So, I’m back to sitting at the table with the cool kids again because it’s time for another Final Girl Film Club entry.
This time, Final Girl chose the 1980 slasher Maniac. Here’s the poster for it.
That sums up the movie pretty well. It also makes me miss the days when poster-art was a real art.
The movie follows Frank Zito (Joe Spinnell), a landlord in NYC who happens to be quietly insane.
He stalks lover’s lanes and Times Square and kills women. Then he scalps them and attaches the scalps to his increasing collection of mannequins. He’s satisfied for awhile but then the urge to kill comes again and he gets a new mannequin and a new victim.
Frank is also a photographer. When he meets Anna (Hammer-star Caroline Munro), he tries to be normal but the urge to kill overtakes him.
I didn’t think I’d enjoy this movie but I really liked it. First, I liked it because it was like a look back at New York’s past. Time Out New York did a list of the 100 best films set in New York and I’m a little miffed that Maniac didn’t make the cut and C.H.U.D. only made 100. I think that Maniac reflects the fear in NYC at the time. Son of Sam had only been caught three years before he movie was made. David Berkowitz killed couples randomly, which is pretty close to Frank Zito’s M.O. This is the NYC of the blackout in 1977 and the garbage strike of 1975. Frank Zito’s NYC has a Times Square crawling with hookers in hot-pants. My NYC has a Times Square full of crack-heads in off-brand Sesame Street costumes heckling tourists to take pictures with them. I’m not sure which is worse.
I also like this movie because it’s like an ode to guerilla filmmaking. According to Wikipedia, Maniac‘s budget was $550,000. Tom Savini did the special effects and also played the character named Disco boy, because he already had a cast of his own head.
Frank attacks Disco boy and Disco girl (Hyla Marrow) when they’re parked under the Verrazano Bridge and shoots them both in the head with a shotgun. The filmmakers couldn’t afford a permit to film there so Tom Savini dressed up as Frank, shot the dummy of himself in the head, and they made a fast escape with another car parked nearby. I love hearing stories like that and I doubt this could have happened in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York.
The movie actually is quite scary. I’d say that more than half of the dialogue is Frank talking to himself and to his dead mother, who abused him. There’s something very unnerving about that. The camera puts the viewer in the point-of-view of the victims. This was especially tense during an extended sequence where Frank is stalking a nurse through a subway station. The killings are shown in tight close-ups. Some reviewers thought the shotgun to the head was too much but I always thought killing with a gun was a way to remove the killer from the situation. You pull a trigger but your hands don’t do the actual killing. The rest of the killings are strangling, throat-slashing, and stabbing. For me, the worst scene to watch was when they show him scalping his first victim. The effects are very good, especially considering it was made 32 years ago. It’s easy to make a movie effect look good nowadays, but I think it’s a credit to the filmmakers if it looked good 30 years ago with no money.
What helps is that Joe Spinnell had a very definite physical presence. Maniac has recently been remade with Elijah Wood playing Joe Spinnell’s part. You can see the red-band trailer here. I want to have hope for the movie because Alejandre Aja, of Haute Tension and Piranha 3D is producing, but I’m very dubious about Elijah Wood playing Frank Zito. I saw him once in NYC and he’s about my size but seems smaller. Unless he bulked up significantly, I really couldn’t see him overpowering anyone. He can bring a mental intensity to the roles he plays but I think he lacks the physicality to play Frank Zito. Plus, he’s just too cute. I like Joe Spinnell as Frank Zito because he’s average. Frank doesn’t have the almost superhuman powers of a Hannibal Lecter and he just blends in so perfectly to NYC as it was. That’s what makes him scary, he could be anyone.
I actually think that this movie is quite feminist, whether the filmmakers intended it to be or not. That’s something worthwhile in a genre that can be criticized for its misogyny. The main characters are photographers and both photograph women. Frank says he likes photography because it’s a way of capturing the person as they were and then they can never leave you. This can be seen as a critique of the way society values women when they’re youthful and beautiful but disposes of them once they’re old or no longer pretty or seem to be used up or sullied. Some of Frank’s victims could be considered disposable people, but is that right or fair? The movie also draws attention the way men look at women and how similar courting can be to stalking prey. Plus, there’s that amazing ending where Frank sees his victims come to life and they’re out to get him. One of them screams at one point and it was just such a primal sound and moment, it really got to me.
This is a really good slasher flick that seems to be underrated. I really think that critics like Gene Siskel, who eviscerated the film, really missed the point and that this movie is definitely worth watching.
Past Final Girl Film Club Entries
- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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