42nd Street Cinema

Maniac (1980)

Maniac (1980)Half grisly slasher, half sympathetic character study, William Lustig's psychologically-driven splatterfest, Maniac, needs little introduction.

Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Nelia Bacmeister, and Tom Savini.

October, 1979. New York City.
Director William Lustig and character actor/co-writer, Joe Spinell, begin shooting one of the most potent works horror cinema has ever seen. I apologise in advance for all the fanboy gushing, to say I like this film is an understatement, I adore it.

The poster is iconic, a beautiful illustration of said maniac gripping a scalp in one hand, a bloodied hunting knife in the other, and a raging hard-on in the crotch of his jeans. The tagline is a statement, and I've sported it proudly on the blog's banner since its inception. It could be perceived as victim blaming, though I think it's something of a cheeky marketing double entendre, referring to either Frank, and/or his victims. It added to the outrage the film caused among women's groups, who vehemently picketed the movie, brandishing it misogynistic.

In Britain, Maniac somehow skirted the title of "Video nasty" despite being (banned) denied a cinema certificate by the BBFC in July 1981 and was also later refused a video rating in 1998. It was finally released on DVD in 2002 by Anchor Bay with 58 seconds worth of cuts. In 2022, it was finally released uncut on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom by 88 Films.

But, for all of the controversy surrounding Maniac it's a spectacularly well-made picture and what elevates the production and sets it apart from its contemporary slasher ilk is how the narrative sits firmly between an outright body-count slasher and a warped, claustrophobic character study of a man with an unsound mind. Likely riffing off of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Maniac helped pave the way for films such as Angst (1983), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Man Bites Dog (1992) The Last Horror Movie (2003) and the more recent The House That Jack Built (2018), for an intimate observation and portrayal of an immoral central character and their deplorable actions. It's a fascinating angle for a story that's still captivating the attentions of the many, especially given the popularity of recent shows like Dexter (2006) and You (2018).

Frank Zito is a big, unkempt, greasy, sweaty; you can practically smell (and see) the B.O. wafting off this guy and out of the screen. He lives in a squalid apartment and surrounds himself with mannequins that are partially dressed in his victims' clothes with their scalps crudely nailed to the mannequin heads. I guess you could say Frank Zito, enthusiastically portrayed by Joe Spinell, is more than a little troubled. He's tormented, psychologically complex; he's got severe mommy issues, he kills prostitutes and young couples, and while he's frequently deplorable there're times when Frank is quite likeable.

Spinell brings such intensity to the role, the characterisation is credible, and there's a unique vérité to his performance. Whether he's delivering monologues that are punctuated by creepy mouth-breathing, crying, or shrieking, it's all so convincingly real. I think what makes it so shocking is that, collectively, we all know killers/sex killers exist, they're a real threat, but in Maniac you are watching and experiencing it first hand and almost, kinda beginning to feel sorry for the guy. I don't say that to try and exonerate, or excuse Frank's actions, but there's certainly a slant to the story where you can begin to understand him.

It's through Spinell's performance and what we learn about Frank through his monologues and inner-thoughts, you begin to reach a level of understanding of why he is the way he is, and I've found through a very many rewatches over the years that towards the final moments I pity him. When he meets Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro), and they begin to get to know each other, go out on few dates, you kind of wonder if Frank is capable of holding down a normal romantic relationship with a woman. You see a side of Frank which is charming, affable, even caring, a further credit to Spinell's acting chops. You're almost rooting for him to settle down, leave all this crazy, murderous madness behind. Whether or not the dichotomy is intentional, you can question if he's feigning these emotions to just get closer to Anna to kill her, luring her into a false sense of security, or is it coming from a heartfelt place of genuine affection. The scene in the graveyard, when he takes Anna to his mother's grave, is extremely sad and always fills me with a sense of utter loss as Frank begins to break down, before (unsuccessfully) attacking Anna.

Another strength is the ever-present score by Jay Chattaway; a sublime mix of stringy, elegant, and haunting notes underpinned by a moody and ominous bass. A successful marrying of suspense and sorrow, mirroring events on the screen and elevating the production of the piece, further cementing Maniac as one of the most memorable horror films of the 1980s.

Tom Savini's effects are grounding and bring a stark realism to a subgenre fixated on an over-the-top style of gore and borderline splatstick set pieces. The only time the gore goes truly overboard in Maniac is during the final moments, of which are fantastical since it's taking place in Frank's mind; his death fantasy.

Maniac is also notable for the b-roll footage of NYC & Times Square, offering a snapshot of a now bygone era of that sordid locale. There's few nods to the beginning of director William Lustig's career in the movie business with his two porno features: Hot Honey (1977) and The Violation of Claudia (1977). During the subway-stalking scene, one of the bathroom stalls has some graffiti that says "Hot Honeys" and Maniac features a brief appearance by adult industry legend Sharon Mitchell, who plays Nurse #2, and a slightly larger part by Gail Lawrence (Abigail Clayton), who appears later-on in the film as Rita, one of Anna's friends.

A defining picture in the slasher genre, its fleshed out, character-driven narrative sets it apart from its very many brethren, and where other slashers fall into the trappings of formulaic, murder-by-numbers plots, Maniac manages to retain a unique perspective and premise. It's easily one of, if not, the greatest to come from the so-called Golden Age of slasher films. Lustig's opus is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in horror, slashers, or exploitation fare.


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