"You're mine now forever... and I'm so happy..."
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a brutal serial murderer (and grotesque mutilator) of what he considers to be "low" women. (Which, to Frank, is pretty much all women.) His reasons for doing so are revealed during rambling and disjointed monologues, which are both interior and spoken aloud.
He is driven to kill and scalp women so that he can both punish and recapture the spirit of his deceased mother, who was physically and emotionally abusive toward him. The scalps Frank collects are not mere souvenirs of his crimes, they are also attempts to sop up his complicated, intense, and seemingly bottomless, feelings of love and hatred for his departed mother.
During a stroll through a park, Frank notices that a female photographer (Caroline Munro) has taken his photograph. He tracks her down, but does not kill and scalp her; nor does he destroy the photograph. Instead Frank seems to treat her as something other than fodder for his ever growing collection of scalps...
Why is this so? Why does a film that, on its surface, is nothing but a series of graphically depicted murder set pieces, completely unencumbered by anything resembling a plot, continue to enthrall and impress me as much as it does?
There are three reasons.
One, but not the primary one, are the special make-up effects by Tom Savini. Very few, if any, of the grisly illusions contained in the film have aged poorly. While there are a few moments wherein the knife doing the cutting looks a tad rubbery, or it is easy to see that the blood is flowing from the razor, not the victim; none of this distracts from just how unpleasant and gruesome the killing and defilement of Frank's victims is. The kills in this film were all staged for maximum levels of disturbance. Even though I have seen the movie countless times, the make-up effects in it still manage to repulse and disturb me to this day.
The second reason, but, once again, not my primary one, is William Lustig's solid direction. While Maniac will never be mistaken for a film that wasn't made cheap and fast, there are more than enough impressive shots and set pieces sprinkled throughout the guerrilla style clumsiness (check out that "Ed Wood lighting" during the cemetery chase) showing that Lustig knew how to frame a shot and stage a scene.
But the real reason why Maniac remains such a powerful and disturbing film is the performance of its lead actor and screenwriter, Joe Spinell. Judging from interviews I have read about the making of the film and the man who created it, Spinell did a tremendous amount of research (interviewing police officers and psychiatrists) about serial killers prior to writing his script. Spinell's attention to detail in building the character of the monstrous Frank Zito shows in his powerful and over the top performance (albeit over the top in a completely naturalistic kind of way).
Although he is driven by an uncontrollable urge to kill any and all women, Frank is shown, at the beginning of the film, to have a certain degree of remorse and guilt over the heinous acts that he has committed. Frank, at first, seems to know that what he is doing is reprehensible, and Spinell's performance is such a powerfully empathetic one that it becomes difficult not to understand just how much psychotic pain the man is in. But while Spinell's expression of the various levels of his character's ever deepening psychosis and inner turmoil is powerfully empathetic, his characterization never crosses over into being a sympathetic portrayal. From the beginning of the film to its gore soaked conclusion, Frank is never presented as anything more than an irredeemable psychotic.
He is also what is known as a disorganized serial killer. He doesn't appear to be all that smart. He doesn't plan out his crimes, nor does he seem to care whether or not he will get caught while committing them. He is also a loner, keeping to himself in a squalid studio apartment littered with kill trophies and weapons. His home is not all that different in appearance than the homes of real life disorganized killers like Ed Gein, or Jeffrey Dahmer.
The first forty or so minutes of Maniac are pretty much a documentation of the life of a practicing disorganized serial killer. Frank leaves the isolation of his lair only to find a new victim, or victims. His killings are not planned and excessively violent. Although never explicitly shown, there are occasional hints that a degree of necrophilia might be occurring, as well. Director William Lusting sites one shot in particular as the source of the necrophilia claims, which he vehemently denies occurring, but there is an early scene, involving a hooker, that also hints that Frank might be engaging in some sexual play with his victim's corpses.
These first forty or so minutes, literally half the film's running time, plays almost as if it were a porn film. Instead of a string of tenuously connected sex scenes and cum shots, though, the viewer gets a string of unconnected brutal murders and spewing blood. (Here is where the film's detractors love to point out that, prior to making Maniac, William Lustig had made porn films.) The film never develops anything that remotely resembles a traditional plot, everything is seen and experienced from Frank's predatory point of view. What little story and character development there is comes entirely from Frank's inner monologues and his bizarre conversations with his growing collection of bloodstained mannequins. Not once does the film ever cut away to introduce or develop another character. It is quite clear that Maniac, at one point, was intended to be an unflinching one man psycho show.
