Maniac

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
Cold Prey
Frozen
The Funhouse
Hellbound
Hell Night
Onibaba

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About scarina

I like scary movies a little too much. I thought I'd share my obsession with you.
This entry was posted in 1980's, film club, serial killers, slasher and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Maniac

  1. Fear Street says:

    I’m quite distracted by that bulge on the poster…I feel dirty.

  2. Crypticpsych says:

    Another great, well-written and analyzed job. It often seems that the more issues a lot of mainstream critics have with a movie, the more uncomfortable things the movie might have in it that that reviewer doesn’t like being confronted with or having to think about. I’ve always thought that was the issue with critics like Siskel and Ebert who seem to take so much pleasure in ripping some of these movies apart….this idea that they don’t like movies like this impeding their opinion on the world and making them think “dark” things.

    Joe Spinell makes this movie to the point where I don’t think any other actor could have done this role in the story as written. I think the remake, supposedly, is changing the story somewhat…so that MIGHT make Elijah Wood feasible…he played silent, crazed cannibal pretty well in Sin City. This remake, the Carrie remake, and, if it gets off the ground and funded, The Gate remake are the ones I’m most interested in…Of course, I’d prefer new films and properties, but you have to work with what you’re given sometimes.

    And I agree with you, with all the violence in the movie, I think the brilliant chemistry and dialogue that Spinell and Munro have on things like gender and on courting are often forgotten even though they’re so well-done and interesting in the context of the movie. There’s far more at play in this movie than the bloodbath a lot of mainstream people seem to think it is and that’s what makes it so interesting.

    • scarina says:

      That’s why I rarely listen to movie reviews outside of the horror-verse. It seems like mainstream reviewers Just Don’t Get It. They make fun of romantic comedies for being fluffy but when presented with something thought-provoking they deem it unpleasent or too gruesome.
      Joe Spinell just really made this role, it’s a shame he died so young because it would be amazing to hear him talk about it. I watched the movie on my mom’s Roku box so I didn’t get a chance to see the Blue Underground release special features. I’d love to get my hands on a copy to see if there’s anything from Joe Spinell and what William Lustig has to say. I just found out that Lustig owns Blue Underground, kind of funny.
      I forgot that Elijah Wood was in Sin City. I’ve never seen the movie because Frank Miller gives me the wiggins. I love Alan Moore and he’s kind of at the opposite of end of the spectrum of Miller. The only remakes I’m looking forward to are Carrie, in the hope that new technology will give the movie the ending it deserves, and Evil Dead since Sam Raimi & Bruce Campbell are involved.
      I was really rooting for Spinell, I wanted him to stop being crazy and win the girl. Ok, and maybe go to prison or something.

      • Crypticpsych says:

        Blue Underground released a 30th Anniversary DVD and bluray last year or year before that I ordered from a website (and am still waiting on…the site had big issues from that sale that they’re still working through almost 8 months later). That release is basically loaded. It has interviews with Munro, Lustig, Savini, the composer, and others; two separate commentaries, and a very interesting second disc featuring a near 50-minute documentary called “The Joe Spinell Story” and a bunch of pieces and archival footage on Maniac’s publicity and promotion and the controversy around the film. It’s got pretty much everything you could possibly want on the subject (which is why I’d love for my copy to get here…there were five other things in that order too I haven’t recieved).
        Incidentally, Troma also released something as part of their Tromasterpiece Collection…the movie The Last Horror Film, aka Fanatic. It’s basically the OTHER Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro movie. Spinell basically wants to be a famous film director and has an obsession with Munro’s character who he follows to Cannes while a mysterious killer begins killing people. I haven’t watched my copy yet, but it’s supposed to be pretty good.
        I forgot about the Evil Dead remake…I’m interested in that one too…I just hope DIablo Cody’s rewrites didn’t do too much to what was already there.
        I like what I’ve read of Alan Moore more myself as well (V for Vendetta, Watchmen…). I definitely prefer him to Miller. His earlier stuff could be okay but, over time, he’s just gone completely insane, sexist, xenophobic, and misogynistic. I’m not the hugest fan of the guy overall at all. The movie Sin City works because the source material was passably decent AND Robert Rodriguez was doing directing. If you ever want to see what happens when Frank Miller gets behind the camera alone with no filter, the movie The Spirit is a hilariously stupid trainwreck that I love solely because it is entertaining as hell for all the wrong reasons.
        Lol, yeah, that’s what’s so great about Spinell’s performance in the movie…he’s an oddly likable, easy-to-root-for….serial killer.

      • scarina says:

        Daaaayyyum, that is a huge order to be delayed for so long. Did you order directly from Blue Underground or an intermediary? And that sounds like an amazing edition. I love the work they do, I think it’s important to preserve the films that only weirdos like us love.
        Oooh, I’ve heard of that movie. I keep saying I’m not big on slashers but I usually enjoy them. What’s up with dat?
        I guess League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s run is over, it’s left an Alan Moore-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t know if even Mars Attacks! can fill it. I admit that I enjoy Robert Rodriguez, even though I hate knowing about his personal life b/c he seems like a jerk.
        There’s definitely a pathos to Frank. It’s hard to be hostile towards him.

  3. Crypticpsych says:

    An intermediary. The entire Blue Underground sale they had was so cheap that it spread around the internet like wildfire and the site, which was run by one guy, couldn’t handle it. They basically had to shutter and rebuild from the ground up which they’re still working on.
    I love the work they do as well. I think people like Bill Lustig (since he owns Blue Underground too) deserve far more respect than they get in the mainstream for the preservation that they do.
    Yeah, I agree, re: Rodriguez…I may like his films, but I’ve gotten this feeling from listening to him speak that he’s kinda like Tarantino…a bit of a jerk (which explains why they’re such good friends).

    • scarina says:

      Daaayyyum, that sucks. I hope you get your DVD’s soon.
      I seriously love & respect Blue Underground. I only own Suspiria & Let Sleeping Corpses Lie from them, but I’ve seen other movies that they’ve rereleased & they were all great. City of the Living Dead & Zombie were both Blue Underground releases & I was pretty impressed. J&R had a bunch more by them, I should pick them up.
      I’m just put off by him leaving the wife he had kids with for Rose McGowan & her increasingly immobile face. I wish I didn’t know about people’s personal lives.

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