When you first learn of the existence of NEON MANIACS — which I’m assuming is right this moment for a good number of you — it’s a difficult notion to fully accept. After you’ve seen NEON MANIACS, however, it becomes even harder to believe that it exists. I’m not sure how that’s true, but if personal experience is any indication, it is.
As unlikely as it may be, NEON MANIACS really happened. In the heyday of the 1980s slasher-killer genre, somebody really made a movie about twelve atomic mutants who live under the Golden Gate Bridge and rise every night to murder high school students. After the monsters slaughter one girl’s entire clique, she escapes, only to find that the Neon Maniacs won’t rest until they’ve gotten her too. Do the cops do anything to stop them? No, the cops don’t buy the survivor’s story, and in fact, the heroes of this movie, Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) and the nerd who loves her, Steven — Clyde Hayes, billed here as “Alan Hayes” for some reason — seem to be navigating a nighttime world largely devoid of adults. During the day there are parents and principals. Come nightfall, there are only Neon Maniacs.
Let’s talk right away about the Neon Maniacs. In the previous paragraph I referred to them as “slasher-killers,” “atomic mutants,” and “monsters” — none of these terms are accurate. Or maybe all of these terms are accurate. Not one of the Neon Maniacs is alike. They live under a bridge, so maybe they’re trolls. No one ever learns anything about them, and they are never named, neither individually nor collectively.
The only time the movie refers to the Neon Maniacs as such is right at the top, over black, with a stentorious voice intoning “When the world is ruled by violence and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs.” That actually sounds like the set-up to an avant-garde post-apocalyptic science fiction story, but no, the film opens up in then-modern-day, in a suburban setting that — except for the conspicuous wealth — could just as well be Haddonfield, Illinois. Maybe that’s important.
Compared to Laurie Strode, who is lovely but in a low-key way, Natalie is a rich girl, pretty, blond, a member of the in crowd. She’s a virgin, which comes with the territory, but she’s got several available options. In any other slasher movie of the time, she would be one of the first to die. But this isn’t any other slasher movie. As Natalie and her friends head out to the park for nocturnal frolicking, a small procession of a dozen bizarre, seemingly random figures arrive and begin the process of murdering.
Now I’m going to show you some pictures of the Neon Maniacs.
Everybody getting this so far? Let’s take a head count — there’s a samurai, a Medieval knight, a surgeon, an Indian, and a super-hairy albino werewolf kind of guy. By my mathematical calculations, we’re about 40% of the way towards this:
Remember I said there are a dozen Neon Maniacs, though. That’s twice the amount of Village People there are. Again, no names are given for the Neon Maniacs, but the credits list the following descriptors: Ape, Archer, Axe, Decapitator, Doc, Hangman, Juice, Mohawk, Punk Biker, Samurai, Scavenger, Slasher, and Soldier.
Oh, and also there’s this fucking chucklehead:
Don’t let me forget him. (Or her.) That one’s my favorite. When I look at that one-eyed monster design, I can’t help but assume the Mystery Science Theater Guys saw NEON MANIACS. Then again, I look at some of the Neon Maniacs and I can’t believe this isn’t a Troma production.
In fact, the director of NEON MANIACS does have some Troma on his resume — he was the cinematographer for MOTHER’S DAY, but I find that Troma movies have a much more intentionally goofy tone than this movie does. It’s hard to ever take Troma horror films seriously because the people who made them never seem to. By contrast, NEON MANIACS appears to be stone-cold sober by demeanor. It has the oddest possible tone. There are shots and long takes in this movie that are effectively composed and genuinely eerie, or at least they would be if there weren’t a bunch of dudes decked out like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villains wandering around inside them.
And while her character as written makes inexplicable, bizarrely illogical decisions at every turn, the actress who plays Natalie gives a surprisingly committed performance — as the movie progresses she becomes increasingly hysterical and frantic in a way that put me in mind of the similarly besieged Barbara in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s just hard to relate to the horror she experiences, since while some of these designs are genuinely fun and imaginative, it’s tricky to see any of the Neon Maniacs as particularly menacing up close. Well, maybe the one dressed like a surgeon, but that’s based on whatever phobias you bring to it.
There is so much more to say about NEON MANIACS, but the more I think about it, the more questions I come up with. What is this movie supposed to be? Is it supposed to be a horror movie? Is it a deadpan comedy? If so, where are the jokes? Is there some failed subversion going on here? Or am I missing something? Is the San Francisco setting completely arbitrary, or somehow relevant? If the Neon Maniacs live under the Golden Gate Bridge and only come out at night, what are they up to during the day? How can “the children’s path be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs” if the Neon Maniacs only come out at night and therefore cast no shadow? How did the Neon Maniacs meet each other? Are they related? Are they a gang? Did they meet at a trade conference? Why don’t any of the Neon Maniacs speak? Are all twelve of them mute? Or are they just doing the Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees schtick to be intimidating? If they can talk, what do their voices sound like? What do Neon Maniacs talk about when they’re amongst each other? Where do Neon Maniacs come from? Does the stork bring them? Are they born or hatched? Why are there no lady Neon Maniacs? (Besides, possibly, that one who’s a cross between a dinosaur and a mound of dog shit.) Do Neon Maniacs ever get lonely?
The movie is carried off a little too well to be the kind of average everyday bad movie that makes no sense due to ineptitude and oversight. It’s impressively nonsensical. There’s some real talent involved, and the costuming and locations couldn’t have come cheap. Enough people behind the scenes believed in this project to find the money and make it happen. The resumes of the principal creative types behind the scenes helps a little — but only a little –to understand why NEON MANIACS is more compelling, and occasionally even spooky, than it ought to be. These weren’t backyard amateurs; these were professionals with consistent strings of credits.
The writer, Mark Patrick Carducci, went on to write PUMPKINHEAD for Stan Winston to direct, and BURIED ALIVE for Frank Darabont. The director, Joseph Mangine, was more often a cinematographer himself, having shot plenty of cult favorites including THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH, SQUIRM and ALLIGATOR (which is in my top ten some days). The actual credited cinematographer is Oliver Wood, whose fascinating career began with the almost literally no-budget cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS and eventually blew up into Hollywood mega-blockbusters such as FACE/OFF, the BOURNE movies, and last year’s unconnected double-feature of 2 GUNS and ANCHORMAN 2. Hopefully I can track him down one day, since sadly, it appears both Carducci and Mangine, native New Yorkers, are no longer with us.
I love a movie like NEON MANIACS because it proves that there’s always something out there I’ve never seen before, and that’s why cinemaniacs like me keep digging. The easiest encapsulation of this movie is “Toho monster movie meets slasher-horror meets high school” — but there are many moments in here that transcend easy encapsulations. If the world is going to be ruled by violence, the soul of man is fading and the children’s path is darkened, then God bless those Neon Maniacs, I say.
NEON MANIACS played last night at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. No doubt it will return again one day to mystify and bewilder.
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