by Jack Sommersby
A serial killer with dead-mommy issues is at large in New York. So what else is new, right?The now-deceased Joe Spinell made his mark as a distinctive character actor in '70s films as diverse as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Rocky, Sorcerer, and Stay Hungry. Acne-scarred and not a little bit sleazy in appearance, Spinell proved himself a reliable thespian who took to the screen like magic: he nailed his lines, convinced as his character, and commanded every moment he was on screen. He also remains the most authentic New York actor who ever lived: he exuded urban grit from every pore, every facial twitch, every hurried step he took. By looking at him, you'd swear he never had an acting lesson in his life because he was so utterly believable and genuine; the man seemed incapable of making so much as a single false move on the silver screen, whether he was playing a loan shark, a businessman, a police commander, or a psychologist. Where most talented actors had to modulate their performances because of numerous ideas of interpretation and tempo and vividness, you felt Spinell never had to bother because he instinctively knew just what the role needed (or, in some cases, directors just knew the role needed a Spinell) and was confident enough in his naturalistic approach to acting that the camera would "get" the performance. Yet he wasn't a great actor -- basically, he lacked range. Spinell was infamous for his work in the '70s, when films were of more substance and its stars were solid actors more often than not, so an actor didn't have to be an Olivier to lend credence to a production in a supporting role; the stars were the ones expected to shoulder the majority of the dramatic baggage, which isn't to imply that all character actors back then lacked range -- they didn't -- but ones who couldn't offer up a lot of it (that is, if their role even allowed for it) managed to seamlessly blend in without unduly standing out. But in a starring role, it's an entirely different story altogether, where an actor is needed to provide rootedness, gravitas, complexity in the character; this is when you're aware of actors like Spinell as "character actors", because they don't fill up the screen and ground the dramatics the way charismatic, substantial actors do. There's an efficiency in what they do, but it usually doesn't have enough force and tension to drive the narrative, so the core of the film feels a bit empty.
"A Fascinating Display of Cinematic Sleaze"
This weakness is indeed a notable one in 1980's Maniac, where Spinell stars as one of the most demented serial killers ever put on screen. Yet, oddly enough, it's not as bothersome a flaw as it should be because the film has enough interesting things going on you really only notice this when it unwisely strains to work as a psychological character study, and then it temporarily goes splat The opening sequence sets the tone quite explicitly: a young couple sleeping on a beach has their romantic night cut short when a tall, bulky-looking man slashes the throat of the woman and garrotes the man, with blood flowing quite freely from each fatal wound. Cut to the screaming face of Frank Zito (played by Spinell), a lowly and lonely apartment-maintenance man on Long Island, who's just had a horrendous nightmare. Has he dreamt of the double-murder we assume he's committed? Possibly. It seems Frank has a mommy complex: his dead mother used to be a prostitute, and when she wasn't subjecting Little Frank to physical abuse, she was dressing him up in her clothes; all grown up now, Big Frank is trying valiantly to replace his mother, who he nonetheless adored until her passing. Like its occupant, his abode is one gloomy gulag -- adorned with mommy photos and a wide assortment of mannequinns, which he dresses in mommy's old clothes and nails onto the head hair he (literally) scalps off his female victims. Not only deranged but schizophrenic, as well, Frank talks to himself a lot when alone, going so far as to hold conversations with his dead mother when heavily stressed; he hates killing -- his tortured conscience screams like a smoke alarm after he's ceded to his violent impulses -- but does so because he's committed to building the perfect shrine that will forever honor his mother. Even though he doesn't have sex with his victims, Frank selects pretty ones, and it's a toss-up whether the reasoning behind this comes from Frank, whose mother perhaps was pretty, or the filmmakers, who preferred to populate the film with good-looking women. (Probably the latter, as this is the rule, rather than the exception, in the slasher sub-genre.) Suffice to say, Frank is one sick puppy -- a pathetic overgrown child who, like Manhunter's Francis Dolarhyde, kills in his pursuit to fulfill deep-seated fantasies.
