Maya begins strong. Professor Slivak (William Berger) lives in the shadow of a Mayan pyramid and is being plagued with nightmares about sacrifices once given atop the pyramid millennia ago. He awakens one morning, and convinced he must confront the ancient evil, Slivak begins his journey by car. En route he spies a striking-looking child who steps in front of his vehicle. Slivak exits the car to tend to the injured child, but the child is not injured or dead: the child frightens Slivak with a flash of its eyes. The child is an omen of the evil to come. At the base of the pyramid, Slivak slowly ascends its stairs. At the top near the sacrificial altar, he is slain. His chest is cut open and his heart removed.
Enter Peter (Peter Phelps). Peter is a good-looking layabout who is fucking gorgeous local Jahaira (Mariangélica Ayala). He likes to smoke weed, drink booze, and take long walks in the rain. He also has a gambling problem which has put him in debt, much to the chagrin of the local expatriate community, including local cantina owner, Sid (Antonello Fassari) and his bar maid, Laura (Mirella D’Angelo). The announcement of Slivak’s murder looms over the village, who are coincidentally preparing a commemorative event at the Mayan pyramid. Slivak’s daughter, Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives to identify her father’s corpse and she remains in the village to find his murderer. Lisa enlists the help of Peter but is hindered throughout her investigation. Everyone is reticent to talk to her, despite the fact that more people are murdered up until the commencement of the village ceremony.
The aim of Maya is definitely the American market: it clearly wants to plant itself in a video box to snuggle up on the shelves of its American counterparts. I remember reading (or watching) an interview with Umberto Lenzi who described his later, late-eighties films in the “American-style.” The Italians knew the foreign market was much stronger than the domestic one. Maya has a Utilitarian, focused visual style: the compositions are never showy or distracting. Tension and foreboding are created through tighter compositions and marked pacing. Even the wonderful opening of the film has a cool synth track to accompany its visuals. The problems of Maya come with the plot and the characterization. Avallone attempts to give his characters some depth by providing each a back story: Sid has a broken heart; Laura has a secret boyfriend; and Jahaira suffers from unrequited love. Enriching a character’s background intuitively should create sympathy in the viewer; however, along the way, nay from the beginning, Avallone forgot he was making a murder mystery (maybe even a supernatural one?). While one character may have a broken heart, none have a motive. The characters just float along with seemingly no real tie to the dramatic action. Finally, while the practical special effects are good, the murders are not particularly interesting or original: Maya has a murder via car evocative of John Carpenter’s Christine (1986); a murder in the bathtub evocative of a scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); and corpse suspended to the ceiling by hooks, its imagery evocative of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). I do find quite a bit of entertainment in the cinema of this era, both from Italy and the United States and I am not saying that there is not a certain charm about Maya: it is just that there is not enough to elevate its entertainment value above average and really nothing about it is memorable.
Aficionados of Italian cinema will recognize the voices of the English dubbers, used over and over throughout the years. Actress Mirella D’Angelo, who plays Lisa, is recognizable from Dario Argento’s Tenebre (1982) as the victim who saw the killer’s face through the slash in her shirt. From the credits, it appears that Maya was filmed in Venezuela and the imagery of the Mayan pyramid seemed genuine. A scene of a native exorcism ritual is a highlight (it has nothing to do seemingly with the plot by the way.) It is powerful imagery, and Avallone sorely underutilized it. Maya could have been a strong, atmospheric gem from Italy but instead it is a forgettable American knock-off.