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Maniac Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Maniac Review

    “I warned you not to go out tonight ...”

    Finally, Bill Lustig’s much-hated splatter-opus Maniac makes the transition from grubby VHS and DVD to the shining hi-def platter of Blu-ray. And of course, it is only fitting that Lustig’s own company, Blue Underground, do his film the honours with this region-free US release. But, guess what? The film looks just as grubby, and as dirty and as subterranean low-budget as it always did, the hi-def process not altering its sick and sleazy, sweat-caked aesthetic one iota. It is strange that something like Maniac can now receive such a lavish package as this 2-disc set because its track record and its reputation have not exactly endeared it. I managed to get a-hold of the uncut US tape at a jaw-droppingly young age and sat through its eighty-eight minutes of systematic slaughter … and genuinely wondered what all the fuss was about. It was neither scary, nor completely repugnant. It was depressing and deliberating downbeat, but it is also weirdly boring and all rather un-sensational. Lustig, who would also create the fun Maniac Cop series (with the fabulously shovel-jawed Robert D’Zar) was setting out to make a movie that would push cinematic violence out a little further, and he is partially successful at doing so. His long-take kills are elaborate and nasty and very messy, but there is virtually no suspense in the movie at all, and precious little fear supplied. We are basically following a nutcase around the seedier parts of the Big Apple and standing over to one side as he randomly murders and mutilates his victims – he actually offs two fellers that get in the way as well – in order to claim their scalps for later makeovers on his mannequin collection back home. There seemed, at the time, no motive, no rationale and no purpose for his outrages … let alone for the making of the film, itself, in the first place.

    But, as we shall see, Maniac had aspirations of being more than just a simple splatter-movie and … dare I say it … was actually quite groundbreaking and pertinent.

    A massive cause celebre at the time of its theatrical release, Maniac went head-to-head with Brian De Palma’s cross-dressing serial killer thriller Dressed To Kill and Steve Miner's Jason sequel, Friday The 13th Part 2, and lost out. In fact, it is fair to say that Lustig’s deeply unhinged and wretchedly bleak psycho-chiller became synonymous with the absolute nadir of the genre, fuelling the anti-horror lobby with napalm-like vitriol, causing critics to create new adjectives for hate and scorn, inciting mass protests from women campaigning against the trend for females-in-peril movies that were proliferating at the time (had, in fact, proliferated for a good couple of decades beforehand, and would carry on to proliferate onwards until today) and doing virtually the unthinkable in actually “turning off” even the most ardent splatter-fans. The film became one of the most vilified exploitation flicks ever made, even provoking more hostility than the likes of the Wes Craven/Sean S. Cunningham shocker The Last House On The Left (which had pretentions of “art” with it being a loose remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring), I Spit On Your Grave (which, at least, depicted the female protagonist getting her own back on her persecutors) and Cannibal Holocaust (which was actually a very clever film-within-film social allegory). Heavily cut in the UK and now languishing in the doldrums of the perpetually still censored re-released in Blighty (alongside I Spit On Your Grave), the film boasted gore-effects from the great Tom Savini, a remarkable performance from supporting superstar-turned-lead Joe Spinell, an utterly bewildering bit-part from Hammer-starlet-cum-Bond-girl Caroline Munro, and a deeply disturbing insight into the mind of a depraved psycho-sexual killer.

    The history of such a concept goes back to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Powell’s Peeping Tom, but the vogue of outwardly normal people in the heart of modern society – always blokes of course – turning extremely nasty  would become an absolutely unbreakable rock for the genre to cling to. Before Spinell rolled down the helter-skelter of his own warped imagination as the mother-obsessed Frank Zito, Shane Briant’s control-freak had gone schizoid in Straight On Till Morning, the paranoid schizophrenic ventriloquist in Magic, a conniving and highly clandestine mystery-killer would crop up in Margot Kidder’s attic in Black Christmas and Michael Caine would don a wig and high-heels and brandish a straight-razor in Dressed To Kill. The world was certainly revealed as being a dangerous place for women. But this was nothing new. Universal and RKO frequently placed their heroines in jeopardy and Hammer would have been nothing without a damsel cowering from a Roy Ashton monster behind her own heaving cleavage. Of course, the difference that this new slew of horror films had over their ancestors was that their terrors took place in the modern world, often just in the shadows of the big city or even, worst of all, in the shredded sanctity of the home. Wandering in the Transylvanian woods at night was obviously asking for trouble, but now the genre reminded us that it wasn't even safe to walk home from work, or to travel by tube-train. Carrying a can of Mace and triple-locking the apartment door was not going to be enough to keep the evils of a broken society from getting at you. And, naturally, given the horrendous number of brutal rapes and murders of women going on in the real world, the fairer sex were going to suffer in the movies too.

