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October 14, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #41 - Maniac

(Note from The Mike: Yeah, it's Hammer Films Month.  I know.  But I've got five MMOTW spots to fill this month, and I thought tonight would be a good mid-month break point.  Fear not, the Hammer will be back this weekend.  Tonight, I want to talk about one of the movies I've seen recently that - surprisingly - has been haunting me for some time.)

There's something not right about Frank Zito, and it's a terrible shame.  The main character in William Lustig's 1980 flick Maniac - a splatter/slasher flick based around a "mommy complex" that resides somewhere between Psycho and Pieces - is one of the most pardoxical characters I've ever found in a horror film.  And that paradox - not the gooey, bloody, crazy-violent and gooey bits of the film - is where Maniac digs its knives into my mind.
Played by Joe Spinell, who co-wrote the film after creating the character for himself, Frank is a rather unsightly fellow with a poor complexion and a minor weight problem.  His hair and clothes are unkempt, and he lives alone in an incredibly strange room with some mannequins, photographs, and weapons.  At times, he likes to go out in the morning, put on a ski mask, and strangle lovers on the beach.  Other times, he heads out to pick up prostitutes and strangle them to death.  On occasion, he takes a shotgun to disco-loving lovers and makes the inside of their head look like melted red cabbage.  Frank is, of course, a maniac.  But there's also something tragically interesting about him.
I must admit that one of my biggest reasons for feeling this way is the film's female lead - my beloved Caroline Munro.  In a Beauty & The Beast-esque twist of fate, Frank meets a fashion photographer (with the fetching name Anna D'Antoni) who caught a picture of him in the park.  Frank doesn't like the fact that he's been captured by her camera - his hobbies don't mix well with being caught on film - and seeks Anna out.  But he begins to like her company when he meets her - and she reciprocates.  Suddenly, Frank is no longer just an ugly man who kills people and takes their scalps.  He's a bumbling-yet-honest, odd-yet-endearing guy who can make a woman like Caroline Munro make happy eyes at his presence!
We're not quite talking about Norman Bates here.  Unlike Anthony Perkins' turn as that unhinged killer, there's always something about Spinell's Frank that's unsettling to the viewer.  This isn't the Hollywood image of what a flawed man who's gone terribly bad looks like, because Maniac is a piece of guerrilla filmmaking that doesn't have to answer to what we'd expect from Hollywood.  Despite Spinell's natural appearance - which is unnatural in cinematic terms - we can kind of feel the connection with him that Munro's Anna does, even when he does something silly like say "You're the most beautiful woman I've seen since my mother".  We've also seen him brutally murder at least a half-dozen people before he meets Anna, yet we still start to wonder if there's something salvageable about him.

(I mentioned the guerrilla aspects of the film, and I'm not exaggerating.  The film was shot entirely on location in New York City, and Lustig and the crew often didn't have permits to film.  The famous scene in which Tom Savini's head is blown to bits was one of these times, and is alleged to have been filmed in less than an hour!)

Then there's that mother.  The fatally named Carmen Zito haunts poor Frank's mind, and drives him to these acts of cruelty.  Her impact becomes clearer as the film rolls on, and our sympathy for Frank rises while we become more afraid of what he's capable of.  There are some particular shots - especially one that's borrowed from Carrie - that bring out the mother's power over Frank, and they had me thinking about the film in a much different manner than I expected to.  I can't say I was behind Frank, because he scared me.  But I wanted to believe there was something good inside him, just like Caroline Munro did. (By the way, this is one of three films Munro made with Spinell, which makes me incredibly jealous of him.)
There's no mistaking the fact that Maniac is a bloody bit of repulsive trash cinema at heart, but I say that in the nicest way possible.  This film creates a lot of tension by placing Frank in undesirable locations with undesirable people and reminding us just how brutal he can be.  We can't miss the fact that this man has unhealthy murderous bouts of rage.  But we see him fight to be normal, we see him fight to deal with this, and it's a bit sad to see the results.  As the film wraps up Frank's story, we begin to understand that this is all about Frank and his mother, and that none of his victims - or Munro as Anna - really matter in the grand scheme of things.  The poor fellow never had a chance, and did what he had to to meet his needs.
But while we're sad for him, we're reminded that he could strangle us with a piano wire or bury a knife in our chest at any moment.  That's the kind of horrifying something you simply don't get from a grindhouse gore flick very often.  It left me feeling that Maniac was indeed an exploitative film that's plenty difficult to watch, but it's also one I won't forget.

(And yes, if you're wondering, that song from Flashdance was actually written for this movie!  The lyrics were changed for that film, obviously.)


Anonymous said...

This movie still gets to me. So goddamn brutal. And the practical effects are amazing.

Cinema Du Meep said...

Maniac is a great pic. Nice trivia about the Flashdance song. Love this blog!

The Mike said...

Thanks guys!