If a horror movie came out in the 1980s, there’s a good chance it got a sequel or two. I’m not just talking about your Friday the 13ths or your Nightmares on Elm Street; those are obviously staples of the genre for the decade. I’m talking about House getting a Second Story. I’m talking about the Ghoulies going to college. I’m talking about Bud the C.H.U.D.
Sometimes, though, a horror movie that seemed like an obvious choice for a franchise wound up a one-and-done. One such movie is 1986’s Neon Maniacs. Despite a hook that could easily have extended through a series of sequels – mutant monsters, each with a different and specific design gimmick, appear from within the Golden Gate Bridge each night to prey on unsuspecting victims – the future of a Neon Maniacs franchise died after just a single entry. Made for a reported $1.5 million in 1984, the movie sat shelved for two years before playing in a handful of theaters; it appeared on video in 1987, where it found the majority of its audience… but even still today tends to fly under the radar.
I’m not making the case that Neon Maniacs should have had sequels because it’s a great horror movie. Frankly, it isn’t. There’s a ton of stuff to like about it, from the cool-sounding (if utterly meaningless) title to the brutal slaughter of a bunch of teenagers that basically opens the movie to a battle of the bands sequence that goes on for sooooo long to Paula, the young female sidekick who is another in a long tradition of ‘80s horror movie characters obsessed with monsters and horror movies. Neon Maniacs is the kind of horror movie that rarely makes any goddamn sense, but there’s enough cool stuff in the moment to make it stand out from the other movies of the period.
But if Neon Maniacs is such a nonsensical mess so much of the time (seriously, why would these mutants, who it turns out can only be killed by water, choose to live right on the San Francisco Bay?), why would I be surprised that it never got a sequel? The clearest answer is that lesser movies have gotten more, but that’s reductive. The next most obvious reason is that the film ends on a clear setup for a sequel. The monsters aren’t vanquished; in fact, we hardly know what happens to most of them. But the film’s final moments show a cop stumbling upon one of the surviving mutants and getting pulled into the back of an ambulance as he screams. The nightmare isn’t over. This is exactly the kind of cliffhanger that acted as the finale of a whole lot of ‘80s horror movies, many of which went on to spawn half a dozen installments.
But, of course, a cliffhanger ending does not guarantee a franchise, so it’s really the monsters themselves that ought to have created a demand for more Neon Maniacs movies. They’re part Cenobite, part Nightbreed, part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, each mutant monster with its own gimmick: there’s the samurai Neon Maniac and the surgeon Neon Maniac (played by Wishmaster’s Andrew Divoff!) and maybe a cop Neon Maniac? There’s one who looks like a Native American… I think? Then there are a couple I can’t possibly identify, like one that’s just a guy covered in blonde body hair and another one that’s like a miniature Cyclops Godzilla. The execution isn’t always perfect and some of the makeups haven’t aged that well, but the idea of all these mutant monsters is really cool and such an easy way to brand a franchise. With another two or three installments, we could all be talking about our favorite Neon Maniac in 2018. Hell, the movie even opens with a guy finding a bunch of what appear to be trading cards of each of the monsters. How they have trading cards of themselves I cannot possibly speculate – maybe one of the mutants has a marketing degree and another owns a printing press – but it speaks directly to the missed opportunity of bringing these characters back in future movies. They are so easily distinguished that at least a few of them could have become iconic with the right exposure.
Point being, this is a universe that could have been played in a lot more. There is backstory to be explored and there are questions to be answered. New characters could have encountered the Neon Maniacs. New monsters could have been introduced. I wouldn’t necessarily need for any of the human characters to return, but bringing back Paula (played by Donna Locke in her sole screen credit) could have been really cool, especially if she used all of her knowledge to graduate from Monster Kid to full-on Neon Maniac Hunter. If nothing else, a couple of sequels might have given another director the chance to take the stuff that’s good in the first film and build on it by improving on all the things that don’t work.
The original was only the second (and final) movie ever directed by Joe Mangine, whose first effort, the marijuana-and-sex romp Smoke and Flesh, was made twenty years prior. Mangine worked primarily as a cinematographer, responsible for lensing classics like Alligator, Alone in the Dark and The Sword and the Sorcerer; not surprisingly, he brings a strong visual sense to Neon Maniacs, but does little for things like story consistency or logic. Why did another director never get a crack at a follow-up?
All of the groundwork was laid for another movie or two, but it just wasn’t in the cards; Neon Maniacs is always going to be the Franchise That Could Have Been. That’s probably not something that keeps many horror fans up at night, and to be honest my own reaction is more one of surprise than disappointment. More of these movies just seems like a no-brainer, even if I don’t really need them in my life. But in a world where there are NINE Children of the Corn movies, it’s hard to believe there’s only one Neon Maniacs.