Thursday, November 8, 2012

Murderous musings about Maniac (1980)

Maniac is a gritty, surreal, and often disturbing plunge into the mind of a serial killer loose on the streets of NYC; a modernized Jack the Ripper holding the city in a grip of terror.  I’m sure if you roamed into Cropsy’s Crypt you at least have a passing familiarity with the film, so I was just going to muse over the movie in kind of a stream of conscious kind of way, as if we were discussing this like beer buddies while digging a fresh grave.  The crypt is rather informal like that.   

Frank Zito, the movies protagonist and maniac, wears a casual demeanor, a disguise for the formality of every day living, but underneath the fa├žade lays a hurt child perpetually suffering from the mental anguish of abuse at the hands of his mother.  Although Frank’s mother is deceased he still hears her voice and bears the mental issues associated with traumatic child abuse.  If we were to compare Norman Bates and Frank Zito, I’d say Frank was certainly the spiritual successor of Norman with more severe and apparent abuse issues living in a more urban setting.  Norman developed a loving attachment to his mother tempered by her strict authoritarian rule of the house hold, where as with Frank Zito I get the sense that his mother was more active in her role of abusing the boy during his youth, something that stiffened his natural mental progression into adulthood (reflected by the moments in the film where he is playing with a toy gun, or hugging a teddy bear).  Both Norman and Frank have a child like quality to them, where they act boyish, and are still under the specter wing of their respected mothers long after they’ve departed this world.  I feel like these similarities are something that goes beyond mere coincidence; as if the director of Maniac, William Lustig, wanted to bring the story of Psycho into a modern setting, with a more severe psychosis.  And of course both Norman and Frank owe some of their personality quirks to infamous mama’s boy Ed Gein.

However I believe that Frank’s psychosis slightly differs from Norman’s in some discrete ways.  The biggest difference between Frank and Norman, from what I can ascertain from Maniac, is that Frank wants to own women and possess them so they can never leave him.  Norman merely wanted to be as close to his mother as possible, or rather, become so enraptured with the thought of his mother that her spirit possesses him.  Frank and Norman both suffer separation anxiety, they have a fear of people leaving them, but in Norman’s case it is much more fixated on his mother.  When he kills it is because he perceives his mother to be jealous of the would-be victim; thus the murder is an act of removing temptation from Norman.  However with Frank he never lets his mother’s personality possess him in the way Norman lets his mother’s persona possess him.  She’s always nipping at the fringes of his conscious mind, where he can have conversations with himself as if it were his mother speaking directly to him, but Frank never switches roles between mother and son and so forth.   Frank clearly knows his mother is dead (as demonstrated by him inviting a date to her grave to pay respects), where Norman doesn’t seem to be aware of his own mother’s passing.  This also explains why Norman does not feel alone in his hotel, because he believes he always has the company of his mother.  Frank’s life however is dominated by loneliness.  To combat these feelings of solitude Frank seeks to possess and surround himself with beautiful women, as if to fill the void in his life left by his mother’s passing.  And because his mother was so domineering and oppressive he wishes to seek out women that he can dominate and control; thus fabricating the illusion that his mannequins are in fact real women and the scalps that he extracts from his victims carries their spirits, endowing his plastic people with the personality of the recently deceased.  In this way he also reduces women to being mere objects, like dolls. 

Unlike Norman, Frank often uses his victims to redirect the anger and hatred he felt for his biological mother.  Frank has a love/hate relationship with his mother, where he seems to have loved and cherished her memory but hated her gender and loathed her profession as a hooker.  Norman seemed to fear women as being evil, but Frank outright hates all women and would like to see them possessed or utterly destroyed.  Frank’s approach to women is much more volatile than Norman’s in this regard.
I also believe Frank viewed killing as more of an art form.  Norman was instantly ashamed of his act of murder, covering it up as quickly as possible, carefully cleaning the shower immediately after that famous scene.  Some of that regret exists with Frank, where he bemoans his inability to control his murderous impulse, as if he was burdened with this horrible task of which he has no escape from, but Frank also relishes the “art” he makes out of his victims.  He seems to hate that his impulse is to kill, often apologizing to his victims moments after life has left them, but is proud of his gallery of the macabre in his cramped NYC apartment, which seems to be his only source of joy in the film outside of dating the photographer.  His appreciation and attitude towards art gives me the sense that Frank views himself as a climbing socialite and struggling artist.  Later in Maniac when he begins to fall in with the artsy fartsy crowd I can’t help but amuse myself with the irony of this serial killer talking about his approach to art to people who have no clue about the real “art” Frank is creating, but it’s obvious that he takes himself very seriously in this respect. 

The best moments in the movie for me aren’t the head explosions or graphic violence, it’s whenever Frank is dealing with normal people or portraying himself as a n art connoisseur interested with high fashion and hip pop culture.  The irony cuts deep to the bone and its fun seeing Frank acting all smooth, and even a bit goofy, when we know he’s absolutely out of his banana tree.  

The ending of the movie is oft criticized for the way the police detectives simply leave the apartment with Frank’s body laying in a bloody heap on his bed, but I think it’s another hallucinatory illusion of Frank, much like the mannequins that come alive to extract revenge on him.  I believe the entire end sequence is Frank shedding whatever sanity he had left, an act resulting in his surreal fantasy and cold reality colliding together and coalescing to the point that neither is distinguishable from the other for Frank or the viewer.  The end is nonsensical, but it was meant to be as loony as Frank’s own outlook on the nature of reality, so people shouldn’t read much into why the detectives would walk out on Frank without checking his pulse or anything and just scratch it up to one more chance for a jump scare.