    Just before Maniac came out, cinema screens had played host to Halloween, Friday The 13th, Terror Train and Prom Night, all films whose main selling-point, at least as far as the baiting journalists and moral guardians were concerned, was the graphic killing and terrorising of innocent people, usually women, but Bill Lustig's first horror movie after producing hardcore porn shows was literally lined-up as the vogue's scapegoat and set for a critical execution of its own. Yet those hack reporters and vocal feminist protesters were overlooking something quite crucially different about this particular assembly-line of atrocity. Frank Zito, the psychopathic murderer in Maniac, played excellently and chillingly by Joe Spinell, was no mere bogeyman lumbering after his victims with monosyllabic menace in a rubber-suited rampage of barely motivated mayhem. He wasn't un-killable. He wasn't supernatural in origin. He was just a guy on the street. A wretched victim of horrendous childhood abuse himself, he was somebody who was absolutely in turmoil with his own darker thoughts and needs. His daily struggle to contain what transpire to be homicidal tendencies meeting with abject and horrific failure whenever his savage and predatory instincts take over – which happens with almost banal regularity. Nor was he a remorseless ogre, for his guilt would eat away at his mind and soul – never enough to thwart his sadistic quest for retribution-by-proxy, but always enough to drive him to the depths of despair whenever his blood-lust was temporarily satisfied. He didn't howl at the Moon and he didn't sprout fangs or cavort around in a cape. Here was one of the first true cinematic incarnations of the psycho-sexual serial killer who plagued the streets of our sick and dismissive society, played with all-too-frightening authenticity.

    Feeding his mental agonies over the death of his amoral, abusive and body-selling mother in a car-crash, Frank stalks and murders women in Manhattan, details of his terrible crimes paralysing a city that is, in reality, inured to such things, with fear. Directionless and tortured by visions of his mother, Frank is offered a slim chance to crawl out from the mental abyss that has swallowed him when he meets beautiful photographer Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro) and begins to form a relationship that could end in redemption … or further slaughter.

    It is hugely pertinent that the real-life murder and decapitation of a prostitute in the very same hotel – the St James - as the one in which we witness Zito's protracted strangulation and subsequent explicit scalping of a hooker happened just after the scene was lensed, though before film was actually released. The ghastly symmetry of art imitating reality, and vice-versa, would prove damning. Obviously the fact that the killer had not seen the film made little impression on the media witchfinders, who were just waiting on the sidelines to ambush Lustig's offering to the increasingly popular slasher sub-genre. Nowadays, that sort of coincidence could possibly go in a film's favour – our appetite for death and mutilation having returned without the tabloid backlash that was once so overpowering, and the papers, news programmes and online bulletins regularly coloured with details of sensational acts of violent crime right alongside promotions for the latest Saw outing. But, moral tangents having altered considerably over the years, as well as our unfortunate understanding of the psychopathic mindset, notwithstanding, Lustig's film still remains one of the more blacklisted and despised of its ilk. When other movies such as The Silence Of The Lambs and Se7en (both excellent and far superior to Lustig's, of course, but both containing themes and deeds possibly even more despicable) can be the recipients of major accolades and awards, one has to sit back and take stock of the atrocious double-standards that the medium and our attitudes towards it seems to instil. Inarguably, both Lambs and Se7en are more entertaining pictures, but the overriding sense of dread and vulnerability that they foster is even more corrosive than anything seen or perpetrated in the depiction of Frank Zito's cruel campaign, however more explicit his acts might be. In fact, Maniac, for all of its slaughter and its narrative shortcomings, is considerably tamer than either of those later shockers in almost every way.

