Maniac (1980) is the unsung emperor of the stalker/slasher subgenre. It’s a gritty, low budget exploitation movie from the golden era of horror, and follows all the standard conventions of a stalker/slasher film: you have a disturbed male protagonist that kills a number of attractive women with a sharp implement (a typical phallic penetration metaphor for his own sexual inadequacies blah blah blah), and you have visceral, ultra-real violence, the effects of which are courtesy of Tom Savini (see Dawn of the Dead/Day of the Dead for reference of the man’s genius). Shot on a shoestring, Maniac encountered a tremendous backlash with female protestors picketing outside theatres due to its seemingly misogynistic message.
At a glance, the overtly bloody box art of a man holding a knife and the scalp of his latest victim makes it difficult to differentiate Maniac from the plethora of video nasties of that period. Yet, two minutes into the film and it becomes abundantly clear that what you’re watching is somehow more cerebral than its contemporaries. After an opening scene involving our heavy breathing protagonist Frank (played by the brilliant and horrifically underrated Joe Spinnell, who also co-wrote the feature) slitting the throat of a woman lying on a twilit beach, we are treated to an unusually haunting score. The detail and care taken to craft such an elaborate and memorable piece of music assures the viewer that the filmmakers have gone to great lengthes to set it apart from the crowd.
Thematically similar to Don’t Go in the House (1979), Maniac tells the story of the aforementioned Frank a creepy, seemingly unemployed, middle-aged fat loner who was physically, and possibly sexually, abused by his mother as a child. As a result of the abuse, Frank’s favourite pastime is to prowl the city looking for prostitutes and vulnerable women that he can maim, strangle and scalp (collecting said scalps as part of his fetish, placing them tenderly on the heads of the mannequins strewn around his crumby house).
It might sound like a copy and paste storyline from any number of cheap horror films you’ve seen before, but it should be noted that there is a particular emphasis on mood and ambience as opposed to vulgar shock tactics. Yes, Maniac is an unflinchingly violent film (highlights include Frank blowing a man’s head off with a shotgun,producing an effect that could rival that scene in Scanners (1981), and Frank’s own head being cut off by the reanimated corpses of his victims), but it is also extremely interesting. The audience follows Frank around grimy hotel rooms,watching through his POV as he stares at women in a park, all the while listening to his laboured breathing.
For acting, music, violence, and an overall nightmarish vibe, Maniac is a heavyweight of the genre. It is aesthetically better, in my opinion, than many of its more popular and celebrated rivals (which I won’t name but the William Shatner Mask film and the original hockey mask film should give you some idea).
Sadly, Joe Spinell died before he could make the planned sequel Mr Robbie (although a ten minute investment short is available on YouTube), but leaves behind Maniac as his defining work.
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