[This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club.]
Few things give a better indication as to the quality of a movie's writing than its scenes of pointless, shooting the shit chit-chat. Take, for example, this exchange between two hookers in William Lustig's sleazy slasher picture Maniac.
"You know, this last guy wanted the ultimate. You should'a seen what his idea of the ultimate was. I mean, I thought I'd seen them all, but this guy had something that was a new one, even on me. So, um, how you doing tonight kid? You look a little down."
"I need one more trick to make my rent."
"Hmm, I know how that is."
When I first saw this movie, I thought this exchange an underwritten attempt to mimic actual conversation without being specific enough to sound real. Why would Hooker 1 not mention what was in the ultimate and then what sorts of acts (e.g. water sports, Cleveland steamers, plate jobs, double fisting, etc.) went beyond the typical ultimate. When you fuck for a living, you're not gonna be coy about the details when discussing your occupation with another person who similarly fucks for a living.
But then I thought about it a little more. This could actually be a cleverly written exchange—almost a subversion of office talk between coworkers with little in common other than occupation. These two bored employees, just counting the hours until they can go home, are stuck with each other on break, and passing the time as best they can. I still don't know which of my impressions of this exchange is more accurate, but given the rest of the movie, I'll grant screenwriter, and star, Joe Spinell the benefit of the doubt.
Spinell, for those not in the know, was one of the most interesting character actors of the seventies. Appearing in the first two Godfather films, the first two Rocky films, and Taxi Driver, Spinell managed to take part in some of the most important films of the decade without ever becoming a household name. The man had the chops; he just needed a star vehicle. So he wrote it himself.
I've always found it slightly odd, but mostly cool, that this talented actor, when devising a potential breakout role, decided to traffic in the burgeoning slasher genre, a genre which most critics reviled. If he wanted respect, this was probably not the best way to achieve it. And yet, this movie was designed specifically to show off his range. Given that Spinell's psychotic character goes through every emotion known to (crazy) man, he almost seemed to scream to critics, "notice me." To which they replied:
Unfortunately for Spinell, most people know Maniac not for his outstanding performance but the top-notch gore and expertly crafted effects, courtesy of Tom Savini. (By the way, I dig the fact that Savini's best effect—shotgun-induced head explosion—was used to kill himself on screen.) Although I usually love to elaborate on the gore work in these movies, there's not much more I can say here other than awesome job.
Honestly, I approach this movie more from a fascination with the grimy, crime-ridden, no-man's land that was much of New York in the late seventies and early eighties, than from a love of slasher pictures (though I do love these movies). It's much the same reason I love New York punk, and the no wave documentary Blank City. Although a sleazy slasher picture like Maniac might not get the respect of its New York peers, it is every bit as genuine a response to New York city living as the so-called important stuff.