halls, freeing their leader from captivity and killing the High Elder (Angus Scrimm) in the process. Vlad escapes to the distant planet Earth and births a race of vampires.

Sworn to avenge the death of her stepfather Ella (Talisa Soto) immediately sets to tracking Vlad down but en route to Earth is caught in an ion storm and is shipwrecked for centuries on Mars. One day she’s able to make her escape to Earth as a stowaway on a manned expedition. On present-day earth Adam (Richard Joseph Paul), a descendant of the famous Van Helsing bloodline, is part of PURGE, a globetrotting, high-tech paramilitary unit fighting against the vampire threat. Along the way Ella meets clumsy computer geek Forry Ackerman (David B. Katz) who helps her remain inconspicuous in her quest and comes up with her name by deducting “vampire… Ella… Vampirella!” Forry knows that Traxx is posing as a university professor famous for debunking the supernatural and unexplained. In Las Vegas Vlad has reinvented himself as famous rockstar Jaimie Blood. In a race against time Vampirella and fearless vampire hunter Adam must stop at nothing to foil Vlad’s plan for world domination that will throw humanity into an eternity of darkness.

It’s sort of ironic that Munro and Leon declined Vampirella on part of the nudity and that the Corman adaptation of Vampirella ends up with practically none of it. What little nudity that does appear doesn’t concern Talisa Soto and by Wynorski standards it isn’t as as gratuitous as you’d expect given his body of work. Wynorski started out semi-legitimately with directing everything from Chopping Mall (1986), Deathstalker II (1987), The Haunting of Morella (1990) to 976-Evil II (1991) and Ghoulies IV (1994). Productions like Hard to Die (1990) - a combination between a slasher and Die Hard (1988) with Melissa Moore, among others - were clear indication of where Wynorski’s career was heading.

By the mid-nineties he was churning out late night and direct-to-video erotic thrillers en masse and the turn of the new millennium saw him directing digital video shlock with titles as The Bare Wench Project (2000), Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade (2005), Lust Connection (2005), The Witches of Breastwick (2005), The Breastford Wives (2007), House on Hooter Hill (2007) and Scared Topless (2015). Over a career lasting three decades and counting no one has come close to good old Jim’s adoration and adulation of large breasts and no other filmmaker outside of Russ Meyer has surpassed Wynorski in facilitating voluptuous women with career options in cinema. Jim Wynorski makes late, great Hawaiian T&A specialist Andy Sidaris look like a man of sophistication and finesse in comparison.

Vampirella is memorable for several reasons. First, there’s Talisa Soto in a PVC two-piece with suspenders and former The Who singer Roger Daltrey in a plotline straight out of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat novel. For the cult – and pulp cinema fans there are Angus Scrimm from Phantasm (1979), Tyde Kierney from I Drink Your Blood (1970), John Terlesky from Chopping Mall (1986) and Deathstalker II (1987) and Lee de Broux from Terence Young’s critically savaged historic drama Klansman (1974), RoboCop (1987) and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). To top things off there’s Playboy’s Playmate of the Month (August, 1991) and Playmate of the Year 1992 Corinna Harney and Wynorski regular warm bodies Peggy Trentini and Antonia Dorian. It has score from Joel Goldsmith, son of Jerry. Vampirella references the Corman classic It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and there’s a Captain Stryker. The only thing given Vampirella any production value is footage lifted from Corman’s Not of This Earth (1995) and PURGE’s sun-gun is a prop about as cheap as the invisible ray gun Jess Franco’s The Girl From Rio (1969). It remains a mystery why Talisa Soto ever thought this was a good idea to advance her post-Mortal Kombat (1995) career. Soto might not have been much of an actress but even she deserved better than this. At least she can be glad that she didn’t end up working with Albert Pyun and Fred Olen Ray. Which was in the realm of possibility after this flaming trainwreck. In hindsight Vampirella is one of those movies that would have improved had Pyun sat in the director's chair.