MANIAC: Finally, a Motion Picture That Knows What Women Want

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Maniac is more than a horror movie; it’s a litmus test. If you can watch this film from start to finish without being offended and morally violated, then you can handle pretty much anything shy of snuff films. Maniac is the next level. If this movie bothers you, best go back to the kiddies’ table young’un. More than that, it’s a tour-de-force for the three primary creative talents involved in the film:

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William Lustig, the director. Although the New York-based filmmaker and current overlord of Blue Undergound, who started out his career making porno flicks, went on to make more cult classics such as Vigilante and Maniac Cop (penned by the great Larry Cohen), he could never top his cinematic breakthrough. For Maniac perennial 42nd Street grind house denizen Lustig transports us head-on into the pre-Disney, Giuliani-sanitized mean streets of the Big Apple, to the cold beaches, autumnal parks, adult theaters, and seedy motels where hookers take their clients for a quick fuck. Lustig even cameos as a motel clerk.

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Tom Savini, the wildman master of horror special effects. Hired on the strength of his previous work on Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th to create the bloody murder set-pieces on Lustig’s slasher opus, Savini brings his devious imagination, fused with the gruesome sights he witnessed while serving in Vietnam, and births one of his true effects masterworks. Gory scalpings, stabbings, decapitations, and a spectacularly messy shotgun killing are all the order of the day when Savini is wisely permitted to indulge himself. A fine example of why modern horror would not be what it is today without the great Tom Savini.

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If you can stare at this picture for five seconds without crying you deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Joe Spinell, the legendary character actor who has loaned his unique presence to such top Hollywood films as The Godfather and Rocky finally gets his chance to shine in a rare leading role. Since Maniac focuses primarily on his character, the titular maniac Frank Zito, so Spinell is given free reign to own the movie whenever he’s on screen. Pudgy, sweaty, wild-eyed, balding Frank is truly a loathsome creature but as interpreted by an untethered Spinell he is not entirely unsympathetic, particularly when he is given a chance at a normal relationship with pretty photographer Anna (Caroline Munro of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Star Crash fame). The story gives us hints of Frank’s traumatic childhood making it clear as a boy he was a victim of abuse at the hands of his mother and Spinell plays this dichotomy masterfully: the monster who is compelled to murder women every night (especially when they remind him of dear ol’ Mum) and the man who wants to live the life of an average Joe and have it all. Whatever complexities are to be in Frank Zito are only there because of Spinell’s stellar performance.

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Don’t get me wrong, Maniac is hardly a fun movie. The violence is unpleasant and mostly aimed at women (though the goriest death scene is reserved for a member of the male persuasion). It’s a tough movie to watch the first time you see it. Lustig never shies away from the gory details and the whole movie is based around the killer himself. This is not your average slasher horror. Far from it, Maniac takes us on a relentless ride-along with a nightmare of a human being and we’re never the same again.

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The brooding synthesizer score by frequent Lustig collaborator Jay Chattaway adds immeasurably to the proceedings. The movie also tends to be uneven acting-wise. With the exception of Munro’s Anna none of the other female characters ever develop beyond trophies for Zito’s deranged collection (you’ll see). Even Munro doesn’t come into the story until nearly an hour has passed. There is no standard Final Girl in this flick because Maniac is Frank’s sordid story all the way until the very end, which is completely unexpected. Only the final shot seems pretty stupid since it doesn’t make any sense. What the fuck though; you have to take the bad with the good.

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In the horror sub-genre of psycho slasher movies Maniac doesn’t fit in with the Friday the 13th‘s and Halloween‘s. Instead it belongs, albeit uneasily, with movies like Peeping Tom and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s not easy to ask an audience looking for a cheap thrill to spend ninety minutes in the company of a psychopath. William Lustig, Tom Savini, and Joe Spinell did, laying their careers and asses on the line in the process. It paid off. Not only was Maniac a smashing success in 1980 (the year we first met the Voorhees) but despite scathing reviews and understandable objections from women’s groups concerned over it’s violent content the movie is widely regarded today as a classic of modern horror.

Maniac is unique among horror films. Wherever your tastes reside it cannot be ignored. Proceed with caution, and ignore the stylish but empty remake while you’re at it.

The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Blue Underground.

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