But the need for production money changed all that. Which explains Caroline Munro's sudden appearance in the film (she was cast during filming strictly for funding reasons) and Frank's sudden, surprising, and completely unexplained switch from being a highly disorganized serial killer to a something akin to an organized serial killer. He goes from being an isolated and dysfunctional loner to being someone that can smooth talk an attractive photographer into going out with him so fast that it can give the unsuspecting viewer whiplash. Where did this clean cut and suave psycho come from?
And, for a very brief stretch of time, the film unfolds as if a romantic subplot of some kind were going on; but neither Spinell or Lustig's heart really seem to be in these moments. This explains why a strange restaurant scene is deleted in the film's Director's Cut, it doesn't really add anything to the film but running time.
Snippets of the Frank Zito introduced and explored in the first half of the film are interspersed during these moments, but he really doesn't come back full force until the film's gruesome finale. Because the film is so uneven and disjointed, it really is held together by the strength of Spinell's showy (albeit nuanced) performance. Because it was so controversial and maligned during its initial release, and because it's just so hypnotically sleazy and gross, I thought no one would ever dare to consider doing a remake. I mean, what would be the point?
"Hair is the only part of the body that lasts forever."
Frank Zito (Elijah Wood) is a brutal serial murderer (and grotesque mutilator) of women. He is driven to kill and scalp various women so that he can both punish and recapture the spirit of his deceased mother, who was emotionally abusive toward him. The scalps Frank collects are not mere souvenirs of his crimes; they are his attempts to create a "perfect mate" to live with. One that will help him sop up the intense feelings of love and hate he has for his deceased mother.
One bright, sunny day, the mannequins in Frank's restoration shop catches the eye of a young photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder). She tells him that she would love to use his mannequins in an art show she is putting on. Frank is uncertain about doing so, at first. But he is attracted to Anna and, feeling that he just might "get it right" this time, he agrees to work with her...
When I first heard that a remake of Maniac was being made, I just rolled my eyes and figured that the project would be another in the "In Name Only" style. The film would retain the title, perhaps the character's (first) name, and there might be a few scalpings, or a shotgun blast to the head, tossed in as a homage to the original.
Nothing could have been further from the truth, though. This new version is a true remake. Just about everything from the original, save for the shotgun blast to the head, is retained and redone.
But this is not some shot for shot remake. No, far from it. This is the kind of remake that expands and improves upon the story being retold; because the filmmakers actually cared enough about it to try and "get it right" this time.
And did they ever get it right.
Love it or hate it, the first Maniac had a great many flaws. Many the result of its fractured production schedule. (It was filmed in bursts, whenever money could get raised, or Joe Spinell could convince a film crew to help him out.) The film's narrative was unfocused and episodic, in a bad way; and Caroline Munro's character and subplot did not feel at all organic to Frank's story, or his character.
Not anymore. The best way to describe the differences and similarities between the two are to think of the original Maniac as if it were the first draft of the story, written without an outline. All of the core ideas are there, but many are underdeveloped or were overlooked in the heat of the creative moment. Some things just need to be flat out excised. This is what the remake does. While it retains most of Spinell's monologues, it makes some much needed adjustments to the various characters, the time line of events, and it even expands upon events that were only mentioned in passing in the first draft (i.e. Anna's big art show).
The remake could best be described as the polished final draft of this story. All the story elements have been put in their proper places and, even though there are still a few stumbles here and there, the narrative is smooth, tight, and lean.
Don't let my use of the terms "polished" and "smooth" scare you off, either. If you fear this remake won't have the grit and sleaze of the original, don't. That grit and sleaze is still there. It just has been smoothed over with the glossiness of Eurotrash. The "polished" Maniac is less a piece of guerrilla film making and more a gialloesque exercise in sleaze and terror. Think of it as if Dario Argento had made Maniac, instead of William Lustig.
If that doesn't make you want to watch it, then nothing will.
Original: **1/2 (Although it is a favorite horror film of mine, one that I advocate for without fear and embarrassment, I still have to admit that the film really isn't all that "good".)
Remake: *** (I am amazed that the filmmakers were able to pull this off as well as they did.)