    Having said this, though, the film is still renowned for its gore fx. The aforementioned scalping scene is grim, yes, but it is also quite unconvincing. Actress Rita Montone‘s closed eyes are clearly moving as Savini’s hands (standing-in for Spinell’s) go about their ghastly business, and we are now far more savvy to the use of the hidden blood-tube that is pumping the red stuff down her face, and the mortician's wax that the blade is cutting through. Strangely, because of this inherent knowledge of makeup techniques that all gorehounds now possess, the scene becomes utterly inoffensive and all rather pedestrian. Other sundry stabbings with a bayonet are annoyingly tame – which, in a film such as this, and with a reputation as strong as this, can only frustrate – and we are left with only the crazy carnage of the climactic set-piece to get under the skin … which it definitely does, I should add. Admittedly, this finale is terrifically bravura and delivers a wild send-off to the story’s dark dementia. But let's return to this murder of the hooker for a moment. Montone, who looks like Tiswas' delectable, often fishnet-clad Sally James, is a very poor actress. Her convulsions and struggles as Zito strangles her are utterly unconvincing. This cannot help but lessen the effect of the sequence quite a lot. The filming of the scalpel being drawn across her forehead and the peeling back of her scalp, far from being so damn grisly and sickening, are shot with such an alarming lack of verve that what should have been a retina-scorching depiction of barbarity ends-up being utterly mundane and even boring. I'm tempted to think that gore-meister Lucio Fulci saw this and then despatched his special makeup technician (one of the two esteemed De Rossi's he would use in his career) and brought in his own inestimable flair for flesh-carvery to show us how such a scene should really be done in the not-too-dissimilar The New York Ripper, which came out a couple of years later – see separate BD review.

    But be this as it may, Savini's main party-piece from the era is depicted here in what is undeniably its greatest evocation. Aye – the old shotgun-blast to the head trick!

    In Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Kirk ends up snogging an alien chameleon that even has the smarmy cheek to morph into a replica of Kirk, himself, leading to the classic line about kissing himself having been his “life’s ambition”. With Maniac, Tom Savini got to do something to himself that is no more audacious, but considerably less savoury. Playing the role of a horny bloke, labelled in the credits as “Disco Boy”, he winds-up looking down the business end of a double-barrelled shotgun after his cosy session on the backseat of his car with “Disco Girl” gets interrupted by the nastiest dogger in Manhattan. The resulting 12-gauge noggin-eruption is one of Savini’s most accomplished – although it is more infamous for the accuracy of its messy aftermath than the actual impact – but it is all the more noteworthy for that fact that it is also Savini playing the role of the Maniac, who is seen jumping up onto the bonnet of the car in slow-motion and then blasting through the windshield at the wide-eyed dummy of himself sitting in the driver’s seat. This is a marvellous sequence and genuinely shows how Lustig can develop a scene and pack a huge wallop after opening with a woefully clumsy and undramatic double-murder on the beach and then inducing yawns with the hooker's demise and scalping. These are characters that we don’t even care about, but when poor Hyla Marrow (Disco Girl), covered in blood and brains, shrinks into the recesses of the car to hide from the killer who is now, of course, coming for her, there is a palpable sense of oh dear God futility as we all await the inevitable. She also delivers a truly hair-raising scream of terror as Zito moves in for the kill. Lustig's cameras worked on this scene from various angles simultaneously. They only had one chance to get this right. The laws in Manhattan at this time totally forbade the use of a real firearm to be used. But with some policemen friends standing-by as the scene was filmed, and the shotgun given over to them immediately after use, the scene was cleared-up and Savini was driven away in another vehicle, almost like a hired assassin being whisked off in the ether after the hit had been made. It is also true that the car, blood-spattered and inhabited by the now headless dummy (incidentally, it is exactly the same dummy – named Boris – that Savini blew the head off in Dawn Of The Dead during the SWAT team attack on the tenement block) was then sunk beneath the surface of a unidentified lake, the stench from the blasted fake brains making it completely unsalvageable for the pick-up shots of Disco Girl being slain. To date, it has not been recovered. Oh, and speaking if headless corpses, that one that we see during the apocryphal climax? That was the same one that Savini had just used for Friday The 13th for Betsy Palmer's axe-decapitation at the end. It is supposed to be the remains of the bloke that Frank garrotted with wire at the start, but there's no mistaking that sweater, is there?

