‘Maniac’ strikes LACMA: Bill Lustig on the high art of grindhouse

Oct. 18, 2012 | 5:13 p.m.
maniac1 Maniac strikes LACMA: Bill Lustig on the high art of grindhouse

Joe Spinell in the 1980 film “Maniac.” (Blue Underground)

Once, the films of cult auteur Bill Lustig played the grindhouse movie circuit — the kind of one-off indie cinemas specializing in genre films that these days are difficult to find. Tonight, however, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is welcoming Lustig for a Q&A between screenings of his “Maniac” (1980) and “Vigilante” (1983) — the writer-director acknowledged he was somewhat surprised to find himself in a place of high culture.

“No doubt about it, from the grindhouse to the L.A. County Museum is quite a leap,” Lustig said delightedly when Hero Complex recently caught up with him. He was calling from Spain, where he was attending the Sitges Film Festival to promote a remake of “Maniac” starring Elijah Wood. “I’ve told people this may be your one and only time to see these films in a cinema where your feet don’t stick to the floor and it’s safe to go into the bathroom.”

“Maniac,” co-written by its star Joe Spinell, creates a grungy atmosphere to go with the shocking graphic violence it portrays in its tale of a killer who stalks and scalps his victims. “Vigilante” stars Robert Forster (now known to many for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”) as a man looking to avenge the murder of his wife and son by joining a vigilante gang.

“ ‘Taken 2,’ what is it? It’s ‘Vigilante’ with Liam Neeson,” said Lustig, pointing toward the ways in which the mainstream has over the years pushed closer toward his once out-of-bounds films.

maniac Maniac strikes LACMA: Bill Lustig on the high art of grindhouse

Director Franck Khalfoun, left, producer William “Bill” Lustig and actor Elijah Wood arrive at a presentation of their remake of “Maniac” during the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. (Susanna Saez / European Pressphoto Agency)

“Maniac” was a lightning rod of controversy in its day, swept up in the wave of cultural conversation around the intersection of sex and violence in movies. The original Los Angeles Times review of the film declared it “without any redemption whatsoever.” In a 1981 news clip included on the “Maniac” DVD, Rona Barrett reads a statement from the Los Angeles Times about the paper’s unusual decision to refuse any advertising for the film, which said “it is our duty to the community we serve not to encourage even indirectly such violence.”

Lustig says he wasn’t setting out to be confrontational.

“What I thought I was making was the ultimate horror film. What I thought I was making, in my mind, was the movie the audience wanted,” he said. “Clearly, I must have been somewhat correct: The film has been highly successful and really outlasted all the negative comments.”

In recent years Lustig has been focused more on producing than directing. The “Maniac” remake starring Wood – which will screen at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles on Oct. 24 – will be coming out soon from IFC Midnight, and Lustig is producing with Nicolas Winding Refn a remake of his “Maniac Cop.”

The impulse for a modern dose of Lustig’s brand of raw shock cinema remains unabated, it seems.

“The way I look at it is, my movies aren’t for everyone,” Lustig said. “They are definitely films that are for a very specific taste and audience. And that audience wears the grindhouse label with pride. They get it. The people who are the Laemmle snobs about this type of entertainment, they’ll never see it, they have no interest in seeing it and that’s fine with me.”

– Mark Olsen

Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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