Maniac (1980) Review

New York City nights just got even deadlier.

New York City nights just got even deadlier.

Maniac was a pretty controversial film when it was released, and now that I can finally say I have seen it in its entirety, I can certainly understand why it was zeroed in on as a prime target by worried mommies and overly concerned groups.  Its title accurately describes the main characters as well as the directing of the film, as Maniac is, by my count, at least two distinct movies within one.  The first being a fusion of a theatrically recreated pseudo-documentary of a serial killer, and the second more closely resembling a flick that could be lumped under the broad umbrella of the slasher film by less discerning critics and film aficionados.  While the documentary angle I embrace to an extent, to call Maniac a slasher is to completely ignore all the things about it that differentiate it from being just another slasher.  It’s more like an experiment in serial kill based storytelling, and at point even an examination of deep mental and psychological wounds and their long term effects on even the most normal and unremarkable members of everyday society.

The story follows the path of Frank Zito, a man who has found…”solace” in killing ordinary citizens, mainly women, in New York City in an attempt to get some sort of abstract revenge on his long deceased mother who mistreated him.  Piece by piece, we unravel some more details about both Frank and his mother, and also witness him collect parts of his victims in order to decorate mannequins that adorn his hole-in-the-wall apartment.

Sleeping with hand-cuffed mannequins.  And I thought I was desperate.

Sleeping with hand-cuffed mannequins. And I thought I was desperate.

As you’ve probably guessed, a movie like Maniac would largely be a one man show.  Fortunately for us Joe Spinell is great as the psycho killer, and at times a little too good.  As I alluded to earlier, one of the most disturbing things about Maniac isn’t just the blood andlayings s  (provided by one of the Godfathers of Gore himself, Tom Savini), but also how relentless it is and how real it seems from an acting standpoint.  The female victims all have screams that really sell some of the more unconvincing and impossibly rapid deaths in the film, and Joe Spinell appears truly in his element as he prolongs the moments before the inevitable as long as he can.  In some scenes, Spinell will even look directly into the camera, while he is either talking or his thoughts are being vocalized to us via his own mental narration.  These glares into the lens are very unsettling, and really feel as though he can see YOU, and only you, and is asking you with his eyes for consent or permission to carry out his deed.  This is one of the few points where I feel Maniac deviates from the beaten path of the slasher sub-genre, and jump into the deep end of borderline experimental film making and psychological horror.  Spinell really steals the show, and not just by default since he pretty much is the entire show.  Caroline Munro plays his opposite, and “romantic” interest, and gives the movie a much needed shot in the arm when she arrives about halfway through the flick.  She is a bit of a genre vet, and knew how to be beautiful and also impress with her acting abilities.  I would like to say she brings in an element of comedy, but Maniac is a film determined to be as deadpan in its delivery as possible.  Spinell and Munro play nicely off each other, giving the movie its only scenes where strict acting technique and talent is the main draw for a few minutes.  To really pass judgment on the acting is a slippery slope, since it relies so heavily on your patience and willingness to buy into the very off-kilter nature of the whole yarn.  Your mileage may vary, but things do pick up and the acting gets better and deeper as the story unfolds.

Best exploding head ever?

Best exploding head ever?

Keeping with the theme of exploring what makes this film so grimy and effective, let’s move right along to the technical package, and in particular the special effects.  The special effects could be summed up simply by saying two words…Tom Savini.  For those of you out there who don’t know who Savini is, let me first welcome you to the planet Earth.  Secondly, Savini was the behind Romero’s original “Of The Dead” trilogy, responsible for changing the way the entire world viewed zombies and gut-munching, among other things.  His work in Maniac is far from his best overall grouping of kills and blood, but the absolute screamer of the bunch is the head explosion via shotgun that comes into play about halfway through.  Ironically enough, Savini is the actor who is actually getting his head taken off, which must have been strange for him as he watched a meticulously modeled and painted replicated head of himself get shattered by buckshot.  This kill also signals the movie moving into a different territory, one where we see our killer get more proficient with his murders, and more risky with his entrances and exits.  The flick also gets more brutal from this point on, as if the film weren’t already slimy enough.  Speaking of slime, the flick takes place in pre-Christmas December, meaning that even when scenes are shot in the daytime, it is done in that hazy shade of winter that makes a city like New York look just that much more gray and bleak.  The cinematography and photography all bleeds this kind of choking vibe like Frank Zito is squeezing the last droplets of life out a city already ravaged by moral and social decline.  Lighting is mostly natural, and there is a dusty feeling to many of scenes and even the actors, especially since the camera likes to stand just a little to close to the characters on screen for comfort, like we are invading their personal bubble.

