Sunday, August 12, 2012

Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

Call him a deranged psychopath with unresolved mommy issues, if you must. But the mentally unwell protagonist at the centre of Maniac, my cinematic wheelhouse in a nutshell covered in two layers of creamy derelict jizz, is more akin to a shapeless mound of broken dreams and unrealized potential. Why did I choose to view him in this particular light? Clearly possessing many different talents, the so-called "killer" seems to be wasting away in a rent-free pit of  loneliness and despair. If the ability to stalk women after midnight was a valuable skill to have listed on your resume, he would be sitting pretty. Unfortunately, no-one needs a lumpy, middle-aged man who forcibly removes women's scalps in today's unstable job market. You would think they would at least be impressed by the fact that he recycles, a rare trait to have during the era of guilt-free orgasms and disco chic. But they couldn't careless that he reuses his victims hair and clothing to create art. Sure, it's disturbing art, but it's art, nonetheless. How do I know all this? Well, luckily, director William Lustig (Maniac Cop) and writer/executive producer/star Joe Spinell (Forbidden Zone) have decided to bypass your typical slasher film clichés by making one that's entirely from the perspective of the killer. You know what that means? Of course I do, you've already implied that you know what it means. Yeah, but...Okay, you're right. Either way, I was so happy when it dawned on me that there would be no police investigation, no red herrings, and no lame plot twists in this film. At around the midway point I thought myself: There's no way they would introduce a cop character this late in the game. And you know what? They didn't. It's true, some cops do show up near the end of the film, but they didn't even have any lines. The film does have a romantic subplot, but it's so awkward and strange, that it eventually morphs into a weird form of dinner theatre. Seriously, I'm still trying to figure out how Joe Spinell managed to get beautiful Caroline Munro (Starcrash) to even talk to him, let alone go on a date with his sleazeball ass. I mean, just the mere thought of them in the same room together sent shivers and shock waves up and down that the mysterious flap of skin languishing near my cavernous taint.
The cinematic wheelhouse I alluded to earlier had nothing to do with violence and degradation, which this film has in abundance, but the fact that it takes place, like the majority of my favourite films, in New York City during the era of cocaine sex and tight trousers.   
In order for his basement apartment to really come alive as a creepy hellhole, Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) needs to kill at least five or six women. Of course, I'm not entirely sure if that's his goal or not. But from where I was sitting, it seems like he's got a void in his life, and murdering women is the only way he knows how to fill it. Like most serial killers, Frank is not content with simply murdering his victims. No, he needs to keep a souvenir. In this case, he puts the clothes they were wearing when he killed them on female mannequins.
At first, it seemed like he was carrying their bodies home in a garbage bag. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that he's carrying mannequins. Where he gets them exactly is not-so clear. But since it appears as if he has some connection to the art world (his apartment looks like a close quarter art gallery), I bet he has a mannequin source. Well, it's obvious he does, as his apartment will soon be filled with them.
Filled with them, you say? Yeah, I'm afraid so. The first such victim is quickly dispatched down at the beach. Sneaking up on a woman with short brunette hair (Linda Lee Walter, who is credited as "Beach Girl"), Franks slits her throat while her boyfriend (James Brewster, who is credited as "Beach Boy") is collecting firewood. Don't worry, he's killed too. Waking up in a sweat the following day, Frank screams, moans, and rocks back and forth in his apartment, which is covered with candles and appears to have a shrine to a woman dressed as a nurse.
It's 1980, we're in Manhattan, and Frank Zito is walking the streets in a bomber jacket, what could possibly go wrong? Two prostitutes currently chatting about their trollop-based problems on the very street Frank Zito is walking on are about to find out. Well, one of them is. Initially, I thought Frank had solicited the hookers, but it was actually the hookers, specifically the one wearing purple satin disco short shorts, fishnet pantyhose, and a red scarf who did the bulk of the soliciting.  Played by the alluring Rita Montone, the nameless sex worker needs to bag one more trick in order to be able to pay her rent. In other words, desperation played a key role in her decision to solicit Frank as he moseyed on by on that chilly winter evening.
