In the annals of horror cinema there are always those films that somehow manage to elude you. Oh, you can easily remember when they hit theaters and can clearly recall television commercials and posters that were part of the ad campaign. You remember seeing the film in the video store months later, but pass it by in favor of some other title that seems more interesting at the moment. You read about it in magazines and hear other people talking about it, all the while thinking to yourself, “I need to see that movie.” Then one day you realize that more than two decades have gone by and you still have not seen the film in question. Well, welcome to my world where Maniac is concerned. All of the above was true for me…I remember it all. However, somehow the movie never made it’s way to my TV screen. Thus, this film was one of the first I placed in my queue when signing up for Netflix recently. I was not about to wait any longer, especially after everything I had read on the film.
Coming as it did in the hey day of the “slasher” film, and featuring gore-soaked violence on par with such movies, it is easy to see why so many people such as myself, classified this movie in that same group along with all the other Halloween and Friday The 13th ripoffs. However the film is starkly different in theme, style and execution. Rather than featuring a larger than life killer that can seemingly accomplish impossible things while meticulously reducing the cast of characters in creatively violent and morbid ways, Maniac prefers instead to focus on a terrifyingly life-like killer in the character of Frank Zito, played to perfection by Joe Spinell. Frank is not the mythic figure that so many other films paint their killers to be. No, Frank is frightening because we know that people like him actually exist. Capable of being charming and gracious one moment and mercilessly violent the next, the horror of Maniac is not derived from contrived set pieces and glorified violence, but from the sheer normality of the killer and the realization that violence, and in turn death, is not really a laughing matter and that any one of us could fall victim to somebody like Frank.
We watch as the troubled Frank stalks and murders people in a variety of ways. At the core, he is still dealing with the legacy of his deceased mother – a woman who physically abused him and openly engaged in prostitution. For his own twisted reasons, Frank removes the scalps from the women he kills and then later adorns mannequins with the bloody trophies, even going as far as talking to them. Then one day Frank meets Anna, a photographer played by the beautiful Caroline Munro. In her Frank sees something worthy, as he does not stalk and kill her, but rather befriends her. In these scenes he seems like such a normal person, yet we the audience know of the monster that lurks just beneath the surface. We also know that nothing can come of the relationship but tragedy.
The movie eschews the campy feel that defined so many other horror efforts from the same time period. Instead the film is cheerless and gloomy, highlighting the grimy, rundown and seedier locations in New York City’s urban landscape. Coupled with the slow pace and introspective examination of Frank’s life, this makes for a rather dark, bleak cinematic experience. Adding to this feeling is the gore FX. While some may consider the work here indicative of the time and not on par with more modern techniques, the job done by noted make-up artist Tom Savini is still something to note (look for Tom in a brief role as a murder victim). While not approaching the gore factor of a film like Dead-Alive, there is enough on display here to make the queasier stomachs in the audience protest to their owners. Additionally, the murder scenes are not shot with an eye for cinematic flair: the deaths are just plain brutal. Sometimes quick, sometimes slow, they manage to leave the viewer with a definite sense of unease.
Overall, this is the type of film that will either leave you cold for it’s blatant misogyny or draw in you because of it’s realistic look at the subject matter. Either way, it is sure to linger in your mind for a while after it has ended. And if it causes you to look over your shoulder at the people around you the next time you are out in public…well, there is no greater legacy for a horror film, is there?
Final Grade: 3 out of 5