What do George Costanza and Norman Bates have in common besides being, well let’s call it, socially awkward? Mommy issues. Big time. If you were to combine the George and Norman, and then ramp up the insanity by about 25%, you’d get Frank Zito – title character of William Lustig’s 1980 exploitation slasher, Manic. If you’ve seen Seinfeld, you probably know that George was only about 3 episodes from going on a rampage anyway. That might have been a better ending to the series…but we’ll tackle that in a different blog. Anyway, Maniac is one of those cult movies that was banned, censored, etc. when it was released. The violence was too just gruesome and disturbing to be shown in its original form. Since then, the bar has been raised dramatically in terms what we consider “too gruesome”. Other than a scene or two, the violence in this movie is on par with a Saw or a Hostel or any other gory modern horror movie.
Technically speaking, Maniac is a nightmare-in every sense of the word. Conventionally, it is a nightmare to watch him butcher young ladies, cut off their scalps, and nail the hair to mannequins in his dingy apartment. For the first half of the film, I really wasn’t sure if there was going to be a plot. It was just a long and drawn-out sex tape that keeps getting interrupted just when it’s about to get good. And by interrupted, I mean by a knife, a shotgun or length of piano wire. As this plays out, we slowly get inside Frank’s head and that’s when things start to get interesting. I’d like to think that the way the film unfolded was a Tarantino-esque revealing of facts out of order, but I think it was more like a 16 year-old struggling to unhook his date’s bra in the back seat of his parent’s minivan.
The movie starts out with the killing of a young couple on a beach. Then we cut to Frank in his house acting sad and creepy, then back to another murder, then back to Frank’s house for more moping and Buffalo Bill/Leatherface/Ed Gein-style insanity. So the movie just bounces back and forth in this fashion for like 45 minutes, and we are starting to get a sense of who Frank is and why he does these things. Inexplicably, Frank meets and begins to date a beautiful European photographer- who, by the looks of her apartment in Manhatten, is doing very well for herself. This is inexplicable because Frank is a big, ugly fat, scared monster of a man. He’s able to turn on the charm and act like a completely well-adjusted member of society.
Of course, homegirl starts to figure out that something is off with this guy when he takes her on a date to go visit his mother’s grave. Remember I mentioned those mommy issues? I won’t give away the ending but it’s worth sitting through this one because the payoff at the end is worth the awkward set-up (see bra reference in the second paragraph). There are some serious plot holes in how Frank and his girl struck up their relationship. You’re going to have to flex your willing-suspension-of-disbelief muscles in a big way on this one. The storyline is patchy and confusing at times and downright retarded at other times. But, as with all movies like this, that’s not really the point.
Maniac falls into this sort of sub-genre of 70’s/ 80’s dark, gritty, New York City/urban horror movies- The New York Ripper and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer are 2 good examples. They focus on how sick, crazy people can move unnoticed through a busy city. They can be sitting next to you on the subway or walking past you on the street and you’d never know it. When you think about it, this actually makes them a lot scarier than any monster/ghost movie out there. To build up their cult status, these movies usually shared 3 main elements. 1. Over-the-top violence and gore. 2. Not so subtle sexual violence toward young, attractive women. 3. A dismal, and gloomy view of city life. These movies are (in the grand scheme of things) presented in a realistic and plausible way. That makes them even scarier.
There are so many things that shouldn’t have worked in this movie, but they do work. Once you forgive the plot holes, and the awkward, flirty dialog (It’s like Sloth from The Goonies is trying to pick up Jennifer Aniston and it’s working) the movie actually falls in place and gets pretty intense. There are some jarring POV changes, but they work too. You go from following Frank around to following his next victim. That adds to the suspense because you know he’s close, but you don’t know where he is. Or sometimes you know he’s right around the corner but the lady getting out of the bathtub has no idea.
The gritty, realism of how Maniac was shot, is its biggest asset. It wasn’t fancy or pretty, it was dark, bleak, and unpleasant. You just feel uneasy watching this movie. It’s so un-stylized and low-fi that you almost forget it’s a movie. You get the sense that you’re in the filthy subway station with someone following you.
- Is it scary? 7- A grim view of city life and some grisly murder scenes will keep this one pretty high on the list.
- Originality: 4- It fits into that urban horror tradition I mentioned, but Lustig still tells the story from an angle that gives the audience something new (at least in 1980).
- Blood: 8- Times have changed so this movie probably wouldn’t be banned if it was released today, but there are still some shocking moments. There’s a very famous scene where Frank does some reconstructive surgery to a dudes head with a shotgun. It’s appalling and vivid.
- Believability: 6- There are some distracting technical issues, but the premise is believable. That’s what makes it scary.
- Setting/Cinematography: 8- The dark, dreary way the movie is shot, and it’s setting in the dense urban jungle are what makes it a success.
Final Score: 33/50