Name one actor today who would hand himself over to a porn director and agree to star as a weepy, homicidal, mother-fixated slob in a gory slasher movie. Joe Spinell had balls the size of Gibraltar, of that you can be sure. Actually, Spinell initiated Maniac; he concocted the story, cowrote the script, and was one of the film’s executive producers. (Which probably means he called in a lot of neighborhood favors to get the movie in the can.) Critics didn’t like Maniac a whole lot — Gene Siskel couldn’t make it past the first half hour. Seen today, though, the movie has more in common with the grungy Times Square aesthetic of Abel Ferrara (who made his own splatterfest a year earlier, The Driller Killer) than with the multitudes of slasher flicks that followed it. The pacing might be deadly at times — it feels a lot longer than its 88 minutes — but the filmmaking has a rough kind of integrity. Even Stephen King, mentioning Maniac in passing in Danse Macabre, remarked on the detached camera viewpoint of the killings, which rendered them “well-nigh impossible to watch.”
Which they are. Under the supervision of special-effects maestro Tom Savini, the scalpings, stabbings, and decapitations (one by shotgun, administered to Savini himself in a walk-through as “Disco Boy”) are lingered over the way they always are in movies in which Savini has a bloody hand. (My theory is that all gore scenes in Savini’s films are directed by default by Savini, whether the official helmer is George Romero or Joe Schmoe; the camera just dawdles for a moment, forgetting all else, mesmerized by the butchery.) During Savini’s professional peak in the early ’80s, every film he worked on either fell under the MPAA’s scissors or, like Maniac (or Dawn of the Dead), simply went out unrated. No figure in modern cinema before or since has challenged the archaic ratings system so consistently or single-handedly.
Spinell stars as Frank Zito, a loner (and Vietnam vet, we deduce from the shrapnel scars on his chest — one of several quotes from Taxi Driver) who likes to scalp women and thumb-tack the bloody hair clots onto mannequins in his apartment. Why? Well, assuming there can be a logical explanation, he’s got a thing for Mommy, a whore who used to lock little Frank in the closet while she attended to business. (Was Frank one of the inspirations for the similarly backstoried hero-psycho Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen?) For about the first half hour — after which Siskel, probably knowing it wasn’t going to get any sunnier, hit the aisle — the movie amounts to Frank roaming around picking out likely candidates for mutilation. Oddly, when he dispatches Disco Boy and his girlfriend by shotgun, it doesn’t make much sense given his highly specific modus operandi, unless the woman’s scalp got blown clean off. In a prolonged sequence that rivals a similar sequence in An American Werewolf in London for cruelly extended tension, Frank stalks a nurse in a subway station (there’s a sizable glitch here when we see other people around in a long shot, and then when we cut back to the frightened nurse she’s alone in the subway with the killer).
But the plot, such as it is, thickens when Frank meets Anna (Caroline Munro), a beautiful photographer. The dialogue between them is stilted, and Munro, comely as she is, isn’t really acting on the same level as Spinell, but this subplot introduces an interesting new layer to Frank. Something in the photographer’s work touches him; in her apartment, he launches into a dissertation on how photos capture people forever. It doesn’t sound like a line; it seems to hook into who he is as a person as well as a killer, and when he describes himself as a painter, it may be technically a fib, but some of the weird things on the walls of his apartment look like the work of a talented (if disturbed) artist who might’ve gainfully explored his Oedipal demons in ways other than murder if the dice had rolled differently. Love cannot redeem the monster, though, and his attraction to Anna is as ill-starred as Travis Bickle’s was for Betsy in Taxi Driver. (I wonder if Spinell wrote this subplot in so that he could sit across from a beautiful woman at dinner just once in one of his movies.) At one point, the addled and lonely Frank puts on a winged baseball cap and shoots at photos of women with a little toy ray gun. I don’t know what that’s commenting on, if anything, but it sure sticks in the memory.
This was the film that put director William Lustig (still in his twenties when it was shot) on the grindhouse map; made for $350,000, it pulled in $6 million before all was said and done. Earlier, Lustig had directed two adult features (his debut was The Violation of Claudia starring Sharon Mitchell, who has a bit part here as the nurse who survives, and who went on to get her doctorate in Human Sexuality and found the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation — maybe playing a health-care provider rubbed off on her). Lustig is an interesting guy, even if most of his movies aren’t; his uncle is Jake La Motta (who put in a cameo in his nephew’s Maniac Cop), and, like Frank Henenlotter, he appears to have sidelined directing in favor of putting out sleazy oldies on DVD (Blue Underground is his baby). I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to Lustig’s subsequent portfolio; Relentless I thought was awful, and one Maniac Cop (he made three) was enough for me. But in Maniac, at least, he works seriously, getting far deeper into a madman’s twisted brainpan than most others would care to.
Lustig’s concentration carries you over such plot questions as why the hotel manager (played by Lustig himself) wouldn’t have given a description of the rather unique-looking Frank after the killer has left a hooker scalpless in one of the rooms. And in Joe Spinell, often looking like a frenzied cross between Ron Jeremy and an acid-bloated Benicio Del Toro freaking out in the tub in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Lustig has a psycho with attitude and cult longevity. Spinell wanted to do a sequel, to be directed by Combat Shock‘s Buddy Giovinazzo, but after getting ten minutes of film into the can he died of an apparent heart attack in early 1989. It’s too bad, because a sequel, if nothing else, would explain how Frank survived pulling a Mishima on himself. Perhaps, though, it’s better this way: no sequel, no back-from-the-dead Frank ready to scalp again, just this grubby critic-baiting piece of work that stands alone and stands apart.