A gum chewing vision in purple satin disco short shorts, Rita Montone is too gorgeous to be choked to death and scalped in a cheap motel room. I don't care if Frank paid the motel manager an extra five dollars for colour television, that's no way for someone as attractive as Rita to buy it. You could tell Frank felt the same way. Sure, he's the one who's about to killer her, but the fact that he told her pose like a model ("yeah, like in the magazines") lead me to believe that Frank had second thoughts about killing her. In reality, he's not really killing her. Okay, that doesn't make a lot of sense. What I mean is, he's really trying to get back at his mother (as he strangles her, we catch glimpses of a different woman being strangled, one who could be his mother). Either way, her fishnet pantyhose are soon pressing tightly up against a dead vagina, as Frank adds another mannequin to his collection. Oh, and unlike the previous murder scene, we get an eyeful of Frank's gruesome scalping technique this time around.
Mumbling to himself ("I told you not to go out tonight"), then mumbling subconsciously ("It's got to stop"), Frank is clearly a person who spends way too much time wallowing inside his own head. Noticing that his recent beach killing has hit the front page of the local paper, Frank becomes agitated, pacing back and forth as eerie synths ooze their synthy payload in the background.
We all have different ways of reliving stress. Some like to garden, others like to write Jem fan fiction. Well, Frank likes to dress mannequins. Pulling her fishnet pantyhose, black leotard, and purple satin disco short shorts out of a bag, Frank begins to dress his new mannequin in the clothes the hooker was wearing when he murdered her. When he's done doing that, he takes her bloody scalp and nails it to the mannequin's head. As you would expect, the blood from the scalp drips down on the mannequin's face creating this lurid effect that was quite disturbing.
Telling the beach mannequin and the hooker mannequin that he'll "be right back," Frank heads out for the evening. Picking out a couple as they leave a disco called "Blossoms," Frank follows them to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Work those thighs, Tom Savini! Work 'em! What the fuck? I'm sorry, I got ahead of myself. The couple, played by Tom Savini (credited as, "Disco Boy") and a glittered-covered Hyla Marrow (credited as, you guessed it, "Disco Girl"), park underneath Verrazano Bridge to have sexual intercourse, and during foreplay, Tom Savini strokes the living hell out of Hyla Marrow's glimmering right thigh in the backseat of his car. C'mon! What do you mean? No disrespect to Hyla's thighs intended, but there's no way they were "glimmering," that's just thigh-based wishful thinking on your part. No, seriously, just ask Tom Savini. I'm sure he'll tell you that they were glimmering like a swarm of fireflies the night they shot this scene. It's true, most people remember this particular scene for the exploding head–which was awesome, don't get me wrong–but then again, most people aren't as heterosexual as they think they are.
At home in his jammies, Frank is combing his hair and babbling to himself about "fancy girls, in their fancy dresses and lipstick, laughing and dancing." I think the reason he handcuffs himself to the latest addition to his mannequin fleet, a glitter-covered disco queen with glimmering thighs, was because he has abandonment issues. Anyway, Frank decides to hang out in the park next day, where he spots Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro), a photographer wearing a super-chic jaguar print coat.
You know when people say, "me wanty" when they see an article of clothing they would like to acquire? Well, I can't really say things like that as I'm not quite equipped to pull off a garment as bold as a jaguar print coat. It got me to thinking, though. If I had a bunch mannequins, I could dress them up in the clothes I didn't feel comfortable wearing myself. While I initially loved the idea of having my own army of fashion forward mannequins, I do worry that it might start to come off as a tad creepy. Then it suddenly dawned on me. I need to get a girlfriend. Or better yet, a wife. Think about it, I could buy them a ton of clothes; dresses, shoes, purses, bracelets, you name it, and have them wear the items I felt skittish about donning myself. It's a genius idea, one that I'm definitely gonna noodle with over the course of the next few months.
