DirectorAdam Rifkin (as Rif Coogan)
Release Date(s)1990 (November 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Smoking Gun Productions/Republic Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B+
The Invisible Maniac is a prime example of the changes that the home video revolution brought to the world. While there’s always been an independent film scene where determined young filmmakers could cut their teeth, the explosion of the direct-to-video market in the late Eighties and early Nineties expanded the available opportunities. As long as the budgets were tight and there was plenty of nudity and/or gore on display, distributors like Republic Pictures were happy to snap up the results. Yet there was still a stigma at the time about the direct-to-video moniker, so most of these projects were still shot on film, and they often received some kind of a limited theatrical release—even if it was just on a single screen—in order to be marketed as such. (That didn’t stop the energetic filmmakers of the burgeoning shot-on-video movement, but that was a still a less than reputable part of the business). The Invisible Maniac ticked all of those boxes, and with an easily exploitable premise to boot, Republic ended up turning a tidy profit on it.
The Invisible Maniac was the brainchild of writer/director Adam Rifkin, working under the pseudonym Rif Coogan. He was looking for a way to get some extra mileage under his belt before launching more ambitious projects, and so the direct-to-video market beckoned. The story that he concocted (with the help of some uncredited rewrites) involves a scientist named Dornwinkle (Noel Peters), who goes on a rampage when his peers mock his attempts to create invisibility. He escapes confinement at mental hospital and ends up going undercover as a physics professor at a local high school. He doesn’t give up on his experiments, though, and an eventual breakthrough frees him to become an unseen tormentor for the students and the faculty. The Invisible Maniac also stars Stephanie Blake, Melissa Moore, and Shannon Wilsey, who would go on to a brief career as the adult film star Savannah, before her tragic death a few years later.
Rifkin’s one big twist to the standard H.G. Wells formula is right in the title. Unlike The Invisible Man, Dornwinkle isn’t driven mad by the experience of using his serum; instead, he was a loony long before he even tried it. He may appear to have become a panty-sniffing invisible maniac, but he was already a panty-sniffing maniac long before invisibility entered the picture. As the prologue demonstrates, his real issue is the classic schlock trope of a domineering, sexually repressive mother. (This prologue bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Sleepaway Camp, which probably isn’t a coincidence.) Peters threw himself into the role with reckless abandon, especially whenever he cut loose with his gratingly maniacal laugh, but he was also able to deliver ridiculous lines like this with a perfectly straight face:
“I do feel a tremendous urge to reinject myself with the serum, an urge that can only be satiated by another injection.”
That's true of the film as a whole, which mixes its cartoon slapstick with moments of deadpan earnestness. Yet it never loses sight of what it is: pure, unadulterated exploitation. The Invisible Maniac is the kind of film where lack of ambition is a feature, not a bug. It's exactly what Rifkin intended it to be.
Cinematographer James Bay shot The Invisible Maniac on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras, framed at 1.85:1 for its limited theatrical release (though most audiences at the time would have experienced it open-matte at 1.33:1 on VHS). This version utilizes a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, cleaned up and graded for High Dynamic Range (only HDR10 is included on the disc). Note that while IMDb erroneously reports that The Invisible Maniac was actually shot on 16 mm, it was indeed a 35 mm negative. The grain is moderately heavy, so it’s understandable why it could be mistaken for 16mm, but fortunately the encode manages that grain quite well. Everything is grainy enough that it does affect the level of detail on display, but there’s still plenty of fine texturing visible behind the textures of the film itself. During the interstitial newspaper headline after Dornwinkle escapes, it’s even possible to read all of the text in the smallest text box—provided that your display is large enough, of course. Aside from some infrequent and very faint speckling, there’s no significant damage. Like many Vinegar Syndrome titles, the HDR grade is pretty aggressive, so some of the flesh tones do push a bit reddish (they’re more natural on the included Blu-ray). Still, the vivid timing does suit the hyperbolic nature of The Invisible Maniac. The entire film is wildly exaggerated, so it makes sense that the colors would be equally extravagant.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. There’s a bit of distortion and excessive sibilance throughout the track, which often gives it a harsh quality. It’s also an awkward mix, with the dialogue and even the sound effects sometimes being completely overwhelmed by the music. The dialogue is generally comprehensible despite the harshness, but the strange balance of the original mix means that it’s sometimes difficult to hear it over the booming score.
Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Invisible Maniac is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. The insert is reversible, featuring new artwork by Robert Sammelin on the front, and the original Republic Pictures artwork on the flip side. There’s also a Limited Edition spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, designed by Sammelin, that’s limited to the first 6,000 units. Aside from the commentary tracks, all of the extras are confined to the Blu-ray only, in order to maximize the bit rate for the feature.
