Sadistic. Misogynistic. Lurid. Visceral. Exploitative. Shameless. Hateful. Sleazy. These are some of the more polite terms that have been used when describing director William Lustig’s 1980 slasher classic Maniac. More unhinged reactions at the time of its release essentially stated that it marked the end of good taste and civility, if not western civilization itself — and while all that might be a little bit much, the truth is that most of the critics, the ones who called it “lurid,” “sleazy,” “hateful,” “misogynistic” and the like were absolutely right — what they failed to realize, if course, is that those very — uhhhmmm — “qualities” are what make this flick so fucking good.
Granted, our definition of “good” here at TFG doesn’t exactly match what the dictionary has to say, but the fact is that Maniac is one of those movies that you just plain never forget once you’ve seen it. Most of that is down to the tour-de-force performance of the late, great Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, the titular “maniac” himself, a man haunted by memories of childhood abuse at the hands of his mother who is taking out a twisted form of permanent vengeance on the entire female population of New York City. Spinell doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this movie, and the low-grade production values employed by Lustig give this shot-on-16mm slice of pure, unadulterated celluloid hatred an even more immediate, quasi-documentary look that conspires to communicate Spinell’s unhinged portrayal even more directly. Sure, most of that raw, immediate quality is foisted upon this film due to budgetary constraints, but like all the best exploitation efforts, this flick’s ultra-low budget is actually its best friend, and a more polished, professional production would have positively ruined things.
Which isn’t to say that it looks cheap — Tom Savini’s effects, especially the infamous “shotgun-blast-to-the-head” scene, are particularly effective. A lot of — dare I say it — love obviously went into making this flick look as authentic as possible. And if we were looking for one word to describe Maniac in a nutshell, that would probably be it : even aspects of the film that are less than realistic — I can’t see the glamorous Caroline Munro falling for Frank under any circumstances, and of course the infamous ending cuts loose from the moorings of reality entirely — still feel absolutely fucking authentic.
I can’t imagine that there are too many readers of this blog who haven’t seen Maniac before, or who don’t own it on DVD and/or Blu-Ray (and I sincerely hope that if you do, you’ve got the Blue Underground two-disc 25th anniversary edition, loaded as it is with positively awesome extras), but if you haven’t watched in awhile, this is a great time of year to revisit it : and if by some strange and slim chance you haven’t seen it, now would be the time to do so before the Elijah Wood remake hits our screens in December.
In a world full of super-powered slashers like Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Maniac stands out in that Lustig and company really seem to mean it. They’re just plain not fucking around; Maniac is all about bringing the horror home, and not just erasing, but obliterating the “comfortable distance,” if you will, that usually exists between the audience and the fictional killer whose twisted exploits we’re privy to. This is the real thing, folks, and leaves you feeling psychically unclean merely for having seen it.
Who could ask for anything more?