Just to let you know, the reason I brought this up is because there's a scene that takes place after we meet Caroline Munro and her jaguar print jacket in the park that features Frank Zito window shopping late at night to synthesizer music. The way he stared longingly at the store's window displays reminded me of myself, as I've been known to stand out in front of, oh, let's say, Louise Vuitton, Prada (my personal favourite), or the Chanel boutique on Bloor Street late at night on occasion. Of course, I don't mean to imply that I understand his motivation to kill women at random (I'm a staunch believer in non-violence, especially the "at random" variety), I'm just saying that I'm attune with his desire for luxury.
Holy crap! Don't look now, but here comes Sharon Mitchell. And get this, she's dressed as a nurse! Sporting her trademark dark short hair underneath her nurse's cap (the same dark short hair that would set the 1980s porn world on fire over the course of the next ten or so years), Sharon Mitchell plays a nurse (well, duh) and Kelly Piper plays a fellow nurse. Yeah, we get it, they're both nurses. Uh-oh, does this mean Sharon Mitchell is about to be murdered by Frank Zito? Don't get your Michael Kors briefs in a bunch, girlfriend. She's gonna be fine. It's her co-worker at Roosevelt Hospital who should be the one worrying. As we say goodbye to Sharon Mitchell (bye, Sharon Mitchell. I love you), we're treated to the coolest synth flourish in film history. Employed to signify Frank Zito's malevolent presence, the synth sound is so deep, that it will penetrate the souls of uninitiated. After the synths have stopped flourishing, we're treated to some top notch subway stalking. Which, of course, ends with a woman being brutally murdered and a new mannequin added to the collection.
The Frank Zito line, "It's just a little'll wash out," will be familiar to Skinny Puppy fans as it was famously sampled on "Cage," a song from the Chainsaw EP. 
How this schlubby basket case managed to weasel his way into the life of a woman who wears jaguar print coats and makes tea in red leather pants I'll never know. But as I found out watching him crazy it up in Maniac, you should never doubt to persuasive powers of Joe Spinell, one of the most compelling actors of his generation. The scenes that feature him on the prowl are intense (particularly the encounter in the 59th street subway station), but it's the one's where it's just him alone in his apartment that I found to be the most unsettling, as Joe Spinell does a terrific job of capturing the killer's inner torment, while at the same time, giving us moments of bizarre levity (the part where Joe Spinell pretends he's a hairdresser, complete with sunglasses and a jaunty scarf, is the perfect example of this).    
You haven't lived until you've seen Joe Spinell holding a teddy bear. Okay, maybe that was a tad hyperbolic. But the fashion photo shoot where Caroline Munro snaps pics of a trio of models (Abigail Clayton, Joan Baldwin, and Jeni Paz) at a loft located in, oh, let's say, Soho, was important sequence when it came to determining whether or not Maniac was merely a satisfactory horror film with a few memorable moments sprinkled here and there or a genuine cult classic. Well, I'm happy to report that it definitely qualifies as the latter, as any film that features coked up fashion models posing to "Goin' To a Showdown" by Don Armando's 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band ("put on something nice / just in case you die / you'll leave a pretty corpse behind") is going to get overly praised by me. Speaking of me, if you're like me, and are a fan of films like, Eyes of Laura Mars, The New York Ripper, and Cruising, you'll surely get a kick out of Maniac.

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  1. I didn't realize Skinny Puppy sampled this. When I think of creepy samples in industrial songs, I think of Dead World's sampling of Budd Dwyer's suicide:

    I would totally like to use mannequins as decoration. I'd probably have to go dumpster diving outside of department stores in order to find them (or pieces of them).

    Fun trivia: In order to be able to higher union actors at non-union wages, the writer wrote a super filthy version of the script and submitted it to the screen actor's guild. Apparently, a union actor could only do a pornographic movie for less than scale, so they gave them a fake script where Spinell would be cutting out vaginas and raping women while showing penetration and god knows what.

    More fun trivia: The song "Maniac" from Flashdance was actually written for the end credits of this movie. It was eventually rejected, and the writer later rewrote the lyrics for Flashdance.

  2. I'm not familiar with Dead World, but I do know that Rapeman (Steve Albini) had an EP named after Budd Dwyer simply called "Budd."

    I don't think I'll be able to listen to "Maniac" from Flashdance same way starting today; not to imply that I ever listened to the song on purpose before today.