MANIAC ON LOOSE, ENTERTAINS THEATRE GOERS IN HUNTINGTON
Don’t let the name fool you. The Huntington Cinema Arts Centre sounds like a fancy establishment, but it’s really a dive just off centre of downtown Huntington, Long Island. The theatre has hosted Summer Camp Cinema for a number of years, a Saturday night double feature collection of horror films. Last night was my first venture to take part in the annual summer festival, a mid-week single feature. I took a seat in a dingy little theatre with poor lighting and warped walls, waiting in anticipation to watch an even more warped movie:
Yes, director Bill Lustig’s masterpiece, first screened to the terror of women’s groups nationwide in 1980, was in all its glory on the big screen last night, with a 6 year old 35 millimeter print that was scratchy and gritty. I mean that as a compliment, because Maniac is the kind of flick that Lustig had told lead actor/writer Joe Spinell would appear "on 42nd Street and Texas drive-ins." Somehow, Maniac managed to make its way all over the U.S., far outspanning the director’s modest intentions, and creating a fury of controversy upon its arrival. To see it in a small, rundown theatre, warts and all… I couldn’t think of a better way to view it.
But it wasn’t just the film itself that had me traveling across Long Island. Even better than that, Bill Lustig was going to appear in person. Enticed by this, I headed out with my camera and a Maniac 8×10 that I had clipped off the net and had signed by Tom "Mr. Personality" Savini. I hoped Lustig would be signing. In the bargain, I got a lot more than just his signature.
Lustig showed up before the film started, and gave a brief introduction to the movie. He was very candid, saying "I hope you know what you’re getting into with this movie." We all knew we were in for a blood storm. I’d seen Maniac about 1/2 dozen times over the years, and thought I was properly prepared. But on the big screen, Maniac is even more disturbing than it is at home. The darkened theatre provided the perfect atmosphere, even with poor speakers and a small number of seats. Perhaps what disturbed me most, though, was how people were laughing during some pretty intense scenes. I’ve heard that audiences tend to laugh during horror movies because it breaks the unbearable tension, but I got creeped out as the people around me chuckled. Maybe it says something about the way I react to horror, as opposed to others. Or maybe it says something when society laughs at the ritual slayings committed by a maniac. Either way, Maniac was a more compelling, disturbing and ultimately enjoyable experience in a theatre.
The end credits rolled. The audience applauded. And then things got even better, as Bill Lustig came to the front of the theatre again and addressed the audience. He introduced two unannounced special guests, Gail Lawrence and Denise Spagnuolo, both of whom had acted in the film. He then held an impressive 30 minute Q&A. Candidly and very honestly, he fielded questions on a number of topics: current horror trends, Tom Savini, the backlash to the film at the time, his favorite horror films and his work at Blue Underground, the DVD company he owns. He pulled no punches as he referred to several movies as "crap," and admitted he’s very willing to sell the Maniac rights for a remake, because they’d bring in a ton of money (he hinted at the interest of a French director, who copied a scene from Maniac in one of his movies; later, he mentioned Alexandre Aja copying a scene from Maniac in High Tension. I’d say this is a major clue!). He also shared some behind-the-scenes stories from Maniac, including one about Savini. The special effects master took the Maniac job right after finishing Friday the 13th, because he’d just broken up with his girlfriend and didn’t want to return to Pittsburgh; Lustig would show up to the apartment he’d rented for Savini, and find the makeup artist crying in front of the stereo as a Lionel Ritchie song played!
As the Q&A wrapped, the theatre manager invited us all to join Bill in an after-party gathering. You can imagine my confusion at this juxtaposition. After seeing such a brutal film, a beer and pizza get together seemed more appropriate. But the Cinema Arts Centre had a nice spread of snacks (no Texas meatballs, unfortunately), and I felt fancy as I swigged down some rather nice white wine. With my 8×10 and a gray marker in hand, I got Denise and Gail to sign my picture. Then I made my way up to Lustig himself. What a genuinely nice guy! He was happy to sign my 8×10, and he enjoyed discussing Icons of Fright with me (let’s hope there’s an interview in the works). Bill posed for a picture with me, and thanked me for being a fan of the movie. If you’re a horror fan and ever get the chance to meet this gracious individual, by all means, take it.
Any of you who read my review of Lustig’s masterpiece know this little story about Maniac: "When I was a kid in the 1980s, my local video store had a VHS copy of Maniac on the shelf. I remember being terrified by the cover’s image of a man with a bloody knife in one hand, a decapitated head in the other, and a bulging erection. The tagline ‘I Warned You Not to Go Out Tonight’ completed my terror perfectly. I bought this DVD when it first came out; I watched it that night with a friend and almost threw up, more than once." To be able to share this story with Bill Lustig made it so much better for me. For him to take legitimate interest in my story… I can’t top that.
Thank you, Mr. Lustig.