Monday, October 13, 2008

Maniac (1980)

There are a good plethora of films in the beloved horror genre that have their reputation(s) precede them, and for good reason. Some for their blatant exploitative violence, some are known for their mundane use of cheese, and some are known for the genuine horror that they provide the viewer. The first memory I have of this film is seeing the poster up at a mom and pop video store my parents used to rent from in Reedley, California at the start of the eighties. I can still see myself, only about seven or eight years old, looking at the poster of a man's lower body, knife in one hand, scalp of blonde hair in the other. I still have that tagline burned into my memory, I warned you not to go out tonight! And just that was enough to scare the hell out of me, enough to stay away from the possibility of seeing this film ever.

I began reading about this film's notoriety in the early 90's - about its inception, its creation, the backlash behind it and the furor it created upon its release. What most people don't understand is that back in the time this film was unleashed onto the unsuspecting public, it wasn't like modern times where even kids as young as eight and nine years old have witnessed everything in the book regarding violence. Nothing seems to faze this generation's youth, that's why I feel that all the modern horror films that are being churned out by the Hollywood machine are as inept as they are entertaining. Maniac, though, delivers on a totally different scale.

I really don't want to go into this one and review it scene by scene mainly because the whole film can be summarized as a study into a human being's descent into madness and the methods in which he chooses to deal with said madness. The story chronicles the life of Frank Zito, brilliantly played by the incomparable Joe Spinnell who actually wrote the screenplay and helped produce this film. To make up for the loss of his mother as a child, Frank goes on a killing spree in New York City, disposing of young prostitutes and bringing home their scalps to place on the heads of his collection of mannequins he keeps in his squalid apartment. The thing I love most about this film is that it can actually be viewed with two different viewpoints: superficially, it's an effective and genuinely disturbing piece of horror cinema that has moments that have never been rivaled. Anyone can walk away from this film and have it in their mind they've just sat through just that: another slasher film. Then there are those who can say that this piece of work is a look into a mind damaged by years of psychological and physical abuse and how the effects have still lasted so many years later. We see how Frank, the character, plays many parts: the tortured child, the socialite, the demented madman and the victim vying for some kind of help to ease the pain he's been feeling and to somehow surpass the carnal instincts to kill and kill again. From New York City streets and alleyways to subways late at night, Frank relies on his urges to kill to survive day by day and Spinnell does this with such a panache that I honestly think he deserved an award of some sort - Golden Globe, maybe? - for his performance.

One of the film's most terrifying scenes in when Frank and Anna (played by Caroline Munro) visit Frank's mother's grave. Possibly derivative from the final scene in Carrie, this scene could only serve as the perfect moment for Zito's personalities to culminate into once person, therefore allowing his harrowing secret to come through: that he is the New York Maniac that killed her friend. When Frank's mother's hands come up and grab him, I did, honestly, jump out of my seat and scream - but not for the conventional reasons. It was the realization tat every haunting memory ever kept within his mind, every fear that he kept secret and every bit of resentment toward his mother materialized itself for those few seconds, and it drove him mad. And those few seconds were his kiss of death.

I hate to read about the film's feminist backlash and how women's groups - along with other groups - fought to have this film banned here in the U.S. Before I actually sat down and watched this for myself, I'd painted a picture of how this film would be: misogynistic in nature, brutally violent with absolutely no redeeming values. But if you actually sit down and watch this, you'll discover that it's a look at a troubled man with a past so damaged that his own slow demise is eminent. And this film does a fantastic job of of portraying Zito's downward spiral, especially during the film's final ten minutes. You are torn between feeling jubilation for his death or apathy or how his life ended up. Was it his fault his mother was a prostitute who kept him in the closet while hosting trick after trick? Was it his fault he had to listen to so many men abuse her? Was it his fault that he was unable to keep her from the lifestyle that led her to be taken from him at such a young age?

Many people bash this film for its violence and to some extent, I could agree that it is one of the more violent film's I've ever seen. But do people criticize this film just because the violence altogether without even taking a good look at the film itself and seeing just what the story is really about? For example, I've read on many sites that film critic Gene Siskel was outraged with this film and walked out of the theater just after the murder of "Disco Boy" - which I'll get into below - and protested the film on his television program. But did Gene really take a good look at the real story taking place on screen? The psychological downfall of a human being for evens that happened in his life that he had no control over that ultimately mapped out the rest of his adult life? If this film would have starred Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, I fell the overall reaction to this film would have been that much different. It didn't help that this film wasn't even submitted to the MPAA as to avoid the "X" rating it knew it was going to be slapped with. The most horrific point of this film for me was when the tagline, "I warned you not to go out tonight" was uttered by Frank. I think I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand when it hit me that the famous tagline was about Frank himself. This is why I make the constant point hat horror films of today don't even stand up to the ones we grew up with in the eighties. You tell me a recent horror film that has a tagline as memorable as that I can almost guarantee that you won't come up with one.

Yes, the film is reprehensible in some instances. The violence is shocking and over-the-top. The first scalping scene, the murder of the nurse in the subway station lavatory, and the murder of "Disco Boy" (played by the master Tom Savini himself) are three of the high points in the film. It was amazing to see how a make up genius such as Savini could craft and execute his own death scene with such brilliance that it would make it a piece of art. You actually have to watch it a few times to believe that he could get away with something so elaborate, and make it work the way it does. That murder sequence in particular will remain in your mind for days after you've seen the film. And sure, I could agree that violence toward women is a little much, but again, you have to keep reminding yourself why Frank is committing these murders and the motives behind them. He's not killing these women to get any kind of sexual gratification - though if you look long enough at the film's infamous poster art you might not agree - but more to ease his own psychotic mind in an attempt to free himself from the demons that plague him day after day.
The only version I currently own is the original Media VHS version which I believe is the cut R-Rated version. I know that Elite was the first to release this film uncut on DVD before Anchor Bay released it's definitive version. There is a new print on Blue Underground, which, if you don't know, is the new Anchor Bay. I believe the release is the exact same as the original AB version. Hopefully, I will own one of those DVD prints soon. I've never seen the film in it's uncut version and I'm dying to see what was going to become the sequel, Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, which was a conceived - and partially filmed - follow up until Joe Spinnell's tragic death.

The film is a must see for fans of the genre and it is a monumental film, yet to be rivaled, imitated or duplicated. I usually don't praise a film that's this graphic but you have to watch it and understand the reasoning behind what takes place as a whole to completely appreciate its message. If you're squeamish and can't handle this type of film, avoid it. But if you're the least bit curious, let me say that you won't be disappointed one bit. This is a film that deserves its place in horror history and it deserves to be remembered for Spinnell's tour de force performance.
Here's the amazing trailer:

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