Maniac (1980) Review

“I warned yo not to go out tonight”

If there was such a thing as film criticism lore, then William Lustig’s Maniac is in it. For Maniac  is one of the three films in the late great Gene Siskel’s long career that the critic walked out of (the other two were Black Sheep  and The Million Dollar Duck).
But with the release of the film’s wonderful remake on home media meeting rave reviews within the horror and genre community (this reviewer regards it as the best of 2013 so far) it’s high time the original was revisited.
Maniac is fairly straightforward in its narrative, telling the story of Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who, as we meet him, is already in a well established habit of murdering women, scalping them, and using them to decorate his mannequins. His opportunistic killing spree is halted however when he meets the photographer Anna, whose work impresses him enough for him to like her. As he becomes closer to this real, human, woman his mind soon begins to unfurl more than it has before, leading to his ultimate disassociation of reality.

The story might seem slight, and yes, if you want to put it down to terms of simple plotting, it is. But Maniac, for all its critic-baiting, head on violence and realistic gore, is a remarkably thorough character study of a damaged character.
It’s Spinell’s portrayal of Zito that has made Maniac persist over the years, if not to the same extent as films like The Evil Dead or I Spit on Your Grave. Physically the man is repellent. Overweight, with terrible skin which constantly seems to sweat and dressed in grubby, mis-matched, battered old clothes, you can practically smell Zito through the screen. It’s about as unglamorous as it gets, and given this is a role that was written in part by Spinell himself, it’s clearly not something he was using as a springboard back into Hollywood. As such the viewer almost has an air of goodwill towards Spinell’s performance just for the way he has presented himself.
In terms of characterisation Zito is every bit the titular maniac; whether it’s an accurate portrayal of schizophrenia is up for debate, but Spinell can certainly deliver a mean movie-schizophrenia. Spinell’s most arresting moments are when he’s in his flat, alone with his mannequins, talking to himself. His rambling, soft, delivery makes him the quintessential lunatic, managing to make his speeches both genuinely self-pitying and scornfully condescending. The writing of the dialogue plays beautifully in these moments and it’s the choice of words like “silly” to describe his habit of murdering women that jar the audience with how understated they are, and yet seem so much more real because of it. Occasionally he’ll slump into lethargy or he’ll perk up into a mania, adding texture to the character. Outside of his flat there’s a real sense of this lunacy barely being contained, telegraphed by Spinell’s quick, stressed movements and tense body language.
It isn’t until half an hour in we meet Anna, played by Caroline Munro, who Zito tracks down after she takes a photo of him in the park. It’s fun to watch Spinell transition into an urbane and cultured art appreciator in order the impress her. Something just doesn’t seem believable about it; perhaps it’s because Munro is so obviously an attractive woman, and Spinell can’t quite match her looks. The writing during their meeting falls down a little too, and his attempts to be a smooth operator come off as seriously cheesy and frankly amusing.
Likewise, when he takes her out on dates the way he acts is weird, but not good weird, in the way that Elijah Wood is weird but still charming in the same role in the remake. No, this is weird that it seems odd that she still finds him attractive despite this behaviour, or at least doesn’t bring him up on it.
Or maybe I just don’t understand the 1980s New Yorkart scene.
Still, this doesn’t detract from Zito being a threatening character; they just seem like odd, dream-like interludes. In a way, as we spend so much time with Zito this comes to nicely reflect what they could seem to be to him.
‘But what about the times when Frank is actually ripping women’s skin of their heads?’ you ask? I’ve gone on about his performance outside these scenes as it really brings a lot to these scenes themselves. During the attacks Zito’s overweight, sweaty nervousness really making the murders seem particularly un-santized, and his pre-occupation with women  and soft mutterings make them sleazy even before he starts declaring his undying love for his mother. It’s this full, three dimensional, fully coloured depiction of Zito outside the killings that make them so much more believable. Coupled with the realistic effects they make for some graphic and violent deaths that still convince and shock to this day.
The gore in Maniac  is expert, explicit and real. Tom Savini puts in some of the best work of his career with the notorious head explosion. It’s an utterly horrifying and believable sight and Lustig is not afraid to let the camera soak it all in, in slow motion, for maximum effect.
The head explosion might be the most famous scene, but other effects are equally up there; from in your face throat-slitting to starkly cold garrottings, this is a film which knows it’s got a strong card to play in this area.
It’s a shame then that the direction itself is so run of the mill and perfunctory. Aside from lingering shots of gore and violence there aren’t any flourishes or particularly engaging pieces of camera work, and as such it looks flat and dull. It’s possible that Lustig was being understated, but for a film so bleak it could really use a flash of energy or two.
It’s sad to say, but there just isn’t much thrill in  Maniac  because of it. There’s no sense of peril or suspense, it’s just inevitable death and downfall; for a movie called Maniac it’s just not visceral enough. Its perhaps the major reason why Maniac never made it into the same realms as The Evil Dead. A real shame since with a deviation in the emotions the film tries to get out of the audience it could have been a real classic. It’s also a shame since it wastes such a fine, nuanced performance by Spinell, which could have been one for the ages.
It seems clearly deliberate that the film was trying to achieve this sombre tone and focus entirely on Zito, and there’s obviously artistry behind it. Sadly it’s just not the same level of artistry as Abel Ferrara’s comparable 1979 The Driller Killer. While Spinell’s performance is far superior to Abel Ferrara’s, it’s the stunning beauty and weirdness of The Driller Killer that elevates it above others.
For such a notorious 80s slasher Maniac doesn’t even want to give you a lot of the things you might be expecting from it. What it will give you is one of the best performances  of a serial killer ever committed to film, some top notch gore, and thus a fascinating character study within the exploitation genre.

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