The screenplay, by Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg, is admittedly pretty much of a shambles. The story points wobble: we're informed that Frank's killing spree has caught the attention of millions of New Yorkers, yet, assuming the spree started with the couple on the beach, we're unclear as to what made him snap this late in life, and what he's been doing all this time to compensate for his mommy loss. The logic loopholes gaping: Frank's comings and goings from the murder sites without any witnesses or any static whatsoever is too convenient. Frank's dialogue when he talks to himself is awful: it's overexplicit and comes off as the kind of stuff a first-year Psych student might churn out with the pretense that he or she is being insightful ("But you don't listen do you? It's got to stop. Oh, you're right about them, all of them. They're all the same."). The subplot involving Frank and a beautiful photographer, Anna (Caroline Munro), whom he strikes up a romance with isn't even remotely believable: first, why she doesn't seem shocked when he shows up at her apartment without having even met him nor given him her address is anyone's guess; second, we're led to believe he intends to eliminate her because she took his picture next to a child in a park, but the logic of why he doesn't follow through is left hanging; third, Frank's easygoing way with her is completely inconsistent with his reclusive, sheltered life and awkwardness with women in general; lastly, she's only in the film so Frank can get invited to her fashion shoot, just so he can become fixated on one of the models, just so he can be provided with another victim. And the final confrontation (which takes place in a graveyard, no less!) comes out of nowhere -- it's as if the writers ran out of material and exclaimed, "Oh! We need a climax!". Sound, literate, implausibility-free screenplays aren't necessarily required in slasher films (though some degree of realism is needed), but being that the attempt has been made here to instill psychological depth (however trite) into the proceedings, the endless logical banalities are that much more accentuated. The flaws that stack up against Maniac would hardly even count as such if the film itself hadn't been made to be taken seriously; it's the price of ambition -- being subject to nitpicking -- even if, in the end, the flaws aren't exactly detrimental.
Reportedly, Spinell initiated this project after having become interested in learning that a majority of serial killers experienced extensive abuse as children, so one could perhaps defend the intentions of the film as being socially responsible in the vein of, say, William Friedkin's Rampage. But Rampage broke completely away from tradition in its refusal to adhere to standard horror/thriller conventions, opting instead to follow the route of a courtroom drama (after all, the killer was caught at the thirty-minute mark), whereas Maniac is operating in the slasher sub-genre and relying on its conventions so the audience can get their kicks, so the film comes off as being at cross-purposes with itself. (Friday the 13th could get away with a killer mommy with transference issues because she was single-mindedly bent on revenge.) In Rampage, not one onscreen killing was shown -- the suggestions of the bloody aftermath, not the carnage, were pointed up -- while in Maniac, the killings are lovingly detailed, especially the scalpings, which (excepting a hokey blood-released knife effect) are as realistic and gruesome as they come, with Jay Chattaway's suspense score cranked up to such a high decibel level that the viewer feels it's their scalp being taken off. The filmmakers have tried to have it both ways in exploring the ramifications of mental illness while reveling in the murders stemming from them. And Spinell, who certainly throws himself into the role of Frank with unbridled aplomb, can't cut an interesting-enough portrait to elevate his own mediocre material. He doesn't suggest any genuine angst deep down -- everything he does is one the surface and too obvious to get a reading on -- and it's more than a bit telling that his best-performed scene is the one where he's on a dinner date with Anna, where he drops the odious pretentions and uses his actor's instinct to serve up some wit and humor, even though it's totally out of sync with everything preceding (and following) it. Still, Spinell's game, and he never gives the characterization less than one-hundred percent. Though Frank lacks conviction, Spinell's intent and dedication doesn't, and he throws himself so far into the role it were as if Frank had simply taken possession of his soul and hadn't left it until filming was complete.
Maniac can certainly be criticized for being violently misogynistic six ways from Sunday (which it kinda is/kinda isn't), yet to deny that there's a helplessly morbid fascination to it would be unjust. While admiring it as a psychological character study is difficult, having an affectation for it as an entertaining and colorful slasher isn't. The director, William Lustig, whose follow-up films were the uneven-but-compelling Vigilante and the entertaining Maniac Cop series, though sparing us virtually nothing in the gore department, proves himself amazingly adept at wringing the utmost suspense out of individual sequences. Maniac doesn't play out like a standard serial-killer thriller where there's a primary or secondary story thread of a determined cop tracking the culprit down -- we watch the story play out either through Frank's point-of-view or that of his victims before their untimely demises -- and this gives the film an unnerving you-are-there vitality, because once the threat of danger makes itself known, the POV of the victim and Lustig's economic staging (with its emphasis on claustrophobic set pieces) give the sense of danger an omnipresence that clings and compresses like a chokehold. Lustig doesn't possess the rudimentary film sense of a thriller-director which could give the narrative drive some punch and the scene transitions some zip, but he knows how to pleasurably manipulate the audience when need be. Whether it's an off-duty nurse being stalked in a deserted subway station and then in an equally deserted restroom, a beautiful model luxuriating in the warmth of a bubble bath and then walking the apartment's narrow hallway, a horny couple going from a nightclub to the strict confines of the back seat of a car for a make-out section, Lustig uses the camera actively yet never in- or obtrusively -- he gives enough aesthetic distance so as not to crowd us yet limits our field of vision cannily enough so when a "Boo!" moment is employed to scare us, we're genuinely taken by surprise. (Aiding him immensely is Chattaway's superb scoring, which is both beautifully lyrical in places and scarily foreboding in others.) Lustig isn't particularly creative in disguising the likely outcome of a sequence, but he knows how to work the viewer over so their apprehension is at a peak when the violent inevitable occurs.
