William Lustig and Joe Spinell's Maniac, from 1980, begins with a murder. It progresses from that murder to another, and then to another, and then to another. The first of these murders (actually a double murder, as is one other later on) is relatively brief, centering on the two victims, a man and woman, on the beach only long enough to set a mood of doom before the killer arrives with his knife. After that, the killer -- Spinell, also the co-screenwriter, playing Frank Zito -- is shown either stalking his prey, with very little to no surrounding dialogue (or ancillary characters), or alone with the victim, who is not aware that that's what they are, as he waits for his mind to dissolve sufficiently to carry through with his plan. These scenes, these almost context-free killings, amount to about forty minutes, roughly half the film. In this sense, Maniac -- a film that is, at least by general reputation, a sleazy, exploitation gore film -- finds its closest relative in Alan Clarke's Elephant, a film about Ireland's Troubles that, in its entirety, lasts about forty minutes, and consists entirely of one murder after another..
Clarke's film was made nine years later, and though I don't know for sure I feel safe in assuming that Clarke was not aware of, let alone influenced by, Maniac. Even so, Lustig and Spinell's film gets a bad rap, in that even many of its admirers chalk it up as a well-above average bit of exploitation. Which it is, I guess, but Maniac stands out for me for a number of reasons. The gore is there, courtesy of (but of course) Tom Savini, though there's less of it than you might think, and also virtually no nudity. There's also almost no plot, no mystery, no cops hunting Zito down, and the closest we get to a story, as such, arrives in the person of Caroline Munro as a fashion photographer who goes all Cybill Shepherd on Zito by befriending him (he's a photographer, as well) and even flirting with him a bit (does she?), but this is only plot in that she leads to his downfall, and that only comes about because she has a healthy flight instinct and a strong pair of legs (which can be seen also in Starcrash, also featuring a (dubbed) Joe Spinell. Caroline Munro must have the most ridiculous/wonderful filmography of all time).
Maniac is grimy, it's cheap (it looks good though), and it takes place in the parts of 1980 New York that would have the kind of movie theaters that would actually show a movie like Maniac, but if there's one reason the film is regarded now as an exploitation classic, it's because the film is about murder. Serial murder, specifically, but murder in general, as a topic for art, has an odd place in cinema history. I think we can agree that murder, while it's unlikely to happen to you, is a major, let's say, problem. Most of us will never be homeless either, but you'll give up before you get to the end of films that try to tackle that one with sincerity and a noble spirit. The problem with murder, though, is that you can't pin it down. One guy gets drunk, and gets angry, and stabs another guy in the neck. This guy over here got drunk, got angry, and stabbed nobody. The guy finds his wife in bed with another man and he shoots them both. This guy walked in on the same scene, turned around, and walked away. This person was raped and beaten as a child, and grew up with a dozen blown fuses behind his eyes, so that now he sits in a van at night waiting for a woman to walk by alone. If he ever took pills, he's stopped. Another victim of hideous childhood abuse somehow moved on, or if he, too, blew fuses, he never stopped taking his pills. If he does stop, he punches walls and breaks windows, but doesn't stalk women with a knife..
If murder is a problem -- and it is -- it's a cosmic one. It's a hard thing to trace, the moment, if there even is one, when a soul goes black. So what you don't get are movies about the "problem" of murder. Films about the homeless, or racism, tend to be made by people who naively believe there is an achievable goal in the distance, that their film, or their film accompanied by hundreds of others like it, can push towards, I don't know, a cure for racism. I won't say they're shocked when that doesn't happen, but they still hang tight to that possibility. Foolish as those people are, I'm not aware of anyone foolish enough to think there's a cure for murder, through film or any other means. They might believe that their are sources that, if obliterated, would take murder along with them..
So the closest you're going to get is something like Maniac, a horror film that is about murder, and a murderer. Frank Zito kills his victims and scalps them, and we see him nailing those scalps to a blood-streaked mannequin he sleeps with, all the while talking to the mannequin about how there's not too much blood, and she looks good anyway, but also he has to stop this, this is "silly", they're going to find out. The best line Roger Ebert has ever written is from his review of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, where he says "[John McNaughton] raised the budget for Henry from Waleed Ali, a Chicago home video executive, who wanted a horror film but reportedly was surprised when McNaughton gave him the real thing..." This gets to the heart of why a film like Maniac occupies the place it does: it's a horror film that offers you nothing but horror, and doesn't even have the decency to employ the metaphor of ghosts or vampires so that we can pretend it's about something other than it is. (The fact that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer enjoys a slightly more respectable realm, even though it is, in essence, the exact same kind of film as Maniac, is not so easily explained. It's not because one film is well-made and the other isn't, because both are well-made. Perhaps it's because, by the time Henry came around, the grindhouses were gone.).
