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MANIAC

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro
Director:  William Lustig
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS ES, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  August 21, 2001

“Frankie…you’ve been a bad boy…”

Film **1/2

Maniac is on a lot of people’s most-hated films list, and frankly, I wouldn’t ask any of them to reconsider.  Though the 1980s would produce a number of gory, popcorn crunching slasher films, Maniac was one of the decade’s first, and certainly one of its most relentless.  One could only describe the picture using adjectives like ‘nihilistic’, ‘misogynistic’, and ‘perverse’, and those might even be considered its best qualities.

But there’s something so raw and so bare-bones about its unapologetic wallowing in depravity that it has become a cult classic over the last two decades.  Anchored by a tilted yet convincing performance by masterful character actor Joe Spinell (who also co-authored), Maniac seems excessive only when you consider that it was the opening for a decade of excesses.

Like Norman Bates, Frank Zito (Spinell) has mama troubles.  She’s been dead for a long time, but the extremities of their relationship still haunt Frank, who, as a grown man, is a babbling, twitching mass of psychiatric tics.  He lives in a small room filled with mannequins that seem to stare at him.  He decorates them by nailing the scalps of his female victims to their heads.

He kills brutally, but his mind and body are in constant torment.  There is a self-loathing in the character that causes him to berate himself for being unable to control his psychotic instances.  He cries a lot, and talks out loud to no one (or someone?), but he’s never far away from terrorizing his next victim.

There is a kind of Beauty and the Beast quality introduced by a lovely photographer, Anna (Munro), who actually ends up dating the wired Frank a couple of times.  We nervously await the outcome…will she still the rage inside him?  Or will she end up another bedroom decoration?

Director William Lustig knows his Hitchcock, and who knows?  Had the great master of suspense lived another decade or so, the logical extension of his work might have looked something like Maniac.  I know that’s bound to raise an eyebrow or two, but consider Hitch’s next to last picture, Frenzy…it was the first film he made to receive an R rating, and it indicated an escalation of on-screen horror, and even a bit of misogyny on the side. 

Lustic pays homage to the master by creating suspense with his camera and sounds…sometimes, he lingers on an empty space far too long for comfort,  Sometimes, he hastens the rhythm of the editing for a jarring effect.  Sometimes he raises the strange music to the point that it muffles the sound of the action at some of the most dire moments.  The suspense he creates is genuine, and the scares he produces are authentic.  There won’t be any loud gasps followed by nervous chuckles from the gallery for this picture.

But of course, the crux of the picture is its rather extreme violence and bizarre premise about an abused child who grows up to be a serial killer in one of the first slasher movies to really equate sex with death.  As such, Frank reacts to women with both attraction and revulsion.  Arousal awakens not pleasure, but pain, and the pain leads to the continuation with his brutal killing spree.

It’s always been interesting to me that for a so-called slasher picture, Maniac actually focuses on the killer, and not the victims.  We don’t really get to know any of the people he dispatches of in the movie, not even long enough to scream advice to them on screen.  Most don’t even have names that we hear.  This could lend some credence to the misogynistic argument, as the women he kills really serve no other purpose in the film than to be meat.  But the truth is, the picture is more fascinated by the mind of the murderer.  What is life like for him?  Movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Schramm have covered similar territory, but it lends to a certain discomfort.  It’s one thing to fear a villain who leaps out from the shadows, but it’s quite different to spend the duration of the movie up close and personal with one.

At the least, it’s safe to say this isn’t a film for all tastes.  It isn’t a standard by-the-numbers fun horror movies, but rather, a messy, invocative psychological profile of a relentless monster of a killer.  There’s a good reason why this picture is hated by some and considered a cult classic by others.

Video ***

This is why I love Anchor Bay…the average DVD fan will pick up this disc and go, “HUH?  Why’d they give a THX certification and DTS sound to a movie called Maniac?  But horror fans will grab it and say, “Yes!!”  This studio remains the best lifeline for horror movie lovers, and the quality of their discs is the best evidence of that.  Maniac has looked pretty bad on tape in recent years; this DVD, though imperfect (by nature), is a revelation.  Colors are brighter and more vivid, images are sharper and clearer, and grain has been reduced to a bare minimum.  Some aerial shots, which are actually bits of stock footage, look a little worse for wear, and some darker scenes suffer a tad from less definition and more enhancement, but overall, those who have only seen the picture on VHS are in for a real treat. 

Audio ***

The original Dolby Stereo track is included for purists, but DVD lovers will doubtless go for the DD 5.1 or the DTS ES track, whichever one is compatible with their system.  For me, that’s the Dolby Digital one, and as usual, Anchor Bay has tweaked it up a notch.  The film has a great electronic score with extreme highs and lows, and the digital sound renders all of it with clarity and dynamic range.  The rear speakers help to carry the score, which features lots of panning and crossing effects.  There are also more subtle uses of the surrounds, as most of the audio for this movie is unnatural on purpose, with a definitely sinister sense of manipulation.  This track delivers the goods.

Features ****

The extras start with an audio commentary by director William Lustig, make-up artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Joe Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter.  All recall details of the film with fondness, and share their memories of the late Spinell and his contributions to the movie as both writer and actor.  There is a 49 minute documentary on Spinell also, which is rather enjoyable and filled with good interview segments.  There are numerous trailers, TV spots and radio ads, plus a poster and stills gallery, talent bios, and a radio interview with Lustig, Spinell and Caroline Munro, which is a real treat.  My favorite, though, is the Gallery of Outrage.  Flip through it and see what kind of venom the nation’s top critics dripped across Maniac when it was first released!

Summary:

Maniac is not a fun film.  It won’t inspire laughs.  The scares are genuine, the scenes are graphic, and the nature is repulsive.  It’s a picture that begs a certain, specific kind of audience.  If you’re not part of it, then put the disc down and back away slowly…fair warning.