A terrifying story of six members of an evangelical Christian group who have been abducted in rural Kansas
Right about the first minute mark of the opening credit sequence, set to a catchy metal riff within the grubby confines of a small town Kansas strip club, I knew I was watching the latest trend in horror movie mimicry, the Rob Zombie-inspired flick. I’m not quite certain whether or not I’m on board with this concept, and “American Maniacs” does nothing to sway my vote in either direction.
(We’ll save the White Zombie origins chit-chat for the music sites and go straight to the film cred, friends.)
Love him or loathe him, Zombie’s eclectic low-tech savvy and ballsy shirking of conventions (whilst paying thoughtful homage to them) are indeed attractive qualities fledgling film makers look to for inspiration. His reign of terror beginning in 2003 with the critically reviled cult smash “House of 1,000 Corpses,” he has since incorporated himself into the fabric of modern American culture, directing a faux trailer for “Grindhouse” and taking the reins of the floundering “Halloween” franchise. His upcoming “Lords of Salem” is one of 2013’s most anticipated genre films, no small feat with an “Evil Dead” reboot and Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots versus giant monsters saga “Pacific Rim.” Don’t even get me started rambling excitedly about the first English language shocker from Chan-wook Park, “Stoker.” Long story short, it’s a rough year to score very highly on the geek-o-meter, and Zombie has.
It was only a matter of time before low-budget offerings started riding his strange wave. “Maniacs” does just that, introducing us to its unwashed pocket of humanity and inviting its audience to wallow in the filth. An exotic dancer for the disreputable establishment glamorized at the onset, Starlene is torn between sullen husband Clyde (Jason Curtis Miller) and Griffen (Kurt Hanover), a tattooed crystal meth dealer with a plan to swindle Clyde out of supposed millions in cash he has buried under his crumbling barn. Amidst the driving plot is a subsidiary story involving the disappearance of six Evangelical Christians, and the aging town sheriff (John Redmond) searching for them.
Immediately, the performances do not withstand the exuberant amount of screen time allotted to the characters before the action finally kicks in, a severe setback on the parts of writers Trent Haaga and C.M. Downs. Though these passages may have kept the interest had they been better executed by the cast, they begin to gnaw at the nerves after nearly one hour. That’s a sizable chunk of time to dedicate to a flock of unsavory weirdos who don’t really do a whole lot more than holler angrily at one another. Leading the troupes is Ashlynn Yennie as Starlene, a role that seems almost as if it was written specifically for a brunette Sheri Moon Zombie. Best known for “The Human Centipede” flicks (personal guilty pleasures of yours truly), Yennie has neither the trashy presence of Sheri Moon, nor the acting chops of pretty much anyone not associated with a Rob Zombie movie, to carry an entire picture. She gives it her best college try, however, which is all that can be said for anyone else in the cast.
As we learn the identity of the masked psychopath who has kidnapped and been systematically torturing and murdering the evangelists, “Maniacs” threatens to take a turn for the worse, which would not have been a long plummet. The revelation of who is tormenting these poor Christian kids comes so easily and early in the film, I feel as though I wouldn’t even be spoiling anything by spilling the beans. But, I won’t. From there, Griffen and his spastic pal Punch (Shawn G. Smith, trying so hard to chew scenery you almost feel sorry for the talentless guy) follow through with their heist, leading to disastrous results. Oddly enough, the disastrous results to which I refer are not thematic, as one would justifiably suspect.
Once Griffen and Punch proceed with their ludicrous scheme, all bets are off narratively, and “Maniacs” delves into some twisted, twisted little realms as its intersecting tales reach the collision course. To describe in any great detail would be giving away far too much, but I can state that the film reaches a bizarre and disturbing crescendo of moments that will leave you agape. The violence reaches nearly Shakespearean levels of tragic irony, and it all culminates in a sickly bittersweet epilogue between the Sheriff and his disabled wife (Denise Carroll) that ups the ante of perversion to a level nearly redeeming the entire movie as a whole. Nearly.
Though impressive in the eventual embrace of excess, Haaga and Downs provide too much exposition, an effort to obviously pad the idea for feature length status. Downs, who also directed, shows an obvious flair in the smaller moments, but relies heavily upon others before him whenever the time arises to artistically hide the seams of his budget restraints. As previously stated, however, there are worse influences to have, and at least this isn’t another paltry found footage abomination. The direction makes the same mistake as the writing department, however, and relies upon unseasoned performances to fill in the lulls. All the actors find their few-and-far-between strides at points, usually occurring during instances in which they don’t have to open their mouths and speak.
A lurid and pointless affair overall, but “American Maniacs” does boast attributes setting it apart from the usual shock value cinema suspects, and driving original music (if you’re into that heavy metal nonsense) by Patrick Savage and Holeg Spies. It also has a supreme lack of discipline and experience both in front of and behind the camera. Of course, that same statement had been made many times over in regards to “House of 1,000 Corpses.” Perhaps we should look at it this way: Would Mr. Zombie approve of “American Maniacs?” If he could stay conscious through the first hour, I’ll just bet he would. A shame I can’t quite join him.
American Maniacs (2010)