When I announced that William Lustig's Maniac (1980) would be the next entry in this totally illustrious Film Club, some folks out in cyber-land were a bit hesitant regarding participation. There are a few films that, even amongst horror fans, have a reputation for being too much to handle, and Maniac is certainly one of 'em. It's certainly not an unearned rep- this film is unflinchingly violent and repellent and...I don't know, it has that Texas Chain Saw Massacre illicit vibe to it: whilst watching it, you feel like you shouldn't be. When it's over, you want to take a hot shower. It'll make you feel squidgy about the fact that you even enjoy horror movies, and it's precisely the kind of film people would point to as an example of how we're all degenerates and how can you watch this stuff and who would even make such a thing and where is my fainting couch I have a case of the vapors! In a nutshell, it is an unpleasant film.
And yet! It is not a mindless film. Maniac is not The Human Centipede. I mean, come on, guys. I'm waiting for that beautiful day when we treat The Human Centipede like we treat the "Macarena" or Zubaz pants: like a national embarrassment. It's ten years on and we were so into it, but now we only shake our heads and pretend we weren't. But inside...inside! We know the truth and wonder how it came to be that way, once upon a time. Mass hypnosis? Mass hysteria? Mass huffing of Liquid Paper?
The maniac of Maniac is Frank Zito, an overweight, perpetually sweaty loner who has so many mother issues that even Norman Bates would be all tsk damn gurl, you cray-cray. Frank trawls the streets of New York City at all hours looking for women he can take all of his mother-related frustrations out on- by which I mean he kills and scalps them. Back in his cramped one-room apartment, Frank has a grisly trophy collection of mannequins decked out in the clothes and aforementioned scalps of his victims. Eventually he meets Anna (Caroline Munro), and the two of them go on a few dates. But will Frank be able to control his homicidal feelings around Anna? Can he conquer his demons? PFFFT NO.
"Killing and scalping women? Mother issues? Really, Maniac? Sounds like you've just entered Misogyny Country!" you might say. But then Maniac counters with a "But lo, is it not true that a film can be about misogyny without being intrinsically misogynist?" and you're, like, "Whoa. Yes. I think we've all learned something today." Maniac wants to say "It seems like you did all of the learning...", but it's too polite for that and so it just agrees with you.
The film never falls into the realm populated by the likes of Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street because the audience is never on Frank Zito's side. We're don't cheer when he kills a woman in her home because he's this guy with a cool weapon and a one-liner and she was annoying anyway- nothing in Maniac is played for laughs. The violence, in particular, is brutal and honest and yes, tough to watch; Tom Savini pulls out all the stops and delivers some truly shocking moments of gore. It's not amusing in that way certain slasher movies have when they become camp- it's realism, and it's ugly. Zito sickens himself as much as he sickens the audience.
If anything, Maniac forces the viewer to identify with the victim, which is exceedingly (and surprisingly) rare in the genre. Victims are frequently little more than someone for the killer to kill; I know that sounds a bit well yeah, no doy...but what I mean is that they're not usually there to be felt for, they're simply around to add to the body count. Lustig doesn't use the camera to put us in Frank's shoes the way we've been in those of Michael Myers or Mrs. Voorhees; instead, we're subjected to the victim's POV as Zito strangles the life from her. Though we can come to feel sorry for Frank Zito- he clearly suffered tremendous abuse as a child and you know, he really would like to stop all this killing- he's never made out to be anything more than...well, a maniac.
Still, he is capable of donning a mask of normality when it's called for- and that's part of what makes Maniac so terrifying. Frank doesn't have a creepy mask and a signature weapon. He's that guy who seemed perfectly fine when your friend introduced him to you. If the abhorrent trophies he collects seem outlandish and solely the stuff of movies, one only needs to look to Jeffrey Dahmer to see that they're not.
Despite its power, there are plenty of flaws with Maniac. It's certainly a film to be appreciated rather than enjoyed, and it falls into a lather-rinse-repeat pattern as Frank finds his victims, kills his victims, and talks to his mannequins. Oh, and that ending! On a WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THAT scale of zero to Pieces, it's roughly an eight (and awfully abrupt).
Still, there's even more to be lauded here: Joe Spinell (who also co-wrote the script) is tremendously creepy as Zito- he sweats and mumbles and murders and mouth breathes so well you wonder if that's how he was in real life. And then there's the way Maniac perfectly captures New York City in the late 70s, when it seemed like- or was- the sleaziest, most dangerous place on Earth. I mean, a bathroom in a subway station, can you imagine?! I got eye herpes just from watching the scene that took place in there (where Zito stalks a young nurse...it's the best scene in the film).
So where does this leave us? Is Maniac to be feared, like some of my cyberfriends intimated? Maybe, maybe not. It's not easy to watch and you may never want to watch it again should you brave it, but much like Glenn Close and that perm, it WILL NOT BE IGNORED.
Give it up for the Film Club Coolies!
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