Friday Editor’s Pick: Maniac (1980)

by on November 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 25 & Sat Nov 26 at 12:20 at Nitehawk Cinema [Program & Tix]


Alt Screen has added a new venue to our listings: Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, with tableside food service, cheaper-than-multiplex prices, and a solid program of artier wide-release fare (Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Skin I Live In, and The Rum Diary are playing now) peppered with some fun repertory on the weekends. Keep your eyes on this one.


Film distributor (Blue Underground) and programmer extrodinaire Bill Lustig has made a few forays into directing, and this one raised a whole helluva hullabaloo in its day. The universe hasn’t proved too hostile, as Bloody Disgusting reports, a remake is on its way.


Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:

It’s amazing to think that Michael Sembello’s 1983 hit “Maniac” from Flashdance was originally written as the title track to William Lustig’s splatterfest Maniac. Then again, the film’s serial killer protagonist Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) would no doubt have loved to get his hands on Jennifer Beals’ private dancer. A Son of Sam-ish madman with serious mommy issues and a thing for women’s pretty locks, Zito stalks and scalps his female victims so that he can use their hair for his coterie of bloody mannequins. A precursor to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Lustig’s film depicts this lunatic in a somewhat compassionate light, making sure to complement Zito’s grisly slayings with moments of schizophrenic introspection as he mumbles to himself about the childhood abuse (and maternal abandonment?) that scarred his psyche. Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg’s script, however, stops short of trying to elicit outright sympathy, a wise decision given Zito’s bloody habit of stabbing whores in seedy motel rooms – an act that, like so many of his killings, has an overt sexual component – and shooting lovers at point blank range with a shotgun (leading to horror make-up expert Tom Savini’s infamous exploding head cameo). Spinell’s committed performance as the slovenly, misogynistic fiend has a frenzied intensity that only somewhat compensates for the implausible plot, which eventually involves Zito’s relationship with a way-out-of-his-league photographer (Caroline Munroe). But as a grimy snapshot of early ‘80s Manhattan and an unapologetically twisted study in pathological murderousness, Maniac still exhibits a hideous pulse.


A Lustig on-stage Q&A kicks off with some choice quotes from Leonard Maltin:


Christopher Sorrentino in an interview at Some Came Running:

Lustig clearly couldn’t have cared less about either reality or about being criticized. Maniac has got to be among the most un-real movies ever made. I wonder if Manny Farber ever saw it, because that’s a termite film if ever there was one.


Heather Baysa for the Village Voice:

Never mind that by today’s standards he just looks like many of our Williamsburg neighbors. In 1980’s Maniac, Joe Spinell was the very incarnation of a creeper. As the psychotic Frank Zito, he had it all: machetes, mommy issues, and a thoroughly unsettling mannequin fetish. No wonder it was one of the only movies that critic Gene Siskel ever got up and walked out of. Now the disturbing New York-set slasher film, which is still banned in Germany and England, is back with all the same gratuitous gore, enhanced on a crisp new 35mm print to really bring out the, um, splatter.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The murderer’s viewpoint is set in the first scene, at the beach before dawn as a Jaws goof is followed by the culprit (Joe Spinell) awakening shrieking in his squalid apartment: William Lustig seizes the instant of nightmarish palpitation and extends it for the rest of the movie, an undiluted expression of urban horror and, like The Driller Killer orDowntown 81, a formidable New York grunge-flick through and through. The guy has issues, and therapy consists of stalking pretty lasses for their scalps, which are stapled to the mannequins that, along with a mama shrine and many candles, adorn his flat; Spinell asks hooker Rita Montone to pose “like in the magazines,” moments later he’s chiding the plastic effigy he’s fastening her bloodied hair to (“I told you not to go out tonight… You don’t listen, do you!”). The psychopath sits in bed and lets the mumbling pour out of him, the camera pans 180° until he addresses us frontally like Lorre in M — frustrated male aggression tears into female skin, but the victims’ agony here is the protagonist’s as well as the audience’s, and Lustig pushes doomed nurse Kelly Piper’s subway distress past the pleasurable frisson of Dressed to Kill (De Palma is explicitly called out in a succession of mini jump-cuts) and into true suffocation, grindingly realized. An analysis of certain elements of Taxi Driver (or of Schrader’s screenplay, at least) lurks in the heavy-breathing Spinell’s mock-wooing of gorgeous photographer Caroline Munro, who titles her glamour portfolio “The Woman Form” yet understands that it’s “not all for art’s sake,” like the director. There’s also gore, really its own form of art: blood trickles down the lenses for a corpse’s POV, though Tom Savini saves the plum effect for himself as a shotgun triggers geysers of splatter; the disorientating, handheld camera animates the mannequins, who have a go at their gross tormenter in a rehearsal for Day of the Dead. All of it lost on the critics, who couldn’t spot Lustig’s trompe l’oeil in the foggy graveyard as a deliberate critique of the boogeyman tropes they dismiss automatically.


