After seeing many of the negative reviews of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 gore flick Two Thousand Maniacs!, I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that was much better and much smarter than it should have been. For those who are unfamiliar with Lewis, he is the man that created the splatter film subgenre of horror, cranking out ultra-violent films starting in 1963 with Blood Feast, which is considered to be the first gore film by many critics and film historians. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the film that followed Blood Feast and there is plenty of hacked off limbs to go around in this southern fried nightmare. On the surface, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a fairly easy set up and basically just moves around from one elaborate torture device to the next, but just when you have waved the film off as simply a gratuitous exploitation film, the film pulls an intriguing and thought provoking last act twist that I have to admit I never saw coming and I absolutely loved. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the first of the southern horror films, ones that played upon the idea of a bunch of northern strangers getting lost in the south and then finding themselves preyed upon by savage backwoods dwellers, a subgenre that would become increasingly popular as years passed. Surprisingly, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a handful of tense sequences, a shocker because I figured the film would be a cheaply made torture film that only existed to show us lots of the red stuff.
Two Thousand Maniacs! follows three Yankee couples who are lured into the small southern town of Pleasant Valley, where they are told that they are the guests of honor for an unspecified centennial celebration. Soon, the couples find themselves trapped in ghastly carnival-esque devices that brutally maim and kill them, all as the two thousand deranged citizens of Pleasant Valley happily cheer along. One couple, Terry (Played by Connie Mason) and Tom (Played by William Kerwin), discover the disturbing secret that the town is concealing and they decide they are going to attempt flee and get help. Mayor Buckman (Played by Jeffrey Allen) becomes aware that Tom and Terry are missing and he ends up rallying the citizens to launch a manhunt to bring the couple back before their secret is revealed to the local authorities.
Lewis certainly does not portray the south in the most flattering light, portraying the Pleasant Valley residents as sweet-as-sugar on the outside but hellish on the inside, every man, woman, and child howling along as the Yankee tourists meet horrific ends. The vilest is Mayor Bruckman and his henchmen, who in one scene gleefully hack off a woman’s arm for their upcoming barbecue, making vague hints at cannibalism. In another scene, a man is pulled apart by horses. Lewis allows his camera to creep in for a close-up of the man’s entrails and mutilated body, making sure we get a good look at the carnage before he cuts away. These sequences boast masterful make-up and visual effects photographed in color, hauntingly real especially for the time in which it was made. I’d heard that the gore effects had become dated but from what I saw, I can confidently say that I believe that they have held up just fine. For as impressive as this all looks, the repetitive flit from gruesome event to gruesome event became a bit wearisome. It is all broken by the gripping extended chase sequence, a scene in which Lewis establishes himself as someone who could make something far more riveting if he desired.
Much of the acting throughout Two Thousand Maniacs! is adequate, especially for this sort of B-movie drive-in entertainment. At times, I found the sound work to be abhorrent, the dialogue running together and indecipherable. I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled with me while I watched this. Jeffrey Allen has a hearty ball hamming it up as the boisterous Mayor Bruckman. He howls with delight as he hacks off the young woman’s arm, his glee all the more disturbing as his bulging eyes that light up at the sight of the butchery compliment his delight. Allen ends up being the standout in Two Thousand Maniacs! Slightly behind Allen are Mason as Terry and Kerwin as Tom. Kerwin embraces the typical macho role as the guy who has to protect the pretty damsel in distress, which is played by Mason. Everyone else ends up being largely forgettable, either becoming elaborate cartoons of southern stereotypes or in front of the camera because they look pretty.
In addition to the impressive gore that Two Thousand Maniacs! boasts, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the southern animosity for the north. Released in 1964, right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, the film doesn’t overtly tackle the racial tensions at the time, but the film suspiciously bases its twist around the Civil War and the bitterness in its wake. The soundtrack declares that, “the south will rise again!” sounding more and more like a threat every time it is belted out. Lewis also has his camera focus in on the frantically waving Confederate flags in the hands of the wild eyed southern tormentors and a lynching rope that is carried around by a young boy that he uses to hang a cat, images that are evocative of horrifying images that surfaced from the south during this time. A hazy snapshot of the violent political climate at the time, Two Thousand Maniacs! isn’t as empty headed as many would be quick to deem it. In the end, the film is worth your time for its attempt at an intellectual statement, as I’m sure that many casual viewers would assume that sleaze cinema of this kind would never even make the attempt. Lewis certainly does and it actually pays off.
Two Thousand Maniacs! is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.