There are some movies that the first time you see them, you realize immediately how incredible they are. This film wasn’t one of those. The first time I saw it was in high school, and a friend saw the cover of the movie and decided we had to watch it. It was with a group of friends, and we were kind of just talking, up until the infamous shotgun scene. At that point, we all said, “WHOA! THAT WAS CRAZY!”, but then quickly got distracted since that’s such a hard scene to top. I think at the end we started paying attention again, but nothing quite stuck with you like that scene did. It wasn’t until the subsequent viewings that I understood the genius of this film. Luckily, my most recent viewing was a 35mm print with William Lustig, the director, in attendance and doing a brief Q & A.
As if being killed isn’t enough, imagine having THIS be the last thing you see.
The film opens with a scene that is an homage to Jaws, with a sleeping couple on a beach. We see things from the shark’s perspective, or rather, the “Maniac’s” perspective. The couple obviously gets murdered. We then meet Frank Zito, played by Joe Spinell, who lives in a shitty basement apartment in New York City. He picks up a hooker, takes her to a hotel room, starts engaging in things you do with a hooker, and he chokes her to death, and scalps her. When we see her back at his apartment, we see him nailing the scalp to a mannequin head that he then dresses in the hooker’s clothes. Frank then meets Anna, played by Caroline Munro, who is a hot-shot photographer, and they strike up a somewhat romantic relationship.
Don’t forget to write “MANIAC WUZ HERE” on the wall before you leave.
The rest of the film is a frantic, insane journey of man who clearly has issues. He reveals that his mother died when he was very young, which is assumed to be why he is so insane. Maybe the fact that sometimes the women he kills take her image, but that’s just my assumption. We see Frank go from being a “charming stud” with Anna, to stalking women through subways and breaking into their apartments to kill them. Not to mention we also see a scene where he jumps on the hood of a car of a couple making out, the guy being played by Tom Savini, and then shoots them point-blank in a huge explosion of blood and gore. Frank eventually combines his two worlds, and when taking Anna to visit his mother’s grave, starts chasing her, but she manages to escape, and he goes back to his apartment. While wallowing in his depression, he visualizes all the mannequins of the women he’s killed coming back to life to stab him and rip his head off. The cops show up the next day, break down the door, and see Frank dead, stabbed through the chest.
Rampaige just wishes she could look as glamorous while she does hair.
When Lustig was taking questions, I brought up the fact that this film was a perfect storm of multiple things that make this film as incredible as it is. First of all, Joe Spinell is amazing in it. He clearly isn’t the most attractive guy on the planet, which is what makes him so perfect. I know I’m not alone in having experienced walking down a city street late at night and seeing a guy walking alone who just has a creepy look about him. You feel bad for assuming you’re in danger, but we have films like Maniac to blame for that. We see Frank walking the streets, and had we passed him, we would go unharmed, but who knows if 20 minutes later, he was going to be murdering a hooker, think nothing of it, and get away with it. It’s hard to picture this movie being made with anyone else other than Joe Spinell.
Hey Frank, just because the mannequins are coming to life, there’s no reason to lose your head! Hey-o!
Another contributing factor is the city of New York itself. Granted, I wasn’t even alive when this movie was made, and didn’t visit until it was relatively “cleaned up”, but it really shows how dangerous living in a city that size, in that time, could have been. I mentioned something similar in my review for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (review here), in that the city of Chicago plays a large part in the terror in the film. Same thing with New York, one of the biggest cities in the world, where someone could easily get away with murder. You could get chased in a subway and not be able to find an exit, get murdered, and no one come to your rescue. Or maybe you’re making out in a secluded spot and get your head blown the fuck off.
Can you blame him for going crazy? Look how sexy these gals are!
Lustig mentioned that this film is currently being optioned with the involvement of Alexandre Aja, who I think is awesome, but I’m not sure anything could recreate the filth and grime of this movie. A movie like Texas Chain Saw Massacre takes stereotypical fears of people living isolated lives in the south, and this film does for big cities what TCSM did for the isolated countryside. From the guerrilla style filmmaking, to Joe Spinell, to the city of New York, to the synth music, to even the clothing and hairstyles make this a representation of everything you should fear living in a big city and is a film that is criminally underappreciated.
Wolfman Moon Scale