Brian Salisbury talked to Lustig just this year for Moviefone, which also premieres the new Mondo poster designed by Ken Taylor:

The one thing that stands out about ‘Maniac’ is that, tonally, it’s incredibly divergent from your other films. The ‘Maniac Cop’ series and even ‘Vigilante’ don’t go to the dark places that ‘Maniac’ does. What attracted you to this project?
The origin of the project is that I met Joe Spinell when I was a production assistant on a movie called the ‘Seven-Ups.’ Joe was an actor in it, playing a supporting role. He and I chatted and bonded because of our mutual love of horror. If you’re a horror fan, you realize what that means. Because you meet people in your life who aren’t into horror and they look at you like you’re nuts, but the people who are into it are really into it. You kind of gravitate to them because it’s a mutual love of something that’s, you know, not everyone’s taste.


I can certainly sympathize.
Right. Joe and I began to see the horror films that were out at the time. We’d go to 42nd Street and watch the new releases. During this period I had directed my first adult movies, so now I was actually a bona fide filmmaker of some sort. So Joe and I decided that we were going to make a horror film together one day; he’d star and I’d direct. It was with that vision, that dream, that we came up with the movie ‘Maniac.’ What ‘Maniac’ was intended to be was a compilation of various serial killers from that time told from the point of view of the serial killer. And I guess that’s what gives it its darkness is Joe’s performance in which the audience finds themselves in fact sympathizing with this tortured killer. Which brings you to places emotionally that people don’t expect to go when they see a horror film.

If you could tell these newbies one thing about ‘Maniac,’ what is something that you’d like them know going into their first screening?
Firstly, it was a passion project of all of us who were involved with it. For better or worse, we had complete freedom to make the picture we made. But I think what they should look at mostly is the incredible performance that Joe gives. There’s a lot of nuance in his performance, people focused a lot on his crying and whining, but if you look at other scenes, it’s quite nuanced and interesting. It’s almost like an animal when you watch his performance, they way he touches things it’s like he smells his prey. If you watch it carefully, you’ll see that. It’s very interesting.



Chris Cabin for Slant:

An exploitative, grungy riff on Psycho, the film gleefully embraced its laughably bad production, rolling with countless incongruities, deplorable sound design, and performances that were, at best, stiff and awkward. This was even true of Spinell, who co-wrote the film’s script with C.A. Rosenberg and is present in nearly every shot of the film. Gushing with chunky, sanguine gore (thanks to the legend himself, Tom Savini), Maniac was nevertheless a haunting film as a whole; you could never quite shed the grime that it immersed you in. It was grizzly, unkempt, and unpredictable not only in its narrative, but from a technical standpoint. The film, in fact, has nearly no plot, with the arguable exception of a preposterous romance Zito attempts to spark with Anna, a photographer (Caroline Munro). But then it’s not much of a character study either, as nearly all of Zito’s scenes either involve him stabbing and scalping women, muttering to himself in his rancid apartment or hanging out with Anna.


It’d be tempting to go as far as to deem Maniac an avant-garde work, but its ends are not explorative nor is it in any way groundbreaking or, by standard definitions, “good.” Maniac simply exists as a wretched yet unforgettable succession of scenes meant to corrupt even the purest of minds, if you can help yourself from laughing uncontrollably at its overwhelming amount of inconsistencies. It’s an oddity even among oddities, if for no other reason than it was marginally successful. Lustig and Spinell both would have their successes, but Maniac remains the work that the two men became characterized by—the blemish they couldn’t get rid of even if they wanted to.


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