After Michael but before Jason, horror cinema had another psychotic pop up on the radar; he was more akin to Norman Bates of old than either of these two chronologically closer contemporaries (at least in terms of motivation), but his methodology and what we were to witness was such that he could hold his own with either of those masked menaces. His gruesome exploits left an indelible mark on anyone who sat through the roughly ninety-minute foray into his gritty and twisted world.
His name was Frank Zito, and if you met him…well, let’s just say his ‘way with people’ left a lot to be desired.
In the aptly-named Maniac, we come right outta the gate with a gruesome double-murder on the beach, our titular nutcase, Frank, coming away with a sticky souvenir for his “hobby”. Such “trophies” are quite important to Frank; in his shitty little roach motel of an apartment, we find he keeps a bunch of creepy-ass mannequins that he seems way too close to. Y’see, Frank obviously has some serious mommy issues (he spends enough time ‘talking’ to her), and this apparently affects his ability to have normal relationships with women. So…instead of taking an assertiveness class or checking out a singles bar to find that perfect fit, he just scalps the women he meets, nails the hair to a dummy, and puts their clothes on it. Kapow! Instant live-in girlfriend! Yes sir, it’s clear that ol’ Frank’s got some loose wiring; but when he sees a lovely fashion photographer, Anna, taking his picture in the park, he decides that maybe it’s time to settle down; he wants to stop his nightly charades and have a nice relationship with this seemingly kindred, artistic soul. Unfortunately, as is always the case, life gets in the way; she has friends that Frank just doesn’t have room for in his plan; she has ideas for a future that likely don’t involve living in a one room dump with a bunch of department store dolls and smelly scalps. Lastly (but probably most importantly), the voices in Frank’s head aren’t quite ready to hang up their knives and shotguns…so things sort of go poorly for our friend Frank.
Maniac is the result of Joe Spinell (of Rocky and The Godfather fame) and director friend William Lustig deciding that they wanted to make a horror film. Spinell insisted that the film be scary but also realistic, and he began to study the minds and habits of psychotic killers. It’s said that he poured himself into this role, frightened by the kinds of mental defects his research had turned up yet wishing to accurately portray clinical psychosis. His skills are underrated in this performance; I found it quite scary indeed. The direction plays heavily upon the ambiance of the dirtier side of New York City at the time; the streets are dark and malevolent, the neon streaks of the red light districts are a mocking glare rather than a beacon of light. The script is equally blackened and nasty; most of the people we meet seem cold, callous; a product of their environment. Zito’s schizophrenic monologues (largely composed by Spinell himself) are both mesmerizing and chilling. As for the effects, well we have Tom Savini nearing the pinnacle of his craft; what more could you ask? Savini’s work in this one, while perhaps not his best (in my opinion, that would come in 1985’s Day of the Dead ), was nonetheless effective; there’s one scene that caused the late Gene Siskel to walk out of the theater, sickened by what he had seen.
Although it’s considered a classic in some circles, the film isn’t perfect, and to my eyes the biggest failing is the swiftness of the relationship between Frank and Anna. The lovely Caroline Munroe, playing Anna, seems extremely out of place amongst the grime I’ve described, and her character’s warp-speed connection to Frank is…well, it’s mystifying, to say the least.
I hate to sound shallow about this, but c’mon people; take Harry Dean Stanton when he first wakes up with a bad hangover, then cross-pollinate with Ron Jeremy; throw in some really nasty acne scars and a pair of thick-rimmed Groucho Marx glasses…now I’m supposed to buy that a former Bond girl is just totally swept off her feet within a single dinner date by this guy, with only some stumbling comments about her photos and a picture of his mom as his efforts?* I guess it’s possible; but it’s highly implausible, and in my opinion the film suffers somewhat for this lapse of credibility.
That aside, I still think this movie is one that every student/fan/follower of the slasher genre should have on their watch list. It has its share of issues, but for what it is, it succeeds on a lot of levels. I personally like the film, but I don’t necessarily love it.
See it for Spinell’s tour-de-force performance…see it for Savini’s effects…if for no other reason, see it so you can say you’ve seen it.
You Fellow Fans know where I’m coming from there.
*All due respect to the late Joe Spinell. He was a great actor, but not much of a looker. Add to that the intent was to make the character look as unsavory as possible in this film…and there ya go.
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