In many slasher
films that were coming out by the thousands in the 1980s, rarely did
we get to follow the killer as our main character, rarely did we
invest an emotional attachment to the killer while also being
terrified of them at the same time, and rarely was it done with true
realism and craftsmanship. Maniac succeeds on all of these
counts. While many see it as just a pure exploitation film, with
nothing but misogynistic, mean-spirited attitudes and desensitized
gore and carnage on the surface, underneath, it really is a
psychological horror film, and an intelligent one at that. Yes, it
was made on the cheap, a film to be shown on a double bill on 42nd
Street or at a drive-in. But, when thoroughly examining it, it's a
calculated study on the dark human mind. Much like The Texas Chain
Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, Maniac
establishes that this is the real thing with deepening lunacy,
reality, and grittiness. This is how the world is, and it's not the
nice place that we make it out to be, which is what a great horror
film's goal is ultimately.
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is an overweight, middle-aged Italian American landlord of a small apartment complex in New York City. To most of his tenants, he seems like a nice enough guy. But, underneath the shell of this man, lies something more horrifying than they could imagine. As a child, Frank was abused by his promiscuous mom, Carmen (Nelia Bacmeister). Now, he stalks the streets at night, killing women, scalping them, and uses their scalps to decorate his rapidly growing collection of mannequins. He eventually becomes romantically involved with photographer Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). But, Frank is now coming into conflict with his other self. Will Anna save him from his long termed isolation, or will his madness ultimately consume him?
The atmosphere that Lustig creates is extremely effective in telling this story of horrific realism, much like The Texas Chains Saw Massacre (both of them being shot on 16 mm). It feels dirty, skuzzy, grimy and sweaty, the kind of movie that makes you want to take a shower immediately afterwards. It feels like a documentary of a serial killer and what goes on in his life, rather than a standard plot-driven movie. Zito's apartment in itself is just as fascinating as the city's exteriors, mirroring the character's own definite personality. The dim lighting, the claustrophobic setting, and the quiet and subtle tones of a dripping faucet or a ticking clock in the background just layers on another level of depression and insanity for this character that's just fantastic, showing that his loneliness has degenerated into a delirium that will never leave him, and that all he has in this world is his fragmented mind to comfort him. Its little things like that make Maniac all the more creepy and all the more powerful to the viewer.
While most colors in the movie are typically muted, one that's more obvious to the eye than most is red - blood red to be specific. For gore hounds, Maniac is able to quench their thirsts quite well, particularly in two scenes. One being the infamous shot gun sequence, and the other being towards the end, where the ghosts (one can only assume they're ghosts) of Frank's victims come back to kill him. All credit for these and other shots of blood and gory mayhem goes to Tom Savini, who actually has a fun little cameo in the film as the disco boy who gets his head shot off. The blood here compliments the film's atmosphere well. Unlike in Dawn of the Dead, where the blood was more bright and fluorescent for its comic book quality, here it's much darkly colored and has more depth to it, which again, aids in grounding the film into a state of authenticity.
The numerous POV shots combined with the constant heavy breathing in the background helps to establish the film's plot. Frank's our main character, the focus of this entire movie. What we see is what Frank sees, and wherever he goes, we're along for the ride, whether we'd like to be or not. We're now trapped in his strange and demented world. It's not like in most slasher films, where a POV shot seems to serve little purpose other than to create a mood and sense of dread. In Maniac, the shots serve to fuel the story, which makes it more effectual, as well as more plausible.
Joe Spinell is maniacal, childish and terrifying as Frank Zito, and his performance really carries the movie from beginning to end. Spinell doesn't portray a serial killer here; he embodies a serial killer. There is never a moment in Maniac where you ponder the notion that this guy might actually be sane. No, he's insane. He fits the characteristics of someone with both schizoid personality disorder and schizophrenia to a T. He's an outsider, has no big interest in social relationships, has hallucinations of his mother, and his monologues are often at points confusing and disorganized. It can also be assumed that he may have multiple personality disorder, particularly in one monologue where he keeps saying, "I'm afraid they'll take you away from me", and saying that these murders are getting "us" nowhere, but you could argue otherwise.
When seeing Frank's cruel acts of butchering and stammering to himself, it's easy to make the connection to Norman Bates from Psycho. Obviously, Spinell used the movie as a solid reference, and not just a simple backdrop like the many other slasher films. Both men were raised by abusive mothers who mentally scarred them for life. Each of them suffers from schizophrenia and desolation from the outside world. Both mumble or stutter in their manner of speech and both learned in their own ways that women are filthy, promiscuous whores. But, as one can expect, both of these madmen differ. While Norman generally fears women, as his mother Norma taught him that all women are evil, Frank hates women, just flat out hates all of them, with their "fancy shmancy dresses and lipstick, laughing and dancing". This anger and personal misogyny stems from the fact that Frank's neglectful mom was a hooker by profession, who cared more about the money in her customers' wallets rather than her only son. So, in a few shots, you can see Frank project hallucinations of his mom onto the women he's killing, prominently in the beginning as he's choking a prostitute to death.
There are three critical components to Spinell's performance that makes Frank Zito work. The first thing is that he's able to blend into the crowd almost perfectly without anyone picking him out. If you were to see this guy on the street, you wouldn't think twice that he had dark, twisted thoughts in his head, similar to Norman Bates. The second thing is that, like Bates or Jack Torrance from The Shining, Zito is a ticking time bomb. You have no idea on when he'll strike, but you know that he will, and he'll do anything it takes to fulfill his sick-minded delusions of maternal abandonment. That's what makes the scenes with him and Anna so suspenseful, is that you're just waiting for him to unleash his other self upon her. The third and most important thing is that he has no apparent understanding of the results of his actions, or the consequences that will come with them. He doesn't show any knowledge of or reaction to his crimes, or empathy towards his victims. These scenes make him much more childlike, as children themselves tend to have no understanding of the effects of their actions. Frank seems to be a lost child, who just wants to have a normal childhood. This is quite evident in the scene where he cries frantically after a murder, while wearing a baseball cap, sitting in an ancient rocking chair and playing with a toy gun. You can just feel the torture and misery that he's going through. Spinell immerses himself into a vivid portrait of a man who doesn't belong in this world, who's lost something he can never gain back, and who can never find true happiness.
As Dennis Paoli, screenwriter of Re-Animator and From Beyond, said, "Every slasher film, no matter how exploitative or cheaply made, has a dark, threatening psychosis." And Maniac is probably the truest representation of that. Underneath its blood saturated and grindhouse covered surface, there are several signs of a darker and depraved reality, which is ultimately where the real fear comes from. Just remember, you can lock your windows, and you can lock your doors ... but you can't lock the madman out of your mind.