Travis Bickle, if he weren’t portrayed as an anti-hero!
Screenplay By: C.A. Rosenberg & Joe Spinell
Directed By: William Lustig
The image I chose for Maniac is an important piece of the puzzle for why I loved this movie so much. Frank Zito, the killer we follow throughout the movie as played by Joe Spinell, is in desperate need to feel something. He craves feeling so much that he is willing to kill just in order to have some sort of touch in his life. For Frank the emotional idea of feeling something is tied into the physical idea of the tactile touch. It’s not enough for Frank to kill, he has to feel the person he is killing. Sometimes that is before the act, sometimes that is after he has killed them, but either way the need for the tactile is a driving force behind Frank Zito’s murderous ways.
William Lustig’s film is on the surface level nothing more than a dirty and grimy story of a killer. It is disgusting watching Frank do the things he does and commit the murderous acts he does. It’s also fascinating, and it’s fascinating for three very specific reasons. Those reasons help to elevate Maniac well beyond its surface level, and well beyond just being a grisly slasher film.
First and foremost is Joe Spinell as an actor. His portrayal of Frank Zito is layered in a way that I don’t often find present in films about serial killers. He is damaged from his past, and he is a damaged human being in the present. He very clearly does not want to kill, but he also very clearly cannot control himself. All of this is brought to life by Mr. Spinell’s performance. There is a physicality to his despair and his damaged persona that is attractive in a very odd way. I was attracted to what he was doing, I wanted to see how his life would play out while knowing that it would be an ugly ride. That is thanks to Mr. Spinell and his ability to make me want to see beyond the grisliness of his actions.
The next important factor is the writing of C.A Rosenberg and again, Mr. Spinell. Maniac does have a Taxi Driver feel to it, but it lacks the heroic aspect of Taxi Driver. I love Taxi Driver, and do’t get me wrong on a pure technical level Taxi Driver blows Maniac out of the water. But, I do feel that Maniac is a better film and that is because of its unwillingness to paint Frank as an anti-hero. The screenplay never toys around with that idea. He is a man who has been hurt and is a damaged human as a result. That is a possible reason for his actions, but it is not a crutch that can be used to make him into an anti-hero. The film keeps him vile, it keeps his actions as those of a man who has moved beyond the world of human morals and laws. I much preferred the approach Maniac took to the look inside of a man gone deranged from past pain inflicted than the more Hollywood, read clean, approach of Taxi Driver.
Last, but not least, there is the direction of William Lustig. His camera roams all over the screen, stopping on the key elements of the story. He focuses a lot on Frank’s face, this serves to emphasize how ugly and disgusting Frank is through and through. He isn’t just a damaged man on the inside, he’s a social outcast because of the way he looks. Mr. Lustig keeps his camera close when Frank is touching things. Maniac is a tactile driven movie, it is fascinated with touch because its main character is driven to touch things. When Frank kills Rita the camera doesn’t stay in the background, it zooms in so that the tactile nature of Frank rocking back and forth on top of her and his body rubbing against her blood is tangible to the viewer. Without Mr. Lustig infusing the film with a sense of the tactile I feel that the nature of Frank wanting to feel through touch could have been lost.
As you can tell, I was blown away by Maniac. I had an inkling that I would like the film simply because people whose opinions I respect on horror happened to also like the film. I did not expect to like it as much as I did and I am pleased beyond words with the final product that was Maniac. It’s not an easy watch, it’s a visceral and draining movie watching experience. Maniac isn’t a standard slasher, it’s a beast all its own. I’m not sure how most horror hounds react to Maniac, but all one need to do is peek beneath the obvious surface and they will find that Maniac has a bevy of treasures for the most seasoned lover of horror.