Maniac (1980)

Much better than you might be thinking…


It’s a film called Maniac. It’s about a maniac. At one point there was even going to be a title song, but that never happened, though that song, after some appropriate lyrical changes, became the very same ‘Maniac’ on the soundtrack to Flashdance. The poster features the maniac holding the bloody scalp of a blonde victim, with the tagline ‘I Warned You Not to Go Out Tonight’. Prime video nasty, exploitation, Z-Grade trash material, right? Well, for one thing, despite seemingly containing all the right/wrong ingredients it was never even a classified as a video nasty, mainly because it couldn’t even get a cinema release from the BBFC let alone a home video release. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting – gruesome, unpleasant but shamefully entertaining, I suppose. What really surprised me was how well made Maniac actually is. It’s a good film. It’s an ambitious one too – this is no mere stalk and slash bit of fun. Here we have a killer who we actually see as a person, a real person. As played by the film’s co-writer Joe Spinell, he’s vivid, grotesque but, heavy breathing on the soundtrack excepted, he’s no Jason or Michael Myers. He’s a real person, quite likeable when awkwardly adopting his social persona, and this is what makes the film so disturbing. We’re closer to Psycho/Peeping Tom territory at times, but then just when you think this could be regarded as a serious forerunner to starkly sober, unflinchingly realistic fare like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, we get a moment like the shotgun head explosion, which, as spectacular/horrific as it might be, positions the film closer to the gore-splat horrors of its era. The same goes for the scalping near the start, ghastly and horrible it may be, I couldn’t help but detach myself so as to marvel at the brilliance of Tom Savini’s make-up effects.

The plot is minimal, but the repetition of killings to me mirrors the unbreakable cycle of murder that the killer has trapped himself within. The grimy, frightening nocturne of 70’s/80’s New York is very effectively presented. I think the movies put me off New York for a long time, and no Frank Sinatra sing-a-longs or endings to Ghostbusters II were going to change that. The music is atmospheric, with that 80’s pop staple, the fretless bass, making an appearance. Supporting performances are solid enough, but this Spinell’s show – his is one of the more memorable cinematic monsters from this whole era. Suspense sequences are excellent – one in a subway toilet is unbearably tense, whilst another where Frank insists he’s not going to kill his next victim (the one tied to the bed) whilst gradually descending into paranoia is performed with a hopeless, terrifying inevitability.

The ending takes us inside Frank’s head, with surreal results – we get a rise from the grave straight out of a zombie movie, as well as a brilliant moment where his bespoke mannequins come to life. The very, very end is a mystery – is Frank still alive, or is the final shot just a cheap scare? Seriously, Maniac is well worth watching to decide these things for yourself.


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