Frank Zito needs to hire a better interior designer.

Frank Zito needs to hire a better interior designer.

Speaking of invading personal space, director William Lustig shows a great aptitude for doing just that with special attention given to how tight, up close shots that follow motion can create a copious amount of tension.  What stood out to me as the absolute best example of everything Maniac does in exemplary fashion is the subway “chase” scene with the nurse-like character.  It’s already a long scene from start to finish, topping out somewhere around the 10 minute mark, but it feels even longer than that thanks to the wonderful directing and spine-rattling suspense.  Even though you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt what the end results will be, you’re just never sure when, where, or how that blow will be delivered.  This also is one of the two scenes that made me jump, thanks to a appropriately left-of-center score that at times features some strange slap-bass riffs and at other times some John Carpenter-esque synthesizer magic with heavy, loud notes punctuating the boo scares.  Lustig really worked the natural, unpolished style of directing to the fullest he could with Maniac, which makes it stand out as a flick that just looks dirty and bleak, the perfect accompaniment on the visual plane to the story of Frank Zito.  The flashy shots we get are few and far between, but some of the point of view stuff is done subtly and quickly enough to jar your attention and keep you off balance, and when Zito is performing a scalping on one of his recent victims, we get a shot from the eyes of deceased as blood pours down over her face from her head.  It’s a small, easy to manufacture cinema trick, but it works due to the set up of that particular kill and how reserved Lustig was with his gimmicks.  Early on, Maniac may feel touch and go for a while, as the pace isn’t exactly what anyone would call speedy, but the directing is more than serviceable enough, and more importantly its full of purpose and resolve, which makes the whole movie worth watching even if it isn’t flipping your wig in the first act.

Mannequins.  Ultra creepy.

Mannequins. Ultra creepy.

Maniac is a rare case where I think the hoopla surrounding it I have read so much about may have actually been warranted.  What is funny is that the concern many people expressed over the film should have been seen as praise towards the director, writers, producers and actors for making a movie that has effected grown adults to such an extent, regardless of whether or not it was “just a movie.”  I won’t go out on a limb and say this is the most personally effecting flick I have ever seen, but I will say I noticed myself adjusting myself in my seat multiple times, which is a reflection on how squirm-worthy some of the set pieces are in Maniac.  I will use a phrase to describe I have used many times, but I feel is fitting here again with Maniac.  It is uneven, but it isn’t at all bad or poorly conceived.  It will be a matter of personal taste that will be the determining factor with this one, but if you care for my humble opinion, I say you should give it a shot if you’re not, for lack of better terms, an over-sensitive and/or feminist/feminist sympathizing wimp.   I only say that because Maniac can be seen as very mean-spirited toward the fairer sex.  What Maniac has up its sleeve though, is an unique experience, one of which I can’t directly compare to anything else I have seen, which is highlighted throughout by some very tense and simplistic-yet-innovative cat and mouse stalk sequences complete with mostly impressive gore.  If this sounds like a good time to you, and you’re a woman between the ages of 18-26, please give me a call at 555…I mean give this one a shot if that sounds like your cup of tea.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Maniac 1980 Joe Spinell Tom Savini

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About Alex Seda

"I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall - looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it." ~Dr. Loomis email alex
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