When Maniac came out, it was met, predictably, with outrage from various groups, most prominently feminist groups who claimed the film was exploitative and misogynistic. The misogyny angle is absurd, because I don't suppose you'd get far with anyone trying to make a film about a serial killer who loves women, never mind that the most lingered-over bits of violence in the whole film are the deaths of two men, one of them (Tom Savini) a victim of Zito, and the other Zito himself. Though the phantasmagoria of Zito's death is a feverish hallucination he experiences during his suicide, it's also by far the bloodiest sequence in Maniac, and the specifics of what we're shown have perhaps gone unnoticed by those who would label the film misogynistic. But I guess that's how it goes..
The question of Maniac's exploitation is a little bit different, however, because the question there is, how far does the film go, and is there any worth in the fact that it goes as far as it does? I think I have the answer, though, and it’s this: well, that all depends. In Maniac, there is an, I guess, instructive scene. Appropriately, it is a murder scene, and it involves a young woman, in her apartment, getting into the bath. This accounts for the film’s only nudity, and the fact that the woman is young and attractive is not not worth pointing out, but neither is the fact that she’s not nude for long, nor is she nude when she’s killed. This is splitting hairs, no doubt, and anyway isn’t really my point. After she gets into the bath, the camera pulls away, out of the bathroom, backing down the hallway outside, with the ajar bathroom door receding. There’s no credit to anyone guessing what her fate will be, and eventually the camera stops as Zito’s hand looms into the right side of the screen, and he’s holding a knife. It’s hard not to be put in mind of Anna Massey’s murder in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, where the camera leaves Massey and Barry Foster, her killer, entering her apartment, as it backs away, down the stairs, out of the building, and across the street, as if to leave them to it. This shot is, to me, one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, and the genius of it is in the grim, even mournful, elegance of the camera’s withdrawal. Had this less ambitious but similar shot in Maniac signaled the end of the scene, the audience would have gotten the picture, but Maniac is not about looking away, and Lustig and Spinell go further, so that we subsequently see what Hitchcock chose not to show. And so the question would be, is this choice better, or worse? Well, it’s not better, in the sense that, whatever his genuine skill, Lustig is no Hitchcock, but the question is, or has become, because some demand it, a moral one. And to be fair, it’s not true that there is no such thing as immoral art – Oscar Wilde couldn’t be right about everything, after all – but in the same way as there’s nothing immoral about filming an erupting volcano simply because we have no way of stopping it, it’s also not a given that depicting the kind of rancid violence we’re about to witness at the end of this scene is immoral simply because the Frank Zitos of the world are going to do what they do until they get caught.
For his part, Joe Spinell was mortified by the charges of misogyny that greeted Maniac’s release. His solution, which was possibly not terribly well-thought-out, was to make a sequel called Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie. Bearing no relation to the original outside of Spinell's presence and violent death, the film was to be about the host of a children’s show named Mr. Robbie (Spinell) who is flooded with letters from his young viewers, despairing over the abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents and other adults. Not terribly stable in his own right, Mr. Robbie takes it on himself to supply violent retribution on behalf of these children – and rescue, as well, or so the idea goes. I’m not sure this would have satisfied any of the people who objected to the violence in Maniac (though there would doubtlessly have been few to no protests), but the film wasn’t made in any case because Joe Spinell died suddenly – though probably not surprisingly, to those who knew him – in 1989 (it’s probably worth pointing out that trying to undo the supposed damage of Maniac nine years after the fact was, in all likelihood, putting the horse way beyond the cart). Spinell was able to complete a short film version of Mr. Robbie, at seven minutes amounting to, and intended as, a kind of promotional film which would be used to secure funding. You can watch it on Youtube here, along with an introduction culled from the very worthwhile short documentary The Joe Spinell Story. Mr. Robbie, the short, has some nice touches -- such as Spinell holding up his end of a conversation while sprawled across a bar, an authentic moment quite possibly pulled from Spinell's life experience -- but if any problems are signaled it's that Mr. Robbie was trying to frame its violence with something greater, child abuse. Although, who's to say that really would have been a problem, and I would dearly love to be able to watch Mr. Robbie in its entirety. It's just that Maniac was after something more nebulous (and if it eventually found itself ringing certain chimes with Elephant, it also did with Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven, a film not exactly like Maniac, but it's out to depict a similarly jacked-up psychology, from that psychology's point of view), and Mr. Robbie wanted to be something, or seemed to want to be something, more concretely satisfying..
