Sunday, July 8, 2012
Stacie Ponder has kickstarted back up the Final Girl Film Club, and asked us all to offer some words on Maniac, the notorious and much-maligned 1980s grindhouse opus. Made for about half a million dollars, which must have felt like a fortune to filmmaker William Lustig, the film concerns the life and lusts of Frank Zito (co-scenarist Joe Spinell), a lonely man tormented by visions of his abusive mother into kidnapping and scalping young women.
Though New York in the late 1970s was a petri dish for many forms of American culture, a certain patina of danger remained. Abandoned at one time by federal authorities, the city battled hard for survival even as lawlessness threatened to overtake it. This sense of violence informs MANIAC, including one of its most notorious scenes in which a man (makeup/FX artist Tom Savini) is decapitated by a shotgun blast (which had to have been inspired by the Son of Sam slayings that rocked the city in the 70s). But perhaps the most perverse aspect of the film, considering its influences and pedigree, is its humanity. Spinell brings a palpable vulnerability to Frank - there is a profound sense of the damage he has suffered, and a very strong sense that this is simply a man who can not stop himself. Spinell captures this aspect of Frank's character as vividly as his violence, placing him firmly along other vulnerable film psychos as Norman Bates and Mark Lewis.
Also juicing the humanity of the film is a startlingly warm performance by Caroline Munro as Anna, a fashion photographer who finds herself drawn to Frank. Frank and Anna are an odd couple, to be sure, but Munro's warmth and acceptance is so beautifully established that we just buy it. She brings his humanity out more clearly than any other character in the film - she could be the break that Frank has needed all his life, and their scenes together win us over. Munro's on-screen grace carried off-stage, as we can see in this wonderful interview where she evenly, even warmly fields some truly damn-fool questions and comments from East Coast newsfolk who've already made up their little minds about the film.