Monday, May 18, 2009

Maniac (1980)

There's something about the simplicity of this title that I appreciate. I mean, the picture is about a maniac. I know, let's call it Maniac! I like that. What I don't like is how the feminist groups were all up in arms with their protests when this movie came out; spray painting over posters, labeling it with words like "despicable", "misogynistic", "appalling", and so on. That is a little over the top in its ridiculousness. Just because the guy on the poster is holding a freshly scalped woman's scalp while standing there with what appears to be an enormous erection does not give these women the right to write off the picture sight unseen. There could be plenty of reasons for that guy to be standing there, fully aroused, with a scalp in his hand. Maybe it's not a scalp. Maybe he's a wig maker and he spilled some paint. Maybe he just found it on the street and is holding it up for a police officer to tag and bag. I don't know, if these women had seen the film I could maybe understand a little more about where they're coming from.

Having now seen the picture I want to add another label. "sleazy". That definitely applies. This is yet another picture where a guy grows up to be a serial killer because of the way his mother mis-treated him. Joe Spinell stars as maniac, aka Frank Zito. He manages an apartment building in New York City, but we never really see him doing much in the way of managing. He actually spends very little time in his apartment, which progressively becomes more crowded by mannequins with women's scalps tacked onto their heads. Zito sleeps with one until he gets sick of it and then moves on to another one. Let me just say that this is a tour de force performance by Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Rocky, Nighthawks, etc).

The director is William Lustig who many horror fans may recognize as the guy that runs the "blue underground" label. Lustig also made some pictures of interest such as Uncle Sam and Maniac Cop. Lustig, and screenwriters Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg, ask us to, and this might be reprehensible, sympathize with this Zito fellow. It's easy to feel sorry for him. I mean, as a kid his mother beat him and brought johns home (she was a hooker) to their apartment. Then, to top it all off, he grew up to look like Joe Spinell which does not make attracting women very easy. I mean, you would need a really good personality and I'm not sure talking to yourself or your mannequins qualifies. Even so, it's kinda hard to hate the guy when he's not hacking up women. He just needs to stop trying so hard. Women tend to like him at first but then goes overboard what with the killing and scalping and all. Oh well, can't say he isn't trying.

Maniac is a character study. There's no mystery. We know who the killer is almost immediately. I guess it's like Taxi Driver (another movie Spinell was in) only if Travis Bickle were a little more disturbed. Frank Zito primarily goes out at night trying to make some sort of connection with humanity. These nightly jaunts almost always end in stabbings, strangulations, shotgunnings, etc. The kills all seem to be indirectly inspired by Hitchcock, by way of 70s Giallos. Characters, mostly women, are introduced (and not named) only to be killed off minutes later. The picture is incredibly explicit and, yet, there are instances where what is implied if far more horrifying than what is actually shown. Case in point, the Tom Savini scene. Savini did the special makeup effects for Maniac and I have to say this is some of his best work. Savini also appears briefly as a character named "disco guy", acting alongside "disco girl". Savini shows why he's an awful actor while showing why he's one of the best makeup guys at the same time. I thought the exploding head bit in Scanners could never be topped. This one's better. We can only imagine what happens to "disco girl" soon after. Well, we're pretty sure her head is blown off as well but some other things that might happen to her are probably worse than death.

The picture hits its stride when Zito meets a girl (Caroline Munro) and she actually seems to like him back. Spinell is charming and, even somewhat, funny in these scenes. His attempts at normalcy are pretty damned endearing. If I didn't know he was murdering women for their scalps and stapling them to his mannequins I'd probably want to hang out with the guy too. Munro plays fashion photographer Anna D'Antoni. She's a beaut alright. They have some interesting conversations like the one about how Zito would want to keep all the pictures she takes in case the girls die or something. A memento (trophy?) to remember them by. Anna laughed this off, but that's a weird topic to get into on a first date. Also, she seems pretty touched when Zito says he wants to swing by his mother's grave a little later (I think it was their second date). I don't know why, but it was weird watching him eat a normal dinner with her. I half expected him to sneak eyeballs or nipples into his meal when she wasn't looking. I guess he's schizo though so that side of his personality was likely asleep.

One other thing I found interesting about this picture was the almost complete lack of nudity. There is some towards the end but I just don't think Lustig and company were interested in titilating the audience with this material. There's always been a fine line between sex and violence in films. If you show too much of either you risk being pornographic. If you don't show enough, you risk losing your intended audience. Well, I don't know, but there is a lot of violence and gore in this picture. Some of it might even make you a bit uncomfortable. It's never really exhilerating, though I confess to being a little bit excited by the Savini headshot, which is why it stears clear of the pornography label. There is almost no sex. Zito pays for a hooker at one point but strangles her before they actually get anywhere (probably reminded him of his mother). Hell, I guess it's progress that none of the violence against women is really of a sexual nature. Probably because Zito is impotent, but also, more probably because he's got those sweet looking mannequins to go home to. We are making strides I guess.

I really liked this one. The ending was incredibly surreal and strangely mirrors Spinnel's own death years later. Apparently, the guy got drunk one night and cut himself in the shower. He passed out on the couch and, being a hemophiliac, bled to death. Later, the cops walked into his apartment, which resembled a literal blood bath. The first thing they saw was Spinnel's severed head sitting on the TV. No, it wasn't his real severed head. It was a prop head they used for this movie. Still, that freaked the cops out pretty good you can imagine and it took a while for them to regain composure and search the rest of the apartment. This, and various other Spinell stories, are from a documentary included with the DVD. Some of his friends wonder if Spinell put his "head" on the TV as a joke. Guy has a pretty fucked up sense of humor if that's true. Also, just realized I spoiled the ending by revealing that they used a prop head. If you are looking for a sleazy, depraved, disturbing, revolting, good time then I recommend you see Maniac.

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