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with The Hysteria Continues!
- Audio Commentary with Adam Rifkin
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with The Hysteria Continues!
- Audio Commentary with Adam Rifkin
- Fast, Cheap, and Out of Sight (HD – 32:08)
- Deleted Scene: Dream Sequence (Upscaled SD – 13:00)
- Request Video Interview with Rif Coogan (aka Adam Rifkin) (Upscaled SD – 12:11)
- He’s Invisible Music Video (Upscaled SD – 4:16)
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage from He’s Invisible Music Video Production (Upscaled SD – 10:05)
- Original Video Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:38)
Adam Rifkin is joined for his commentary by an uncredited Elijah Drenner. Unlike far too many directors, Rifkin is a lively speaker, so he didn’t necessarily need any prodding, but it’s still nice to have Drenner on hand to ask some prepared questions. They cover the genesis of the film, its production, the cast, and the locations. Rifkin explains that based on some advice from John Landis, he conceived of the entire project as a way to practice his craft on a less consequential film, in order to have more experience for his next project, The Dark Backward. They do spend some time discussing Shannon Wilsey, aka Savannah, and it’s clear that she always exhibited the self-esteem issues that led to her taking her own life a few years later. (Rifkin also tells the story about how she almost had a cameo in The Dark Backward, but he ended up not being able to use her.) Rifkin openly acknowledges that The Invisible Manic is a “piece of shit,” but that’s the kind of movie that he set out to make. Stick through all the way to the end, as Drenner asks Rifkin to explain some of the interesting names in the joke credits.
The second commentary features members of The Hysteria Continues! podcast collective, which includes Justin Kerswell, Nathan Johnson, Erik Threlfall, and Joseph Henson. While their métier is really the slasher genre, The Invisible Maniac does offer plenty of fodder for their interests. They did their research to provide much more detail about the cast & crew in the film than Rifkin does, although they make a few dubious assertions as well—one of them claims that Rifkin was the second person who reported the Japanese movie Guinea Pig 2 to the FBI as a snuff film, after Charlie Sheen. (I can’t find any reference to Rifkin’s involvement online.) They’re definitely enthusiastic about having been given the opportunity to do a commentary for The Invisible Maniac, so it’s a fun listen.
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Sight is a making-of documentary featuring interviews with Rifkin, executive producer Cassian Elwes, composer Marc David Decker, and crew member/songwriter Dan Pevenmire, as well as actors Rod Sweitzer, Debra Lamb, and Stephanie Blake. Rifkin admits up front that everyone knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a good movie, but all that mattered was that they filled it with “boobs and blood.” Everyone still had a good time making it, despite the low budget (somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000, according to Rifkin). They all share their own memories of the production, including shooting a music video for the song He’s Invisible, and creating the extended dream sequence that was used to pad the film out for overseas distribution. Rifkin was offended by the whole process, so he created the worst scene that he could as a way of giving the finger to the distributors. (Since the sequence is included as an extra here, he wants everyone to understand that context before they watch it.) Despite being planned as a direct-to-video feature, they did strike a 35mm print, so The Invisible Maniac actually had an honest-to-goodness theatrical premiere.
The Deleted Scene: Dream Sequence is the aforementioned cheap padding, and it’s a doozy. It’s primarily of note because it features the late Julie Strain, who would go on to work with Rifkin again in Psycho Cop Returns. The Request Video Interview features Rifkin in character as Rif Coogan being interviewed for the legendary Los Angeles public access television show. Needless to say, he basically made everything up. The He’s Invisible music video has Dan Pevenmire dressed up as a dime store Axel Rose, while the rest of the band sports bubblegum pop attire. (Did director Kevin Kerslake see this before shooting Nirvana’s second video for In Bloom, just two years later? Inquiring minds want to know.) The Behind-The-Scenes Footage shows the band members having plenty of fun while making the video.
It's always great to see neglected films making the leap to UHD, but it’s unusual to see one that goes straight from VHS to 4K. Yet here’s The Invisible Maniac on UHD, as large as life and twice as natural, after having been previously unavailable on any other digital home video format. It takes some very visible maniacs to provide a loving restoration of a direct-to-video title like this, but thankfully, the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome were up to the task. It’s a great release of an admittedly less-than-great film, but that’s what makes owning it so special. Boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome are doing the Lord’s work by bringing forgotten titles back to glorious ultra-high definition life. To those who would ask why films like The Invisible Maniac should get the full 4K treatment, the answer is, why not? There’s plenty of space in the physical media ecosphere. All are welcome in the light.
- Stephen Bjork