Maniac (1980)

Starring Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini, Hyla Marrow

Directed by William Lustig

Expectations: High. Lustig, Savini, how can it not be good?


Sorry to those hoping for rainbows and unicorns, Maniac delivers manic thrills and nothing else. As long as you’re OK with that, and you’re down for some brutal Tom Savini FX work, then you should enjoy Maniac. It’s a unique take on the slasher film, and one that I won’t soon forget. This was William Lustig’s first legitimate film (after a few legitimate pornos), and it’s a frontrunner for the best thing I’ve seen from him. Maniac Cop and its sequel are both superb, and Vigilante is fun, but Maniac has a guerrilla quality to it that makes it seem just as seedy and grimy as the film’s main character, Frank.

The plot of Maniac is rather sparse, instead doing its best to deliver a character study of a madman. What this equates to is watching Joe Spinell stalk and brutally kill female victims for most of the movie. There’s no cops trailing him, or any real story to speak of. Even the dialogue scenes are all somewhat meaningless. This makes the film feel gratuitously sadistic, and it’s rather hard to watch at times. A slight story comes in during the second act, but even this is just a means to provide Frank with another victim, and ultimately bring us to the climax of the film. It does add some interesting situations for Frank, and ones that allow us to further explore his character, but the film still retains its initial structure. This might sound like it would be boring and hard to get through, but the film is incredibly watchable thanks to Spinell’s perfect portrayal of the madman, Lustig’s inspired direction, and Savini’s gory, ultra-realistic FX.

What I really find interesting about Maniac is the choice to focus solely on the maniac. Instead of peppering the film with characters we don’t care about that will die in a few minutes, the only true character is Frank. This might sound boring, and for some films that would definitely be true, but trust me when I say that in Maniac it works beautifully. It’s one thing to encounter the slasher villain as he murders a couple gettin’ busy in a car, but it’s another thing entirely to then follow him home and watch as he talks himself to sleep, handcuffed to a mannequin with a victim’s scalp nailed to its head. Because of this shift, it’s not just a slasher film, it’s a film that puts us into the point of view of the slasher, all without resorting to the Argento method of voyeuristically shooting the murders from a first-person perspective. It’s all brought to life by Jay Chattaway’s brooding, pulsating score, matching the images perfectly and setting a grim mood.

Savini’s FX work here is perfect. Not near perfect, not pretty damn good, but perfect. Every moment is skillfully executed, with editing that perfectly sets up the FX shots and makes them pay off in the best way possible. They’re incredibly realistic, and perhaps the most affecting work I’ve seen from him. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the fucking end of this movie is nuts! Dawn of the Dead‘s uncut version may feature more extreme uses of violence, but the final moments of Maniac had my mouth wide open in a god-awful wince of pain. It’s a moment unlike anything else I can remember, and, of course, I loved it.

Filled with guerrilla filmmaking ingenuity and intense, gritty violence, Maniac is one of the best slashers I’ve seen. It’s sadistic and depraved for sure, so it will only appeal to a select crowd, but those attuned to like this film will really like it. Lustig continues to impress me with his ability to craft incredibly well-made, low-budget films that never feel like their budget was an issue. I know this review is a little shorter than most, but I really don’t know what else to say. If you’re a horror fan and you haven’t seen the film already (like me), then definitely check it out!

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