In brief: Talk about a poster being completely accurate to what the movie is! (If anything it doesnt sell enough how WOW this is). Spinell, Lustig Savini are top of their game.
Longer: I was glad to be there for one of William Lustig's Q&A'd after the movie (hes an entertaining raconteur) in particular for the background about how the idea for this movie came to be, since, as I was watching it (and knew Spinell was also a co-writer), I wondered how the flying eff this came to be. There were two key points I took away from what Mr Lustig said, and these were:
1) originally the screenplay was "more conventional," and had the kind of dual plotlines we see in certain detective movies and shows (Dirty Harry just popped in my head as I'm typing this), where the audience follows the killer and the cop tracking him down. But Lustig found this boring, and decided to just take out the cop scenes. In fact, only once, at the end, do cops show up and there is no dialog for this particular scene (as a side note, there was no deeper meaning intended for this, except that the cop "actors", actual cops, weren't any good at delivering lines). So by way of a kind of basic artistic daring it created a provocation, which leads to:
2) the framing is what counts here, and Lustig and Spinell took as many serial killer tropes and types (from mommy issues to Ted Bundy and Gacy to Son of Sam, this last one seemed like the major influence to me, ie replace the dog with mannequins) and stuffed them into this one gutter-bag of a man, but again it is ALL from his POV. While Lustig cuts to showing what the women are doing when they are in Frank's cross-hairs (and Tom Savini in one iconic horror scene), we don't get to know them really as people really outside of these scenarios entirely - not even Caroline Munro's photographer who Frank befriends, who gets to have the closest to a character arc of a sort - so this is ultimately not unlike one of those intense character studies that Scorsese did before (Taxi Driver) and after (King of Comedy) ... Only here, there's *only* the mania, and an audience will usually try to, you know, find some way in to a character is the lead. There's something about Pupkin or Bickle we can recognize as vulnerable or broken and yet there might be the trace of a soul beneath the mental illness... Here?
I found this entire film so intense and yet so unnerving that I couldn't look away, even when I knew I should. The violence here holds up today not simply for the shock factor, though there is that (this is one of Savini's major works as a make up artist, his own head being blown off as one key example), but because there is a lot of mental WTF-ery that is attached to Frank's pov. When we see him strangle a prostitute early on, he keeps flashing to another woman as he's doing it. And then when he does his...gulp, scalping, this isn't meant to be entirely objective.
And it's not as though Lustig shows *every* muder in gory detail, though I'm not sure if that was restraint so much as him trying to keep a tone and pace that would work. So for example in that Savini scene, he gets the giant explosive death - sort of a next-level-of-Dawn-explosion - but he cuts away from the woman's demise just before it happens.
A lessor director would show everything, every last one of them, but that leads me to the key point with this: this is a piece of pure, uncut 100% pure Grindhouse moviemaking, but what makes it emotionally disturbing is that the direction is so assured isnt sloppy or boring. When he moves the camera, it's done with purpose and to add psychological intensity. When he gets some really uncanny angles in Frank's apartment (again, all on grainy 16mm, though restored in 4K it looks even crisper), it had the feeling of Italian horror. In a way this is Italian Giallo, except it isn't lying to us about who the killer is.
And Spinell is fully omitted to this role, so much so that if I hadn't seen him in anything else before (ironically hes in Taxi Driver, in the first scene interviewing Travis) so that is what also makes this a home-run. The director and the writer/actor in sync and in control, and while I cringe and grip my seat and hope one woman can get away but likely wont (oh that bathroom scene in the subway, my god!) I know I'm seeing confidence in what is going on.... And it makes for a really rough and tough sit.
Maniac is not framed as a story where we are going to identify with this guy - Id be worried about someone who does or did - but Lustig isn't asking us to laugh or dismiss it all as a freak or geek-show either. It's more along the lines of: this is ugly, but this is a lot of what these scumbags are, they're human beings, but these monsters aren't some abstract thing. In a sense this is a more honest slasher than a lot of what came out during that time; it's scuzzier, in part thanks to setting, and it has a bleaker and more surreal ending than most. And if someone decided to turn it off or walk out, well, I get that too. It's true grain provocative-genre alcohol.
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