    Despite his often contradictory comments otherwise, Savini is on-record as not liking the film. He was quite vocal about this for a period too, although now he tends to cite that he was just reacting to the tone of the film and only “agreeing” with what both Lustig and Spinell (who had also co-written the screenplay) had, themselves, said about it retrospect. However, he and the director patched things up in time to record the commentary for the film's DVD release a few years ago – and you can hear this chat-track on the BD too – but his reactions definitely seem odd for a man who invested so much passion and skill into it. The early 80's were a bloody time for the FX/stunt man. Maniac came off the back of the seminal Friday The 13th, and only just before he commenced work on The Prowler (see separate BD review) and The Burning (let's have a BD release soon please!). It is conceivable that his initial vehemence and distancing from it was also, in part, due to the negative reaction that the film and the trend at large received at the hands of the press and the media. Romano Scavolini's wretchedly violent psycho-thriller Nightmares In A Damaged Brain was also about to surface and Savini, employed as a special makeup consultant on the hideously nasty film, had grievous disagreements with the producers and subsequently sought to have his name removed from the credits. Once again, though, Savini's motives seem to have been mainly down to the hostile reception that the film garnered. His claims to have only been involved with the production for a day or so (even just a phone-call according to one account he gave) don't actually hold water, and his involvement was, in truth, much more substantial than that – he swung that axe and helped Lester Lorraine devise the gore, as well as suggesting lighting and camera angles. It is true that the makers of Nightmares tried to capitalise on his name to sell the picture and this led to legal action on Savini's part, though the outcome has never, to my knowledge, been properly cleared up. And this, in turn, leads to speculation that the man responsible for some of the greatest gore-gags in the history of Cinema found himself pigeon-holed and partly responsible for the cultural swing-shift that was now denouncing such imagery. In other words, he had turned chicken when it came to the “realistic stuff”, and the mutilations that “could happen”, preferring to move out into the much broader realms of creature-creation (Creepshow, Tales From The Darkside) and more overt fantasy-and comic-book violence (Day Of The Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2). And you can't really blame him. This was a long period of unparalleled celluloid savagery and he was at the forefront of it. Moral Torquamadas would have loved to have gotten him down into their dungeons for some over-zealous interrogation.

    Yet to concentrate upon the film's infamous gore is to neglect what is actually the greatest thing about Maniac.

    And that, of course, is Joe Spinell.

    One of the most perverse elements about the film is that Spinell’s performance is actually quite sympathetic and strongly developed, although not always in the way that the screenplay may have initially intended. In this rare starring role, Spinell revealed what a terrific actor he really was. Of a sort. He may have played a galactic super-villain in the bizarre Starcrash, but the native New Yorker was tailor-made to portray hoods and gangsters, connected wise guys and background felons. He had the look of the low-life who had crawled out of the gutter and risen to street-level power, but his incalculable zest and richly lauded charisma – he literally knew everybody and could count William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and Sylvester Stallone as very close friends - meant that he could appropriate far-ranging deals and converse about everything under the sun until the cows came home. He did a lot of stagework, but his film roles were pretty much a given. The accent and the look pretty much ensured the parts that he got. Nevertheless, his resume was quite audacious, with great turns in the first two instalments of both The Godfather and Rocky franchises, but it is testament to his surprising abilities for nuance that he was able to stretch this type-casting and appear in such things as Maniac and The Last Horror Film, Nighthawks and The Ninth Configuration. Despite those dishevelled looks and that rather unchangeable Italian Bronx-brogue, he genuinely made a considerable effort to embody his characters with energy and a life of their own. Frank Zito, here, is someone who we are obviously meant to fear and sort of loathe, yet with his abused background and his efforts to interact with Anna, we are permitted to discover that he does possess a fair few elements in his makeup that are not so despicable. Shy, introverted and polite, he has those disarming qualities that are supposedly the calling card of many a deranged murderer – he is attentive, considerate and outwardly caring towards gullible women - and, even in spite of his slovenly appearance, there is a chink in her armour that even such a slob as Frank can exploit. Of course it is highly unlikely that he could ever win her over in real life, but the point is that such a conflicted mind can wield a terrible influence, using any superficial weaknesses and failings as decoys. But in Anna's case, Frank truly believes that he has found the angel that could save him, and even though we know that the romance is going to end badly, we still can't help but cling to the very brief moments that work out and really feel for him when it all goes wrong. And this is the killer we're talking about here! But, as I've said, Spinell makes Zito terribly sympathetic.

