My entire life I have generally avoided horror films. The genre makes me profoundly uncomfortable. This means I have enormous gaps in my cinematic knowledge. Each year I ask friends and family which essential horror movies I need to see in order to fill those gaps and spend October writing them, agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them. This is my No Sleep October.
“I warned you not to go out tonight.”
Maniac is a movie so violently upsetting that Gene Siskel reportedly walked out of its screening after about a half-hour. It stars Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, a serial killer whose modus operandi is scalping women and then recreating them by dressing mannequins with their hair and clothing. He keeps the mannequins with him in his apartment and berates them for letting him go out at night … because killing people always happens when he goes out at night.
Spinell also co-wrote the screenplay (directed by William Lustig, nephew of Jake LaMotta), which is told almost entirely from Zito’s perspective. It’s the kind of serial-killer fiction that belongs squarely in the early 1980s. Serial killers are “fun” because they’re monsters with a supposed, colorful purpose — less terrifying than the reality that most mass killers are just angry ex-husbands with too many guns or bored young men with … access to too many guns. Zito’s “fun,” in that he dresses up in a black mask and follows women through subway stations, at brothels, on a beach, in a car…
Okay, that’s all too real, too, and more disturbing because of it.
So “fun” really isn’t the right word, but in any case it’s certainly scary. Much of Maniac was filmed guerrilla-style because the production couldn’t get permits on the streets. One scene in particular had to be filmed with a friend of special effects artist Tom Savini waiting on hand to take away the gun fired for the sequence before the police could arrive and find it in their possession. That graphic, low-quality presentation only makes Maniac more disturbing.
The sequence that most got to me is when Zito sees a nurse (Kelly Piper) leave Roosevelt Hospital and follows her into the subway. The nurse notices her pursuer and tries her best to shake him off, eventually hiding in a bathroom stall. You know this is going to end badly; the question is how and when Zito will pop out of a hiding spot to get her. Lustig and Spinell play it long. Maybe a little too long. Midwest Film Journal’s own Sam Watermeier, tired of the movie’s slow burn, annoyingly explained, “Just kill her already!” But that length only made it worse — Piper’s fear is tangible, and the randomness of her assured doom horribly disturbing.
There are moments of true greatness in Savini’s visual effects. At one point he plays the suitor to one of Zito’s victims and gets a shotgun shell directly to the head. The gore is exquisite in the way in which only Savini is capable. (Full disclosure: The original trilogy of Romero’s “Dead” films are amongst my favorites of all time and Savini’s work is a big part of that.) Another moment at the very, very end of the movie precludes his later dismemberment classic in Day of the Dead. All treats, although by the conclusion of Maniac too little, too late.
Sam wasn’t wrong with his impatience. Maniac has one trick, but Zito can only stalk so many women before it becomes monotonous. Only one woman – a photographer named Anna – is given the chance of surviving his odd wrath and even then she’s never much of a character. Without someone to really root for we find ourselves watching Zito have his fun, hoping that someone might take him down.
And while the movie ultimately allows his own demons to truly get the best of him it never feels cathartic. Only down, down, down into the bleakness and depravity of his monstrous desires. It’s repetitive and disturbing but never feels unrelenting in a way that I find memorable beyond the superficial shocks of broken taboo and triggered fears.
I mean to say it’s shallow.
Sure did bother me, though.