Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)
How often has the seasoned moviegoer watched a set-up like the one in this scene? One person has pursued another into a public restroom. He checks the first stall for the pursued. Then the second. Then the third. At the last stall, the hunter either gives up interest or the hunted bursts out in surprise confrontation. Here, the predator feigns disinterest and leaves before the final stall, only to spring upon the relieved prey a few moments later. The movements of Joe Spinnell as the titular maniac are captivating here. Spinnell appears behind MTA bars; his hands caress them. He walks slowly as if he is not even in pursuit of his victim. When he enters the graffiti-laden restroom he takes small deliberate steps. He appears to drop interest and leave; the music stops and the actress' breathing takes up the whole soundscape. Peace. Relief. When the expected murder comes, Spinnell's appearance in the mirror is sudden but his movements remain deliberate.
Part of what makes Maniac a disturbing work is that it connects the trope of the omnipotent slasher-villain with the insecurities of abandoned spaces. A subway station's restroom, late at night, bereft of transit employees, blurs the line between public and private. In a multi-stall public restroom there are no social taboos about one person entering the restroom, assuming gender conformity. But if the normative gender line is crossed this is the first cause for alarm. So a scene like this one draws upon everyday, if submerged, anxieties about social behavior—can the “rules” of the restroom, flimsy as seem are in the face of a maniac, defer pursuit? Well, unfortunately for the victim, not quite.
The first time I ever saw Maniac (1980) I had mistaken its release date with one of William Lustig's later Maniac Cop series (1988, 1992, and 1993). I soon realized my mistake, but at first I marveled at how sincerely Maniac recreated a whole era. “Even more than Ferrara circa 1990,” I thought to myself, “this movie really nails what we'd come to think of as the scummy, criminal charms of pre-Giuliani New York!” But of course Maniac didn't preserve the aesthetic artifacts of 1980 in 1990; instead it really was just a plain old artifact from 1980. Even still, I'm transfixed by this movie as a bodega-brand reimagination of Psycho. And I appreciate how it connects its threatening moments across the texture and feeling of different kinds of places—home, hotel, subway, streetside. Its this effusive sense of danger that reinvigorates a convention of checking every stall in the bathroom—even if we've seen it a hundred times.
Part of our on-going video series, The Last Place You Look