I used to love trading cards. I mean, love them. My (trundle) bed’s head board (and just about every other empty bit of real estate on it) was covered in stickers from the multitudes of packs I bought. There were Tusken Raiders, Grand Moff Tarkin (even then I recognized the greatness of Peter Cushing), and good, old Chewbacca (are you sensing a theme here?), to name but three. There were other kinds of stickers plastered there, as well (it’s just that none of them specifically spring to mind right now). It’s interesting to me that, today, outside of the people who purchase trading cards because they’re collectors or because they’re trading card game players, you just never see trading cards around for sale at your local corner store. It boggles my mind, because kids would love this stuff. There were giant pictures you could make by flipping over certain cards and piecing it together like a puzzle. There was some of the worst chewing gum in the world. There were the aforementioned stickers (the adhesive properties of which I can fully endorse for use in the space program, if we still had one). There were stories told over the entirety of some card series, providing all the more motivation to collect them all (the classic Mars Attacks series, being the most famous). You could trade extra cards you had or cards you didn’t want with your buddies (hence, “trading cards”). You could stick them in the spokes of your bikes and make a really cool noise as you pedaled your little behind off (you have to remember, this was back when kids went outside to play constantly rather than admiring the world they didn’t participate in through a four-inch screen, which I suppose also solves the mystery of why trading cards are no longer popular; yes, I’m old and cranky). Had we the wicked trading cards discovered at the outset of Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs (which I think are more intriguing for what they don’t tell us than what they do), I could see myself still collecting trading cards today.
After some nifty cards displaying a variety of monstrous killers are inexplicably found nestled inside a cattle skull under the Golden Gate Bridge by a fisherman (yes, really), the Neon Maniacs make their appearance, dispatching the man and heading off to the city for some night time activities. Meanwhile, Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) and her dickweed friends are cruising for some beer to celebrate Nat’s birthday. After an awkward meet cute with awkward cutie pie Steven (Clyde Hayes), Nat’s friends party down in some local park and are soon set upon by the titular, murderous monsters. Natalie survives the attack, but soon discovers that the Maniacs have it out for her personally.
This film has a few things going on beneath its façade, even though, by all accounts, the film’s producers were purely mercenary in their creative motivations (but in my opinion, that’s why they call it the sub-conscious). One of the bigger themes has to do with social classes. Natalie is a rich girl. She is currently at home alone, because her (we can certainly assume) uncaring mother is jet setting around Europe with some boy toy. Natalie takes tennis lessons, too; whether by choice or involuntarily, it’s one of those sports associated with the well-to-do. We can also assume that all of her friends are affluent despite their slapdash appearances because of how they relate to Steven. Steven is the son of a working man (his dad owns a market for which Steven has to make deliveries), and he is treated as a peon because of this. At school, he wears a raggedy sweater (though this could just as easily be a punk kind of thing). Naturally, Steven and Natalie were made for each other, opposites attracting and all that. Yet, there has to be equalization between the two, and since Steven is most likely not going to hit the lottery during the film’s run time, Natalie has to be the one to acquiesce. This is evinced in their big date scene, where Steven makes an eco-friendly excuse for having to take her on the subway (never mind that people of all stripes take the damned thing every day), but Natalie assures Steven that she doesn’t mind. The Maniacs, then, are an analog for the truly poor and destitute (we’ll overlook that one of them is a “doctor”), and their vendetta against Natalie can be seen in the vein of “eating the rich,” as it were. While characters like Steven and Paula (Donna Locke) normally might have been left alone by the creatures because of their closeness to the monsters’ own socio-economic status (though most likely not), their intermingling with Natalie is what makes them targets as well.
This same type of relationship is also at play from a perspective of mindsets/lifestyles. Natalie is “normal” in her lifestyle. She hangs out with “normal” kids, who like to go out and drink and fool around, as can be expected. Steven is an outsider, and this is summed up by his musicianship. Rock ‘n roll was known for a long time as rebel music, and Steven sings pop rock in his own band: The Outlaws (this name being another indicator of his status and attitude). Steven seemingly has only one friend at school, Eugene (P.R. Paul), the Ralph Malph of San Francisco if that gives you some indication of his coolness level. Odder still is Paula, a monster kid who directs her own horror videos and loves special effects makeup. In fact, she may be even odder than the Maniacs, at least outwardly. She’s portrayed like she’s maybe ten-years-old, though her face looks like she’s in her early twenties (an issue with all of the “teens” in this film but more pronounced in Paula’s case). On top of that, she’s a total tomboy, dressing in jeans, a letterman jacket, and a sideways baseball cap. She is fascinated with the odd, and manages to follow a very obvious trail of Neon Maniac slime that the professional investigators obviously could not. In theory, and in another world, Paula would love the monsters in this movie. She would root for them to kill their victims in all manner of gruesome fashion. But since the Maniacs target Paula as well, she fears them rather than adores them (fair enough). The Maniacs, being the pinnacle of freakdom, strike out at what is normal and different from them. As with the socioeconomic motivations, and likely more apropos, the monsters desire a leveling of the field for themselves (or barring that, the destruction of that which they oppose) by attacking normality. By that same token, they are the threat of the unknown to normal society, so the two sides can never live in peace with each other.
If you’re looking for coherence, don’t look for it in Neon Maniacs. I know teenagers like to drink alcohol, but I was kind of dumbfounded at just how casually they do it in this film. Natalie and her (I’m guessing underage) pals just go to a beer store on her birthday for some hooch. Natalie offers Steven a beer after he delivers her groceries. At the climactic battle of the bands (held at a high school, mind you), one of the kids openly walks around, sloshed, with a cup of beer in her hand (this also makes for one of the film’s more humorous moments). Steven sleeps over Natalie’s house, unplanned, but has a change of clothes he gets into after showering. Lieutenant Devin (Victor Brandt), dresses like Philip Marlowe and rides around in a black and white cop car from the Fifties. Steven’s big plan for the finale not only makes zero sense but also places a hell of a lot more people in direct danger. In the middle of being stalked by the Maniacs, Steven and Natalie make out (I’m not kidding). If none of this convinces you of this film’s unintelligibility, here is the quote that opens it: “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!” Yet despite all of its collective dimwittedness, Neon Maniacs is a blast to sit through, and it does the job of turning your brain off for you, so you can just settle in to have your path brightened by the shadows and light cast on your screen by the film Neon Maniacs.
MVT: There’s a reason the film is called Neon Maniacs and not Steven the Delivery Boy with His Gal Natalie and That Annoying Kid Paula. In other words, the monsters are the MVT.
Make or Break: The finale at the battle of the bands has not one, not two, but three rockin’ tunes (two by Steven’s pop band and one by the farcical glam band Jaded [their singer brandishes a whip]), some pretty clever humor, and a whole lot of carnage (this despite the film being largely bloodless). If you’re not giggling or shaking your head throughout, I can guarantee you will at least not be bored.