REVIEW: Maniac [1981]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 87 minutes
    Release Date: March 6th, 1981 (USA)
    Studio: Analysis Film Releasing Corporation
    Director(s): William Lustig
    Writer(s): C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell / Joe Spinell (story)

You’re so pretty.

We’ve already seen Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) kill five people by the time Anna D’Antoni’s (Caroline Munro) viewfinder catches him in Central Park. Her photographer is simply taking shots at random to the point where she eventually walks off after another subject, leaving her bag unattended under a tree. Frank meanders over, pretends to tie his shoe, and takes a glimpse at the address tag to pay her a visit later. It makes sense. He’s the serial killer every front page is talking about. He can’t have his photograph getting out in case someone recognizes him at the motel where victim number three was found. Logic therefore assumes a cut to the evening with him knocking on Anna’s door before forcing his way in. Well, Maniac isn’t logical.

Not only does director William Lustig and screenwriters C.A. Rosenberg and Spinell himself (the story was his idea) send Frank to stalk a nurse (Kelly Piper) instead, but they also decide to implausibly have Anna invite him into her house later under pretenses that make zero sense. Why take the time to ensure we see him steal her address off that tag if you’re going to have him knock on the door to request information on the photo she took? They never spoke in the park. She didn’t hand him her card to stop by for a print. And yet she opens the door, laughs that she just developed his photo, and then proceeds to be charmed into a date. I kept waiting for Frank to wake up.

It’s a ludicrous series of events occurring halfway through a film that hadn’t yet attempted to pretend it possessed a plot beyond cutting another actor’s face onto Rita Montone during her death scene. And even that’s a stretch since I initially thought the editor made a mistake with coverage before realizing the second face was probably the person Frank really wanted to kill. The guy is a whack job (his heavy breathing and resting moans are inspired horror fuel) who talks to himself as though he’s two people: one committing the crimes and one guiding his hands. That he targets women obviously infers he was scorned and looking for payback, but we have no idea what to truly think until he mentions his mother to Anna.

She is thus a means to an end. The filmmakers needed to let Frank get close enough to someone to provide some semblance of exposition and so they thought they’d kill two birds with one stone in the most narratively jumbled way possible. They wait so long, though, that it almost feels like a different movie. Frank had never seemed anything less than unhinged before he walks into her apartment, but suddenly he’s Mr. Smooth playing aloof and talking about photographs capturing their subjects in a way that allows the owner to “possess them forever.” The sentiments being creepy help us remember who this guy really is, but the quasi profundity of that comment also gets us intrigued enough to think Lustig actually has meaningful something to say.

I’d argue that, by the time we get to the end credits, we ultimately discover the opposite is true. Maniac is nothing more than an excuse to string together some kills. The stuff with Anna is so absurd because Lustig and company don’t care about her beyond how she serves their purposes in the big picture. Don’t therefore expect rhyme or reason to anything that happens. This is a deranged man who was physically and psychologically abused as a child and has now allowed his fractured mind to turn him into a proto-incel hell-bent on scalping pretty, young women so that he can “preserve” them via the mannequins posed about his bedroom. Any appeal is thus solely on the technical end of things … but appeal does exist.

Tom Savini‘s special effects (he’s also seen on-screen as one of Frank’s victims) are quite impressive. There are the scalpels with blood tubes and pools of red goo pouring out of chest and neck wounds, but there’s also a brilliant piece revolving around a guerilla-shot head explosion that’s memorable in its carnage and aesthetic (Spinell jumping onto the hood of a car in slomo to shoot through the windshield Son of Sam style is a highlight). Glaring script issues or not, Savini’s efforts and Robert Lindsay’s cinematography do a lot of work to help turn the finished product into the cult classic it has become. They can’t go so far as to make it good, but the merit is real. Especially where the climax is concerned.

Every death scene has its own dramatic flair (and suspense in the case of the opening beach scene and Piper’s centerpiece subway chase), but it’s the final death knell that excels best. It’s a nasty bit of work that blurs the line between reality and nightmare perfectly in order to tie a bow on what Lustig never quite used enough to matter up until this point. If you have all those mannequins dressed up like Frank’s victims, why not let them animate for a bit of homicidal revenge? Give us one last hurrah while also reminding us that there’s a reason for this troubled soul’s spree after all. Ten minutes of story inside eighty-five exploitative minutes dripping with misogyny isn’t nearly enough, but it helps to approximate legitimacy.

Watched in conjunction with Season Nine of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.

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