Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Maniac (1980)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day nine.

It only happens on rare occasions, but I can be wrong about a film. Such is the case with Maniac.

I first saw Maniac around ten years ago. That first viewing left me with the opinion that it was a cheap, schlocky slasher flick that failed to live up to its infamous reputation. Not only did it just feel like a crass attempt to court controversy to make more money, it was boring. I had to interrupt my viewing of it to take a nap.

After watching the film again, I have to wonder what I was thinking. While it is definitely cheap and rough around the edges, there is something compelling about the film that shines through the technical shortcomings.

The central performance by Joe Spinell as Frank Zito—the titular role–is the key ingredient that elevates the film above its mercenary roots as an opportunistic slasher flick. When mumbling angrily to the memory of his dead mother, he avoids the temptation to play his psychosis as over-the-top. He keeps his performance small, almost intimate. In the same way he uses his physically unappealing appearance to come across as non-threatening or unmemorable to people he interacts with on a daily basis, his switch to a murderous psycho is made all the more chilling by his matter-of-fact nature when stalking and killing his victims.

The violence in the film is the other aspect of the film that gives it staying power. Where many horror films of its era were unable to cover up the cheap nature of their special effects, Maniac boasts some disturbingly convincing makeup gags courtesy of Tom Savini. While there are the expected stabbings and slashings, at least two set pieces stand out as stunning in their audacity and intensity. Much of the intensity is due not only to Savini’s impressive work, but also the steady building of suspense by director William Lustig.

In fact, aside from some technical problems brought about by the low budget (some poorly looped dialogue, flat lighting in some scenes), the film is surprisingly slick–especially in its ability to provoke fear through shot composition, editing, and an eerie score by Jay Chattaway.

What I think is really impressive about the film is how it uses the paranoia of New Yorkers about crime in the late ’70s and early ’80s. While Spinell is the undisputed star of the film, the city provides such a dank, oppressive atmosphere, it leads the film into the territory of urban despair that other directors like Buddy Giovinazzo (who attempted to make a Maniac sequel several years after the release of this film) and Abel Ferrara would take fuller advantage of as the ’80s rolled on.

At the same time that I find myself recommending the film as a piece of suspense and a comment on the horrors of urban life, both real and merely perceived, it does remain a nasty piece of work. The protests that met its release do have some merit. Much of the film is simply Frank stalking and killing women. It does use the oft relied upon plot point of a mentally ill character being the killer, reinforcing an ugly stereotype. It also crosses the line every now and then into tasteless territory as Lustig revels in some of the violence for a beat too long. I am not saying that the film should have been protested. The people who picketed theaters and spoke out against the film more than likely never actually watched it. But I understand the desire to find it offensive, especially if you are bothered by horror films in the first place. Quite frankly, its content is not nearly as bad as many of the independently produced films that came out around the same time, Maniac just took the brunt of criticism because it actually was fairly well made and not just a hack piece of junk.

I can’t recommend the film to everyone. It is quite gory at times and Spinell’s performance is uncomfortably raw. But for fans of independent horror of the ’70s and ’80s, it exceeds expectations and delivers on its infamy.

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