A lifelong fan of horror films, particularly those involving a slate of victims, female and male, being pursued by a masked or otherwise elusive killer, might be moved to reconsider his or her vocation after watching William Lustig's Maniac, the notorious (at least at the time of its 1980 release) grindhouse serial killer opus coscripted by and starring the late, great character actor Joe Spinell, which I caught up with courtesy of the Independent Film Channel last week. Spinell's was, more accurately, a great character face, one that spoke of trials and dramas and difficulties and experiences which he was able to lend to the various unsavory characters which he played throughout his career (which ended with his death by heart failure in 1989).
No character he ever played, however, matched the unsavoriness of the one he wrote for himself, a none-too-originally mother-obsessed psycho who, for reasons never made entirely clear, scalps women, rapes them as their life ebbs away, and then takes the bloody hairpieces home to attach to a series of mannequins with which he has a series of whiny conversations meant to convey his twisted inner life. Well, pardon me, but the grimy milieu and the grotesque sequences of gore on display courtesy of makeup maestro Tom Savini (who, in a silly cameo, reserves the movie's most explosively gooey death for himself) do enough to illuminate this maniac's twisted outer life to more than satisfy me. And anyway, any serious look at how this guy's twisted inner life is being represented would be sure to generate plenty of derision from anyone with even a passing familiarity with the work of Sigmund Freud. But such derision would require far more energy than was devoted to the movie itself, which hinges on long, slackly constructed scenes in which frightened women seek out the most depopulated areas of New York City in which to try to escape from our mouth-breathing protagonist, and then inexplicably hang out in these deserted areas until that inevitable moment when Spinnell pops out from behind them and eviscerates them in loving close-up. These scenes are followed either by sequences featuring Spinell groaning and chewing over monologues in which he addresses his long-dead mother, or even more preposterously, ones in which he insinuates himself into a romance with a lovely photographer (who will, of course, eventually become his target) played with surprising stiffness by Hammer horror icon Caroline Munro.
Spinell obviously conceived Maniac as a kind of actor's showcase for himself which he could fold into an exploitable premise, and judging by the high profile this movie had in drive-ins and even indoor theaters in 1980, his strategy for getting his work seen obviously worked. It's too bad that the work itself is so deplorable and rootless and lazily realized. It's easy to see the influence of Taxi Driver at work here in the first-person intimacy Spinell, as writer and performer, forces upon the audience. But Maniac's Frank Zito is no Travis Bickle, and Lustig (who also helmed the three parts of the Maniac Cop series) is certainly no Martin Scorsese. At one point Spinnell even apes Bickle's most famous line-- "Are you talkin' to me?"-- but it's tossed off in a close-up shot from the side, defusing the confrontational stance taken by De Niro and emphasizing the silly self-consciousness of the quote. Maniac has all the grim trappings and coarseness of hard-core exploitation, minus the cold spike of recognition to the heart representing the point of view that a real horror filmmaker, like Tobe Hooper or Larry Cohen, might have brought to the party. As a character study of a man driven mad by abuses showered upon him by society or a long-dead mother, forget Taxi Driver or Psycho-- Maniac is bad enough to make me consider in a whole new light the treasure trove of psychological observations to be mined from careful observance of the mournful saga of Jason Voorhees.