by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Last year, Hollywood released the highly intelligent but morally questionable Kick-Ass. It shocked audiences with it’s unblinking portrayal of what it would be like if an ordinary citizen decided to don a cape and prowl the streets fighting crime. They would be beaten to a bloody pulp. And yes, Kick-Ass had plenty of Looney Tunes moments sprinkled throughout but it was unfathomably offensive. It also happened to be a wonderful movie that had quite a bit of depth to it. Early this summer, director James Gunn released his indie superhero outing Super, which globs on the black humor and spurting arteries with such maniacal glee, you almost start to question Gunn’s sanity. Yes, it’s THAT twisted.
I will admit that I found moments of Super enjoyable and the climax was an emotional sucker punch. I will confess to chuckling when Rainn Wilson’s dopey Frank would conk evildoers on the noggin with a monkey wrench and yell, “Shut up, crime!” But I sat stirred by how savage the film behaved even outside the inevitable action scenes. It wears a crooked grin even while it blindsides us with rape, child molestation, substance addiction, and endless foul language that would please Judd Apatow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude when it comes to films of this nature but I completely understand why the film was never released into mainstream theaters.
Frank thought he had everything going for him in life. He had a beautiful wife Sarah (Played by the cooing Liv Tyler) and a mediocre job as a cook. He thought he had aided Sarah, who was apparently an ex-junkie, in kicking her habit and changing her life. That all changes when ostentatious drug dealer Jock (Played by Kevin Bacon, who seems to be everywhere this summer) shows up and steals Sarah away from him. One night, in a sequence that appears to be left over from Gunn’s zombie/alien opus Slither, Frank has a vision from God. He is told to don an amateurish suit of armor and parade around the streets as The Crimson Bolt. While building his alter ego, he strikes up a quirky friendship with a local comic book store clerk Libby (Played by an extremely off-putting Ellen Page). She convinces him to let her be his mad, bloodthirsty sidekick and together, they aim to take down Jock and get Sarah back.
Super does offer up its fair share of craggy authenticity. The film is shot with a handheld camera and at times, if the violence isn’t making your stomach groan, the camerawork sure will. It’s twitchy but alarmingly confident. Like Kick-Ass, the film realizes (only every once in a great while) that it has to use some sort of idiosyncratic distraction from the gruesome atrocities at hand. It does this by juxtaposing the action with freeze frames and animated “BOOM”s and “WHACK!”s that look like scribbling from a teenagers own private comic book creation. It’s efficient but also seems like just a petty attempt to soften the blow of the relentless cruelty.
The shining star in this bloody mess is Rainn Wilson’s disciplined and committed performance as Frank. It’s a relief to not see the Office funnyman relegated to tween scum like The Rocker but after Super, I have to wonder about Wilson’s actual character (according to the Blu-ray features, he stood by the project from the get-go). The worst part about the film is the abhorrent performance from Ellen Page, who is downright out of control. I failed to see anything funny about her character and see this as one of the lower points of her career. Everyone else is incredibly underused including the surprising presence of Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Walking Dead) as Abe, Jock’s right hand hitman. All his character does is munch on jellybeans, stare at Frank, and occasionally remember to fire his pistol. There is none of the subtle brewing intensity that he is so famous for. Bacon, however, seems to be having a blast in the role playing another villain (he was also the baddie in X-Men: First Class) and Tyler, who claims she found the script “touching”, seems to be bored to tears.
Overall, the film has an arresting climax that is great compensation for the warped first portion. It is moving and almost becomes a tearjerker. The final showdown between Jock and Frank is guaranteed to shake you up even if you have found the rest of the film despicable. Super is just simply not a film for everyone. If you are in the target audience, you’ll have a blast with it. If not, you will just walk away shaking your head and wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make more wholesome movies like they use to. Either way, it will get a reaction out of you and that is what good cinema should do. While I consider myself in the target audience for a film like this, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I was left wishing the first half were as gratifying as the second. I also could have done without Page but I think all will safely agree that Wilson is downright magnetic. He is the heart and soul of Super and believe it or not, that allows us to forgive most of its morally contestable moments. Grade: B-
Super is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.