When William Lustig first began production on Maniac 40 years ago, he couldn’t have imagined the notoriety it would receive—for better and worse. It has endured as a cult favorite among fans of horror and controversial cinema, seeing its latest iteration as a three-disc Blu-ray release, featuring a new 4K transfer, from Lustig’s Blue Underground company, streeting December 11. (Full disclosure: Yours truly wrote the liner notes.)
But as detailed on some of the discs’ extras, Maniac received a great deal of negative attention upon its first release, beginning in January 1981. Critics vilified the film, and protests from women’s groups greeted its release and a billboard advertisement in Los Angeles. As Lustig reveals, however, “One of the ironic twists was that there was a woman standing in front of a Hollywood Boulevard theater, holding up an ad for Maniac, yelling, ‘This is a movie that shows how women can be stalked and killed,’ and all that kind of stuff. Well, a year later, I’m watching the news, and there she is in handcuffs, having been an accomplice to a murder that occurred years before she was up there protesting my movie. So you have to look carefully at the people throwing rocks sometimes!”
Some of the rocks were aimed directly at Lustig and his Maniac collaborators—which was when, he admits, the situation became more distressing. “At first, we were kind of amused [by the controversy], until we started getting threats! Somebody who knew the lab we used—so it had to be somebody on the crew, or someone who was a good detective and looked at the end credits—sent a letter to them saying, ‘How dare you make prints of a movie this horrible?’ I got one letter that was tantamount to a death threat, so it became a little uncomfortable. I started to low-key it; I got an unlisted phone number, a new mailing address; I took precautions and tried to insulate myself, because I was a little concerned. And it wasn’t just one nasty letter we got; there were quite a few. I would say probably under 10, but just getting one is enough to rattle you.”
Gene Siskel, who had already lambasted “women-in-danger movies” with colleague Roger Ebert on TV’s Sneak Previews, even devoted a segment on Chicago’s Channel 2 News to attacking the placement of a video monitor showing Maniac’s gruesome trailer outside a Times Square theater, which he likened to “disturbing the peace.” (This report, like that Sneak Previews episode, included a clip from 1980’s Silent Scream carefully edited to omit the revelation that its slasher is a woman.) “Well, Times Square then wasn’t the Times Square of today; it wasn’t Universal CityWalk!” Lustig notes. “People weren’t exactly shocked at what they were seeing, but Gene Siskel made it seem like they were showing that in suburban New Jersey. I must say, he might have had a point; it was probably not the most appropriate thing to do. I still take the position, though, when I look at horror films, that it’s a depiction of violence, it’s not real violence. People say, ‘Oh, the violence in your movie…’ Bullshit. You turn on your TV and watch the stuff that’s going on in the wars and so on—that’s violence. What we’re doing is throwing ketchup around. I never felt guilt or responsibility for making a movie that was bloody.”
Times change, and when a remake of Maniac, directed by Franck Khalfoun and starring Elijah Wood in the title role, saw release in 2013, it didn’t attract anything resembling the same dissent. There had been numerous attempts, sanctioned and otherwise, to create a sequel over the years; Lustig demurred from being part of a follow-up and was surprised when the prospect of a reboot came up. “I got a call out of the blue from a producer named Thomas Langmann, asking if it was possible to license the remake rights to Maniac. I honestly thought he meant Maniac Cop—he didn’t say that, but that’s what I thought he meant, because I never believed Maniac was a remakable movie. But it turned out it was Maniac, and they flew me to Paris, where I met with Christoph Gans [Silent Hill], who was involved at the time, and [producer] Alex Aja, who’s a very nice guy, and we made a deal.
“The problem we had was that we [Lustig, producer Andrew Garroni and star/co-scripter Joe Spinell] had already signed and received payment for Maniac II before Joe died, and that producer had passed away. So we had to go back and untangle the rights based on that deal. Even though technically that was a sequel, not a remake, and an entirely different story, you can’t stand on subtleties when they’re about to mount a big picture. There were all these agreements I couldn’t sign at that point, because I had to verify that there would be no impediments for them making a new Maniac. So we had to go back and extricate it, and to make a long story short, it was over a year from the time I met with those guys in Paris to the time we were finally able to make a deal with the widow of the producer—who we wound up paying back double what they had paid us! Once we straightened that out, it was off to the races.”
Wood proved to be a surprisingly effective successor to Spinell, though like many fans, Lustig initially had his doubts. “At first I was like, ‘Elijah Wood?’ But then I thought about it, and realized it was kind of an Anthony Perkins idea, so I felt it was okay. Elijah Wood is a great actor, so I knew the fact that he was involved would add prestige to the film. It was a daring choice.”
Even with an honorable remake out in the world, the original Maniac endures. Yet Lustig confesses that he’s not sure of the reasons behind its longevity. “I sat through the film again, end to end, when we were doing the 4K, and when I look at it now, I see 90 minutes of mistakes,” he says. “I see shots that run too long, scenes we should have shortened, things we should have done differently. I just look at it as being sort of the junior-year project in my film school, if you consider my adult movies as my first two years of film school, Maniac as my third and then [his 1983 thriller] Vigilante as my graduate project. I don’t believe I became competent as a filmmaker until I made the first Maniac Cop . Up until then, I was learning.
“But the benefit is that to me, the most interesting movie a filmmaker will make is his first one. You can become a craftsman later, but on your first film, you’re dealing with intuition and your instincts, and that will usually determine your future, how that movie turns out. I just look at someone like George Romero: He made great movies, but somehow, we keep coming back to Night of the Living Dead, and you almost can’t explain how a movie made for so little is just so damn effective every time you watch it. Same thing with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or John Carpenter and Assault on Precinct 13. I’m not disparaging anything he did subsequently, because he’s had a brilliant career, but there’s something you can’t quite quantify, why there’s magic in that film. I think Maniac will be my tombstone movie; it may not be the best-crafted, it may not be perfect, but the ideas and things in a first feature like that are often the most interesting of a filmmaker’s career.”