Thursday, July 12, 2012

He's a Maniac

I had intended to write something about William Lustig's Maniac for a week or so now, long before I ever discovered that Final Girl had chosen the title as her latest Film Club selection. I had some words scattered about in a bare blog post that I'd typed about immediately after watching it for the first time just the other week, but the thought of the film had weighed too terribly on my brain to really go back to it and think about it even more. The film scared me to much that I was worried I'd have nightmares and writing about it would only bring me more shivers. Still, a blogathon (of sorts) is the sort of thing that will get me writing so here we are.

Stacie (the "Final Girl" of Final Girl) brought up the film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and so my own comparison to that film now seems somewhat less of an a-ha moment and more of a copycat moment. I came up with it myself, I swear, it's just that others thought of it too. A fellow blogger (that'd be Club Zombie) compares it to one I have not seen, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but if there is a triangle of comparison between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Maniac and Henry, then I think I'll have to take my time getting to it since the first two are without a doubt two of the very scariest films I've ever seen.

Of course, the scares of Maniac don't come in the prepackaged variety that we're used to seeing from popular 1980s horror films. Rather, its frights come from the masterful, if downright dogged, portrayal of a city overcome by disgust, sickness, and immorality. Has New York City ever looked a grungy as this? As skeazy and downright rotten as it does in Maniac? Lustig's film, written by CA Rosenberg and star Joe Spinell, was released the same year as Brian De Palma's ode to soft focus soap opera lensing on the streets and subways of New York City. As I wrote recently: "Reflecting little of the urban decay that the city was known for at the time ... the soft focus cinematography of Ralf D Bode strives for a fantasy version of perfection. New York City was far from this halo-lit in 1980, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching this." While I'm not sure New York City was as disgusting and teeming with unmentionable horrors as Lustig presents it, it certainly comes closer to the image we have of the city at the time of its late '70s downfall. I found this piece on the film's use of subways and loved the way the writer described "(t)he ghosts of Forty-Second Street porn houses haunt the milieu of William Lustig’s Maniac". Isn't that just perfect? I particularly love this image of the film's premiere on 42nd Street alongside (the far, far worse) Blood Beach. Very awesome, that.

It certainly helps that they chose some truly stellar filming locations. Photographed by Robert Lindsay, Maniac's camera leers into corners of the five boroughs that rarely get seen. One very memorable sequence (memorable for its cameo as well as its eye-popping terror) takes place underneath the Verrazano Bridge on Staten Island, while others on Manhattan are lensed in such a fuzzy nighttime sheen that the viewer can never be too sure whether they're seeing something to be afraid of or if the power of the image is just so strong. Who knew a city with that many lights could be as soul shuddering as the barren landscape of Texas.

Outside of looking at the hows and whys of its scares, I find curiosity in Maniac's resemblance to the "Son of Sam" killings, and, in turn, Spike Lee's film of those events which, at times, look like they're paying ode to Lustig's film. Happy coincidence or a genuine case of art imitating art imitating life? Similarly I liked the way it played with the idea of how a city can turn somebody into a maniac. It'd work as a down and dirty double feature with the high-gloss American Psycho (or maybe that's just because that's another of the best films I've ever seen). I loved how Lustig kept mocking audience expectations - cruelly, I would say - by setting up several of his victims as being lucky survivors before snuffing their flames out. The fake survival thrill is an old trick, sure, but a film as seemingly unrelenting as this just makes the connection to these pour victims even stronger. I really wanted them to survive in a way that most slasher movies could never imagine. Elsewhere, the performance by Joe Spinell is a chilling experience in the way he navigates that character who can turn from being a handicapped man-child to fully capable monster in the blink of an eye. I also love this bit of Hollywood trivia that connects Maniac with welding dancer romance Flashdance. Amazing.

I intend on seeing the remake at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. I've seen the trailer and it obviously has a very modern look, but I hope that their vision of New York City is something equally memorable and unique. That Elijah Wood is starring as the killer is but a neat twist and the sort of casting experiment that can go really bad or so very, very right. It will seem to appropriate to watch this at 11.30pm on a cold wintery night, especially as I personally make plans for a potentially very real move to New York. Much like Tobe Hooper's Massacre made me think twice about ever wanting to visit the southern state of Texas, Maniac was the first film that genuinely made me scared of the Big Apple. Accomplishing that is perhaps the film's greatest success. A

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