    There is also a little nod to the standardised theme of the haunted Vietnam veteran with that Special Forces flash on the sleeve of Frank's jacket, and that case of weapons that he keeps in his place. Frank is removed from society and alienated by his own conscience. Spending time with him is definitely not pleasant, but he isn't depicted as being some cunning art-house fiend like Hannibal Lector, or some Bondian uber-schemer like John Doe. He is real and it is this that makes him frightening. The power lies in his simple everyday, random Joe on the streets personality. He doesn't stand out from the crowd. His hysterics, when they come, are not arch or melodramatic – they are embarrassing and upsetting to witness, his descending into madness not controlled by some hidden voice of command or some nightmarish foresight, but torn pitifully from his psyche with snot and tears and wailing. I'd love to have heard Spinell's own account of the character he was building because there certainly hadn't been anything like this depiction before it, but with the actor now sadly deceased, we'll never really know how he tapped into such mania.

    The biggest shock in the film for me was always how and why the lovely Caroline Munro got involved with this gruesome enterprise in the first place. After seemingly breaking away from the spectre of gothic horror with The Spy Who Loved Me, the model-turned-scream-queen ventured out into space with the delirious Starcrash (see BD review) where she would bump into Joe Spinell, whose exuberant character both on and off-screen proved so endearing that they vowed they would not only stay in touch but they would continue to work together. It was an odd pairing, and no mistake. But the fact that Munro's then-husband, producer and occasional actor Judd Hamilton, was also pivotal in this new undertaking – he was determined that she storm the States – obviously helped. Hamilton would produce Maniac for Lustig, and he would also secure both Munro and Spinell another chance to appear together in the great (but dumb) The Last Horror Film (aka The Fanatic). Being a huge fan and addict of Caroline Munro (yep … even down to taping her appearances on the gameshow 3-2-1, with Dusty Bin!), I don't mind her rather ill-fitting placement in Maniac, although this portrayal of an Italiano glamour photographer working in New York and inadvertently catching the eye of Frank on a downtime from murder, clearly marks her career downfall. With both this and The Last Horror Film – in which Spinell's movie-obsessed geek is set-up with a string of marvellously messy murders in and around the Cannes Film Festival as he innocently attempts to get Munro's horror starlet into his own little shoestring picture – her acting credibility, such as it had been, was virtually incinerated. Her graduation from Brit-blood and fantasy had dumped her on the doorstep of Yankee sleaze and exploitation – Slaughter High would follow – so it was hardly surprising that she relented and became a gameshow hostess opposite Ted Rogers.

    Love her as I do, I can't refute claims that her performance in Maniac is terrible. And it is a shame because her character offers the one promise of salvation for Frank, actually a very important element in the downward spiral of madness and delusion that the film's narrative charts. Originally, the role was pegged for Daria Nicolodi, but her time was taken up with work on her husband's occult sequel Inferno (BD reviewed separately), and even if I can imagine a better actress being able to lift the crucial scenes of their relationship growing and making the threat that ultimately engulfs them far more powerful and tragic, I doubt that she would be the one to have done it either. As it stands, it is left entirely down to Spinell to capture the emotion of this tightrope romance. Which he does with quietly restrained hopes, fears and longings … as well as a swarthy undercurrent of concealed depravity.