Maniac is, for the most part, consistently gruesome stuff, and for anyone who's even remotely squeamish about gore should steer clear (a shotgun blast to the head, in particular, is very realistically depicted -- even though it's in total contradiction to Frank's affinity for scalping). But for those interested in a no-holds-barred, macabre entertainment on the order of Joel M. Reed's Bloodsucking Freaks that fascinates even when it repels, this film delivers the goods. There isn't a boring moment to be found anywhere, and, more importantly, you never know exactly where it's going. Our point man leading the way is one quintessential sicko, so being led through the story from the viewpoint of a person who's definitely short both oars in the water deprives us of the usual kind of protagonist we're used to being on comfortable ground with, which adds a welcome dose of uncertainty into the mix. The shoddy writing, which unwisely makes overexplicit Frank's mental demons -- something the excellent Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer wisely streered clear of (it was the absense of spelled-out explanation that punctuated, rather than punctured, the underlying horror) -- is a debit in that it fails to make its killer's emotional plight revealing or affecting; however, it's laced with some welcome occasional humor (Frank packing up his gun while munching noisily away at a box of Cracker Jacks), some unexpectedly good production design (Frank's apartment is a smiling wonder of organic freakishness), and a sleazy, jazzy unpredictability that manages to glide over most of the trappings of its sub-genre, like dead-weight, uninteresting padding in between the murders). Maniac can't really be defended as anything particularly moral, but it's no more violent in overall context nor despicable in subtext than many other slasher films -- and even a good many action films, which pile up even higher body counts yet adhere to the dubious belief that if the corpses aren't lingered over the filmmakers are being "tasteful" (Treating them as incidentals is morally superior?). In the end, Joe Spinell may not have been responsible for a masterpiece, but this is still a hugely entertaining film considered by many to be a naughty little classic worth many repeated visits. Rest in peace, Joe -- and, hey, pal, take a bow.
The first DVD release of Maniac came from the reliable folks at Elite Entertainment, and while the transfer was very good, the extras were lacking and the "date" scene was excised (though it did feature a dandy promotional short for the never-produced Maniac II: Mister Robbie). Well, leave it to the grand Anchor Bay Entertainment to come through with a phenomenal package one year later. The 1.85:1 transfer has gone the anamorphic route this time around, and as a result, a good deal of grain has been eliminated, producing an image with more sheen and less video noise. Edge enhancement is never a problem, and in the numerous scenes consisting of neon-colored lights, bleeding is problem-free. And the audio is just as stellar. THX-certified and available in both DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital, the sound is rich, never shrill, and the channel separations are fun (especially during the out-of-nowhere 'Boo!' moments).
But it's the first-rate array of special features that make this one of the finest DVD packages ever produced. The insightful, good-natured commentary by director Lustig, f/x maestro Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and longtime Spinell friend/assistant Luke Walter contains oodles of production details (like the production not having the proper permits, forcing the filmmakers to hurriedly shoot throughout New York and leave immediately once a scene was wrapped) and lots of big laughs (these four are like grown-up frat boys together in the same room). A radio interview with Lustig, Spinell and Caroline Munro is dandy, and so is the Gallery of Outrage, with statements ranging from Gene Siskel to a few foreign countries' film boards over the film being "not fit for human consumption". Lots of tv and radio adds are included. The best, though, is the 49-minute featurette The Joe Spinell Story, which chronicles the actor's introduction into and rise in the business, his numerous longtime friends (like Sylvester Stallone) and his unwavering emotional and financial support for them, and his troubled personal life, with broken marriages and eventual cocaine addiction severely affecting both his life and career. One of the best DVD packages ever produced.Gruesome and very memorable.
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originally posted: 09/06/03 02:09:19