I

t’s going to sound strange, but coronavirus has me thinking a lot about Bill Lustig’s Maniac.

Some context: Several years ago, I survived H1N1. I was a waiter at the time, and in an object lesson we could all learn from in today’s environment, my restaurant pointedly not only didn’t shut down but didn’t permit any of us to call in for fear of contamination, either. Although I had frequently been sick that year because of a variety of factors (largely due to a stress-weakened immune system from too many night classes and not enough sleep), my manager made it clear that either I would be in the restaurant for my scheduled shifts or someone else would be hired to fill them for me. So, come in I did. Although I can’t pinpoint who exactly contaminated me, my money’s on a pair of older women who walked into the restaurant dripping fluids from what seemed to be every hole in their heads and who proceeded to pile their table high in sopping wet napkins that — because the restaurant had recently assigned all the bussers to dishwashing duty as a money-saving measure — it was my responsibility to pick up. No matter who it was, though, within a few days I was running a 102-degree fever, sweating fluid faster than I could drink it and generally feeling that I was on the brink of death. Fun fact: In the middle of this, I managed to make a semi-lucid phone call to my manager at the restaurant telling him I had swine flu and that I needed to call in. He told me that he had to authorize this with the restaurant’s general manager and to try and stay awake and be on standby for a phone call, because he might not authorize it and I may either need to come in or lose my job. I ended up passing out by the phone; I later learned that the manager had bragged to other employees he had “pranked” me by making me think I needed to stand by for a phone call.

Hilarious.

Joe Spinell has a close encounter in "Maniac." (Blue Underground/MovieStillsDB)

Getting to Maniac.

After a week of being fairly certain I was going to die, I began to make my recovery. I was living at home at the time since my college was only an hour’s drive away, and it was cheaper to pay for gas than a dorm room. Sitting in bed watching TV, lucid for the first time in a few days, I was pleasantly surprised when the door rang and a few minutes later my mother brought me a UPS package. Horror lover that she was, she thought that something gnarly from my Amazon wish list might be a nice treat on my road to recovery, and I was delighted to see she had purchased me the then-newish DVD of Maniac, a film I’d had on VHS for years at that point and which I’d excitedly talked about wanting to see restored. For as gruesome as the days before had been, today one of my fondest memories is sitting up in bed that day still flu-weakened but optimistic and seeing Maniac in all of its abominable glory. Ever since, whenever I’ve recovered from some horrible illness, or when flu season approaches and epidemic fears sweep the news, I’ve similarly found myself thinking about the movie. Today, with fears of a very real, very viral sickness sweeping the country, it’s got me thinking about it even more, and what a damn fine job the film does of exploring a very different sort of sickness.

Although Mindhunter brought them back into vogue as stock characters, serial killers may go in and out of fashion, but they never go out of style. From cliched wackos of the week on CSI and NCIS to complex, iconic figures such as Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman, the serial killer is one of the most reliable standbys in horror and crime drama, ready to enthrall and terrify us in equal measure. It’s the “enthrall” part that particularly interests me, both as a consumer of horror cinema and a writer of horror literature. As Lecter and Bateman have demonstrated — along with other fictional serial killers like Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon — when films are partially or fully focalized through the killer, it becomes difficult for the audience not to sympathize with them and, through that sympathy, for the audience to both identify with and glorify the killer. It’s not a response limited strictly to serial killers — we’re naturally drawn to villains across all genres — but we seem to react especially profoundly when the monster in a movie is of the human variety and is driven by an animalistic need to take others’ lives.

All of this glamorization of serial killers left me wondering: Since we seem to have a predisposition towards idolizing them, and audiences are conditioned to identify with the focal character in a fictional work, is it possible to create a piece of serial-killer media focalized through the killer that doesn’t glorify the murderer? One that, in contrast to lionizing the killer, portrays him for who and what he really is and forces the audience into the uncomfortable position of not taking a tour-bus ride with a homicidal rock star, but slogging through the sick and disturbed depths of a diseased mind? It’s a difficult prospect. Thomas Harris, even in making Francis Dolarhyde a lunatic who sexually violates women’s corpses, gave him such a sympathetic backstory that I’ve met several female fans of the book who have told me that they found a part of themselves hoping he and Rita would make it (hell, I sorta did, too). Even Henry, with its grimy aesthetic and infamous home-invasion scene, still pushes the audience towards siding with Henry through a combination of his protectiveness of Becky and Michael Rooker’s performance, which drives the audience to see him as a quiet, sensitive soul driven by forces outside his control. It would seem then that no matter how realistic your portrayal of the killer, no matter how heinous his crimes or warped his motivation, we’re stuck in the uncomfortable position of identifying with him as long as we’re seeing the world through his eyes.

And we’re back to Maniac.

