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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Maniacts
MTI // R // May 27, 2003
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 27, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The high-concept pitch of Maniacts, the debut of MTI Home Video's new Redrum Entertainment imprint, would probably be something along the lines of "serial killers in love". One of 'em is Joe Spinelli (Jeff Fahey), a brutal but well-meaning mass murderer with a stack of corpses of 'important people' littering his dingy, rat-infested apartment. Continuing his blood-splattering spree even when in police custody, Joe's shipped off to the last stop on the road, the Edgemare Institute for the Criminally Insane. He responds to the decidedly unpleasant situation as any normal person might -- through public display of gory mock-suicide. Joe's creative tendencies are met with even more abuse and torture. As he pretends to carve himself in half with a razor, Joe manages to attract the attention of fellow inmate Beth (Kellie Waymire), who's deluded herself into believing that she has royal blood coursing through her veins. Joe almost instantly falls under her spell, promising not to eviscerate anyone without her express approval.

The lovebirds' romance causes enough of a rumble at Edgemare that an impending federal inspection seems threatened. Facing death at the hands of the sadistic Matron Knull (Leslie Easterbrook) and her cronies, Joe manages to escape, prompting further torture for his beloved Beth. The lovers are soon reunited, and after making their grisly getaway, Joe and Beth retreat to a farm to give their lives a fresh start, the kind without a body count. But you know, old habits...something about dying...

Maniacts juggles a number of tones, somehow managing to seamlessly alternate between being sweet, gory, funny, and hopelessly twisted. It's the type of balancing act that's seen fairly often in dark indie comedies, but Maniacts pulls it off better than most, at least early on. The first half or so of the movie packs in the bulk of the cartoonish grue, bouncing from the budding romance of its two leads to hydrolazing heads and impalings. After Joe and Beth made their escape from the nuthouse, I found my interest waning. The dark humor faded, making room for less effective gags about noisy, destructive sex and the predictably pleasant aroma of manure. The single splatter-battle in its second half doesn't match up to the gruesome deaths early on, and a single real estate broker and his flunkies aren't nearly as menacing as the exploitative, abusive sanitarium administrators. Although I wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about many of its later moments, Maniacts' ending redeems most any complaints I could have. Although obviously delving into any detail would spoil things entirely, it teeters on perfection, adopting a tone that's much more tender and serious than the remainder of the movie, yet somehow not seeming abrupt or out-of-place.

Any movie that so gleefully pays homage to a drive-in classic like Bill Lustig's Maniac has to have something going for it. Maniacts may not the most consistent movie I've popped into my DVD player in the past few months, but despite its flaws, it's a movie that still manages to be both very entertaining and very different from the norm. If Peter Jackson and Nora Ephron collaborated on a Troma flick ten years ago, it'd probably would've wound up being terrifyingly close to Maniacts.

Video: Maniacts' grainy, full-frame image has that sort of "when in the hell was this shot?" appearance, as if it could've been filmed anywhere between 1987 and last week.
An example of some of the encoding issues.
Shot independently and on-the-cheap, Maniacts predictably doesn't have the sort of razor-sharp detail or glossy sheen of a flick with tens of millions of dollars at its disposal. Though detail, contrast, black levels, and the like clearly aren't going to leave home theater enthusiasts salivating, the quality of the transfer doesn't distract. The image is free of any noticeable wear and tear, and speckling is slight and infrequent. There were apparently some minor hiccups at the compression stage, judging by the fair amount of digital discoloration noticeable throughout in areas as varied as neckties, shrubbery, and chainlink fences. It's a more than passable presentation of a movie shot on a shoestring, definitely standing out as superior to what I'd expect from a VHS presentation, but not particularly different than a broadcast on cable.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track has been encoded at 448kps, a bitrate usually reserved for six-channel audio. That's probably overkill for a lower-budget effort like this that not surprisingly doesn't offer much of a sonic showcase. Some of the foleyed sound effects and music fare pretty well, but much of the audio recorded on-set sounds flat and lifeless. There's also some minor background noise, but I didn't find it particularly intrusive. The rears do a respectable job reinforcing the score and providing general ambiance. I did notice murmurs of dialogue that should've been relegated to the front speakers creaking from behind me, though having enabled DPLII on my receiver may be to blame. Another mild issue with the dialogue is that its volume is somewhat inconsistent, leaving me frequently fiddling with my remote. Nothing unexpected for a movie shot on the cheap.

Also included are optional Spanish subtitles.

Supplements: Although the MTI releases I've tackled in the past have all been reasonably loaded special editions, the extras on Maniacts are pretty sparse. What little is here begin with brief biographies for cast members Jeff Fahey, Kellie Waymire, and Leslie Easterbrook. Alongside a trailer for Maniacts (2:03) are promos for Sanitarium (2:11), Bog Creatures (2:01), and Arachnia (1:35). Sanitarium is letterboxed to 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, and the remainder are full-frame. All four trailers feature Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (448Kbps), with Sanitarium and Bog Creatures featuring some activity in the surrounds. The trailer gallery also includes a "Play All" feature. I would have really liked to have had an audio commentary, but no such luck this time around.

Maniacts sports a set of 4x3 menus, each featuring some light animation as well as animated transitions. The movie has been chopped up into twenty-one chapters. For whatever reason, the first chapter isn't selectable through the 'Scene Index' menus.

Conclusion: Maniacts boasts the fairly ordinary list price of $24.95, but perhaps because it's a lower-profile title, there really aren't any deals to be had online. Maniacts is worth checking out, but I'd opt for a rental or wait for a price drop rather than shell out twenty bucks sight unseen. At least if the Blockbusters in my neck of the woods are any indication -- the five closest stores have Maniacts on-hand, and four of 'em carry its DVD release -- snagging a copy as a rental shouldn't be too tough.

Related Links: The Internet Movie Database features a trailer of Maniacts in Windows Media and RealMedia formats. The RamFilms site has a few photos snapped on-set and at the film's premiere in New Mexico a couple years back.

Boring Image Disclaimer: The screen captures in this review are compressed, slightly digitally sweetened, and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of the movie on DVD.
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