Saturday, April 4, 2009
#58: Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)
Maniac is, plot-wise, nothing but a typical slasher film. A psychopath with mother issues stalks and kills women. That's pretty much all there is to it. However, Maniac is way more interesting than that, for a number of reasons. First, William Lustig, the director, has a keen visual sense with an effective use of color, atmosphere, and framing of shots. He's a B-movie legend, and makes both horror films and urban crime/action movies. Second, Tom Savini handles the special effects and has a bit part. His character is listed in the credits as Disco Boy, though he doesn't look particularly disco-fied. If Savini is involved, the chances are good that the film will not be formulaic. Third, the movie was filmed back when New York City was a sleazy hellhole before Giuliani sanitized everything. You can't fake that sleazy hellhole atmosphere, and Maniac has it all over. It's like the Taxi Driver of slasher films. Finally, Joe Spinell co-wrote, produced, and starred in it.
Joe Spinell was one of the most interesting weirdoes to find a career in the movies. He was about as far from a pretty face as you could imagine, but the camera loved him anyway. He's a charismatic actor who commands your attention. He mostly played small parts, but they were interesting parts in very good films. Just look at some of the titles: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Rancho Deluxe, Farewell My Lovely, 92 in the Shade, Taxi Driver, Stay Hungry, Rocky, Sorcerer, Cruising, Melvin and Howard, Forbidden Zone, Married to the Mob. Spinell's personal life would have made an interesting movie in its own right. A hemophiliac alcoholic and heavy drug user, he also had trouble managing his money and, toward the end of his life, he moved back in with his mother and his sister took control of his finances. His money problems stemmed from his refusal to pay taxes and his habit of paying for every single patron's meals and drinks at the bars and restaurants he frequented. He was kept afloat by his royalty checks from The Godfather, his first film role and his most lucrative. Through a clever working of the system, he was the second-highest paid person on the film even though he only had a small part. Only Marlon Brando got a bigger check than Spinell. Befriending Coppola during his audition, he asked if he could hang around the set during the entire shoot to learn the ins and outs of moviemaking. Coppola agreed, and let him log on each day as an employee. Spinell's personal relationships were very odd. He had a fondness for strippers and strip clubs, and he was briefly married to a porn star, having one child with her. He also had a male personal assistant for most of his career, and they referred to each other as non-sexual boyfriends and lovers. He was also a little too attached to his mother, and friends commented that they would have dated each other if his mother were younger. Her death in the early 1980s threw him into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol and drugs. He died as a result of his hemophilia in 1989, at the age of 52. The police originally thought some kind of horrible murder had occured when they found his body. Spinell kept a severed head prop from Maniac in his apartment, and since he bled to death, his body was found in a rather large amount of blood. The severed head prop was nearby, the police mistaking it for the real thing.
Spinell is in almost every scene of Maniac, and creates a character that is a hybrid of Ed Gein and the Son of Sam. His real-life mother issues permeate the story. The character, Frank Zito, lives in a squalid little efficiency in a rough part of New York. His mother died when he was young, and it messed him up. He murders women, scalps them, and puts their hair on mannequins scattered all over his efficiency. He then whines and cries about the murders after committing them. He finally befriends a woman, a supposedly Italian fashion photographer played by a British actress who decides to just use her real accent instead. Of course, things won't end well.
Maniac has a reputation as being one of the most emotionally disturbing, hard-to-sit-through films ever made, and the National Organization of Women aggressively campaigned against the film, picketing theaters who showed it and calling for its withdrawal from distribution. This probably contributed to its box office success. The film was a surprise hit in 1980. This kerfuffle seems overblown and dated now. The film is far less disturbing than something like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left. The character hates women, but does the film? I don't think so. It's misogynistic in the mundane ways most slasher films are, but it's an interesting little horror movie.
Spinell was so bothered by NOW's criticisms that he decided to write a sequel to defend himself. Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie was about a children's show host who murdered abusive parents. Spinell died shortly after filming began, however, and the movie remains unfinished.