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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Retro Review: Maniac (1980)


One of the very best things to come out of this whole Vault of Horror experience has been the opportunity to host films at the historic Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. I've been doing it since last fall along with the amazing Captain Cruella, and even though the good Captain could not be with me last week, I'd have to say that it turned out to be one of the most fascinating Avon experiences of them all.

The reason I say this is that it was my first chance to see William Lustig's grindhouse classic Maniac, starring one of my favorite character actors, Joe Spinell. I had come very close to seeing it a couple of years ago at a special screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, but meeting up with fellow blogger extraordinaire Tenebrous Kate and her Baron for drinks beforehand resulted in a whole lot of drinks, and very little moviegoing...

And so, I was quite intrigued to find that the Avon was going to be showing it, and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. Especially since this would be more than a simple screening--rather, director/producer William Lustig himself would be present, and would be participating in a post-film Q&A. It truly was an honor to stand on the same stage as Mr. Lustig, and to join with my felow horror geeks--such as the one and only Chris Alo (pictured, left), impresario behind the Hudson Horror Film Festival--to take in a true exploitation "classic", if that word can really be appropriately applied here.

It was quite ironic to meet a man like Lustig; so pleasant, clearly full of a zest for life and quick to joke (he was surprised to learn I was the guy behind the Vault of Horror, since I "looked like a banker")--and then sit down and pay witness to such a grim cinematic exhibition as Maniac truly is. To call it a finely made film might be a stretch, but it certainly was a gripping experience, and one that I'm very pleased I sought out.

One of my favorite aspects of Maniac is the time and setting. As a native New Yorker who grew up during the Koch years, I remain fixated on the era of New York in the 1970s and early 1980s--such a different time than now, when Manhattan was a much more lurid, and downright scary place, filled with crime, and every depravity imaginable. A far cry from the Disney-fied NYC of today, it's a city that comes to life in Maniac, warts and all. It might be paradoxical to wax nostalgic for this era, but I do--and I can tell that Lustig does, as well.

Through the lens of Lustig's cinematographer Robert Lindsay, Manhattan is presented in a perpetually grimy, sleazy, grainy haze. This is the era of Son of Sam and hookers on every corner. This is the world through which Spinell's Frank Zito wanders, stalking beautiful women on a rampage of wanton destruction.

In the main role, Spinell is a veritable tour-de-force, and no, I don't find this to be an exaggeration. With a career filled with memorable roles as the asthmatic bookie Mr. Gazzo in Rocky, the shady Willi Cicci in The Godfather ("The family had a lotta buffers..."), and the dispatcher in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, this one stands out without question as the defining moment. Exploitation film or not, this is a performance that is quite literally worthy of an Oscar nomination, and one of which Spinell was rightfully proud.

Portraying the murderous Zito as a classic Freudian disaster, Spinell is at times chilling, at times darkly humorous, and always effective. The actor breathes such life into him, that we feel we are getting a glimpse into the world of a real-life serial killer. The script, co-written by Spinell and collaborator C.A. Rosenberg, presents Zito as a psychologically ravaged human being, part Norman Bates, part giallo-style slasher, part Berkowitz--a killer with a shocking level of depth. And the film, told from his perspective, becomes a dark journey into the depths of the human mind.

The lovely Caroline Munro shows up as Zito's highly unlikely love interest Anna, a photographer who represents for him the ultimate, unattainable image of femininity--the closest embodiment he has yet found of his long-gone mother--the woman whose perceived neglect and abuse set the young Frank on the path to his misogynistic killing spree. There's a lot of Hitchcockian influence to be felt in her presence in the film, as well as in her interactions with Spinell. As Lustig himself said during the Q&A, Hitchcock influenced every filmmaker who came after him--and even though Lustig may not be someone typically mentioned in the same breath as Hitch, the pronounced influence is there, nonetheless.

The production may have been notoriously shoe-string (made for under $100,000), but that only adds to the film's effectiveness. Lindsay, along with production manager Andrew W. Garroni, join forces to provide Lustig with settings that are often jarringly lit, and a climactic cemetery scene is so filled with fog as to be almost a parody. These over-the-top aspects make Maniac a delirious fever dream of a film, as does the gruesome makeup effects work of Tom Savini and Rob Bottin.

Those two men--the former fresh off Friday the 13th and the latter poised to begin work on John Carpenter's The Thing--drench this picture in blood and guts, ensuring that the MPAA would have much to gripe about. And even though an R-rated cut was made, this was the glorious unrated version that once unspooled in grindhouse dives all across America--including the Avon itself, during a previous lifetime.

As for the Q&A, it had to be one of the finest Avon Q&As I've ever been a part of. Lustig was gracious and genuinely engaged, answering every question that was posed to him both by the audience and Adam Birnbaum, the Avon's Director of Programming. No topic was off-limits, and Lustig was more than willing to take the viewers all the way inside the filmmaking process, sharing anecdotes and technical secrets without hesitation. Here's just a brief taste of the highly engaging session:

video

Maniac is a standout example of the B-grade exploitation cinema of a time in movie history which is long gone, and will not be coming back any time soon. In today's era of glossy, safe horror, it is a seedy blast of stale subway air, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. I cannot believe it took me this long to discover it, but I'm glad I did. And if you're an aficionado of grindhouse cinema, than William Lustig's Maniac is without question something well worth experiencing.

3 comments:

Will said...

OMG...I was there, saw all three films

good times

Brian said...

Excellent piece. I too only saw Maniac for the first time quite recently and it's really stuck in my head ever since. Pretty remarkable flick; scuzzy & imperfect, certainly, but utterly unique & memorable and Spinell, as you say, is superb.

B-Sol said...

I really was shocked at how good Spinell was--and that's coming from someone who already greatly admired his work. One hell of an underrated horror flick.

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