Sunday, June 8, 2014

Census Bloodbath: He's At Your Door

Year: 1980
Director: William Lustig
Cast: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you can probably tell from my tirade in the beginning of my Killer Party review, watching all these 1980 slashers had left me feeling like a plastic bag drifting through the wind. The only problem is, I don't want to start again. But in order to reach the shining Mecca of 1981, I gotta drink the dregs. Luckily Maniac, released the day after Christmas in the year of our lord Tom Savini, was like finding a lump of sugar stuck in the bottom of my teacup.

As the frequent observer of this blog may have predicted, Maniac is not what anybody could in good conscience call a "great" film. But what it is doing is so daring and strange that I have to give it props just for the foolhardy gusto with which it tells its story.

And he's dancing like he's never danced before.

Maniac tells the story of one Frank Zito (Joe Spinell, also of The Last Horror Film and, surprisingly, two Rocky movies and two Godfather movies), a man whose mommy issues extend well beyond the grave (and well beyond the expiration date for Psycho ripoffs, but this one's better than the dreary Funeral Home or the noxious Silent Scream from the same year). His particular issues send him careening out of control one holiday season (this is the third and by far the best 1980 slasher to be set around Christmas time), and Frank departs his apartment every night with his handy toolkit of sharp implements and puts them to good use, murdering and scalping women he believes to contain his mother's soul and nailing their scalps to mannequins back at his apartment. You know, like you do.

Maniac is one of the few films in the 80's to make truly interesting use of the situation of being caught in between the frights of the 70's and the nascent slasher genre. DNA from many other film styles are conglomerated into one ugly, but eternally compelling mess, a heaping pile of elements from early slashers films, a heavy dollop of Psycho, some nasty grindhouse thrown in to provide a basic structure, and a sprinkling of the Italian giallo for flavor.

All of these combine into one brutal, ugly flick, the perfect surrounding for the brutal, ugly man that is Frank Zito.

The camera adds ten pounds... of FURY.

The world around Frank is dull and grey - a night-addled funhouse mirror vision of New York City. And his interiors are no better. Frank's apartment is full of squat furniture and garish colors that provide a harsh contrast to the grey world outside, a very Italian and very unsettling touch.

It ain't easy being purple.

Maniac has no high machinations. It doesn't want to play with delicate themes or in-depth psychological analysis. It just wants to punch you in the nads as hard as it can for as long as possible, showing the dark side of the world we live in. At this, it is only intermittently successful but aided in huge part by Tom Savini's masterly gore effects.

I have sung the praises of Mr. Savini far and wide, but would never pass up the opportunity to do so again. His grisly gore effects revolutionized horror in America when they first came to the screen in Friday the 13th and would continue to turn up in some of the best movies of the decade including The Burning, The Prowler, and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. And Maniac is no exception.

Despite being perhaps less gory than the film's notorious reputation would have you believe, Savini delivers the grue with as much care as the doctor who had to deliver Princess Kate's baby. Unique in the slasher genre thus far, we get several deaths by sword and two brutal scalpings, the former of which probably earned the film its nasty word of mouth and deserved it. But there's no ignoring the fact that it's a work of a master of the craft.

I'm not actually sure I can show screenshots without ruffling a few feathers, so here's a kitten playing the piano.

So. Intermittently successful. I've chosen to mainly focus on my praise for the film, but there is certainly. First, there's the dismal budget and the fact that most of the minor parts were cast with porn actresses to cut costs. Porn actresses in the new millennium are hardly known for their acting prowess, but imagine the crop of talent available immediately post-70's. It's not pretty.

And the middle half of the plot can be quite repetitive, although I hardly noticed. As a veteran of watching such films as Psycho Santa and Memorial Day, I've built up a high tolerance. This is perhaps not one of my prouder skills. Luckily things pick up after Frank meets Anna (Caroline Munro, also of The Last Horror Film - with our Mr. Spinell - and Slaughter High), a plucky photographer who brings out the best in him. Unfortunately the best in him is still a murderous slob, but at least he buys her a stuffed bear. 

And, alas, the film is full of victims whose main line of defense is trying to shriek the killer into submission while standing stock still and never moving a muscle. This sounds misogynistic and it is, but any masochistic feminist who decided to rent Maniac on movie night would be pleasantly disappointed, because the film is shockingly uninterested in exploiting female flesh.

There's one topless scene, but it lasts about a half second when a woman is in a bath and she immediately covers herself demurely with bubbles. My theory is that director William Lustig (also of Uncle Sam and all three Maniac Cop movies) didn't want to distract anybody from the unrelenting violence of the picture, even for a second.

And the... whatever the hell this is.

So, yes. It has flaws. But the film is so deeply frenetic and interesting that it is hard to find an overwhelming fault to doom it entirely. Most importantly, even in the draggiest sequences, the time just whisks by. After the likes of Terror on Tour and To All A Goodnight, I had forgotten that movies didn't have to be boring.

And there's a handful of hearty cinematic moments that pepper the general dreariness of the production values, ramping up the tension and just letting the movie have a chance to breathe and have fun. And the ending - hoo boy the ending - is so jaw-droppingly picturesque in its violence and inimitable in its gonzo balls-to-the-wall approach. Honestly, the entire film is worth seeing just for those final moments. The fact that the rest of the film isn't half bad is merely window dressing.

No, it's not going to win any awards anytime soon. And that window of time has already long since passed. But it's not the worst way to spend ninety minutes and any 80's enthusiast who wants a crash course in the world of horror at the beginning of the decade should look no further than this film.

Killer: Frank Zito (Joe Spinell)
Final Girl: Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro)
Best Kill: Tom Savini gets a chance to show what he's worth by blowing his own head off (well, a character played by him) with a shotgun, exploding into a million tiny pieces.

Sign of the Times: Anna's everyday "lounge around the house" outfit is a pair of tight red leather pants.
Scariest Moment: The interactions Frank has with the mannequins never fail to be terrifying.
Weirdest Moment: A victim hiding from the killer strains her face and neck in such a way that the only possible explanation is severe constipation. The fact that she's hiding in a bathroom does not help matters.
Champion Dialogue: "You're the most beautiful woman I've seen since my mom."
Body Count: 8; including the killer.
  1. Beach Girl has her throat slit.
  2. Beach Boy is garroted with wire.
  3. Hooker is strangled.
  4. Disco Boy is shot in the head with a shotgun.
  5. Disco Girl is shot to death.
  6. Nurse is stabbed through the back with a sword.
  7. Rita is stabbed in the abdomen.
  8. Frank Zito impales himself on his own sword. 
TL;DR: Maniac is a deeply messy but infinitely compelling violent fright flick.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1396

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