Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Maniac’ (1977)

It’s a regular night in Paradise, Arizona. A couple is making out in the front seat of a convertible. The windows are down, the top is retracted, because it’s Arizona and it’s hot. Suddenly, a man in a latex full-head clown mask shoots the couple to death through the windshield. If I’m Clown Boy, I go to where there is no barrier, but that’s the kind of movie 1977’s Maniac is. It takes the most difficult path to an obvious and inevitable conclusion.

Maniac, also known as Assault on Paradise, has a lot of elements fans of 1970s movies should adore. First off, it is from New World Pictures, Roger Corman’s old studio, a name that still carries a lot of weight in film conversations. It stars Oliver Reed, who rarely speaks above a whisper. Stuart Whitman plays a rich guy with a pencil-thin moustache. Deborah Raffin plays intrepid professional television news reporter, Cindy Simmons. Jim Mitchum and John Ireland are along for the ride, as is Paul Koslo as a man who calls himself Victor.

Victor dresses like a Native American, but it’s never established that he truly is one. We also don’t know if he was the clown-faced killer from the opening credits. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if he isn’t, but then why did he change his disguise? Victor has a high-powered crossbow and he’s not afraid to use it. The first thing he does is murder two police officers with arrows, then waltz into the police station and scrawl a message on the blackboard. He wants a million dollars by Wednesday or else he’s going to start murdering all the rich people in town. And Paradise, Arizona, has the most millionaires living there per capita than anywhere else in the country. How’s that for a convoluted set-up?

We expect there to be some kind of undercurrent about land rights or the mistreatment of Native Americans in the story, but there’s not. We see Victor’s place, where he has pictures of both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s a bit of a mixed message, but there are also arrows, guns, grenades, a whole arsenal. It seems like we have a Caucasian guy, pretending to be a Native American, murdering people and extorting the wealthy for his own ends. That’s a guess. Victor’s motivation is unclear. If he really is mad about mining rights or simply being middle class, we are not made aware of it.

There about six rich people in town. They all show up at the house of fellow millionaire Whitaker (Whitman) to talk about this egregious threat on their lives. Whitman has called in a fixer, a mercenary named Nick (Reed). Whitaker wants Nick to take Victor out, permanently, with no police involvement. The police are already involved, though, because Victor killed two of them with arrows. He left the demand for money in the police station. They know about the guy! They should be investigating the whole situation. They are not.

Ace reporter Cindy Simmons (Raffin) is on the case, though, and she ambushes Nick to find out just what the heck is going on. The public has a right to know. Cindy follows Nick to Trader Vic’s where he pulls a gun on her. That is not a euphemism. In the restaurant, he waggles a revolver under her chin and threatens to blow her head off. So, she sleeps with him. Apparently, being accosted with a gun in a public place is a huge turn-on.

In a bizarre piece of business, Victor returns a wallet he found on the street to the police department. The officer recognizes Victor as a former athlete named Philip McCall. McCall is a runner who almost made the Olympics. Victor/McCall is cordial to the cop, then leaves and goes to a pay phone. He calls Whitaker, because millionaires always have publicly listed numbers. Victor plays a pre-recorded tape message for Whitaker about where and how to drop off the money. We know who Victor is now, so there’s that mystery out the window. That was literally the only interesting thing about the movie.

This leaves us with a whole bunch of nothing. There are some lackluster action sequences. We get cars and helicopters and there is a slow-motion motorcycle jump. Tick that action movie must-see off the checklist. Oliver Reed mistreats a woman. Whitaker has a 1970s high-tech security bank in his room, which consists of three landlines and six black-and-white closed circuit monitors. I’m not sure you could protect a tiny house with that anymore. And there is a parade through the middle of town, because of course there is, and the marching band freaks out when Victor shows up.

What we don’t get, and what we really need, is a reason why Victor does what he does. How am I supposed to be angry about a man who just wants money? We all want money. I don’t agree with murdering people, but all these millionaires are terrible folks. It doesn’t explain why Victor hides in the mountain caves while wearing war paint and a poncho, which is potentially a Sears poncho. Victor could have been pretending to be a Native American like Jaye Davidson pretended to have a vagina.

We actually get more information about Victor from the song that plays over the end of the credits. The chorus repeats, “Shoot them! Shoot them! Shoot them all!” It was co-written and performed by Roger McGuinn, formerly of Sixties band, The Byrds. That guy went from peace and love to murder-all-those-sons-of-bitches in only a decade. The Seventies were rough, man.

Maniac is less than run of the mill. It’s jog of the mill. The script makes less sense as the movie goes on. Action sequences take far too long, incorporating shots of inaction, yet still acting as set-pieces. It’s not even that funny. Maniac commits the worst crime a B-movie can commit. It’s boring. But if you’re an Oliver Reed maven, or you need material for your thesis on the representation of First Nations peoples in film, then Maniac is here for you on Prime Video.

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