A curious bookend to Maniac and the films it’s influenced – or seems to have, but really probably didn’t – is the moment in the film that very explicitly quotes Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (in which Spinell has a small but memorable role). It’s a brief bit, but Caroline Munro and Spinell are talking, and Spinell responds to something she says by saying “You talkin’ to me?” He says it with a smile, and the camera lingers, so that the audience can’t miss it – not only the reference, but that Zito is knowingly making the reference to Munro’s character. The two films don’t have a hell of a lot else in common (outside of the aforementioned Munro-as-Shepherd aspect of Maniac), because Travis Bickle is a different kind of killer, one who believes himself to have a moral compass, but both films ride through the same rain-spattered streets of New York’s darker and grubbier corners. So while Maniac may be carving its own path, Scorsese is still sort of all over it, as he was in so many other low-down and violent New York films of the time. Not one to miss out on his own brand of Scorsese influence was Mr. Robbie’s director, Buddy Giovinazzo. At the time he worked with Spinell on the Maniac sequel, Giovinazzo was, and remains to this day, best known for his own low-budget bit of psychotic nastiness, called Combat Shock, from 1986. Owing its very life to Taxi Driver (and its most memorable visual to David Lynch’s Eraserhead), Combat Shock is about another mentally diseased Frank, this one Frankie Dunlan (Ricky Giovinazzo, the director’s brother), whose own psychosis seems to be the result of his exposure to Agent Orange while fighting in Vietnam. As if that weren’t enough, he and his wife have since had a child, a one-year-old in the form of a writhing wad of animatronic clay with a face and the cry of a busted air-raid siren. Frankie is jobless, a drug addict, crazy, and on the verge of homelessness.
Shot in the dirt-and-grass lots and burned out fringe neighborhoods of Staten Island, Combat Shock is a product of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Films, and man does it show. Combat Shock is an ugly movie, in ways both intended and not, and I can’t pretend that I think it’s very much good at all. While Maniac had a cast of decent-enough actors anchored by a tremendous Joe Spinell, Combat Shock has nobody, plus the visual sense of Toxic Avenger, and very nearly the tone of same, minus the terrible jokes. What it does have going for it, however, is a genuine lunacy – it’s a very strange film, filled with verbal non-sequitors (check out the scene where Frankie goes job-hunting), blunt sentimentality (Frankie’s desperate call to his dying father, who is wheeled to his phone in what appears to be a forgotten meeting room at the local Shriners hall by a male nurse played, it would appear, by Freddie Mercury) and equally blunt cruelty (Frankie’s wife is quite unbearable, at one point saying of Frankie, in reference to their deformed baby, “Only you could make this!”). Add to that occasional psychedelic flashbacks of the Vietnam variety and an appalling synth score, and you have a film that has been referred to as an accidental masterpiece, though I’m not sure about either part of that phrase. Combat Shock ends in massive violence, both of the Taxi Driver and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? sorts, but for all its strangeness (whatever it owes in concept to Eraserhead, that baby is still friggin’ nuts), Combat Shock is still skittish in a way that Maniac, and even Taxi Driver (I’ve never been convinced that Bickle’s status as a Vietnam vet explained, or was meant to explain, all that much) is not. Combat Shock ties its violence to societal ills, as if to say “Well, if we hadn’t treated this guy like that, this wouldn’t have happened.” Yeah, but then again maybe it would have. And in any case, it does, all the time, all over.
I have to give Giovonazzo credit anyway, though, because Combat Shock has to be some kind of pinnacle for Troma. For a company that seems to treat filmmaking as a form of hoax, Combat Shock strikes me as at least sincere. Plus, if I may presume for a moment, I doubt that the men behind Sgt. Kabukiman and Poultrygeist followed up the non-breakthroughs of those films with a series of novels, as Giovonazzo has done. The problem is simply that Combat Shock (along with all its other problems) follows the path of so many films before and after it, by pretending that murder is part of a giant puzzle of problems (as does Elephant, though in that case you would either have to have been in the middle of the problem, or do some digging afterward to know just what's going on there), and that by fixing all these more readily understandable problems, people will stop shooting each other in the face. But no, it’s not like that. Murder is like the sun – it will always be with us.