Sunday, 9 March 2008

Maniac (1980)

Who could resist this sexy man?

William Lustig's Maniac is a film that seeks to shock and disturb, rather than entertain. It focuses on the last few days of serial killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) as he stalks and kills several women while spiraling into madness. That's it, really, so if you're looking for a complex plot then you're out of luck, and what did you expect from a movie with an awesome cover like this? (Is it just me, or does it look like the guy on the cover has a huge package?)

As the film opens, Frank Zito wakes up from a nightmare about killing a couple of canoodling teens, and from the first view of his fleabag apartment, it's clear that all is not right. Creepy dolls, some encased in cages, bizarre paintings on the wall, and a candlelit shrine to his mother. So yeah, he's not a model of sanity, and he proves so almost immediately by murdering and scalping a hooker. Back at his apartment, he nails the grisly trophy to a mannequin as he talks to it and babbles insanely.

Next he packs a some weapons into a violin case and it's off to stalk the streets of New York. Soon he comes across a couple getting busy in the back of their car, one of whom is played by none other than special effects wizard, Tom Savini (credited as "Disco Boy"!) Frank jumps onto the hood of the car, whips around the barrel of his shotgun and blasts Tom Savini's head clean off! In super slow motion! This is an amazing and memorable effect and should definitely (along with Scanners) get the Oscar nod for Best Head Explosion (a category that should be introduced asap.)

As the body count racks up, it becomes increasingly apparent that Frank has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother. She used to lock him in cupboards, sleep around etc. Now he has serious abandonment issues, and his killings are a way of ensuring that the women never leave him. Not startlingly original, but it does provide a little back story for his gruesome rampage.

Eventually Frank meets a photographer in the park, Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). She takes a liking to him for some strange reason, and they start dating. It shows that Frank is capable of functioning normally, even being charming on occasion, but he's not charming enough to make the idea of her being attracted to him believable. Neither of them have the acting chops to pull it off, and the scenes of them together drag terribly. Inevitably, he turns on her, but she manages to escape. As he sits in his apartment, the police closing in and his last hope for redemption severed, he finally goes off the deep end. His mannequins come to life, slowly closing in on him before gorily dismembering him with shrieks of bloodlust.

The next morning the police arrive at his apartment. His body is still intact, save a stab wound in his stomach. They are pretty lazy cops, since they don't bother checking for vitals or anything. They just shake their heads sadly and leave, cueing Frank's eyes to predictably snap open.

Maniac goes for a gritty realism, and it mostly works. It goes for a lingering sense of unease rather than a reliance on jump-scares. A scene where a girl is chased through a subway station is well staged and genuinely frightening. The synthesiser-heavy score is great and appropriately moody. Much has been made of the extreme gore in this film, and it does not disappoint. Savini's special effects are, as always, gruesomely convincing.

The film really revolves around Frank Zito (his victims are really just mannequins) and as such it hinges on Joe Spinell's performance. He put a lot of effort into preparing for this role, and he pulls it off admirably, creating a horrific yet pitiable character. Apparently Spinell stayed up all night drinking before filming in order to get the look right. I believe him. He almost always looks haggard, his face covered in a sheen of flop sweat. Much of the soundtrack consists of Frank's grunting, moaning and insane babbling. The film does an admirable job of trying to get you inside the head of a serial killer. As you can imagine, it's not a very pleasant place to be.

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