Directed by William Lustig
Starring Joe Spinnell and Caroline Munro
Frank Zito, a mentally disturbed serial killer, is prowling the streets New York City looking for innocent victims to murder in order to quiet the voices in his head commanding him to kill.
I should begin this particular review by being upfront about this film. If you are easily upset by dark subject matters and graphic violence, then avoid this film at all costs. Maniac is a dark, grisly and nasty film and I would not hold it against anyone if they decided to avoid it.
While I may be seemingly decrying this film before I’ve talked about properly, I should stress that those of you who do decide to check it out will find it to be one of the more intelligent slasher films of the 80s.
While the film was made and marketed as a sleazy exploitation film, upon actually watchingit I was surprised to find a far more nuanced and intelligent film than any mere slasher flick.
Maniac is a dark character study of sorts of what it is like inside the mind of a murderer. We follow the murderous Frank for nearly every scene of the film. We see him at alone home in his creepy squalid mannequin filled flat. We see him stalking his victims on the dark underground train station and we are given front row seats to all of his brutal acts of violence (aided by some fairly realistic and gruesome effects from special effects legend Tom Savini).
This dark study is aided by a truly terrifying performance by leading man Joe Spinnell (who also co-wrote the film) as Frank. The strongest scenes are when Frank is alone in his flat, surrounded by mannequins wearing the scalps of his victims, arguing with the voices in his head, often at times appearing to address the audience; it’s a truly terrifying glimpse through a window at the madness inside a murderers mind.
However when Frank starts a relationship with a photographer later in the film we see another side to him; that of a charming intelligent gentleman. These scenes are extremely well acted, thanks in part to Spinnell and co-star Caroline Munro’s excellent on-screen chemistry. These scenes showing Frank in his “human” form truly shows off the brilliance of Spinell’s performance as, much to my own surprise, I actually found myself starting to like Frank.
The film has long been a source of controversy given its subject matter, upon its original release in 1980 it was met with angry protestors decrying its violent content. This scornful attitude was shared by famed American critic Gene Siskel who walked about of the film after 30 minutes, feeling that the film could not redeem itself after that point.
I understand Maniac could be off-putting and disturbing, given the brutal violence which unfortunately is largely directed towards women. However, I would also say that those who walked out of the film before the end missed what is a much more interesting film than its clichéd title would suggest.
As I said before in the opening of this review, if Maniac does not seem like something you could handle, then I fully respect your decision not to watch it. Those of you who do watch it will either love it or loath it.
It’s dark story aided by quite possibly one of the finest horror performances of all time, creating, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating, intelligent and underrated horror films of the 1980s.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★