Joe Spinell’s Maniac stands — perhaps alone — as the serial killer movie, not necessarily in narrative, but in the way it forces the viewer to see the world as a real-life killer would. Maniac does not give the viewer the high class of Hannibal Lecter, the damsel-saving antics of Henry or the doomed romance of Red Dragon. There are no comfortable moral compromises, no safe places. For 87 minutes, the viewer is made to see the world the same way a rotting brain would — and the experience is absolutely harrowing.

Maniac does not have a plot as such. Maniac does not give the viewer the safety of narrative. The bulk of the movie is composed of a series of loosely connected set pieces in which a slovenly loner named Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) stalks, murders and scalps random women in 1980s Manhattan, taking the trophies back to his apartment to nail to mannequins. We’re given vague indications that this all has to do with abuse at the hands of his mom, but even that comfort of familiarity is denied to us. Rather than neat exposition, anything having to do with Frank’s mom is revealed through garbled, muttered, stream-of-consciousness ramblings that are also laced with heavy dollops of generalized misogyny and stuff that just plain doesn’t make sense. We’re given the idea that Frank’s mom abused him, sure, but why mannequins? Why scalps? We’re never quite sure. The film encourages the viewer to begin filling in the gaps themselves, and in doing so, think like Frank, making the same warped leaps in logic that drive his actions. Even when the faint shadow of a narrative begins to form near the movie’s ending, when Frank begins dating a fashion photographer, the disordered way in which the plot unfolds still keeps the audience at an arm’s length. The pacing is chopping (seemingly intentionally so), and our sense of time becomes disjointed and often confusing. Too, while it isn’t beyond the pale that a beautiful, successful woman with no apparent hang-ups would fall so quickly for a guy like Frank (the real Joe Spinell was a charmer who had no difficulty in his love life), the way the movie unfolds their romance leaves the viewer feeling confused and anxious.

This narrative disjointedness is buttressed by the film’s aesthetics, which stand toe-to-toe with Henry in bringing the inner life of the killer to the screen. The colors are dark and heavily saturated to the point that lurid mauves and royal blues bleed into one another, disorienting both the eye and the mind. In a choice worthy of Fellini or Bergman, Frank’s apartment serves as a microcosm of his mind, reflecting its disorder and deterioration not just through the accumulating mannequins but disturbing artwork, a weird assortment of loose clothes, deadly weapons and poor maintenance. (Indeed, while the movie hints that Frank makes his money as the building superintendent, his own unit would be condemned if the health inspector laid eyes on it). Scenes in daylight are rare, and when we get them the whites and sunshine are so bright as to be blinding. Not only are we denied narrative safe places, we’re denied visual ones, as well.

The final third of this triumvirate of terror is Joe Spinell in a career-defining, award-worthy performance. Frank is not a soft-spoken everyman like Henry; he is not an articulate effete like Hannibal Lecter. Frank is a twitchy, sweaty, weirdo creep who just barely manages to function in society, and whose inability to maintain a mask of sanity for more than a few hours at a time serves as the tipping-off point for the film’s climax. There is nothing redeemable, endearing or exciting about him. If you saw Frank on the sidewalk, you would cross the street just so you didn’t have to walk past him. Spinell instills him with such a wrongness, from the way he speaks to the way he moves, that at the same time the audience is forced to live inside his head, we’re never close to him. Frank’s mind is so broken and fragmented that you get the impression even he doesn’t totally understand himself, and Spinell’s performance forces us into the same position. (From a psychological perspective, the character seems to be a schizotypal personality dancing on the cusp of full-blown schizophrenia, buttressed with sexual sadism disorder and a dashing of schizoid personality disorder).

There have been few films before or since Maniac that have so effectively portrayed the terror and destruction of a serial killer without allowing us to sympathize with them. It’s a testament to the film’s power that, when the decision was made to remake it with Elijah Wood, writers Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg and director Franck Khalfoun didn’t even attempt to replicate it. Instead, they took a page from the Henry playbook, reimagining Frank as a sensitive loner with a concrete backstory that unfolds through a traditional narrative, emphasizing the lost romance elements that the original only plays with. Perhaps my biggest gripe is with the film’s aggressive effort to contextualize Frank’s actions, which serves to make for a more compelling character study but, counterintuitively, a much less frightening product.

As Mindhunter showed us, the fascination — and uncomfortable identification — with the serial killer is still alive, well and ripe fodder for great cinema and B-scares alike. Amidst all that fascination, reverence and dedication, though, it’s strangely comforting that we have a film as sick as Maniac — a movie to remind us of the sickness and evil lurking behind all of that savage glamor.

Preston Fassel is an award winning author and journalist whose work has appeared in FANGORIA, Screem Magazine, Rue Morgue, and on  Cinedump.com; his first novel, Our Lady of the Inferno, won the 2019 IPPY Gold Medal for horror.