    So, the film I once found boring comes to take on a whole new dimension due to the main character and, more importantly, Joe Spinell's uncanny and intuitive evocation of it. But that's not all that now seems worthy of praise. Bill Lustig may clumsily judge some early sequences, but he manages to conjure some genuinely nightmarish imagery with two terrifically jolting visions that Frank has. One even takes place in a convincingly cold and isolated cemetery late at night. Mist-enshrouded and boasting a shocking rise from the grave, this is about as loyal a horror standard as you could wish for. Maniac, therefore, is unafraid to draft-in some of the older clichés to mingle with the brazen approach to urban paranoia and modern strife. A stalking scene in which a nurse is pursued through a deserted subway station shows a fine level of mounting tension, even if the pay-off is a little bit too clearly signposted. Off-the-hoof filming by Joe Spinell, and his friend Luke Walter, of Frank walking the streets and peering through store windows at more respectable mannequins add a queasy sort of momentum to the film that emanates purely around this wretched, blighted character. Now I can appreciate the mood of a dark and deadly New York a lot more deeply, the tone of sleaze and the cheapness of life actually quite close to that of The Exterminator, the great ultra-violent urban revenge flick that James Glickenhaus unleashed the same year, and Lustig even emulated with Robert Forster in Vigilante (which also starred Spinell). The sense of people trapped in this hellish warren and falling into one of only two categories – the predator or the prey – is all-prevalent and acutely realised. All of which goes to ensure that we still get that unavoidably sour taste in our mouth after the that the film closes with that shock final image.

    Another great choice was in giving jazz composer Jay Chattaway the chance to score his first motion picture. Chattaway would go on to give aggressive and cool scores for Missing In Action, Missing In Action III and Invasion USA and a great atmospheric soundtrack for the Stephen King werewolf chiller Silver Bullet. But his work on Maniac, limited in logistical scope but surprisingly rewarding in ambition, is quite impressive. With synthesiser and small ensemble, he creates some pulsating stingers, a fugue of unpredictable but dark mood and a haunting pseudo lullaby of pain and tragedy to denote the pathetic life of Frank Zito. Rather bizarrely, a song that urban legend loves to imply was written for the film and entitled “Maniac”, with lyrics by Michael Sembello and Dennis Matlosky, was dropped but then resurfaced, albeit in a necessarily toned-down version, in the Jennifer Beals film Flashdance! Well, this is the story, but in a nice little treat for this release, the two tunesmiths crop as “Maniac Men” to reveal that this wasn't the case at all, and that the whole thing was just a “coincidence”. Considering the lyrics that they originally wrote, their story seems a touch, ahem, implausible. Spinell, himself, liked to claim that they had been inspired by the movie … and there is surely more to this allegation than meets the eye. Or the ear.

    Curiously in later years, the film has genuinely begun to be seen in a different and more forgiving light – and not just by me. Fabulously unshowy in its stark and dirty realism and deeply overwrought, it is now thought to be one of the better portrayals of a sick and dangerous mind, climbing into bed with Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (which I find to be far more disturbing and truly reprehensible, by the way) and examining in documentary style the lifestyle and the traumas of those who can carry out such heinous acts. It offers no solutions and no happy endings. John Carpenter elicited that delicious frisson of the evil never dying with the awesome finale of Halloween revealing that Michael Myers' body had got up and stalked off again after having bullets pumped into it, but, if anything, Maniac goes a helluva lot further. Halloween was fantasy and The Shape does not exist. Maniacs like Frank Zito sadly do – so their evil really doesn't end.

    So, all in all, Maniac is one of those of films that horror-fans feel they should have in their collection or, at least, just see for themselves. It provoked outrage at the time of its theatrical release and its brutalising nihilism is still a relentlessly grim and foreboding exercise in the crudest stalk ‘n’ slash, but even if it is never quite as shocking or as outrageous as its notoriety would have you believe, it is a powerful study of a dangerously disturbed mind.

    One of the most notorious of the “Video Nasties” - the film never even received a theatrical release in the UK – Bill Lustig's Maniac becomes available on Blu-ray in a terrific 30th Anniversary Edition. Personally, I have found the film to be far more accomplished and thought-provoking than I used to believe. Whilst it is a shame that the great Joe Spinell will be forever-remembered for playing one of the sickest characters in a movie, it is testament to the actor that he carries the film on his shoulders with an alarming conviction that actually raises it above that “squalid” tag that so often mires it. I wish I could say the same about Caroline Munro, but her portrayal here is more of a chore to sit through than the delight it should have been. And the gore … well, that exploding head is one of the best ever filmed.

    Maniac isn't a great film, but it comes highly recommended to those of a certain taste, just the same. And you know who are you are.