Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ****
One of the grimiest slabs of blood-soaked sleaze to emerge from the grindhouse era, Maniac is the menacing brain-child of one William “Bill” Lustig, a childhood devotee of the 42nd Street theater circuit who nourished himself on a decade of exploitation fare before he became what he beheld. And it was good.
Good enough for everybody's favorite French auteur, Olivier Assayas (Carlos), to select the film - along with Zodiac - for reappraisal during this spring's BAMfest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And certainly good enough for Lustig to re-release in Blu-Ray, through his own Blue Underground DVD label, which has been steadily updating its 200+ film archive with the new format. The releases typically include bonus features, and Maniac offers not only two commentary tracks (both with Lustig alongside some key players) but a second disc of interviews, trailers and documentary featurettes.
Released in 1980, just two years after John Carpenter's Halloween mainstreamed the slasher genre, Maniac is very much its own movie, not least because its central figure is the psychotic title character - played, with beer-bellied, mouth-breathing, greaseball pathos, by co-writer Joe Spinell - and not the array of victims he stalks and slaughters. He may be a mystery to an anxious New York City, but unlike the blank-slate bogeymen or masked cartoon goons common to the genre, Spinell's Frank Zito carries the movie from his point of view.
Through flashbacks to his troubled childhood with an abusive, drug-abusing hooker for a mother, the film slowly reveals why Zito must kill one beautiful woman after another, be they prostitutes or disco queens, fashion models or off-duty nurses unfortunate enough to get trapped in the subway. Some of his victims are dragged back to the creepy apartment in the building he manages, where they are tortured and killed and, finally, scalped. Eventually, the women find themselves commemorated by a mannequin double, gazing in a plastic daze within the gothic fantasy world of Zito's claustrophobic bedroom.
Because the film was made so soon after the 1977 Son of Sam murder spree, its “ripped from the headlines” qualities add an extra layer of freakiness, inspiring a notorious kill early on in the story in which FX wizard (and short-lived extra) Tom Savini engineers the detonation of his own head via shotgun. The splatter, captured from three angles, was excessive enough to cause a disgusted Gene Siskel to exit the screening he saw (according to Wikipedia, anyway). These days, we're more likely to be impressed by how successful the scene was despite the film's low budget. And, indeed, Maniac is a marvel of invention, from its extensive use of still-novel voyeuristic angles and under-lit urban mise-en-scene, to Lustig's skillful direction of a cast composed of porn stars, scream queens and personal friends.
Maniac also deviates from the slasher norm by giving its disturbed protagonist some unexpected grace notes. He's not exactly Jekyll and Hyde, since he pretty much always looks like Hyde, but the story's key twist involves Zito's flourishing affections for a sexy young photographer (Caroline Munro) whom he catches taking a snapshot of him one day in Central Park. Lumpen schlump meets swinging chick, and suddenly the brutal hatchet master is a shy, anxious schoolboy.
The madman reverts to form soon enough, before the ultimate darkness descends upon the city. But this unlikely glimmer of something hopeful and human suggests that, yes, even mass-murdering mopes with a mommy complex have a heart. Too bad it's broken--which is why they need to carve out yours.
Bookmark/Search this post with: